Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Still & Moving

The northwest corner of the new de Young Museum twists skyward, as if it’s been pinched between an oversized thumb and forefinger and given a good tug. Maybe Jack’s giant wanted the museum back but—wary of the San Franciscan—decided against it and let go. And so, with nowhere to hide, the tower remains, revealing and concealing vague internal movements under its mesh-like copper exterior. It takes a few moments to realize that the shimmer is created by people on the ninth floor observation deck. The lively movement plays down the tower’s looming presence and beckons those who enter the museum proper to climb on up for the fairytale view.

“We’ve been waiting five years for this!” She speaks passionately, defiantly, while smoothing her shirt over her belly, and I laugh to think how these months of waiting for her first baby are nothing compared to the wait she endured for the return of her favorite urban respite. As Julie and I stroll through the de Young’s new exhibits and familiar collections, she tells me stories about being pregnant. “The baby’s always moving. Well, except when I’m moving. Then it’s still. But when I’m still, it’s crazy, all dancing and jumping! I can feel all that movement…if I’m still.” We stop in front of a painting but her observations continue to roll around in my head. A theme is born: holding art still, a museum invites still observations, yet a well-designed floor plan creates movement, a necessary counterpoint to all the stillness. So what is the function of the physical structure of an art museum, and what are the effects of being contained within it?

Moving through the de Young does not necessarily allow for a complete easy survey of the collections, but that’s ok. Though basically rectangular, the floor plan is divided from a perfect axis into long, trapezoidal galleys, and the passageways that convey onlookers from room to room delineate the museum’s angularity but encourage a natural pace, from contemporary art to Oceanic sculpture, colonial American painting to Mesoamerican artifacts. The main staircase, though placed strategically near the center of the building, feels like it’s in the place you’d least expect, and it turns the museum into a cleanly beveled Mobius strip. Upstairs, then downstairs, from one culture to another, the planes of polished eucalyptus yield to infinite wanderings.

Chairs, though, insist that we try being still. From the pyramid-like perches on which to sit and gaze at John Singer Sargent’s society women, to an unidentified row of brocade, oak and tassel in an upstairs hallway, to the oversized fallen apples scattered in the sculpture garden, the reminder to sit in stillness echoes throughout the museum. Even when tipped and toppled as in Catherine Wagner's quirky photographs, the chair suggests repose. And the point is solidified, literally, when one enters the contemporary art gallery. Here, a common oak chair is trapped in a cement block (presumably some chunk of a house’s foundation) and viciously impaled by rebar, an impossible yet entirely plausible cross-section that succeeds in transforming our typical indifference toward the everyday object into an act of serious contemplation.

My interest in the physical structure of the building, and its effect on my aesthetic experience, allows me to shrug off some of the jarring idiosyncrasies of the de Young collection, most notably the pre-twentieth century American paintings. The polite pilgrim children interrupt my harmonious meanderings. What to make of a room full of staid American landscapes in gaudy gilded frames? Perhaps it will take a return visit or two to make sense of the unexpected juxtapositions and to appreciate the dialogue between the still and the moving…between the structure and the self.


Julie writes--

This must be the first online reference to the growing baby kicking around my womb! I have returned to the de Young three more times since our visit, always in the evening and always longing to return in the quiet morning of a weekday. It's the Hatshepsut exhibit that draws me, and from a smooth oak bench in the special exhibits gallery I can bask in the masculinized and feminized scupltures of this queen Pharoah.

Something about the museum allows me to breathe and flow, more so when light is filtered through the huge panels of glass rather than under the blanket of night. The openess allows a wandering spirit room to daydream with the art, freshly viewing the pilgrim children (as awkward as these portraits seem in their gaudy gilded frames) in their new setting. And, it also enourages stillness, on a tucked-away bench or in a private nook.

By Blogger Heather, at 8:07 AM  

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