Saturday, May 17, 2008

In Emergency Break Glass

Gardens are for touching, walking, sitting, sniffing, admiring, and most importantly, pondering.

Approaching the Enid Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, I wondered if the contemporary cultural world is constrained by its own success. I'd like to think that art is potent pollen, whipped into the air by the need for change and carried to unlikely places to seed the imagination of people working in many disciplines. But often it seems a casualty of its container.

The Botanical Garden is preparing a major exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures. The large bronzes have been thoughtfully sited to take advantage of the composed vistas and textured backgrounds of the rolling 250 acre campus. In this setting the pastoral qualities of Moore’s art come to the fore. His abstract bronzes can evoke the effects of wind and water on rock. And they can also describe the gesturing flesh and the durable bone of beautiful, living things. But what about the meanness of Moore? He lived through two World Wars, soldiering in the First and reporting eloquently through a series of drawings about life during the Nazi Blitz in the Second. How would a Moore sculpture look if it was placed in a contemporary scene of trauma like an abandoned air force base, or a clear-cut jungle whose soil is so depleted that it can only sustain scrub, or in Harare, the capitol city of Zimbabwe, during the election battle between Tsvangirai and Mugabe? Would the line of Moore’s edges be more taut? Would the hollows seem to have been blown-out and eroded rather than scooped and polished into being? Would the bone-like forms seem less bleached and clean? We’ll never know, since these sculptures are worth too much money. Now, they live in World Headquarters, private villas and museums curtained in glass. The owners do the world a favor by protecting the art, but it is regrettable that some of the urgency of the objects is lost in the safety of their display. With this regret in mind, one can appreciate the visual violence of the day-glow, crowd-control netting which ensnares the sculpture (a fallen warrior in the above illustration) as it is prepared for exhibition.

Entering the Conservatory, I wondered at what point the vibrancy of something is diminished by the urge to protect and preserve it?

Emotion has seeded and money has watered the contemporary art world so that it has grown into an extravagant collection which is magnificently housed.

Strolling through the collection of carnivorous plants, I thought about the large number of contemporary art works that try to be socially provocative, but rise only to the level of Xtreme entertainment. Even if the art object is as extravagant and terrible as the 8 foot, Sumatran Corpse Flower, which releases the stench of putrefaction at peak bloom, the art work will most likely find care and shelter.

In contrast the spontaneous vignettes of the day that are composed by chance and are as vigorous and common as weeds, seem so free and sneaky and lovely.

My wife called to tell me that dozens of sparrows were dust bathing in the paths of Bryant Park, behind the New York City Library. The birds rubbed their shoulders and cheeks into the path, and made furious, little dirt clouds with their wings. The park paths were packed with people, but every foot was carefully placed, leaving the sparrows undisturbed. It was a pretty little moment of peace that can not be captured, commodified and preserved. Perhaps insignificance and impermanence is a way to shatter the glass that contains culture so elegantly.


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