Friday, November 20, 2009

Meditations on "Serious" Art in San Francisco

OK, the first part of today I was out in a crazy strong downpour of wind and cats and dogs and the kitchen sink. Now that I am back from brunch and museum visiting, it is sunny in a happy blue sky with wisps of clouds outside my hotel window. I wondered if I was dreaming, but I just checked my coat and it is still damp two hours later.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed looking at too much "serious" art. Along with walking around in a museum watching other people try to look like they understand what they are observing. It's a lot of brain power to think critically and look at image after image and to try and get anything out of it that you will remember two months from now. Also, with my degree being in art, a whole lot of seriousness has been pounded into me and I have to stop and make an effort to think about why I like a piece versus why I should like a piece.

I try to only go to one museum a day when I am on trips. I had been unconsciously avoiding the Museum of Modern Art here in San Francisco the last three days because it fits into "serious" museum category all too easily. (So does the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which I saw yesterday, and which I will get to later.)

The main star at MOMA right now is a big Richard Avedon retrospective. If you don't recognize his name, you will certainly recognize his work. I liked looking at his photos quite a bit. I wish they had on more on how he took his photos. I don't fancy myself a photographer, so it was easy to just enjoy the pieces.

But in the galleries next door to the Avedon exhibit were two rooms dedicated to the video installations of Candice Breitz. Here is where I found my bliss.

I think I want to be a video installation artist. No, seriously, the last three or four major contemporary art museums I have been in all featured some sort of video art and I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame, like peanut butter to chocolate, like a cliche to blog writing....
Anyways, this South African artist (I think she lives in Berlin) understands that people relate to pop culture, whether it is music or movies or what have you, and she incorporates known entities into new experiences. Yech, I am sounding like art speak, sorry, let me just explain my favorite of her two pieces.

It's a big dark room with 25 screens of 25 different people, larger than life. Working class people who are devoted Lennon fans (they had to fill out a questionnaire to prove it) singing John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. The whole album. But there is no music. They all were filmed separately and they all had little earphones in their ears but all you can hear is their singing and clapping and humming. And the speakers are correctly placed under each one so you can pick out the different voices. It is stunning. And it made me so happy.

You can see snippets of her videos on her website and even download them. They are cool to look at online (I just now spent 20 minutes there when I was getting the link, it is irresistible to me) but I have to say, it is much cooler in person. If you go to her website, check out the installation with people singing to Madonna called Queen. There's also a Michael Jackson one (King) that I found a little harder to watch.

I was going to add a book review to this and talk about the Contemporary Jewish Museum, but this is a long post so that will just have to wait.


  1. I have visited the MOMA, but it was about 5 years ago now. I'm rather ashamed to say I like their gift shop better than the art. But that's the problem with me and museums generally; I head straight for the shop, via the cafe!

  2. I cannot breeze through multiple museums per day either. Perhaps you are correct and it is an art degree thing...that darn MFA. Sometimes I go as far as just one exhibition in one museum per day. That's what I like about being a member at SFMOMA, I can really spend time with one exhibit or even one piece and then return another day versus packing too much into one visit.