Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Author: ksodai01

Exhibition Review: “Overgrowth” at the deCordova

Today’s exhibition review comes to you from Kathryn Sodaitis, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. Check out more of Kathryn’s posts here

I recently went to see Overgrowth at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.  Overgrowth is a collection of drawings, paintings, photography and sculpture from the permanent collection in the galleries that are on display through September 18, 2016. The show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, to explore “how artists represent prolific growth, expansion, and transformation in the natural world and built environment.”

I visited this exhibition because I wanted to investigate how deCordova represents their permanent collection of contemporary artists.  Seeing work from a permanent collection can be overwhelming in that a wide range of objects from the collection may not be as cohesive as a show by a single artist.  At deCordova, the objects from the collection are grouped together by a unifying theme and are removed after a few months.  Much like a temporary special exhibition, this show received curation, interpretation, marketing and programming.  This type of exhibition allows the public to see more of the objects from the collection through periodic rotations, keeping the galleries more up-to-date and current.  This model likely aims to increase museum visitation and boost membership because visitors can see different work more frequently.  But does such an exhibit have the wow power of a show with a singular vision–one that is most relevant to the issues of our time?  My recent experience at Overgrowth helped me evaluate whether this approach engages visitors and creates personally meaningful experiences.

Overgrowth utilizes some effective strategies to create a comfortable, logical, and meaningful exhibition.  While the exhibit succeeds in some areas, I also felt that it could promote more meaningful engagement from its visitors.  Here are some of the highlights of my visit:

  • The aesthetic strengths of this show drew me in immediately. White walls and the modern, vine-like font create the backdrop for an exhibition on contemporary art.  The artwork provides the eye-candy and is arranged to draw attention to the colors, textures, and sensory appeal of the works themselves.  The three bulbous blue ceramic sculptures by Makoto Yabe enticed me to enter the exhibition.  These amorphous, celeste blue forms introduce the philosophy of “Wabi sabi”, explained in the label as “a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection.”  This sub-theme reappears in many of the works throughout the galleries, in which beauty is paired with mutation, destruction and decay.
  • On the third floor, the brilliant green of the cast aluminum sculpture Glo Baby Glo by Gary Webb greets you first, set against the more distant backdrop of several paintings and photographs featuring the same springtime color. The use of color here is an effective way to invite the visitor into the space.  Plenty of breathing room around this sculpture, and the rest of the work in the gallery, does not overwhelm the visitor.
  • In the third floor exhibition space, human impact on nature is directly addressed, and as one would predict, the relationship is largely negative. Photographs of styrofoam take-out containers, powerlines, aerial shots of cars and sprawl, and the before and after image of a demolition of a condemned building are some of the imagery documented by artists, which depict some of the drawbacks associated with progress. However, the most meaningful moment for me came in the section titled, “Organic Abundance.”  Late Summer, a photograph by Boston-based photographer Laura McPhee offers a different vantage–the idea that nature is not as fragile as we might think.  The image of the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho after a wildfire tells a story of growth and renewal, hope and possibility.  It’s a message that resonated with me the most–in times when destruction and despair are prevalent, look for a message of strength and renewal.
  • The theme of this show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, a theme which strongly corresponds to the outdoor Sculpture Park. Outdoor space offers opportunities for institutions to relinquish some control over interpretation and behavior, which can be fairly limited inside a museum’s walls.  Outside, the rules of behavior are different, and parents of small children especially welcome opportunities to take breaks outdoors and allow little feet to run, fingers to touch, and voices to rise after a more controlled indoor experience.  In fact, after visiting the exhibition, I couldn’t resist going outside to consider my own relationship to the natural world while walking along the grounds.  The deCordova is right to highlight this strength through an exhibition that encourages us to visit its outdoor space.

The deCordova has the ability to offer unique experiences both inside and outside, and can provide a model for how an institution might not only coexist with its environment, but also provide a range of opportunities for participation from its community.   It seems to me that the deCordova could continue to explore options of sharing some of its institutional control over the content of its exhibitions and invite more participatory experiences from its community inside the galleries.  Overall, this “permanent collection-temporary exhibition” is successful in that the big idea correlates with the Sculpture Park, and it enticed me to go outside and explore.  However, the deCordova should consider ways to engage more visitors in dialogue with each other within the conventional exhibition format.

Read the full review on Exhibit Files.

 

What Good Is A Museum? Secret Shelters at the Heritage Museums and Gardens

Today we bring you an article by Kathryn Sodaitis, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students read Adam Gopnik’s “The Mindful Museum” and use it to create a discussion around the question, “What Good Is A Museum?”.

What makes some exhibitions more memorable than others?  A meaningful experience can delight and surprise us, and motivates us to return.  This summer, I visited Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, MA where I had such an experience.  Heritage has a small permanent collection of Americana–antique cars, scrimshaw, folk art, and an antique carousel–all located in several buildings scattered throughout the grounds, and a special exhibition gallery, which houses new exhibits each summer.  But it is the gardens that make Heritage Museums unique. They span 100 acres and include paved walking paths as well as unusual features such as a flume waterfall installation, a maze, and a labyrinth.  Each season, different artists are invited to build temporary installations.  

Heritage offers its visitors a specific type of outdoor experience, merging the natural world with creative works.  It is these outdoor installations that offer a different experience of time and place.  This type of work requires full presence in order to engage with the art.   

The pieces I encountered on this trip were part of a temporary exhibition entitled Secret Shelters.  Each piece is placed into the land, bringing your attention to a specific location:  surrounding a tree, set inside a grassy valley, up on a hill.  Not only do you engage with the artwork, but you engage with the physical landscape.  The installations set into the scale of the land allow you to fully experience the art with your whole body; art is experienced on the human scale and in relation to the vast landscape.       

Yugon Kim's "Outside-In." Photo from the Heritage Museum and Gardens.

Yugon Kim’s “Outside-In.” Photo from the Heritage Museums and Gardens.

One of these exhibits, titled “Outside-In,” by artist Yugon Kim is a circular bench made of recycled waste wood surrounding a tree.  From afar, the bench itself is enticing to the weary visitor, but as you approach, you notice how it is put together.  Many hollow cubes of wood, stacked and fastened together make up the structure of the bench which encircles the tree.  An opening on the far side requires the viewer to walk around the tree before entering and sitting.  This tree, unnoticed and unseen before the construction of the bench, now becomes an object of significance.  The texture of the bark, the shade of its canopy, the diameter of its trunk are now acknowledged and appreciated.  In the shadow of this looming tree, standing in this place only because of the artistic intention, I realize I am just a part of the larger artistic experience.  The artist’s contribution to this moment is felt.    

The next piece I enountered took a bit of work.  I wandered off the paved pathway, through the vast Hydrangea Garden into a grassy meadow down into a valley.  I might not have seen the piece titled “Eaves/Grass” by Joel Reider made out of living grass had the structure not jutted out in its rectangular and pointed house-like shape, complete with a front door and side window.  Constructed out of wood supports and covered with sod, the grass house sat comfortably into its landscape.  Its attempt at

Joel Reider's "Eaves/Grass."  Photo by Jan Crocker from the Heritage Museums and Gardens

Joel Reider’s “Eaves/Grass.” Photo by Jan Crocker from the Heritage Museums and Gardens.           

camouflage unsuccessful (this is an art piece after all), it struck me as something that shouldn’t exist (but it did).  Once inside, I saw the square mirror, the same size and shape of the window on the opposing wall.  Looking out the window, I saw the landscape. Looking into the mirror, I saw myself in the very same landscape.  This hidden gem, both seen and unseen, tucked into a secluded space, yet deliberately sought after, reminded me of what I most appreciate in a museum experience: the joy of surprise.  Where else can we go expecting and yet still experiencing surprise?   The artists bring the experience of the (sometimes) absurd into existence, but the viewers may not know to look for them without the presence of the museum.           

These landscape pieces, especially the temporary ones, would not exist without the ability of the museum to create a space that brings artwork and viewers together.  Museums create a space for artistic encounters between artists, objects, and viewers. These encounters can be emotional-visceral experiences, bringing the viewer to full attention, awakening feelings of surprise and delight.  This might be described as the “mindful museum” experience, one that is personal, place-centered, and belonging to the “here and now”.  

 

Here is a link to the museum’s website, which details the exhibition, Secret Shelters.

 

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