Sunday, September 09, 2007

Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now

Melbourne Winter MasterpiecesGuggenheim Collection: 1940s to NowNew York–Venice–Bilbao–Berlin30 June to 7 October 2007NGV International

This exhibition showed off a wide variety of abstract art from the 1940s up till now. I get it. Rebelling against the idea of art as a self contained picture, abstract art attempts to provide only part of the experience: the art comes about by challenging the viewer in some way to draw in the rest of the experience from their own reactions and emotions. I experienced many different emotions.

Some pieces were confronting.

A table top full of teeth. I walked around the table several times, imagining what creatures gave up those pieces of bone and what logic was used to place them on the table.

A wall of bathroom tiles, slightly dirty. Bulging in some places. In other places, bursting - with guts. Red, bulbous, moist.

A video showing two people copulating. When he withdraws, his penis is topped by a bee hive and bees fill the screen.

Some pieces are inscrutable.

Jackson Pollock is my poster child for inscrutability. Paint scrawled across a canvass. Despite a heart felt invitation to myself to look deep and see whatever my inner self wants to see, there is no meaning. It is just chaos, little more than a child's experiment in colour and contrast and almost but not quite more. There were others, but I only remember his name.

Some pieces were confusing until I let my perspective shift and find something to admire.

A set of large orange boxes placed in a straight row. I walk to the end and stroll back and forh, letting my eyes take in the shifting lines and colors reflected off the surfaces.

Bruce Nauman’s suspended Floating Room. A wooden room, hanging from the ceiling, "Light Outside, Dark Inside". From the outside it is a well lit wooden box. On the inside, it is a sparse white room without any illumination apart from the light outside. I walked inside the room and admired the shifting lines as my eyes pulled in and out of focus. It was somewhat like looking at a 3D Magic Eye image, except no pretty pictures come to the foreground when you lose focus. I would really get a kick out this if I were stoned!

One piece in particular felt like an in-joke:
Maurizio Cattelan in a felt suit
. I didn't understand the reference, but it was a comical piece that they made us walk down a corridoor to view, all by itself at the end.

Not all of the abstract art in this exhibition consisted of a single physical object that you could transport whole and hang on a wall. One peice by Felix Gonzales-Torres was a pile of liquorice lollies spilled in a corner. What a crazy idea! The 'piece of art' is really just a set of instructions: get a bunch of liquorice lollies. Find a spare corner. Spill them in the corner. Were they the same lollies displayed all the time?

The same goes for a another piece that consisted of nothing more than two pieces of elastic. One stretched along the floor, diagonally out into the room from the corner. The other piece at chest height, strung between the two adjacent walls.

I feel ambiguous about much of the art I saw in this exhibition - the confusing pieces in particular. What I enjoy is often not the piece itself, but my reaction to it. This is different to a beautiful painting, where my first reaction is visceral, automatic. In this exhibition, many of the pieces are not even identifiable as "works of art" except for the fact that they are all displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria under the banner "Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now".

Each piece was surely designed to be appreciated by evoking a reaction in the viewer, fuelled in part by their own history and experience. I read that so I know it is true. That is also why many people won't get it, won't appreciate it, will discard it as a waste of time. The perspective of the viewer is what makes any work of art great - nothing new here. But abstract art seems particularly vulnerable to this. Appreciation of abstract art is not visceral. It needs a conscious mental leap. You have to decide to shift your focus in the right way to see it, to experience it.

Later, on the drive back with Dad, I pondered aloud the fact in the whole exhibition, I liked Jackson Pollock's work the least, but his is the only name I remember - all other names in this entry are thanks to Google. Perhaps there is a meta game to abstract art. It is not enough to bare witness to the work, to view it as an exercise in imagination by letting your reactions and emotions fill in the experience. There is history behind each piece, behind the artist. I do not know much about Pollock, only a half remembered film and less remembered articles. From these, I know that Pollock was a tortured soul, that he poured a lot of effort into his work and that it must have meant something to him. So, I postulated aloud to my father, perhaps appreciation of the work also requires acknowledgement of the artist in some way, to help build the experience. Or maybe I want to justify paying $20 to see, among other things, what seemed to be a child's work on a very large canvass.

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