Sunday, January 16, 2022

January 6, 2021 & The Arts

This Missive was co-authored by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel.

With this Missive I am a couple of weeks late for the anniversary of the rightly called January 6 insurrection, but I do not believe the date should ever be forgotten, so it is always the right time to think about it.

Throughout history artists have taken on controversial subjects. In the present day they have strongly reacted to the important “Black Lives Matter” movement. Last year’s insurrection, however, has gathered far fewer artistic results than I would have expected. Maybe, it needs more time until we can fully digest it. The art I did find on-line, however, was poignant. 

I am going to start with a Digital Image printed in an edition of 12 by the Swedish experimental art photographer, Jan Oberg, creator of the on-line site Oberg PhotoGraphics. Inspired by the insurrection, his “Capitol Hill, January 6, 2021” is a collage of images based on Japer John’s “Flag” (1958). In the center is a screenshot of President Trump when he spoke during the storming of Capitol overlaid with the image from inside with armed guards ready to shoot. The artist notes “Colours have been carefully calibrated to make Trump the darkest and distorting the flag’s brightness.”

One image from my “collection” follows the event quite literally. It is a gauche by California artist and educator, Kevin Trivedi, titled “Courage.” It depicts Capitol Police Officer, Eugene Goodman who has been declared a hero for encouraging a mob in the Capitol to chase him in the wrong direction, away from the Senate chamber.

“Two Americas”, the title of a painting by D.C. muralist, Shawn Perkins, derives from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “The Other America” describing how differently racial groups in this country live. The painting is divided in half: on the left is the face of Black man with a gun to his head, his mouth gagged by the American flag, and a town in flames bursting out of his head which was painted the year before regarding Black Lives Mattter; on the right is a scene of the White insurrectionists lording it over the police in front of the Capitol. He combined the two images to put an exclamation point on the Two Americas!

A surrealistic painting by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer shows a clashing crowd of combatants, outside the Capitol. Trump’s face is painted in red white and blue on the back of a figure in the foreground. There is a fellow wearing a mask to be safe from Covid but carrying a machine gun at the same time! The tattooed Moses-type character in the lower left has a satchel with the date 8-12-17. That was the day in Charlottesville, Virginia when a protest turned violent after white supremacists clashed with counterdemonstrators, and a car ploughed into the crowd of anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters. Afterwards the former president said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides”. Explaining the title of the painting “Don’t You See That I am Burning”, a quotation from Sigmund Freud’s Dream Book, we see flames emanating from the Capitol, but we know it was only figuratively set on fire. Hailed in Artnet as “epic” and compared in Forbes with Last Judgement paintings from the Renaissance the seven-foot work is a perfect commentary on January 6.

We have all heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Thousands of words have already been written about January 6, 2021 with thousands more to come. They can all be summed up by the few images that I have shown.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Time Capsules

The term “Time Capsule” was coined for the publicity of the 1939 New York World’s Fair capsule that followed a long tradition of containers holding collections of memorabilia intended to inform future generations and made as air and watertight as current technology allowed.

I was surprised to learn that there is a register kept by the International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University that estimates there are between 10,000 to 15,000 Time Capsules worldwide, with most of them lost. In 2020 Ogelthorpe University turned over all their records to the “Notforgotten Digital Preservation Library” which is now digitizing that catalog.

Locations of Time Capsules

The library also offers to preserve personal time capsules they will help you record. For an organization that deals in the past it is fascinating that they have linked up with the Ethereum Blockchain which only went online in 2015 and, according to what I have read, gives total security to the maintenance of the information. I can hear my wife, now, saying “until the next technology comes along.” The blockchain I is what keeps Crypto Currencies and NFT’s secure enough to invest in.

At present the official definition for a Blockchain “is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. A blockchain is essentially a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems on the blockchain.” Do note the words, “difficult or impossible” … well which is it?

Recent headlines announced the discovery of a second Time Capsule in the pedestal under the 1887 Statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, now headed to its new home at the Black History Museum. What I did not understand was what was the first?

Dale M. Brumfield, a journalist and author had written an article 4 years ago saying that he found documents suggesting that there was a Time Capsule under the Lee monument containing Confederate artifacts, weapons used in the Civil War and a piece of wood cut from a tree near the grave of General Stonewall Jackson. Therefore, the first discovery made a week before was not what they expected. It was a led box that contained an 1875 Almanac, a waterlogged book of fiction, a British coin, a catalog, one letter and a photograph of James Netherwood, a master stonemason who worked on the pedestal and clearly wanted to commemorate himself.

Devon Henry, who oversees the company that was assigned to remove the statue was, however, determined to find the one they were looking for. Even though they had already dug 15 feet down below the pedestal, he had his team dig further and at 20 feet below the surface they found a granite capstone protecting the sought-after Time Capsule. Katherine Ridgway, the state archeological conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources cut into the 36-pound copper box measuring 13.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches. Before she started, however, because there was the possibility of explosives inside, they first x-rayed it and had the bomb squad examine it. I presume that fear came from the fact that they hoped to find Confederate munitions. Here Katherine Ridgeway, excited to see the box gets on her knees to wrap it as well as her showing fellow historians and the press the contents of the Time Capsule (photos for the AP by Eva Russo Sarah Rankin).

The copper box contained Confederate money, 12 copper coins, an edition of Harper's Weekly from 1865, military memorabilia, multiple books including directories and a Holy Bible, a wood flag and a Masonic symbol allegedly carved from the tree that grew above Gen. Stonewall Jackson's original grave.

The contents were in better shape than they expected even though some items were wet, but the box also held some disappointment. An issue of the Richmond Dispatch from October 1887 gave clues as to what they could expect to find, the most exciting of which was a photo of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket. Alas, it turned out to be a mass-produced printed engraving from a newspaper of 1865 or a reprint and it had already been mended a number of times. The dreams of discovery are often tempered by reality.

What would you put in your time capsule?

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Why Does the Public Trust Curators?

I saw this headline in recently, “Brits Rank Museum Curators Among Top 5 Most Trusted Professions”! That was something to chew on particularly since my wife is a curator. Of course, there are also, in order Nurses, Librarians, Doctors and Teachers just ahead of the museum curators in this British poll called the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index. In many other professions one reads about scandals and misbehavior while rarely for these five. What do they all have in common? I believe they are all in a world where we feel we have little expertise and we depend on their knowledge, in some cases even for survival.

In all five professions you do not have a great deal of choice but to trust them to one extent or another. As for curators you need to be seduced by their museum, collection or exhibitions. Once you are, you probably begin to trust them even without meeting them.

I wonder how many people actually know what a Museum Curator does unless they start to collect or go regularly to museums and exhibitions and begin to wonder how did all this art get here and why. Like General Practitioners who must have a wide range of knowledge to make a diagnosis, the curator must have a broad knowledge of art history to understand the area that they wish to work in and how it interacts with its historical context. Like the librarian the curator must be good at research and organization in order to catalog collections or put together an exhibition.

While nurses and doctors are concerned with the well-being of their patients, curators care about the works of art in their collection. There is no other reason to go into their line of work. … it is not the pay. The most important part of their work is to create the understanding necessary for art to be preserved. They do research to gather information about the objects in their collections and work with conservators on their physical preservation. But also, just like the librarian leads you in the right direction to the section or book you are looking for, they make the art understandable giving it context for the public through their installations and publications.

Part of a curator’s job is to teach, so they will explain to an individual or a group why the art is situated where it is. Art seeks context, but put a Houdon of Benjamin Franklin in the Metropolitan Museum, next to a Jeff Koons of a Rabbit that brought 91.1 million at auction and an abstract sculpture by Cecil Cartensen in the Kansas City Public Library and without explanation you would probably feel it is a chaotic mess and never visit that exhibition gallery or museum again.

If, however, the curator wanted to do an exhibition of the ideal male figure and placed a Giacometti of “Walking Man (1960) in the Fondation Giacometti, next to a marble Roman copy (1st century AD) of the bronze Discus-thrower of Myron Sculpture (460-450 BC) in the Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, next to Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504) in the Gallerian dell’Academia in Florence it might be a show that will intrigue you by the comparison without any explanation. If this were to be put into further context by the curator explaining her choices, you would enjoy the exhibition all the more. You might even wish to look deeper into other sculpture of these periods. (Images Walking Man, Discus-thrower, Michelangelo’s David)

Personally, I want an exhibition to speak to me without explanation first, but like all the arts the more you know and understand the more you can enjoy and get out of the presentation. Curators explain works in labels, didactic panels, audio guides and interactive videos, but if you have the chance of a visit with the curator as guide that makes it all the more enlightening.

It is an interesting subject to mull over and think why we might trust people that we may have never met before.