Changes are coming to the Twin Cities. Spring is slowly arriving. Daylight lingers. I can look up and around when walking outside. I notice the holes from trees felled in last summer’s storms, but I find the tulips poking through in their place. We need this renewal. We need these moments to gather strength after winter’s long cold nights before heading out into the rush of spring. I have seen great shows throughout the Twin Cities, great works of art, openings and closings left and right, an embarrassment of riches. I am, however, still lingering in the quiet moments, the eddies in the cultural stream rushing around us.
I have been consistently impressed with the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s New Pictures exhibition series. Last year’s Stan Douglas and Sarah Jones‘s exhibitions were excellent, expanding into multiple places throughout the MIA, engaging other works in the collection, rewarding multiple viewings. Tucked into a small gallery, next to flashy 20th century design and big name artists, New Pictures 9 features Rinko Kawauchi’s works from Illuminance. They are quiet, thoughtful moments that stretch into deep concentration and surprising connections
Kawauchi’s investigations of light, as the title suggests, come forth in large individual prints and clustered groups of smaller images. The arresting images of a dead deer with livid blood, a cluster of fish eyes, a sparkling diamond are quickly lost in the iterations of light. The exhibition builds a language of light, but there is no need to become fluent to be absorbed in depth of her process, her exploration as end not as means.
The looping video, Illuminance, extends and enlivens the process, endlessly teasing out the subtleties of light in the everyday situations it presents. The subtle, ambient audio soundtrack was barely audible at times, but the suddenly louder rushing of water or rustling of leaves brought her abstracted process back from the realm of static image making to the world around us. The beauty of the exhibition is that Kawauchi presents no conclusions, but it prepares us to see the world differently. I left full of questions. I struggled to distinguish the works in the rest of the museum from the play of gallery lighting, the wash of grey, clouded light from the windows, the sudden shadows of people walking past.
Whenever I visit the MIA, I am drawn to the period rooms, sparsely populated, austere, in sharp contrast to the lines for the cafe and the children running between family activities. They are moments of concentrated attention and time. They simultaneously hold the past of their objects and the past of their meticulous reconstruction in one moment. I entered the period rooms to consider the light they would have seen, the electric light that illuminated it now never envisioned in their original homes.
As I exited The Providence Parlor, I saw a little girl pull on her father’s hand, point excitedly to a portrait of George Washington, and exclaim, “Dad, look! It’s President Obama.” I could not have said it better. The world is new with spring, with refreshed eyes that allow us to see our future in our past, to see our presidents for who they really are.
Winter is not yet over, but I have already felt the urge to start spring cleaning. I want to air out the bedroom and beat the rugs, to scrub the floors and clear the clutter hidden behind the heaviest winter clothes in the back of the closet and the last summery jars of canned vegetables in the far reaches of the pantry. My house is heavy with things, and I am ready to clear them out. I am ready for objects that play multiple roles, that open the doors to new thoughts, new worlds, new seasons.
EVEN IF IT KILLS YOU by Bryan Thomas Daly at White Page Gallery is an attempt to move away from the “library of Alexandria” he had amassed around himself, a purposely object-full attempt to transcend the physicality of the collections that maintain our place in consumer society while reinforcing the belief in our individuality. The modified vinyl and record covers revel in their identity as objects that contain the depths of content we know exist in their grooves. Daly levels their value, eliminating their use through his playful, spirited modifications. The work was made as part of a residency in the gallery, and it is in conversation with the objects that fill the corners, hallways, and studio spaces in the other half of White Page Gallery. The finished and in progress pieces, the raw materials, the tools, the giant, decades-old, fire hazard of a boiler all bear witness to the diverse studio practices, the collective experience of working and making decisions together. They are a testament to exploration and the opening of horizons.
Objects were also at the forefront of the first Sound.Art.MIA event at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Paul Metzger‘s sublime performance was mesmerizing. His 23-string banjo was inescapable as the visual locus of his plucking, strumming, bowing. Similarly, the Body/Head performance was centered around their guitars as objects, as unfamiliar extensions of their body to be explored by pushing, pulling, swinging, and hefting them through waves of feedback and mountains of sound. The video projected behind them distracted from their performance, pulling attention away from the objects they lovingly cradled, stroked, and manhandled. The night culminated in minutes of Kim Gordon exploring the crackling, scratching soundscape of the length of her output jack, flooding the room with the slightest adjustments of the very place her body flowed out into the rest of the room.
The recent few days of thaw have transformed the monochrome snowscape into the grey rainbows of exhaust-filled slush and ice. The receding snow reveals more than the objects hidden beneath it. It reveals the forgotten body of the city that surrounds us. It unleashes the vast symphony of drips and rushing torrents that arise from the barely visible stormdrains, and it opens windows onto the vast water system that has silently been working beneath our feet throughout the winter. It embues the objects that surround us, that care for us, with a new life, an unfolding wonder that will continue to expand as the weather warms and as I make more room for it in my less cluttered house.
It has been cold everywhere recently, colder than it has been in many years. The cold here has seeped into my bones. The days are lit by brittle sunlight, full of the illusion of warmth. The nights open to the icy vacuum of space, filled with the frigid, unblinking stars, and my mind, of course, turns to death.
Recently, I walked in from the cold, whitewashed world to Made in Minnesota at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota, and I entered the gallery equivalent of a greenhouse teeming with orchids. The show was full of life, full of objects. The air was humid with production and the presence of artists’ lives embodied in their work. The electric colors of Jay H. Isenberg’s 6 Lil’ Smokeys embraced the dreams of long summer afternoons. Kim Matthews’s barnacle-like works are labor-intensive, tenacious holds on life. Eileen Cohen enlivens her flocked ceramic with organic forms. Rollin Marquette’s Pear-Shaped lies seemingly incomplete, life-interrupted for the viewer to mentally assemble and imbue with new life. The show surges with an abundance of life, a force that has been packed into homes and studios, sealed away from the winter winds, yearning to get out, to express itself in any and every way.
That reminder of life is wonderful, a welcome respite from the cold. I was drawn, however, to the quieter moments of the show, buoyed by the spaces to breathe and reflect, invigorated by the explicit invocations of death. Mayumi Amada’s startlingly large Doily of Foremothers, hidden around a blind corner, is a delicate reminder of the eternal cycles of life and death, a call to remember that we are here because of the lives that are no longer with us. Judy Onofrio’s bone vessels remind us that “fertility and eroticism live side by side with mortality and fragility.” They open a space between what we are and what we will become, holding the life we inhabit within the lives from which we arise, expanding out into the lives that will grow from our deaths. The show opens and closes with George Morrison’s delicate, intimate postcards, small, powerful reminders of a life fully lived, a life shared with others and enriched by the living world around him.
Death surrounds us in all seasons. It is a natural and necessary part of our lives. It is in the food we eat, the air we breath, the leaves of grass beneath our feet. It confronts us more starkly in winter, in the seeming death of plants and the hibernation of animals. We know life is buried beneath the snow, waiting for the warmth of spring to awaken it, but these endlessly cold days make it difficult to see.
We cannot avoid the cold, and we cannot avoid death. We can let them overwhelm and control our lives, or we can rise each morning confident that we can face the cold, that our lives are full of beauty and meaning because they are finite.
Death is not frightening. It is comforting, full of hope, a blessing that allows us to thrive for our few moments. Spring is coming, and we will again see that life buried beneath the snow. When those shoots poke up through the warm soil, let us remember that death is still here, waiting to welcome us all into its quiet, its rest, its never-ending cycle that allows that birth to come forward for the living.
Made in Minnesota is on view until February 15.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Walker Art Center on a very busy night. A few new exhibitions had just opened; the Fritz Haeg residency was coming to an end; there was a live DJ; it was only the first snow of the season and the roads were still clear; admission was free. I walked through hundreds of people dancing and drinking to the pulsing DJ set. I elbowed my way through a crowd to see Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s work. When I finally made it up to the real reason I came, the Lucky Dragons immersive/participatory experience/performance on the crocheted rug at the heart of Fritz Haeg’s At Home in the City, it was quiet. People spoke in hushed tones, looked and read intently, gathered on the rug to crochet scarves and sweaters and commune over what they had brought. A small circle at one side of the rug sat with ribbon-like instruments, holding them to activate various sounds that morphed as you touched another person, formed chains with the others holding the ribbons, alternated who held the ribbons and where they were in the circle.
I had a great time at the Walker, but there was something missing, something that I had experienced the last time I saw Lucky Dragons. At that time, I was immersed in a basement full of people completely in sync with one another, aware of our bodies without speaking as we shaped the immersive sound and videoscape that enveloped us. Lucky Dragons eliminates the line between musician and audience, yet the people playing on the crocheted rug were not completely present. They were transient, ready to move on, to be pulled in the hundreds of other directions the busy night offered. Even the people who lingered the longest, who invited onlookers to join the circle, to commune with touch and sound, to experiment with creating the atmosphere of the room, could not make the circle hold. The Walker was incredibly successful at drawing people in to experience the multitude of events that night. The engagement I had hoped for, however, was pulled in the many directions of those events, and I was left wanting to find it in other ways.
I went to the Artists’ Quarter last weekend to hear Happy Apple. The crowd had braved subzero temperatures for a standing room only show, and Happy Apple delivered what we had come to hear. They were in their stride before they began and ran further and faster than we could believe. They drew out their songs, opening doors through even their most bombastic pieces into quiet, minimal moments that never ended. They defied time, asking us to make the fleeting minutes we were together last all night, embodying the desire of everyone jammed in the tight, dark basement to keep that basement open forever. As we slowly peeled away at the end of the night, we knew we could not stop the Artists’ Quarter from closing at the end of the year after decades of supporting young, experienced, local, and touring groups, but we were united in a joyful, music-filled affirmation of its power and importance.
Dave King, the drummer for Happy Apple and many other groups, recently spoke about the importance of quiet in music venues, the difficulty of playing and listening over the clank of caesar salads and clumsy servers, the noise of crowds and busy bars, the incessant distractions of large venues. The Artists’ Quarter, however, provides “the environment to hear and play [...] music without those interruptions.” Every show I have seen at the Artists’ Quarter has been quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Everyone from the front Â of the stage to the back of the bar is there to listen, watch, completely engage with musicians. It is powerful and humbling to see musicians and audiences connect so deeply.
At the Happy Apple show, in that basement with no distractions, with nothing else pulling the crowd away, I found the engagement that I missed at the Walker. Everyone left the Artists’ Quarter energized, amazed, and lamenting the loss of a great venue, an invaluable resource for artists and audiences, a place that will be sorely missed not just because it will be harder to see the musicians they supported but also because the loss of any arts venue is a loss to the entire arts ecosystem. King reminds us, “Whenever a place for art outside the commercial paradigm is lost, it becomes harder to sustain the more progressive stuff found off the straight and narrow.” We all know that to be true, but we must sometimes be reminded. We can only hope that reminder does not come too late.
Go to the Walker, support its programs, but go to the Artists’ Quarter too. We need both big and small art institutions, places to hold thousands of people and others to allow for moments of intimate engagement, venues where everyone can find something and others where a few can find a once in a lifetime experience. The Artists’ Quarter has shows through the end of the month. If you are not in Saint Paul, go to your own local arts venues big and small; they need your presence too.
It has turned cold. Recent mornings here have felt more like February than November. The nights grow ever longer. As we prepare to turn inward, to tuck ourselves away during the coming winter months, I typically want to rest my oversaturated mind, find peace from the overwhelming and inescapable cavalcade of cultural production and consumption. I have instead found myself invigorated by and seeing anew through an analogy from Jean Cocteau.
In a translation by Richard Howard, Cocteau writes:
The mechanism which imposes upon us the beauty of a picture, or, more correctly, the combination of lines and volumes capable of moving us, results from a phenomenon analogous to what triumphs over our intelligence when sexuality speaks. A kind of psychic sexuality provokes a moral erection comparable to the sexual one in that it functions without our control and gives immediate proof of the effectiveness of the forms and colors likely to convince a secret part of our organism.
I gravitate toward artwork that can only be consumed through time, that makes me think, that forces my mind in new directions and challenges my notions of what the world is. I know how to live with that work outside its context. I know how to carry it around with me as it informs the rest of my life because it has already existed in my mind through successive moments. I have a harder time knowing how to live with artworks that are immediate, nebeneinander. It might thrill me to my core, but where does it live in my brain when I leave? Why does it still influence me as I continue through my days? Its momentary nature belies its potential impact. The moral erection, the immediate, nonrational responses I have to those works shifts that impact away from my rational mind to a place I cannot see, a place all the more profound because it is unplumbable.
I can tell myself I love this video because I love doughnuts and state capitols, but my reaction lies beyond any simple intellectual explanation. I can tell myself that I love this recently completed mural for how it erases the Machado poem or that I can balance my sincere and ironic appreciation of the eagle, but, again, those explanations fall short of what happens when I see it.
I am, of course, reminded of other times I leave my rational mind behind. Cocteau sprang to mind as I was overwhelmed by the moonlight when I took the trash out last night, the light far more sublime and mortality-inducing than beautiful. He was with me as I woke from a dream that has haunted my days, my unconscious mind imprinting my waking life. He is with me as I sift through the numbing plenitude of the internet, finding flashes of light in the darkness that tug at something.
Humans have evolved to block out sensory inputs; unlike dogs we are no longer so overwhelmed by the smell on a tree that we drop everything to investigate it. We can use that saved brain power and energy to explore the mysteries of the universe, but, increasingly, we must develop ways of ignoring the hundreds of words, the thousand of sounds, the millions of things trying to grab our attention in order to know that mysteries still exist.
I hear Cocteau calling us back to a moment when we felt the psychic sexual thrill of seeing the first painting that called to us, the moral erection of that song that still stirs our heart. He reminds me to pay attention when I feel stirrings that work beyond my rational brain, past the barriers that I put in place to manage the onslaught. More than a silly or dismissive way to explain away what we like, he reminds us that the experiences that move us precisely because we cannot explain why they do are necessary and important to our complete health as mental, physical, emotional, and aesthetic beings, all the more so as the culture that confronts us screams that it is as profound and fundamental to our well being as that kind of experience.
At the very least, he sheds light on why I continually respond to and deeply love the mural I pass every day that for one reason or another hits me like a…