May 12th, 2014



So I was sort of reunited with an old friend yesterday.

Almost a decade ago, an exhibit opened at the Museum of Fine Arts called Inverted Utopias.  It was an AMAZING exhibition on avant-garde art in Latin America that hadn't really gotten proper attention in the United States. There was art there that was so much more cutting edge and sophisticated than the contemporaneous stuff going on in Europe. And it was comprehensive. The exhibition took over the entire Law building, and I'm sure that Mari-Carmen Ramirez, the curator, could have filled another building if she'd had the space.   I probably went to the exhibition at least five or six times while it was up, and I was blown away each time.  I loved it.

My favorite part of the exhibition, though, was the Soto statue out in front of the Law building.  This is what I said about it in 2004:

Anyhow, for the exhibition, there's a sculpture outside of the museum. It's a series rows and rows of thin yellow plastic tubes hanging about 20 feet or so from some sort of rack (I'm going to have to go and take a picture to explain it better). What's really cool about it is that every single time I pass by, people are playing in the sculpture. Old people, kids, young people, couples, families. People walk through it, letting the strands of tubing follow them. Or they stand there and sway. The sculpture moves with the people. What I love about it is that it's interactive art. There are quite a few pieces in this particular exhibit that encourage interaction, and there are some pieces where viewers have no idea that they have goofy looking smiles on their faces while they're interacting with the art. I LOVE this exhibit. I'm probably going to go see just that part of it over my lunch break.

The sculpture was one of several in different colors, called Penetrable in Yellow.  The sculpture stayed in place for over a year, well after the rest of the exhibition closed.  I saw the sculpture nearly every   day, since I pass the museum going to and from work.  Almost every time I saw it, someone was interacting with it.  I loved it more and more every time I saw it.  These are photos I took of the sculpture in 2004 with Relampago and Crianza.

I had heard that the artist was negotiating with the museum for the purchase of the statue as part of its permanent collection, but he died before negotiations were completed. I was devastated when the statue went away, but I would hear about it popping up in other cities, like at LACMA in LA, and I loved hearing about the reactions to the sculpture.  Still, I missed it terribly.  I remember telling someone back in 2004 or 2005 that inside the sculpture would be a PERFECT place to propose to me, because I couldn't imagine being happier than inside of it.

I think I was wrong, though, about the purchase.  Ten years later, the Museum has brought another Penetrable to Houston. And this one is probably six or seven times the size of the last one.  It takes the entirety of Cullinan Hall, and it's AMAZING.  It's site specific, and the museum owns it.  They had to reinforce the roof to hold something like 7 tons of steel.  And it's MAGICAL.  I think it opened sometime last week, and as soon as I heard about it, I told my family that we have to go.  It's going to be up until September 1, but apparently it's coming back again and again, especially since it was made just for us.    If you watch the brief video above, you can learn a little about how it was commissioned and how it was done.  This is the only Penetrable that is intended for indoors, and it has an extra element of color.  The others were solid, but this one has a gradation of yellow on top of clear tube that's just really cool. It sort of looks like an orb of color floating inside the sculpture, and when you're closer (or inside) it almost feels like a bright yellow mist.  The color starts at about 8 or so feet when you're in the dead center of the sculpture, and it's higher and higher as you go out.  The grid above is also similar to the out door version, but it's sooooo much higher.  You can't see daylight when you look up, like you can with the others, but that's perfectly ok.

So yesterday, before we started cooking for mother's day. My mom, my dad, Olivia and a friend of hers walked over to the museum to play in the sculpture.   We were in there for 45 minutes and it was glorious.  I deliberately didn't bring my camera, because I knew that I'd be back, and I knew that I just wanted to experience the joy of the sculpture without feeling the need to document it.  When I got to the museum, I practically ran to get to it. And there were tons of people already interacting with it.  Kids, adults, all sorts of mixes of race and ethnicity and language were inside and just loving it.  One kid was being led through with her eyes closed so she could experience it just from a touch perspective. Another's parent would gather up an armful of strands and then release them all at once on his kid, who giggled with excitement.  A little girl, who couldn't have been more than five years old, ran out of the sculpture towards me and my mom, gave us a massive smile, and then turned around and dove back in.  I stood next to a black man, dressed as if he'd come from a very fancy church, who just kept saying, "I need to get one of these."  Some elderly Indian women in saris skirted the edges.  And I heard at least three or four languages.  Olivia and I developed a sort of OCD for untangling cords that clumped together.  This mainly happened on the edges of the sculpture, I assume because they didn't have other cords holding them in their place.  We sort of felt sorry for the guards who had to make sure that people don't hurt it.  That's probably much easier with a painting that no one touches than it is a sculpture that is designed to be a tactile experience.  Still, I never saw anyone pulling too hard or hanging from the cords, and I suspect they're pretty sturdy.

I could have stayed there another hour and been perfectly happy.  My father is a huge Cubism fan, and there's also a Braque exhibition going on in the same hall. He was sort of taken aback that Liv and I didn't want to leave the Soto to go look at other art.  But we were just having a great time with the sculpture.

About the time that the sculpture left Houston, I got into an argument with someone about public art. The argument revolved around the Gates Installation that Christo and Jeanne-Claude put up for a week and a half in New York. In brief, my adversary was very dismissive of the piece, not because of what she saw, but because what she read that critics had said about it.   It's a little bit out of context, but I said this:

But installations are important. Public art is important. And I firmly believe that art makes the world a better place.

I believe that Dan Havel and Dean Ruck's Inversion piece made the city of Houston a better place for the four months that it was up.

I believe that it is a national tragedy for the country of Venezuela that the public art pieces of Jesus-Rafael Soto have been destroyed under the regime of Hugo Chavez.

I believe that large scale public installations help make art accessible to more people, make art something that can be enjoyed or rejected by everyone. I believe that your disdainful opinion of the Cristo is evidence of that interaction.

I believe that support needs to go to people like Regina Silvera, William Pope L., Andrea Zittel, The Art Guys, and anyone else who does installations.

. . .

I think that you don't give working stiffs enough credit, especially since most artists ARE working stiffs. People react to art. Good or bad. And they don't necessarily need anyone to tell them that it's good or bad or that they should feel a certain way about the piece. Art is interactive with the audience. Sometimes, of course, having more information about the piece can help the viewer understand the artist's perspective, but for the most part, the viewer's own prejudices, history, and preferences will most influence his or her reaction to a piece.

Installation art, in my opinion, is singularly unique in that it tends to be temporary, it tends to be fairly large and it tends to be site specific. The short duration, the scale and the location add to impact it has on the audience. These are only additional elements that the audience has to process in appreciating a piece of art, but I think that they're interesting. Installation art is obviously not your cup of tea, but it seems to me that your criticism has been of the criticism and not of the piece itself.

The argument ended civilly, and I still believe all of these things. A piece like the one that we in Houston get to play with in the next four months is so engaging, depends so much on the audience's experiences and memories and senses, and can be enjoyed by so many people.  And while I share the man's opinion that I need to get one of these, I'm so glad that we all get one of these for a little while. And then we'll get it again and again and again.

I'm sure I'll be going back soon.  And I'll take my husband. And probably my camera. And I'll be happy.