Saturday, September 12, 2015

He Said, she said


Went with my friend R to the Met today. We had the Met experience - a queasy-making thrill at its vast range of exquisite art from around the world, queasy-making both because there's so very much of it, and because each work (the ancient and non-Western especially) implies a story of unlovely provenance.
(Images are of the roof commission by Pierre Huyghe; Tullio Lombardo's recently restored Adam - at the moment when the perfection of creation is about to betray itself); the American wing's "visible storage.")

Perhaps because R and I know each other from Lang, where the hermeneutics of suspicion comes easy, we spent a lot of time analyzing captions, some of which prove to be marvels of mystification about the often unbeautiful processes which generate, judge and circulate works of art. Well, not quite marvels. They're a little too aware of the things they're eliding, as though they know they can't not mention them but hope we won't notice. They quicken the queasiness.

For instance, the introduction to a reconstruction of an influential 1974 exhibit of weathered 17th-18th century Mdembe statues in Paris (two are at left) observes: Ravaged by exposure, the surfaces of these figures appear roughly hewn and raw. Despite the degree to which the forces of nature inform the aesthetic of these works and have distilled them to their essential core, they retain subtle and highly nuanced formal details original to the vision of their human authors... Isn't that second sentence back-to-front? The works used to be brightly painted and were finely, not roughly carved, but somehow the forces of nature are their co-author and have stripped these details away to reveal their essential core. Is it possible that we understand and appreciate the aesthetic of these works better than their human authors? You might have thought such sleight of hand about what used to be called primitive art wouldn't reappear in 2015...

Our next moment of vertigo came at the opening where the section on the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia abuts the 19th century European paintings; the cross-over room features works of Orientalism (including the work which graces the cover of the Met's official guide). Here's the caption to the opening.
You don't need to be a Langster to notice that something's odd here. The grammatical subject of the first sentence is export, of the important first clause of the second colonial enterprise. These impersonal and neutral-sounding forces evidently introduced Europeans to exotic works at home, and somehow brought [them] into frequent contact with Islamic places and cultures - as though neither had any particular connection to Europe. The first real human agency here is that of Western painters, who make beauty out of this disorienting opacity.

It really wasn't my intention to take R from this to "China: Through the Looking Glass" - it closed last week, after all! But as we tried to get to the Japanese galleries we found our way blocked by the take-down of that mega-blockbuster. Only the first room of the Asian galleries was open, and still in "Through the Looking Glass" get-up. The welcome caption to the show was still up, too. Those middle paragraphs...!
It's orientalist alchemy! The spirit of Edward Said, who made us aware of all the bad things Orientalism might be, is summoned and banished as if by magic. A positivistic (ww) effort to appreciate the orientalist fancies of western fashion designers in a less politicized way confronts us with an explosion of infinite and unbridled creativity as the West responds appreciatively to its encounters with the East, a narcissism which somehow becomes a dialogue, then a dynamic two-way conversation which, naming and dispelling all binaries, becomes a liberating force of cross-cultural communication and representation. Magic indeed!

Back home I dredged up my photo of the caption, deeper in the now closed exhibition, where the most magical move of all is revealed. It evokes Empire des Signes, the book Roland Barthes wrote about his 1966 trip to Japan, a place he knew nothing about and made a point not to prepare for visiting so that he might have a pure semiotic response to it; his book isn't really about Japon, he notes modestly in his introduction, but just about the "Japon" he experienced. "China through the Looking Glass" is less ingenuous; its true message is the aesthetic importance of exploring all the products of our cultural fantasies. The magic is at its most potent here when Western fantasies, unencumbered by any accurate knowledge of or relationship with the East, nevertheless turn out to be a complex dialogue of elided meanings which - abracadabra! - is at the very same time a unified language of shared signs. Must one be a Langster to wonder if a unified language is much of an achievement when the other is never invited to be part of it? Did someone say empire?

A final example of this amazing magic. In the caption to the room about con-temporary Western designers' use of images from an earlier episode of Western fascination with China, Enlightenment chinoiserie, we glimpsed the force of imagination at its most unbridled and liberating. By bypassing actual Chinese objects and making an end-run around the already reductive symbols of their orientalist predecessors, these orientalist sorcerers proved able to do the impossible: capture China's infinite complexities - and in a manner at once seductive and compelling, too!

I feel like the worst sort of spoilsport here, but it is staggering that these Orientalist (in Edward Said's critical sense) tropes and arguments are not only alive and well but feature so prominently at our finest museum. Awareness of the problems of Orientalism lurks uneasily beneath the surfaces of some captions elsewhere in the museum, but in the topsy-turvy world of "China: Through the Looking Glass" it dances shamelessly across these surfaces. (The show's epic success suggests their seduction was compelling.) Who wrote them, approved them? The mind baulks at the thought of their provenance.

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