January 14, 2010


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Some Phila. Art Museum exhibits not exactly uplifting

Are rearranged chicken parts artistic?

I finally broke down and joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Of course I wanted to support the city’s most recognizable and respected institution, but I also enjoy people watching, and I like the food in their cafeteria. I’ve been going about once a week since December.

So far, I’ve found many works and exhibits that I love, but I thought I’d write about the ones that I don’t like, because:

1. I’m a curmudgeon, not an art critic, dammit

2. It’s more fun, and

3. It gives readers a chance to write in and call me a jerk, which is, after all, what keeps the Local in business.

Clunker number one is a “sound installation” piece called “Days” (through April 4) by American artist Bruce Nauman (born 1941). The work consists of recorded loops of voices simultaneously reciting the names of the days of the week in random order, emanating from a series of speakers in an otherwise empty room. According to art insiders, Nauman is one of the most original and influential artists of his generation.

Also on display are three of Nauman’s early videos, featuring Nauman himself either hopping from one foot to the other or rolling back and forth on the floor. His works, we’re told, use the continuous repetition of familiar sounds and motions to cause us to see them in new ways.

According to one review, the chanting in “Days” might prompt visitors to “think about the way humans organize time, [as in, ‘Is it lunchtime yet?’] and question why there are seven days in a week and not five, or 10.”

For all its pretentious noise, at least “Days” does not involve depictions of gore or a juvenile fascination with body parts. Back in 2008, a Frida Kahlo exhibit featured disturbingly violent and bloody images (available on T-shirts in the gift shop), and a recent multi-media exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s final masterwork, ‘Étant donnés,’ had more private parts than “Gray’s Anatomy” (the book, not the TV show).

Elsewhere, an exhibition of images (which ended Jan. 3) by photographer Frederick Sommer (1905 -1999) included pictures of chicken parts (beaks, feet, eyeballs, etc.) taken from slaughterhouses rearranged into grotesque mockeries of what were once living creatures. The accompanying notes called the pictures, “Convulsive beauty influenced by stoic philosophy.” All I could think of while viewing these terrible sights was, “Where are the Muppets when you need them?” I mean, I get it, life is tough, and often cruel, but I have this naive belief that art should not make you want to slash your wrists.

One piece of modern art that I actually did find interesting was “Light Passage” (through March 21), in which Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang (b.1957) depicts natural elements — trees, flowers, water, fish, birds — by igniting gunpowder on paper. I felt strangely compelled to sniff the drawings to see if they smelled of gunpowder, but before I could get a good whiff, a guard appeared and I had to cool it. Can you imagine being a museum guard and having to spend eight straight hours listening to the days of the week or trying to keep crazy visitors from smelling the art?

We can’t protect our national security, our environment, our economy or our jobless, underinsured citizens, but we can post guards to protect pictures of rearranged chicken parts and other such nonsense. I always feel like I should apologize to the guards (“Hey, I don’t really like this stuff, I’m just here for the food.”), so they don’t send me straight to the guillotine when the revolution begins.

One last beef, and I’ll shut up. A sign at the “Days” installation said that it was made possible in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. I submit that letting the government decide what is or is not art is like letting your dog choose your lunch menu. That is, hit-or-miss at best. You could wind up with strawberry shortcake or you might get a week-old squirrel carcass. I’m all in favor of letting the government use my tax dollars for art education, but I think the artists themselves should struggle to make it in the tough, cruel world just like the rest of us.

As I said, there is a lot of stuff in the museum that I absolutely love. I guess you could say that there’s something there for every taste. And just so you know, the chickpea casserole this week was to die for.

Ed. Note: If the obviously unenlightened Phillistine who wrote this column had known that pictures of rearranged chicken parts were artistic, he could have saved himself lots of time and money by going to the Pathmark store in Chestnut Hill instead of to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At Pathmark’s meat department, he could stare at real chicken parts to his heart’s delight, and the guards would not even make him move, at least until it was time to close the store.



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