What We Talk About When We Talk About Site
by Matthew Herzog
On Friday, November 17th, the Barnes Foundation held an opening for their recent exhibit. The reception was in a substantial events lobby while the work itself was tossed in an adjacent gallery. This was an exhibit viewing Kiefer Rodin, yet it was more obviously steeped in tweeters and kaftans.
It was a far cry from the bourgeois civilising mission of the 19th century, thank god, though it wasn’t the outcome 1980’s museological criticism had in mind, either.
‘Engage the community’, I heard yelling from the 1980s.
They’re sorta doing it, I replied.
‘Promote knowledge and education’, the decade continued.
Mmm, where that at?
Museums order objects and history. Why would I presume they won’t order people? I thought, when I couldn’t locate the gallery through the guests. Or, is it a mark of the times that an interim space provides an experience institutions doubt artwork can equivocate?
From a curiosity only paranoia inspires, I suspected the invite was a rouse - that neither Anselm Kiefer nor Auguste Rodin were there and in their place was a contemporary piece about lush and fermented viewers. Or worse, it was a fundraiser masked as an opening and an upturned Sunday hat was about to land in my hand.
What if this opening was a hundred people having nowhere else to be but there? In want for nothing else than to be inside a place others will witness them within?
Guests certainly dressed to be seen. I recognized the typical lot. The date night pairs, (myself included) the art school colleagues, (myself twice counted) and the museum staffers. (three times the charm)
There were the Young Friends tricked into coming by their Gatsby’thian coworkers - or some other friend like the Wolf on Wall Street guy, or someone like Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. Anyone similar to a character Leonardo DiCaprio would play and lose an Oscar over.
To add context to the scene, I admit I was sitting on a couch in the lobby crisscrossing glances with this great guy, thinking a thought as quiet as I could, ‘I have to say goodbye to someone this weekend’ remembering the death call everyone gets a few times in their lives. If unlucky like me, they’re typical and you have AMTRAK on speed dial, Linda you’re my girl, and you pay fees with whatever cash you find in your coat hoping there’s none so you won’t go where the dying wait for you.
I drank because it was free and I needed them. (two glasses is a starter, two more to hold you till dinner) I looked at my date, a classical musician. I studied his skin, how his hair grew out of it, how his lips were plump and smiling.
There were enough differences as similarities, that when entering a cab toward our next destination, I turned to my date and asked, are we those people? He smiled and said, you should see those at the symphony. Which made paralleling universes a tragic reality if cultural institutions are the only universes that parallel.
Two glasses down, I approached the exhibit. I dropped my cup into the bin and stumbled through the Rodin casts of supposed inspiration for Kiefer’s new work. They were the expected fragmented body forms, positions like uncanny balancing acts. His work already an inspiration as Rodin appears the odd and empathetic eye toward the mass and flesh we humans carry. Rodin as renaissance revivalist, form as content, returning humanity to sculpture.
Seeing Kiefer in the next room, I approached the first piece, a goliath of a painting, and became aware I was the closest person to it. I stepped right in its grill and the method of my gazing made me the odd one. The guard asked what I was doing. I said, looking. She said, ‘ok, that’s why you seem strange, the rest just stare.’ I looked to the guard in surprise to her unwarranted response. She looked away, palms up and out. Even she appeared with no reason for the work since no one was there to see them.
What if the Art wasn’t there?, I continued with more fervent. And then I thought more, What will happen when she’s not there? Another, ... and I’m gonna miss the part of my friend that’ll die along with her mother; the same as I miss the parts of me that left each time I had to say goodbye.
I wondered what people were seeing through their slippery pasts. Did they see the gallery with Rodin? And then in this gallery, an incestuously inspired counterpart, Anselm Kiefer? Who, by the way, knows how to trigger a girl by displaying homemade books of nude women drawn bent, laying, straddled, and in all other ways identity-less and there for the grabbing. They’re comical in the way Kiefer could use as his alibi, yet the reality creeps in when considering the trope of the dumb sexualized female, even more a trope as it was a man that designed them. Why am I not seeing Shapiro, or Betty Friedan, or even a mini Maddow standing in the corner, leaning against the wall with a drink held up and eyes rolled even higher? What the fuck am I doing here?! It’s best the artwork isn’t seen. Or as it should be, I should have walked right out having seen how useless that experience was.
I stepped to the next section finding glass cases of dead trees, layered earth a top miniature casts of appendages, a collection akin to an abandoned storage room in an anthropological museum. I looked to the title as it read ‘Die Walküre’ and heard my date - the musician who taught me the flute with drunken lips - hum The Ride of the Valkyrie. ‘Wagner’, he said, as he pointed toward the label. The art became dark, darker than it was before like brown transitioning to deep black. The piece woke up and slumped as if crushed by its depression. I saw helixes like grave markers. The thick applications of black and gray and brown and white paint. The dollops of clay appearing as dry as they were satisfying. The tall buildings in sway or in fall. Goliath as ever, yet Goliath in repose, prior to tipping, just after the rock hit his forehead and I’m in its path.
In the right moment, as I was fighting to connect to the world and forgetting how to do so, my date saw something. He pointed at spots of Cobalt Blue bleeding from beneath layers in a few of Kiefer’s pieces.
I looked at him as he said, ‘that’s my color’. I looked at the blue and thought, well, it’s not mine but it is color. Like red. I continued, seeing visions of my friend’s mother cramped over a toilet trying not to cry over the painful radiation rash that ‘goes up past her crack’ as her daughter had described the day before.
Then, I remembered. The red berries. The Fox Chase by Hopper. Honoring the throned mother, I nodded toward oncoming visions of the fox and the crows, a mad dash from the carnivorous.
A man once told me as he stood before the red berries to the left of the fox, they are a sign of spring and that the fox will survive if he can get to those berries, if he can run faster than winter and the crows and the starvation and get to those brilliant red berries.
I turned to Kiefer’s piece. Its cobalt berries high at the top, raised to the tip of the etched buildings. If I can only reach those piercing colors, climb the clay, pigment and molten metal that’s caked the surface as if the canvas caught drippings from a city on fire… If I do so, she’ll be all right. I’ll get through the date without catching sight of myself in the mirror and I’ll make it past Thanksgiving and talk to her and she’ll still be on the toilet but laughing as I’ve been trying to laugh cause that’s all we have.
Cobalt. What a boring color to save the world. Hiding in a white box beside a grey lobby in a building made for us to ship our souls away.
I tossed my head, but the images of vertigo stuck, however unrelated to the artists’ history, though nonetheless associative of tragedy.
Why? In its most existential form, why are we doing what we do? I thought in angst, unclear what I meant by why, we, do, what, & do.
The only thought I could deposit was that Barnes gave me wine in a manicured space and Anselm Kiefer gave me destruction in a Victorian box. Post-German-war-baby destruction that looks like the eery post-towers-shootings-bombings world which raised us. Why is this here surrounded by those that are not seeing it, drinking liquids they’ll remember more for their bad taste, and artwork remembered less for they need not be there?
It hurts that as I sat, writing parts of this article at work, a colleague whose blood was cut with caffeine, adrenaline, fueled by some strange erratic dream, said, ‘... for some reason, I'm really happy this morning. I shouldn’t be. There’s a lot going on and I shouldn’t be fine.’ And as fast as she came, she left. No signs. No follow-up. To which I’m as happy as angry, since I don’t want to know any more than she’s provided. Nobody says - as fast as a hello - how miserable they should be and how they just aren’t. That’s subway talk. Post-ward stumble mumble. Pre-ward warning flag. As crazy as saying Art goes in these rooms because they’re called museums.
To toss Lorelai Gilmore realness... Prior to the exhibit, I hadn’t written in days, hadn’t worked on the books, no edits, no sentences, not even a word or image. Not since the call. And as it was confusing leading up to the opening, it held the entire night, surrounded by Kiefer and that other one and those other people in that building.
Though I will say my intense suspicion of the museum’s intention made a valid point. 30 years of re-conceptualizing the role of museums has provided significant shifts in inclusion. Yet in the same, it’s provided significant stand stills as new voices fall on deaf colonial ears… I should update this… new voices fall on deaf neo-bourgeois ears.
Don’t mind me too much. Keep the openings coming. Civic pride is rising and I don’t mind bad wine since an artist’s life comes with few compensations. Free entry + free wine = free courage to forget what’s coming and kiss a date over Sushi like a real queen. And you can quote me on that for your next campaign, Barnes.
What I mean, in its simplest form, is to interrogate site and situation. The evening felt like material culture instead of accumulated cultural heritage. The opening was both ceremonial and displaced. It was a spaceship thousands of miles from the earth it was attempting to engage. Then again, so was I. From a pop culture angle, the intangible social memory behind Anselm Kiefer’s work was the Upside Down of the intangible social purpose of the event - two places nobody should want to be. (its a Stranger Things reference. Don’t worry about it)
At the end of the night, the Lift driver asked, how was it, (I’m thinking he meant the night) and I said, it was fine. Everything is fine, I guess. Though then, and even now, I kept wondering why the world is rarely as it seems and am I pissed at male pattern blueness and that I’m thinking the color saved the art from being derailed by a death-reality and an institutionalized ambivalence-reality with nothing to offer. Phew, take a breath.
What is a museum whose lobby outshines its exhibit? Why does color save the world? Why does that color have to be blue? And why does her mother risk death while I’m sitting in a room with people that’ll forget they were there but sleep well knowing they did something somewhere once?