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What you don’t get to see

I was the only air traveller in the eastern US not inconvenienced by our little blizzard earlier this week. My flight to Chicago on Wednesday morning left on time – sure, I’d been booked on two other flights, each of which was cancelled, but I ended up in Chicago on time for my meeting. And my flight back into snow-covered Albany wasn’t cancelled or delayed.

Which was actually a problem of sorts, as I was hoping to get stuck into Chicago for another day so I could camp out at the Art Institute and revel in Rothko and Cornell.

(Mark Rothko is the only artist who’s ever driven me to physical violence. Wandering the Art Institute many years ago, most likely staring at this painting, my revery was interupted by a loud man declaiming “I could do that! My five year old son could do that!” After a few moments of this, I turned to the man and said, “But you didn’t, did you? So shut the hell up.” He shoved me, I shoved him, and we both got dragged away by guards and thrown out of the museum.

If he’d dissed Cornell, I probably would have hit him.)

But with a flight at 1pm, I had about an hour in the museum, hardly enough time for a good revel. I went straight for the information desk and asked, “What’s the fastest way to the Cornell boxes?” Behind the desk, the guide explained that most of the contemporary art wing was closed due to construction: no Cornell on display. “It’s a crime,” he said, informing me that the Rothkos were inaccessible as well.

So I went to the basement, and to Kyrgyzstan. Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev are partners both in marriage and in art, and they make beautiful photos, films and installations about their homeland. The focus of their current piece is “the new silk road” – the contemporary trade that takes place on the ancient silk road through central Asia. Trucks from Kyrgyzstan are filled with the detritus of Soviet empire, scrap metal destined for sale in China. Chinese trucks come in the other direction, laden with consumer goods for sale in Bishkek. Along the road, miniature villages spring up, of merchants selling food and goods to the (comparatively) wealthy truck drivers.

The primary work of the exhibition – a five-channel video installation documenting these communities – hadn’t been turned on yet, but a large gallery was filled with stills from the film: a train of trucks laden like camels, weighed down with rusted metal; a child on horseback racing a truck; market stalls filled with dresses and dressmakers dummies. In a gallery to the side is an earlier Kasmalieva and Djumaliev work: a room filled with the red and white “string bags” immediately familiar to anyone who’s lived in the developing world as the universal suitcase of the working poor. Buried in the stack of bags are three video monitors – two showing scenes from Siberia, one showing a pair of women sitting in silence.

In the background, there’s a sweet, sentimental Russian song playing. The guard told me, “I stood here for six hours last Thursday. It’s a pretty song, but I sure wish I knew what it was.” It’s Без Меня (“Without Me”) by Alla Pugacheva, a love song from the mid-1980s, and seems to be mourning the death of an era as much as a lost love… Alan Artner, writing in the Chicago Tribune thinks the pieces are “slight”, and wishes they’d push the boundaries of the avant-garde a little further. I thought they were brilliant, especially in contrast to the sentimentality, age and distance of the other pieces in the museum’s Silk Road show.

It’s a good time for travellers at the Institute – running for my cab, I dropped into “Far from Home“, a show on photography, travel and inspiration. Eight photographers (I think…), half a dozen images each. But what photos! There’s a set of shots from Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, including “US 285, New Mexico“, which has to be the best highway shot ever captured.

But United Airways waits for no man. And what you don’t get to see sometimes defines what you do get to see.

(And if you’re in Chicago, what are you waiting for? Admission to the museum is free until February 21st. Drop whatever you’re doing. Go stare at art and pick fights with strangers.)

Hey, if you’re hungry for more Kyrgyz imagery and stories, check in with Andrea Dall’Olio on the World Bank public sector development blog, with a great post on the joys and frustrations of Kyrgyz markets…

6 thoughts on “What you don’t get to see”

  1. wow, next time you’re here, remind me to go museum hopping with you. The MCA isn’t bad, too, though perhaps a fight is less likely up there.

  2. (Minor point, which doesn’t change the sense at all, but (transliterated–no cyrillic–) Bes Mena means “Without Me”. The implication to me is that something is happening, or someone is living, without Alla, not that someone is going to have to live without her.)

    But what I really came here to say is that you remind me how little I understand most of the really abstract modern art. Someday, when the big problems aren’t weighing on you and you’re at loose ends, do a kindness for people like me and explain what it does for you, how it strikes you, why you enjoy it. I’m sure it would help me start to understand.

    I had a situation much worse than the rude man’s one day, long ago. I was at the modern art museum in Amsterdam (the Stedelijk? I don’t remember), and some modern music was on the agenda. To my ears it sounded like early morning trash removal, and I began commenting to that effect, sotto voce, to my friend when it seemed like it was going to go on forEVER. He felt the same way, and we had a great time joking away under cover of the din. Then it turned out that we’d been far from “sotto” enough: the composer had been sitting right behind us.

  3. I was at the Art Institute in November and had also hoped to see the Cornell Boxes again.

    But Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination is a major retrospective that will be at a few museums.

    It is in DC at the Smithsonian American Art Museum til Feb 19th (there currently
    are some Cornell links under the exhibition description).


    Then it will be at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA from April 28 to Aug 19


    And it will then be here at SFMOMA Oct 6 to Jan 6, 2008.

  4. Thanks, Quixote – I’ve made the change. As for explaining the love for modern art… that’s a much longer conversation. I know very few people who’d claim to love the breadth of modern art, but there are artists and pieces that move my heart, and perhaps I’ll write about some of them at some point.

    Steve, thanks so much for those pointers – I’ll make a pilgrimage to the Peabody for that show – something to look forward to in the spring.

  5. Thanks for the kind words about Muratbek and Gulnara’s work, Ethan, but I”m curious about your description of the Transsiberian Amazon’s installation. The bags, although part of that piece when it was exhibited in Venice, were not included in Chicago when we attended the opening. Unless they added them later, I’m confused.

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