museums

Art Gawking at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

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I’m lucky to be able to travel the world for work as a museum planner, but this sometimes means I don’t spend enough time checking out the cultural offerings in my own back yard. Last week I finally made the trek up to Toronto’s new Aga Khan Museum. The museum was designed by the low-key star architect Fumihiko Maki and his team at Maki and Associates. A couple years ago I worked with Maki and Associates on the Bihar Museum, for which they won the international architectural competition. Incidentally, I’m currently working with the amazing team at Moriyama and Teshima Architects (MTA) on a new museum in Dubai. It turns out that MTA were the architects of record for Aga Khan Museum – small coincidences that show how small this world really is.

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The architecture of the Aga Khan Museum is elegant, though we didn’t get a chance to explore the beautiful grounds as it was snowing like crazy the day of our visit. However, the building works well as a museum – a beautiful courtyard allows for natural light to permeate the space while the galleries are beautifully lit, with the exquisite collection thoughtfully displayed.

There are some awkward elements that a general public probably won’t notice or find disturbing such as the placement of a freight elevator that directly opens into the permanent collection gallery, or the location of ‘exit’ signs extremely close to wall mounted artifacts. Overall, though there is great attention to detail in terms of how the objects are mounted and displayed. Beautifully minimal glass vitrines, custom mounts and impeccable exhibit lighting (a combination of in case and ex case lighting) allow the collection of Islamic artifacts to really shine. A bit more interpretation around key artifacts would have been nice, but for a museum visitor like myself who just likes to wander around and look at stunning objects this was an excellent experience. As the winter chill sets in, I’d highly recommend spending a few hours wandering the galleries then getting a bite at the restaurant. It’s worth the jaunt up.

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Oh right, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

So I went to the VIP Preview exhibition, Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, a couple weeks ago. It was an exhibition of works on loan from other Guggenheim outposts as well as 19 pieces acquired for the permanent collection of the under construction Abu Dhabi version. I basically remember two things about the show – the long drive from Dubai, and Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room (below). This was the piece that caused all the long lines when a version was presented at David Zwirner Gallery in NYC in 2013.

Although I remember next to nothing of the other works on view (aside from the requisite Dan Flavin piece), Infinity Mirrored Room is definitely worth experiencing if you happen to be in the vicinity of Saadiyat Island. The only potential drawback is if you’re hoping for a moment of pause, wonder and contemplation, you might not get it. When we were there the security guards were yelling at people to keep on moving. Likely a result of it being opening night. My recommendation? Ignore them and soak it it.

 

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India, Buddha and I

So, what do India, Buddha and I have in common? Aside from being Asian and being awesome — a new museum that recently opened in Patna, India. This is actually old news (over two months old), but seeing as my editorial schedule for this blog is haphazard at best (unfortunately personal blogging has had to take a back seat to professional duties), it’s still timely in my world.

Buddha Smriti Museum (Smriti means memory) is one of the projects that I’m most proud of and is also one of the first projects in which I played a lead role from the pre-bid concept stage, to flying out to India to pitch the concept, to winning it, doing the actual planning and then working with my amazing design colleagues to design and implement. All told I started working on this in 2011 so it’s been a slog. But, nobody ever said the museum world was fast and furious.

Buddha Smriti Museum was inaugurated on 13 September 2013 by the Princess of Bhutan. The event apparently coincided with a huge Buddhist conclave that was happening at Bodh Gaya so lots of Buddhist monks from around the world attended. The Museum is the newest addition to the Buddha Smriti Park complex which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 2010.

I found this hilarious video tour of the Museum on YouTube. It’s a bit choppy and the guy barges around like a baby rhino, but at least you get a glimpse of the various exhibits that are in the museum. I’ll admit though, this guy’s museum going style is totally like mine.

You can see more images at this Facebook page.

Speedwalking Through the VAG’s Grand Hotel

If you know me then you’ll know I’m not good at sitting still. You’ll also know what a relief it was to finally deplane after 5ish hours of sitting in the middle seat from YYZ to YVR. The saving grace of yesterday’s journey, aside from the ramen and izakaya eats, was my whirlwind visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG).

For a museum planner I’m notorious for getting museum fatigue really really easily. Maybe this makes me super sympathetic to museum-goers, especially the 5 year-old kid who’s bored to tears at any given moment at any given museum in this wide world. My capacity for boredom and fatigue also accords with my inability to sit through a plane ride. Anyways, I had 30 minutes to breeze through the permanent galleries which is often plenty of time. Needless to say I was astonished when I found myself wanting more time to explore the Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life exhibition that is currently showing.

Road Trip Gallery detail

Road Trip Gallery detail

Road Trip Gallery Detail

Road Trip Gallery Detail

 

I won’t go into details here (though I really want to) simply because, as I said, I breezed through the show and it really deserves a proper write-up. However, it’s a super engaging theme and the curators were pretty expansive in their approach to the topic touching on such sub-themes as culture, the social, travel and design. I’d say the show broadly addresses the question: How is modern life understood differently through the phenomenon of the modern hotel?

I found the ‘culture’ exhibits particularly interesting — it’s a lot of text and poring over documents, mixed with screen-based experiences of movie clips and music from the period. For me it was super interesting because it explores the hotel as hub or retreat for cultural creation (think Ginsberg and the Beat Hotel in Paris). Normally the amount of reading involved would be a deal-breaker (it’s really not that much text, but it’s me), but everything in the show is assembled with care and purpose so I want to give it a proper go.

If I can swing it in between meetings and client dinners I will definitely go back and take my time.

Sitting in my hotel room right now, trying to deal with a fit of insomnia, I feel a tinge of regret. Regret because I didn’t have more time at the VAG to immerse myself in the world of modern hotels. Even more regret because the the hotel room I’m sitting in as I write is bland and it’s doubtful any sudden bursts of creativity will be forthcoming.

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life runs from April 13 to September 15, 2013.

Getting Lost in the Memory Palace

Friday and Saturday was spent gawking at art. I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to attend the opening of Janet Cardiff’s and George Bures Miller’s exhibition Lost in the Memory Palace on Friday night and then went back for more on Saturday.

Lost in the Memory Palace is the perfect title for this survey exhibition as it really does feel like your going on a journey. After swooning for a while at “The Forty Part Motet” I roamed round and around on the forth floor checking out each installation multiple times. The new piece they created for the AGO, “Experiment in F# Minor” was pretty awesome. If it’s packed, I’d recommend just lingering in the room until it empties out so you can play with it on your own or with a few friends.

One of the oddest things I saw a little girl activate “The Killing Machine”…so weird, and it turns out it was Janet’s and George’s daughter which made the experience even more strange.

If you’ve not seen it yet all I’ve gotta say is get your ass down there NOW! It runs until August 18th.

Cardiff & Miller: Media Art Magic

Long lost University of Alberta alumni meet for the first time!

Long lost University of Alberta alumni meet for the first time!

 

“We’re getting old, so there’s a lot of work”, said George Bures Miller. This opening line was the start of what was a great talk by two of my favourite contemporary artists last night at the Art Gallery of Ontario. For a bit over an hour they walked us through the body of work they created over the years.

What I love about their work is how intensely personal so much it feels. And yet, when an audience member asked about their relationship to the viewer and whether they create with the viewer in mind? Janet‘s response was simple, “Not really, if we’re really into it, then we’re ok”. This simple and truthful answer comes through in the work. I think if artists create for themselves in an open and honest way then the works will connect to viewers. This is particularly true of Cardiff & Miller’s work because our bodies, our senses and how we perceive and know the world is ultimately what makes their creations so so compelling. The starting point of much of what they make is the body (their own bodies and sense perceptions), and as Maurice Merleau-Ponty noted, “The body is our general medium for having a world.”

 

Cardiff & Miller during question period.

Cardiff & Miller during question period.

 

It was really great to hear them talk about their creative process and you realize just how long they’ve been doing this. The two of them on stage together seems to make perfect sense. It’s hard to imagine one without the other and the audience sighed in satisfaction when they agreed, “We make each other’s art better”. If you’re familiar with their work then you know that we were all chomping at the collective bit for more, More, MORE! MORE Cardiff & Miller!

Luckily, a survey exhibition of their installation work, Lost in the Memory Palace, opens tomorrow night at the Art Gallery of Ontario. More info here.

Mami Kataoka – Articulating the Invisible

Last Friday night (March 15) I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario for the Mami Kataoka lecture. She’s the Chief Curator of the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, one of my favourite museums.

Her talk, Contemporary Art in Japan: Visions and Views of the Universe, was part of the Asia Contemporary Speaker Series organized jointly by the Canadian Art Foundation and the Asia Pacific Foundation. For me, there were three big ideas of the evening:

  • Japan is an uneasy presence in Asia: In some ways, Japan is still struggling with modernity, for as Mami pointed out, “Japan modernized without becoming Westernized”.  This has shaped the national consciousness which in turn impacts the work of Japanese contemporary artists;
  • The possibility of a pan-Asian aesthetic is circumscribed by Asian sensibilities based on Asian philosophy, religion, and  values: This seems to be what makes Asian contemporary art unique – Mami was careful not to overstate any formal or stylistic qualities in the works she spoke of;
  • The rest of Asia is going through what Japan went through over 100 years ago (and is arguably still going through): by tracing the trajectory of Japanese art production as it evolved behind, beside, in front of, and at times in a head-on collision with modernity, she traced the contours of her curatorial vision and her views on contemporary Asian art. If the rest of Asia is now going through the process of modernization as Japan has done what then are the implications for the region? And how are Asian artists responding to modernization?

 

I found these concepts to be quite interesting especially as they relate to the topic of her lecture Contemporary Art in Japan: Visions and Views of the Universe.

Some of the artists that she briefly touched upon were: Haruo Mitsuta, Makoto Aida, Sachiko Kazama, Meiro Koizumi and Chiharu Shiota. According to Mami these artists are, “trying to articulate the invisible”. This idea stayed with me as did the notion that they are grappling with the “operation of the universe in a larger view”.

 

Sachiko Kazama, 風雲13号地 182×412cm unique woodblock print (panel, Japanese paper, sumi ink) Image from: Image from http://www.mujin-to.com/artist_kazama.htm

Sachiko Kazama, 風雲13号地 182×412cm unique woodblock print (panel, Japanese paper, sumi ink) Image from: Image from http://www.mujin-to.com/artist_kazama.htm

 

From my untutored perspective, these artists seem to explore a broader relational view of the world. The works she discussed seem to explore phenomena or concepts without insisting on the work’s visibility in and of itself (though of course the work exists and is sensible). The works seem to call forth a hidden essence, whether exploring unseen natural phenomena, social relationships, the hidden world of dreams, or recovering the past through traditional production techniques.

They evoke something that exists horizontally and beside the realities of what is already known and present. By trying to articulate the invisible these artists make visible the continuities of tradition, philosophies of interconnectedness/interdependency and balance.

If there is such thing as a pan-Asian aesthetic or sensibility then it is rooted in the ties the bind us to the past, and because modernity doesn’t necessarily come with outright Westernization then the patterns of artistic production that are emerging in Asia might well show us visions and views of a universe that is yet unknown (which I understand as not colonized by Western modernity and the world that emerged from it).

I think this is what she meant when she spoke of the urgency for contemporary Asian artists to continue to create side by side and to respond in their unique way to the changes on the continent and around the world.

As with all good lectures, I left feeling enlivened by the ideas Mami espoused, but also unsettled because there was so much to grapple with and to think about. I look forward to August when she’ll be back to install Ai Wei Wei: According to What? (August 17 – October 27, 2013) at the AGO.

 

 

Dollop of Foucault. Dash of Gramsci.

Wow, haven’t posted in a while. Too many things going on! Top of mind right now — environmental scan of best practices in museum displays of ethnographic collections! YAY!

Here’s a short excerpt from an article called, Exhibiting Indigenous Heritage in the Age of Cultural Property, by professor Michael F. Brown of Williams College. It’s perfectly pithy which really brightens up the whole research process.

“Postcolonial scholarship on museums suffers from exasperating
flaws. Its language is often overblown, depicting curators as foot soldiers
in the trenches of colonial oppression. Its rhetorical strategy is tiresomely
predictable: comb the archives for objectionable, racist declarations by
long-dead museum employees, mix in a bit of authorial hand wringing
about a troubling exhibit label or two, flavor with a dollop of Foucault and
a dash of Gramsci, shake vigorously, serve. From the sinister confines of
the museum and the grasping hands of its expert staff, heritage-everyone’s
heritage, it seems-must be “reclaimed” and “liberated.”

Stay tuned for my next post — which will be beer related. Cheers!

EDIT: The above, taken out of context, may sound a bit snarky, but it’s a thoughtful article and I do recommend it for those interested in the subject at hand.