Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Brain In A Vat.*

Photo by Robert Caplin

Well. I have to say, it's worse than I could have imagined. I stopped by the Met on Saturday to see Damien Hirst's “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. This curatorial debacle (And make no mistake. It is a debacle.) doesn't ruin the work. Hirst's masterwork is so powerful that ruining it isn't an option. However, the choice to place the three old shark paintings in the same room with it severely and unnecessarily limits the possibility the piece holds for the viewer.

Gary Tinterow has achieved the curatorial equivalent of No Child Left Behind. Yeah. Students will get the facts right on a test, but don't think for a moment that they'll carry the memory of them in their bones. By devaluing the experiential the Met tries to control the outcome of the encounter. I'm not sure which that shows less faith in: the viewer or the art. I'm down with Roberta Smith's assessment of the work: (Obviously paraphrasing now.) It's important and it's fucking AWESOME. The Met's decision to place such formidable strictures on the sculpture is a disservice to their audience.

Much has been made about the choice to place the sculpture beside the window. Well, to be quite frank: whatever. “The Physical Impossibility . . ." doesn't need this kind of ambient trickery to work. What it needs is space, and that is something it's lacking. Placing the sculpture so close to the walls and windows creates traffic flow issues on a busy day like Saturday. Ever play pool on a great, perfectly balanced table in a crappy little rec room? It's a bit like that. Everybody's cue keeps hitting the wall. Also, the balance of the room is distracting: The weight of Hirst's sculpture on one side, with the weight of art history and the implied necessity of knowing it on the other. This is not contrast. This is not context. This is elderhostel kitsch. The Met should have cleared the room, placed the shark in the middle, and let the good and wicked glorious times roll. Instead, they decided to rap our knuckles with a ruler. Tsk tsk.

And what of the child left behind? It was a 10 year old boy, actually. He had come to see the shark with his parents, and the little dude came prepared. He got out his sketchbook, but when he started to draw the guard came over and asked him to stop. Not because sketching isn't allowed in the museum, but because there wasn't going to be enough room for people to walk around the sculpture if the budding artist parked himself there. It was a safety issue. (Feel free to chew on that accidental metaphor for a moment.) Had the work been installed in the middle of the room Johnny would have had plenty of room to spread his wings and get his graphite on, and a dead shark would have had the freedom to stay with him for a long, long time. Impossible.

Oh, and: *

ADDENDUM 11.19.07: I just came across that Dylan line from Visions of Johanna--"Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial." Hell, yeah.


biv said...

Wonderful post. Your thoughts about the boy with the sketchpad are especially important and made me very sad.
And regarding * - if indeed I am just a brain in a vat, connected to a computer, can I get a little more RAM?

Heart As Arena said...

Thanks, Bivs. Yeah. Can you believe that? What a drag it was to see.

* THAT cracked me up. More RAM. Seriously. I don't know shit about Philosophy, but I used to typeset The Journal Of and they dedicated an entire issue to the concept. I've never forgotten it. Mostly because, well, it would make such a great band name.