Monday, 21 July 2014

Changing Times

Last week, across the Netherlands school bags dangled from flag poles above many front doors. This quirky habit broadcasts to the neighborhood that a kid has just graduated high school. It also signals the start of the school holidays, when families pack up and head off.

Flags are again flying In the Netherlands this week.  They hang at half mast on public buildings to memorialize the 193 Dutch men, women and children who had headed off to Asia, but died when their plane was shot down over the Ukraine by a missile.   

The Netherlands is a small country, just 17 million. There are cities in the world with larger populations.  Here suffering 193 dead is comparable to a loss of 4,100 lives in a country to size of the US.  So it was inevitable that I would know someone or know of someone who knew someone on board. And so it was. Within an hour a friend called to tell me she had lost a colleague who was traveling with children. Next a family member reported the same.  Thus a national – no international-- tragedy unfolding in some far off place quickly assumes the character of “up close and personal.”   This event has affected us all.

Thoughtful friends living abroad have called and written expressing their condolences. I don’t deserve them, thank goodness. My loved ones are safe and accounted for. But I accept these simple acts of kindness because we must foster kindness.  There is so much hate in the world. It swirls around like some invisible, toxic radiation.   It can reach 10 kilometers (35,000 feet) above the Earth’s surface to snuff out the lives of men, women, and children, who, oblivious to its existence, were just “passing through” on their way to do good or just have fun. 

I am old enough to remember a time when getting onto a plane was glamorous, even thrilling.  Into my hand luggage went an embroidery canvas, needles, thread and, yes, scissors, to while away the hours between Amsterdam and places my employer sent me.  Other women in the cabin knitted. How times have changed. And not for the better.  Sharp objects and many other things, too, are now banned on board as potential weapons. The list grows. I accept this as a necessary precaution. Yet, this week the fate of 300 souls on MH-17 demonstrated that despite all the technological improvements to aircraft, despite increased security precautions of all sorts, flying long haul is not a calculated risk, it is a deadly gamble.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Time Travel

This afternoon found me in New York City,  just minutes after leaving home! What a way to travel trans-Atlantic.  No jet lag, no airport hassles, just sheer enjoyment. And all for the price admission to my local art museum, which, until the end of August, has works on loan from New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
The museum's exhibition of Abstract Expressionism catapulted  me to Manhattan,  back  the 1950s when Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Karel Appel burst onto the Big Apple’s art scene. 
It presented several artists that I remembered from  visits to New York's iconic snail-shell museum, itself a masterpiece of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  But others were new to me,  AlbertoBurri, for example.   Burri had crudely stitched together burlap sacking, dabbed on gold paint, and glued everything onto canvas to create Composizione.

 The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

We could argue all day about this work. Is it beautiful? Is it supposed to be?  Why is this art? Why is it memorable in the history of human development?”  Eliciting these questions is, perhaps, the point of the piece.  But to me, what is significant is that Composizione, undeniably constituted primarily of woven jute fiber, has not been classed as “textile art” or “fiber art.”
Hurray for that.  The piece – whether the viewer thinks it is good, bad or ugly -- is simply a piece of art, taking its place alongside other works created from paint, wood, or metal foil. Composizione  is just like any other work on show. It is protected by glass, but then so are pure paintings in this exposition. It belongs to a movement, an era. That’s it.
This leads the embroiderer in me to ponder:  Why has medium, i.e. the materials that the artist uses, become so central in categorizing objects as art. Isn't art supposed to be about esthetics and/or human expression?  If anything, this retrospective exhibition demonstrates that the Guggenheim’s curator James Johnson Sweeny focused on the affect, not the tools that an artist used to achieve his ends. In fact, the Guggenheim’s website cites Burri’s belief that the medium is not the message, but just a means.  Sounds pretty sensible to me. 
I have no answers to my questions. I am neither a philosopher nor a curator.  But to me,  needlework enthusiast and museum visitor, it seems that visual art has become very balkanized. Painting, sculpture and photography stand on their own as disciplines. No one talks about "painting art."  It's as though products of the imagination relying on installation, textile, or digital technique must add the word "art" to describe them. Otherwise, the observer mistake them for something else.

Hierarchy seems to  have crept into art, too. It's almost as if some forms are more "arty"  than others.  How often do visitors find “contemporary” embroidery -- oops textile art-- displayed among other present-day forms in  museums (or galleries)  of "contemporary art?" It's not as if there is no interesting stuff being produced with needle and  thread today. Can it be that, compared to other disciplines, embroiderers just don't  pack enough visual punch or  inject enough "meaning" into their work ?  Surely some do.

Leaving the exhibition, I came away with the impression that back in the 1950s  art and artists were less pigeon-hold than today.  A piece engaged or it didn't.  Obviously, time marches on. Attitudes evolve.   Still,sometimes it is useful to look backward as we try to march forward.  With fingers rested for a afternoon, I thread up my needle allowing my thoughts to wander where they will.