Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Walker Art Gallery

When people asked me why we were visiting Minneapolis, my inevitable answer was "The Walker Art Gallery."  It says something about a midwest community that it can support a gallery devoted to edgy, challenging, moving, provocative, and funny contemporary art.  I hadn't been to the Walker for over twenty years, but this visit was even more remarkable than past ones, probably because Veronica has done a good job of bringing me up to speed on contemporary art.  Bill is also a challenging, thoughtful, quirky companion.  I have good company for art galleries.

Two exhibitions stood out for me.  One was Mark Manders' Parallel Occurrences/ Documented Assignments, though I have no idea what the title means.  Manders originally thought he'd become a poet, but turned to sculpture instead, and the didactic panels rightly identified his sculpture as inherently poetic.  There's a kind of abstract poetic juxtaposition of images  that he can wrench out of context in a way that he perhaps couldn't do with words.  They're so powerful that I felt I couldn't take photographs, even though the gallery allows you to; it seemed voyeuristic.  Manders works mostly with clay and wood.  One powerful image offers the viewer a slice of an enormous clay face wedged in between large plinths of wood, the largest of which is a table turned on its edge.  Because the table legs are slightly inset from the top of the table, they have to be propped up to keep the work vertical.  Manders uses two untitled hardcover books to do this, so that this massive piece ultimately rests on two volumes.  Your reaction to the face wedged between the wood is visceral and immediate:  "There are days when I feel like that," you immediately say.  And then the fragile balance of the whole piece on the books adds another layer to your reaction.  If I were to reduce the idea to something I could say here, I'd say that again it gives you a visceral sense of how finely, tenuously balanced civilization is:  there are some days when it could go either way.

In another piece, he wanted to create a balance that was "both serene and painful."  A beautifully sculpted child's body, with one of its legs torn off at the hip, is tethered to an inverted cross with three piles of sand at the foot.  The stability of the piece, the piles of sand, the expression on the child's face are all serene, yet you simply can't ignore that torn body.  The balance between serenity and pain is provocative and powerfully saddening.

The second remarkable large exhibition was called Exposed:  Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870.  The very mass of images--from black and white war photographs dating back nearly to the Civil War, the erotica, the surveillance camera imagery--combine to create a single uneasy enveloping effect:  we are watching one another and are in turn being watched.  One photograph called "The photography club" (I'm sorry I don't remember the photographer:  the image simply stuck in my mind), depicts a photographer photographing a member of the photography club who is in turn photographing a woman splayed in a bay window seat.  (The photographer whose image we see is rather kinder to her than her pornographer:  we only get the suggestive pose of a knee so that the image we see isn't entirely objectifying.)  Its layers are disturbing:  even while the pornographer (dressed in very clubby flannel trousers and sweater) believes he's "an artist" capturing the woman, he in turn is subject to surveillance.  Any domestic, tranquil associations you might have with window seats are undone by the woman's pose.

The most powerful group of images were the war photographs:  they reminded me, like the images of the Spanish Civil War I saw with Veronica in New York City this spring, how powerfully photographers bring fractions of the truth back from the front.  There were, of course, some of the remarkable photographs from the Vietnam War.  But I was most moved by a collage of photographs taken in Rwanda superimposed upon a body; the collage in turn had captured events from the life of this man, so that his story was superimposed upon his corpse.  What better way to say that every time someone dies in war stories also die?  What better way to make the victims human?

In the midst of all this, there was a photograph that made me laugh out loud.  We see the back of Queen Elizabeth II while she watches one of her ceremonially dressed servants throw a soccer ball for two of her beloved corgis.  My first reaction was "How sad!  She doesn't even play with her own dogs."  The didactic panel told us, though, that photographs in this series only pretend to be celebrities.  How it takes the hot air out of celebrity-hood.

Across from the Walker is an immense sculpture garden with a glass fish by Frank Gehry, several sculptures by Henry Moore, trees full of wind chimes (how do you photograph sound?) that are so out of context on a busy Minneapolis street that they surprise you, a huge spoon with a cherry--and lots of work whose provenance I don't know.  What was delightful was how people played among the art, reclining in a huge swing, dancing among plinths, mugging for one another's cameras, even a pair of lovers sleeping.  They were living among the art, finding their experience made richer and more imaginative.

I'll upload some photographs when I get home, but I needed to get the words down tonight while the images were still fresh.

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