A few weeks ago my husband and I rediscovered a wonderful place- the public library. It was amazing how that feeling of endless wonderment came rushing back upon walking through the stacks of books. When I walked by the comics section, with the big books about comic strips of the past, I was transported back to being twelve, when I was first allowed to go to the library on my own and check out whatever I wanted. Back then, there were books about fairies and books about games and even books about names in the stacks that I carted home.
On this trip to the library I leafed through many art books, soaking up inspiration. I ended up checking out just one book: “Art and Artifact, the Museum as Medium” by James Putnam. It's a fascinating look at the relationship between art and museums, including art that is made about museums, criticizing museums and even using the museum’s pieces as parts to make new pieces of art.
I really connected with the concepts and ideas in this book because my love for museums goes back to early childhood, to one of the most over powering feelings of wonderment that I can still remember. We were on our trip to Yellowstone and had stopped off at a museum in Cody, Wyoming. In a large section of the museum there were thousands of beautiful and unique arrowheads laid out, row after row. I still can’t quite explain the rush that I felt, viewing all those arrowheads.
There are several pieces in “Art and Artifact, The Museum as Medium” that evoke that same feeling. One is a cupboard full of taxidermied sparrows, clothed in tiny knitted garments by Annette Messager titled “Boarders at Rest." Another is a table of 16,000 human and animal teeth, by Ann Hamilton. This piece, called “Between Taxomony and Communion,” has an eerie effect due to water dripping onto the table, oxidizing it to a dark, red color.
The numerous, fascinating pieces in this book make a person look at the idea of museums in many different ways. One chapter is about artists using the collection in the museum to make strong statements, just by re-arranging the pieces. For instance Fred Wilson’s juxtaposition of slave shackles with fine silverware in his installation titled “Mining the Museum”. There are also interesting stories about how artists have covertly exhibited in museums, like Jeffery Vallance’s reaction to being rejected from many museums; he added his art to the wall sockets in the Los Angeles County Art Museum, without their consent!
This book is a rich collection of fantastic ideas and creative takes on the concept of museums. I am inspired to create more pieces that evoke that feeling of endless possibilities. One of my favorite pieces, created last year, is my “Scribble Museum” which was based on a funky grid drawn in my sketchbook by my nephew who was four at the time. Each section of the grid emulates a “room” in a museum – some more straightforward, like the “bird bones” room, which has drawings of bird skeletons on little shelves. Other sections are more abstract, like the room that is mostly filled with a stairway of bricks – each brick with a design or picture inside.
As I head into a new year of creating, I will be thinking of this book and my love of museums. I don’t have any big trips planned to far away museums next year, but I will certainly visit my local museums to be filled with inspiration. We will see what pieces emerge.