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ICA Boston

Before I start talking about this exhibition, I want to explain the general rules I stick by on how to view contemporary art.  Contemporary art can be hard; it can break most of the rules of what “art” “should” be.  In many cases, it tows the fine line between ridiculous and deeply insightful.  In fact, I would even venture that it doesn’t tow a line but rather carries both simultaneously; it can depend strongly on the viewer and what the viewer wishes to take out of experiencing the work.  So, I always view this type of art with an open mind but a skeptical eye.  Sometimes a piece just doesn’t work for me, I simply find it silly. At other times a piece will resonate with me by allowing a view of the world slightly different, opening up my eyes to newly see.  What works for me, however, does not necessarily work for other people and vice versa; it’s more of a personal experience than other genres.  The pieces in this exhibit that I believe fell flat may provide more to other viewers and what I found to be moving may not elicit the same response in everyone.

As always, I will highlight a couple of pieces that I found interesting enough to discuss, although there are many more which I encourage the reader to see for him or herself.

The exhibit starts on the first floor, with the first piece, a.k.a, on the right just when you walk into the museum. Horn compiled pictures of herself from when she was young up until the present day.  She has arranged them into pairs, in many cases including a more recent photograph and one from her past.  The photographs allow the viewer to see the passage of time on her features, from the length of her hair to the wrinkles on her face.  It starts off the exhibit nicely by setting the tone; the viewer is ready to see other works within the vein of time, temporal flow, and change, and that it would always be linked very closely and very personally to the artist herself.  Her photographs show up frequently within the exhibit; she seems to be stating outright that they are not only an expression but a part of herself.  Although not inherently a novel concept, the image choices are made with a deeply personal touch, there is not the distance usually associated between a photographer and his subject matter.  I should also add that the artist is not a purist and does not limit herself to photography, but also includes sculpture, drawings and writing.  Her work is unencumbered by the perspective of a single medium; she sees things not as a photographer or a sculptor but rather as a holistic artist.

I found the entrance piece to be thought-provoking but not inherently moving.  It allowed for me to muse on the passage of time, the choices the artist has made over the years and the visual effect it has on her face and body.  Obviously, the ten year old girl has both distinct similarities and distinct differences with  the forty or fifty-year old woman, but beyond that being able to see exactly where and when those differences occurred is fascinating.  The pictures allow for you to see the changes as they happen, gradual in real time but stark in these twenty or so photographs.  Finally, having the artist turn the camera on herself legitimizes her to the viewer.  She has already turned her critical eye on herself, offering herself up entirely to the viewer; thus her portrayal of others seems less exploitive.

The first piece that viewer confronts when walking onto the fourth floor of the museum, which is the ICA’s exhibit space, is You are the Weather from 1995, a grouping of 100 photographs of the same woman as she looks directly into the camera with an unchanging visage.  She appears to be wet, her hair is messily tied into a bun, her lips are slightly pursed, and there appears to be water behind her.  The photographs are in groupings of five to eight and each grouping has a certain color scheme.  One group may be black and white, another may have bright blue water in the background, another may be in color but they are more subdued.  I have to admit that this piece did not really touch me; I found it neither moving nor provoking.  Although I spent the time to see each photograph and experience the work as a whole, it just didn’t seem to do anything.  As I read more about the piece in the accompanying brochure, I learned that the model was bobbing up and down in different hot springs in Iceland.  The intended result was the interaction between the model and the viewer combining the sensuality of the beautiful woman’s face, the water, and the confrontation between the woman and the viewer.  I don’t know, it just didn’t happen for me, I probably can’t explain it any better than that.

As a side note, the museum offers a number different brochures which each describe one or two pieces, along with a packet to carry the eight different brochures.  It’s a nice touch, because the more a museum can offer to make contemporary art more accessible the better.

Horn also includes words in her work, which I want to say emphasizes their visual quality, but again, I don’t really know if I’m sold.  Her work, White Dickenson, ALWAYS BEGIN BY DEGREES, from 2006-7 also failed to move or interest me. It involves the words, “Always begin by degrees” written out in white capital letters on a piece of a rectangular rod of glass that is then leaned up against the museum walls.  I just couldn’t figure out what the point of it was.  Why this particular phrase?  How did it fit into the rest of the exhibition?  For that matter, what was the narrative of this exhibition? Did it even have one?  These were the questions that seemed to erupt from viewing this piece.  Maybe that was the piece captivating me, but I failed to glean the point.  It’s the question I frequently ask myself when viewing contemporary art, or any art for that matter, why did the artist even bother? What are they trying to tell me, or make me do?  I also look for the narrative of the exhibition, what story is the curator trying to tell me?  What am I supposed to get out of this experience?  Sometimes, with works like White Dickenson, I feel as though my already tenuous grasp on the exhibition’s narrative slips.

Despite these complaints, I do not want the reader to believe that I managed to see the entire exhibit without being moved at all.  Sure there was a hokey piece called Ant Farm that, indeed, involved a very large ant farm, but there were others, and one in particular, that resonated with me in a way that I could not have foreseen.

It is called Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) from 1999, and my initial response was, frankly, boredom.  Again it involves a group of photographs, this time close-ups of the Thames in London in which she sprinkled numbers across the picture.  Each number corresponds to a foot note in which she offers her insight into that specific portion of the picture.  These insights range from “water is sexy” and “black water is not sexy” to describing the gelatinous quality of that dot of water or musing on how water never looks like water up close.  I found that I could not stand there and read each footnote in every piece, only managing to skim a couple here and there.  I would maybe find a number on the picture and then find its footnote or catch myself reading the footnotes first and then start searching for their numbers.  In either case, I spent a while amongst these photographs not really feeling anything apart from mild interest.  I thought that it was a novel concept at best.

Fortuitously, the ICA is, if nothing else, spectacular in its location.  It is situated on the south side of Boston Harbor, overlooking the chilly water.  The fourth floor in particular juts out over harbor and is fitted with huge floor to ceiling windows.  It was also a glorious day with bright blue sky and a couple of clouds.  Directly after viewing the pictures of I walked into the front hallway that looks directly over the water.  After spending so much time looking at close up stills of the Thames I found myself transfixed by the waves stretching out in front of me.  The next fifteen minutes or so were spent meditating on the lively bright blue water in front of me, evoking so much character, so many thoughts and musings, in such a small space.  In some ways the pictures were the greatest success a piece of art can be, it altered my thinking and my means of viewing the world, if only for a moment, and allowed me to notice something I would not have otherwise.  In that sense, the work is less about the object itself and more about what it can do for the viewer. By allowing me to take time out of my busy schedule to simply watch the waves roll by, it did wonders for me.


ICA Boston: www.icaboston.org


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