Museum — November/December 2010
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Exhibit review

Movement in an Accelerated World

By Sarah Jesse

We may not always realize it, but we often have to make assumptions in order to understand images. Unconsciously we infer that a small tree in a landscape painting is farther away than a large one. We assume overlapping objects mean one is in front of the other. This skill especially comes in handy when reading an image depicting motion. Artistic techniques signify the physical phenomenon of movement–the energy of a rowdy fight scene, rolling clouds in the sky or a galloping horse. Bringing together 15 contemporary artists from around the globe, the exhibition "Art on Speed" at the Wichita State University's Ulrich Museum of Art (until Dec. 17) explores how today's artists visualize movement in an increasingly accelerated world.

Throughout history, artists have employed recurring strategies to imply motion. Ancient Greek sculptors realized that if drapery flowed away from the body it would look as if it were moving, and the Romantics used billowing sails to capture the roiling of a turbulent sea. The emergence of the automobile and airplane in the early 20th century drastically changed the way people experienced movement and provided artists with new sources of inspiration. The Italian Futurists conveyed the ferocity of spinning airplane propellers by simply repeating the blade multiple times, and comic artists used so-called "speedlines" to connote a fast-moving vehicle.

Along with new modes of transportation emerged photographic techniques that made it possible to actually see highspeed objects caught in action. To set the stage for the contemporary artwork in the exhibition, "Art on Speed" includes nine groundbreaking photographs by artist and engineer Harold Edgerton. Coupling a strobe light with a camera, Edgerton was able to show objects in hyper-speed transit, including bullets at the moment they sliced through an apple, playing card and light bulb. Edgerton's best photographs reveal surprises that previously eluded the unaided eye. Who knew that a drop of milk makes a splash pattern in the form of a crown or that smoke creates lovely swirls when contacting a fan?

Considering how artists have visualized movement over millennia, there is no doubt that Edgerton is a major contributor. But beyond a superficial parallel, the connection of his photographs to the rest of the work in the exhibition is somewhat misleading. Unlike Edgerton, most of the artists in the show aren't concerned with finding new ways to visually represent speed. The tried and true conventions work just fine. Mostly they differ from Edgerton in aim. Edgerton's goal was scientific. He was famous for proclaiming that he wanted to capture "the facts, only the facts," and his photographs serve primarily as documents of controlled experiments. In contrast, the artists in the exhibition tackle a conceptual notion of speed and raise philosophical questions that challenge our definition of progress, insatiable appetite to stretch human capabilities and desire for all things fast.

Perhaps most overt in meaning is Euan MacDonald's video Brakestand. For 15 minutes we watch a grainy projection of a driver in an old car gun the engine while simultaneously slamming the brakes. While simple in concept, the work provokes a range of connotations from a metaphor akin to "spinning our wheels" to the contemporary condition of gridlock. By rendering the function of the automobile useless, MacDonald asks whether the proliferation of cars may be more of a hindrance than an asset. At one time the vehicle may have represented a symbol of technological advancement, but here it is portrayed as lumbering, silly and ineffectual.

Also addressing contradictory notions related to speed is Shaun Gladwell's video Double Linework. The work features footage of the artist riding a skateboard, documented from the perspective of a camera pointing straight down. The view is disorienting because we can't tell how fast he is moving relative to any landmarks. Without this standard technique used to indicate speed, the impression is equivalent to a leisure ride that challenges our more typical association of skateboarding with danger. The video is projected directly onto the gallery floor, allowing participants to mimic the skateboarder's movement. As a result, there is a lightheartedness to the work that is incongruous to our usual correlations with the extreme sport. Through ambiguity and paradox, Gladwell shows us how speed can be strangely imperceptible, harmless and perilous at the same time.

Paul Ramirez Jonas takes the supersonic Concorde jet as the subject of his video Ghost of Progress. Attached to the handlebar of a bike, a model Concorde travels slowly through the streets of a poor South American city via the cyclist. The camera focuses solely on the toy airplane to give the illusion, albeit crude, that it is flying through the cityscape. In operation from 1976 to 2003, the Concorde initially seemed to embody the very idea of the future with its ability to fly a transatlantic route in half the time of a regular jet. But the effects of such a technological boon weren't all positive. The aircraft was hugely expensive to build and maintain, it produced unbearable sonic booms, and a fatal crash damaged its reputation two years before it was removed from the market for good. Adding another conceptual layer to the work is the video's setting in what the artist calls a "Third World" country. It's a striking contrast to the First World luxury the Concorde at one time represented. In this way, the video isn't specifically about the Concorde's loaded history but demonstrates how the aircraft symbolizes the latent pitfalls of progress.

The work featured in "Art on Speed" pushes us to think critically about our world. While our attraction to speed isn't new, the type we're experiencing today and its consequences are distinct to the 21st century. Over the past 40 years, there has been little change in the way we experience movement. With few exceptions, cars, planes and trains don't travel much faster now than they did in previous decades. What has changed is the speed we encounter while demanding instant gratification in our lives: We can send an e-mail across the world in seconds and grow exasperated when we have to sit through a television commercial without skipping ahead. While our ability to achieve new levels of speed has been undeniably advantageous, as these artists remind us, it is possible that we may be moving too fast to see any downsides.

Sarah Jesse is a writer and educator based in Tulsa, Okla. She is the Bernsen Director of Education and Public Programs at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa.


Bringing War to Life

By Jane Lusaka

As an editor in an art museum, I participate daily in an ongoing conversation: how to write exhibition text in a way that engages the viewer but doesn't negate its scholarly foundations. Make connections to people's lives, says the editor. Don't dilute the scholarship, says the curator. Compromises are struck, and editor and curator walk away happy. Well, sometimes, we just walk away.

These thoughts were on my mind as I read Pictures at an Exhibition, a novel by Sara Houghteling. Set in France during the World War II years, this absorbing novel intersperses fictional characters and historical figures to tell a story of artworks looted by the Nazis and, more movingly, how people's lives were affected as a result.

The narrator, Max Berenzon, is the son of a Jewish art dealer based in Paris; in the closing months of the war, he becomes obsessed with recovering the paintings that were stolen from his father's gallery. (Among the Berenzons' paintings are two actual masterpieces lost during the war: Almonds by Édouard Manet and Woman in White by Berthe Morisot, which now exist only in grainy photographs.) Houghteling gives Max's search context by focusing on his relationships with his parents, friends and other art dealers, reminding us along the way that tragedy affects individuals in different ways. The instinct for survival causes people to do the previously unimaginable. What is important to one person may be considered minor by another. And when the time comes to revisit the events of the past, interpretation is subjective and influenced by the knowledge, memories and experiences that encompass an entire life.

The story begins with Max's memories of childhood and the family business. His grandfather, Abraham, was a railway magnate and art collector who hated to part with his paintings. After Abraham's untimely death, Max's father sells the collection and establishes the Daniel Berenzon Gallery, cultivating such clients as Matisse and Picasso. But even though he trains his son to keep a mental inventory of the artworks, Daniel pushes Max toward a medical career. When he hires Rose Clément, a beautiful and talented young assistant (based on Rose Valland, the former curator of the Jeu de Palme), the younger man isn't sure how to react. He's both attracted to the 20-something Rose and resents the bond she shares with his father. But Max lacks "the business acumen, the ruthlessness" necessary to survive in the art world. Daniel tells his son, "I wish for you a stable life."

All around, however, are signs that no one's life will be stable–at least, not for many years to come. The radio brings the news–the invasion of Poland, Kristallnacht in Berlin. Still, in Paris, many refuse to believe that tragedy is coming. "I did not understand we were living on borrowed time," notes Max. On the radio, "Winston Churchill warned the neutrals, 'Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last,' which our French papers reported widely, as it was such a fine quote. … No one had considered that France could fall."

That is particularly true of Max's friend Bertrand Reinach, whose mother is a member of a prominent Jewish banking family, the Camondos. Like their real-life counterparts and millions of other Jews, Bertrand, his parents and his sister perish at Auschwitz. They waited too long to get out of Paris: "[T]he assistant chief of police [was] Bertrand's uncle by marriage. The Camondo-Reinachs believed he granted them universal immunity, like some Swiss diplomat might have"–a poignant reference to Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued tens of thousands during the Holocaust. In addition, because another uncle had died a French hero in the first world war, the family thought they would be safe in the second one.

Daniel Berenzon, on the other hand, seems to have a sixth sense about what is to come. He is relieved when his son's application to the military is rejected. (Officially, it is because his feet are flat, but Max suspects there's another reason when the recruiter makes a crease in the corner of his draft card.) Daniel hides much of his collection in a secret vault in the gallery and escapes with his wife and son to the countryside, where they spend the duration of the war. Houghteling doesn't dwell on this part of the story; it's almost as though the reader is in hiding with the Berenzons, receiving a little news now and then about how the war is progressing.

It is only after Max and Daniel return to Paris–to their boarded-up gallery and its now empty vault–that they learn about the Final Solution: "Father saw two skeletal men at the Hôpital de la Charité. The Soviets liberated a camp named Majdanek, which sounded like a bone stuck in my throat. We staggered into and out of a newsreel in which we saw the horror of the Jews in the extermination centers of the East." Max itemizes the evidence of the horror, almost as though he needs to convince himself it is true.

The Berenzon men (Max's mother has remained in the country) react to the news of the Holocaust in different ways. Daniel seems to fade away; he becomes weak and listless. Max is determined to retrieve the artworks that once comprised his father's collection, to prove that he has the stuff that art dealers are made of, after all. He abandons Daniel and tracks down Rose, who has spent the war working at the Nazi-occupied Louvre; as such, some consider her a collaborator. However, she secretly has been making lists of looted paintings and sculptures that will aid in their eventual reparation. And while she directs Max to the art dealers who managed, somehow, to survive the war, she also urges him to return to his parents, suggesting that their loss is greater than he knows. But Max himself will have to lose a great deal–physically, emotionally, financially–before he makes his way back to his father.

Even in the midst of tragedy, the characters lead multilayered lives. Everyone seems to have a secret: Who is the girl in the forest who haunts Max's dreams? What does Bertrand want to tell his friend? Danger comes from all sides: Rose watches Goering's men march through the Louvre, looting art for his personal collection; Max wonders which of his father's former colleagues are collaborators and thieves; Daniel curses the American soldiers who try to sell the Berenzons their own paintings. Trust becomes a luxury of the past.

Pictures at an Exhibition is not without flaws. While most of the dialogue rings true, there is one major exception: Rose's account of her wartime experiences occasionally reads more like an official report or lecture. Her phrasings are too stiff and awkward to be natural conversation. Max's romantic pursuit of the young woman is distracting and perhaps unnecessary from a literary perspective; there's enough material for an engaging narrative without adding the complications of a love story. Finally, a discordant note is struck by the epilogue, which describes Max's life after the war–his move to the United States, his marriage and children, his eventual return to France. The author's aim may be to show that people's wartime experiences remain with them forever, but the epilogue seems cobbled together, almost an afterthought. A more powerful conclusion lies in the preceding chapter, in which Max and Daniel are reconciled.

Still, Houghteling's skill lies in her ability to transport the reader to another place and time. Take, for example, her description of the Berenzons' return trip to Paris:

"We drove a wood-burning car resurrected from a bygone era and bought from a butcher. The tires of the gazogène thudded softly as they rolled over upturned cobblestones, broken bottles, and bullet shells. … [T]he old butcher's meat hooks rocked against each other and the engine gave off a drowsy smell. The rhythmic crunching and clanking noises slowed, and I heard the celebratory pop of rifles to the southeast, in the direction of the Place de la Concorde. Then all was quiet again, save for the knocking from the meat hooks and the crackle and drop of a piece of wood burning in half and breaking into the fire."

One can almost smell the burning wood and feel the old car bumping along the broken road. It's noisy and uncomfortable; it's hot and sweaty. Sometimes a fictional treatment can make an event seem more real than mere facts will allow.

Jane Lusaka is editor, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Narratives of Community: Museums and Ethnicity

Edited by Olivia Guntarik

Once upon a time, museums could–and usually did–produce exhibits about various cultures that emphasized their "otherness." These days, however, the growing expectation is that institutions developing programming and exhibitions will reach out to the various ethnic groups comprising their communities. Narratives of Community gathers such tales of inclusion from museums in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. Because "nations around the world have experienced a surge in ethnic and interethnic self-consciousness," each essayist "recognizes the world as we once knew it is no longer the world that we are," explains cultural theorist and historian Olivia Guntarik. Four sections detail various challenges facing museums taking on the complexities of their communities: "Counter-Narratives of Cultural Knowledge," "New Models of Representing Memory," "Involving Voice, Perspective and People" and "Narratives of Nation and Imagination." Readers will learn about a broad range of museum efforts focusing on topics such as the Holocaust, Apartheid-era South Africa, Latinos in the U.S., Maori culture in New Zealand and Filipino artisans.

Edinburgh, Scotland: MuseumsEtc, 2010. 427 pp., softcover, £44.95.

Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits: Getting Visitors to Ask Juicy


By Joshua P. Gutwill and Sue Allen

How often do visitors at your museum come up with their own questions about what they've just learned in an exhibit? For science museums in particular, getting people to ask and answer their own questions–rather than just regurgitate the lesson taught by an exhibit–can be frustrating. In an effort to encourage more self-motivated learning, educators at San Francisco's Exploratorium came up with an activity called "Juicy

Question." Following this process, a group of visitors plays with an interactive exhibit and then brainstorms to develop a question they can't initially answer–but can be answered by the exhibit itself. If all goes according to plan, they'll investigate and reflect further, thereby learning more about the process of scientific inquiry itself. This book details the "Juicy Question" approach, describes the educational principles behind it and offers advice for adapting the game for your own museum. The promotion of such group inquiry, the authors believe, can advance school science education and encourage lifelong learning. Photographs show Exploratorium visitors participating in these activities.

Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2010. 102 pp., softcover, $19.95.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

By Noah Charney

"This is the story of the most desired and victimized object of all time," states Noah Charney in his prologue to Stealing the Mystic Lamb. The iconic item in question is the Ghent Altarpiece, a 12-panel, hinged oil painting completed in 1432 by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. Its central panel, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," is the most famous, depicting a host of angels, saints and other figures surrounding a bleeding lamb on a sacrificial altar. What exactly does this image mean? And why has it become so laden with significance and so coveted? Charney tackles these questions, delving into the work's scholarship, the life of the man who painted it and its victimization in 13 crimes–including looting, burning, forging, smuggling and illegal sale. He follows the painting as it is hunted by both Napoleon and the Nazis, ransomed and ultimately rescued by Austrian double-agents, and finally comes to rest safely in Belgium's St. Bavo Cathedral. While unearthing many details about the altarpiece, Charney also stresses that many of its mysteries remain unsolved. A current restoration project sponsored by the Getty Foundation and the Belgian government may shed some light on this centuries-old enigma.

New York: PublicAffairs, 2010. 336 pp., hardcover, $27.95.

Conserving Outdoor Sculpture: The Stark Collection at the Getty Center

By Brian Considine, Julie Wolfe, Katrina Posner and Michel Bouchard

Displaying works of art outdoors opens a Pandora's box of worries. For the J. Paul Getty Museum, a 2005 bequest of a major modernist sculpture collection was a significant boon–but also a major challenge. As a condition of receiving the gift, conservators and other museum colleagues had to develop a plan for conserving, installing, maintaining and interpreting the 28 modern and contemporary outdoor sculptures in question. To this end, the Getty's department of decorative arts and sculpture conservation researched how the sculptures were created and the materials the artists used, including bronze, lead, ceramic and painted metal. How best to display these works in the bright sunlight and accompanying environmental conditions of southern California? Conserving Outdoor Sculpture represents the conservators' findings, with chapters focusing on project phases such as analysis, artist interviews, treatments, and paints and coatings. While the authors stress that the book "is not intended as a catalogue," striking images of the sculptures and their surroundings lend color and interest to this manual. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010. 288 pp., softcover, $75.