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Exhibition Review: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego – Brazilian Artist Ernesto Neto

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I just got back from visiting the newly renovated Jacobs building at 1100 Kettner Boulevard downtown San Diego, the contemporary art annex to MCASD’s (Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego) permanent exhibition space across the street. It was up until recently, the Baggage Express holding area for the Santa Fe Depot train station that is adjacent to it and still in service. It had been empty for several years and then acquired by the museum.

According to the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum web site the depot is “an outstanding example of the classic Spanish Mission-Colonial Revival style of architecture, including Moorish influences.” Recently christened the Jacobs building after Irwin Jacobs (the founder and chairman of Qualcomm) and his wife Joan, which is, I suspect, the result of a generous donation, is nothing less than perfect for exhibiting contemporary art.

PlaqueWhat was less than perfect was the greeting I received after paying the $10 admission fee and venturing into the main salle to see the current expo by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. As I entered, a museum guard with hands clasped together in some benevolent gesture of sincerity and authority came to my side and uttered, “Hi, I would like to inform you that there’s no touching allowed.” I assumed it wasn’t himself he was talking about and that it was the installation he was referring to.

I was right of course, but just minutes later I read in big, black, three-inch vinyl letters on the wall a curatorial statement put there to aid the viewer’s comprehension: “Neto describes his works as both an exploration and representation of the body’s landscape from within. Fascinated by skin, the largest and most sensitive organ of the human body, Neto creates works that both evoke references to skin and engage the viewer’s tactile senses. It is important to Neto that the viewer should actively interact with and physically experience his work through touch, smell, and immersion. Suggesting polyps and bodily organs, Neto’s Lycra forms, filled with the intoxicating scents of spices, envelop the viewer and become a labyrinth for the senses.”

Wait a minute. Did the curator, Stephanie Hanor, just describe the artist’s intent and most importantly his wishes in a statement in black and white on the wall for a viewer like me to read, understand and then interact “through touch, smell and immersion”? I guess not.

What’s annoying in all of this is when contemporary art ceases to be contemporary. What is it about contemporary artwork, once it’s installed or hung on the wall, that it becomes ancient, sacred, untouchable, distant, and sterile? Often times I find that contemporary art no one recognizes or sees as such is often mistaken for something else: Meaning utilized like any other ordinary object as in the case of the Richard Serra installed just outside the museum walls as a shady seat from the blazing sun.

In the case of Ernesto Neto, his work is labeled as such, but the viewer is confused as to what it does and/or its’ meaning – hence the explanation on the wall and Neto’s explicit desire for people to touch his sculptures. Does either perception of contemporary art help its enlightenment? It’s difficult to say.

Neto obviously understands that people use all of their five senses in life to make sense of their environment. Touch is just one way of relating, examining, and obtaining information from something they don’t quite recognize or that is foreign to them. The irony in all of this is that there were already plenty of fingerprints and graffiti on the surface of these Lycra polyps when I arrived. In fact it was one of the first things I noticed, so how did they get there and when did they get there? Were these unwanted caresses illicitly applied when the museum guard’s back was turned? Shameful.

While I believe it is necessary to protect all works of art from harm and I’m certainly not minimizing this in saying that it is a concern most museums have on occasion experienced worldwide, they are — the acts of vandalism and theft — the exception to the rule for the most part. Does it make it right? Of course not, but I wonder about the disconnection between a lot of contemporary art and its audience.

I wonder if contemporary art is for everyone and especially those who may be visiting it for the first time in an institution that society has deemed necessary for personal, intellectual, and cultural enrichment. I wonder if we’re not missing some very basic elementary steps in the education and understanding of contemporary art, assuming that since it is art, the message will prevail and the viewer will simply get it.

I wonder if instead of telling people not to touch, we could tell people why not to touch and, in the case of Neto, what we could learn if we did. Explaining contemporary art does not take away one’s personal and unique experience or interpretation of it. Even a seasoned veteran such as myself who has the habit of looking up, down, and all around an exhibition space, looking for any incongruities or circumspect objects, found, for example, the Richard Wright exhibit in the space next to Neto’s difficult at best. Part of it was placement, part of it was lighting, and part of it is that art shouldn’t look better in a catalog than on the wall.

Santa Fe DepotReading and appreciation of art can only occur when the viewer has the full effect of what is being presented and if that presentation works. Yes, art still needs a helping hand or at least some insightful planning. In the case of Neto’s installation, air conditioning and climate-controlled spaces, while good for the comfort of both the viewer and the art, shouldn’t have played a role.

Smell obviously plays an important part of the immersion process in Neto’s work when he is using tumeric, clove, cumin, ginger, and pepper to fill his hanging pods. Keeping with his fascination of skin, (Neto) “in his commission for MCASD, the scent of the spices conjures visceral connotations. Exotic and enveloping, the discovery of new scents as one navigates through the veils of fabric, is akin to the intoxicating experience of smelling perfume on the surface of warm skin.” The key word is “warm,” not cool and filtered.

Smell is a powerful memory trigger and an essential component in any amorous relationship. Perfume, like spices, gets you salivating. Erotic, sensual, dirty, and sweaty (not the “I just ran the Boston marathon” sort of sweatiness), all the crevasses of the skin and all orifices of the body become major stimulants as well as the cement that bonds any physical and emotional contact between lovers or gourmands. I may not have the best sense of smell, but I had to be right up on Neto’s sculpture to get any whiff at all generated by an air current or two created in my passing.

When I spent some time in Conakry, Guinea a few years back, I remember going to an extremely crowded open air market shaded loosely with undulated tin sheets of metal offering relief from the sun, but it was the incredible odors emanating from the center of this market that was the most inebriating – spices, salted fish, dried beef, vegetables, fruits, handmade soaps, grease, perspiration, freshly dyed fabrics, dust, heat, flies, and life.

SittingI’m almost sure Neto, amongst other hopes and desires he had, wanted this same amount of intensity and sensorial experience from his installation but the museum wouldn’t let it happen. Isn’t this just another form of vandalism in the name of protecting the interest of the piece, its aesthetic appeal, its monetary value, its collectiveness, its sacredness? Wouldn’t you want to sacrifice just a little bit of the work’s “integrity” (couldn’t and wouldn’t the artist just want to make another one) in exchange for a much richer viewer/public experience and understanding of the art before them? I would think so. I would hope so.

Imagine for just a second the impact Neto’s work would have had if the climate control had been turned off in that huge space as the day heated up – the San Diego sun beating down on the red mission tiles, the air still, a bit musty, particles of cumin dust floating lazily in the filtered light, the spices cool to the touch bundled up in their taut bosoms filled with an aromatic history thousands of years old: sensual, no. That, Ms. Hanor, is total immersion.

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    Amazing!!! It looked as if the exhibition would have been good. The exhibitors have done a fabulous job by organizing the event. I like the museum.