"Which one would you take home?"
Museum day! A favourite kind of day.
James Turrell participated in a breathtaking takeover of the Guggenheim. He transformed the iconic conch-shell spirals into a beautiful expanse of light. Seats with steeply-angled backs lined the perimeter of the wall for sitting and gazing at the light moving above. How I wish those seats were everywhere, designed for watching the sky! A huge rounded mat covered the middle of the floor, holding twenty people at a time. Everything about the design of the space was hospitable. We were welcome there. We had a shelter for as long as we needed it.
I lay down among strangers on the mat. I was struck by the physical experience I had. Immediately, I felt the mat warm beneath me, glowing from the last person’s body heat. I could feel the voices of people lying around me vibrate through the floor. A man on my left departed and a woman came to replace him. Her arm touched mine and neither of us moved away. A small crowd of us lay together, entranced by the the shifting colors, getting lost.
Suddenly, we were jolted out of our reveries - a tall man tripped while stepping out of the mat, he fell toward us and caught himself just in time. The woman and I, caught by surprise, burst into laughter. We were struck by the absurdity, hit by a wild joy that we were strangers and were nearly clobbered together.
After watching the entire cycle of colors (Had I lived in that place all day? Was I born there?), I stood up and started to ascend the ramp to the upper-level galleries. My body was suddenly cold: I had acclimated to the body temperature of the group; moving forward now felt solitary and isolated. I was no longer part of the organism. Leaving that dome of light was really difficult: I knew that I wouldn’t return to New York in time to see that place. I would leave the building and never see it again.
I grew up going to art museums. The Portland Art Museum is humble, but boasts a decent permanent collection; I always loved visiting the room of Impressionist paintings as a child. In my mid-twenties, I volunteered at the museum and every week I would walk the galleries and I came to know the place intimately. The photography wing, the mid-century panels in the Clement Greenberg collection, the tiny Rothko, the Calder mobile, and Judy Chicago’s lifesavers are all familiar friends to me now.
My parents had prints of Vermeer, Cassatt, Van Gogh on the walls. We listened to classical music and Bob Dylan at dinner. They are both phenomenal photographers. I love looking at all of their beautiful old prints from the seventies. I’m proud to photograph on my mum’s camera. In the house I grew up in, there was a print of Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror on the bathroom wall. I always loved it, it is a fixture of my memories.
I remember going to an Ansel Adams exhibit at the World Forestry Center when I was very small. Dad pointed out an image, he told me stories of how long Ansel would have to sit in that spot, waiting all day for the light to be perfect. He had already imagined how he wanted the photograph to turn out, he just had to wait for the light to set the stage. He would explain contrast and composition, little comments about the images. I learned to see. I still carry a deep love for those iconic Western photographers, the Group f/64 images of Cunningham and Weston.
After we would see exhibitions, he would always ask on the drive home: “Which one would you take home?” Ah, the ultimate question! Not just “What work did you like?’ but What work do you want to see every day when you wake up? What piece can you pass years with, look at in the light of every hour and every season?
Of course, that is not the reality. We fly or travel distances to visit museums and galleries - we must receive the work, be open to it, let ourselves be changed by it, and leave it behind.
Mika and I had a lot of long conversations about our frustrations with other museum patrons. We kept seeing people walking up to a work, snap a quick photo, and move on, never actually looking at the piece with their human eyes. Oh the grief to see Starry Night, the most popular work in MoMA’s collection, surrounded by people taking their picture “with” it. Even now, I am nauseous thinking of it.
I see so many people more intent on documenting their visit to a place than being in a place. They want to prove that they were in the same room as Starry Night, but have yet to see it.
Encountering a work of art asks something of us. The artist invites us into a place of vulnerability and we must be confronted: this is uncomfortable. A work can bring up memories and emotions that disturb our day, they shove us, and shout. It is difficult to find the space within ourselves to receive the work.
I want to capture it, to possess it. When I encounter a work of art and it deeply affects me, I want to take it home with me! I don’t want to say goodbye and leave it behind.
I am afraid that memories will not be enough. I am afraid of forgetting. I am afraid that I will never return to a place. Or, in the case of time-based exhibitions: I feel a sadness that this is the only moment in which this place will be created.
But it is always worth it: I have felt such profound joy and life-giving spirit in art museums and films, in concert halls or outdoor lawns to hear music, watching and experiencing dance and movement. I have received these momentous gifts and I carry them with me. I will always remember lying under the shifting lights of Turrell’s Guggenheim dome and find peace in that place. I am ever reaping the benefits of it.
When I told a friend that I had recently visited the Brooklyn Museum, she immediately gushed “Oh, so you saw the plates!”. She was referring to Judy Chicago’s landmark installation The Dinner Party, a significant work of feminist art from the 1970s. It is a permanent installation and is the central fixture of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. “There’s something comforting about knowing that that table is always there, unchanging,” she said.
She’s right: knowing that a work resides at a museum is comforting. I know that I can return to that place to see it.
At the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art this Spring, my destination was the Turrell retrospective. They also hosted a lovely Calder exhibition; I was wandering among his singing mid-century mobiles, and a friendly security guard engaged me in conversation:
"Which one would you take home?"
I smiled, considered the seven pieces that surrounded me and selected one.
He smiled and pointed to another:
"I like that one. I don’t know what it is… it speaks to me somehow!" he gushed.
Upon my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art, I stumbled upon Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror in real life! She lived and breathed before my eyes! I had no idea she lived there! What a surprise to see my old friend in the painted flesh, forever contemplating her identity. I’ve changed since I saw her last. She will stay put and I will continue to change until I see her again.