Tuesday, December 08, 2015
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Natural history museums are usually seen as places of wonder and amazement.
The big new exhibition at Spaces sees them as something else: fodder for social and cultural parody.
A still from David Politzer's
Courtesy Spaces, David Politzer
Specifically, the show skewers the way natural history museums package science and nature neatly without questioning whether they also unwittingly promote gender stereotypes or hide the influence of wealthy donors.
Where real natural history museums dare to tread, Spaces playfully romps.
The show includes a faux gift store, a faux Hall of Gems, and the Venus Vault planetarium displaying videos that remark on the phallic symbolism of telescopes and potential feminist interpretations of the term black hole.
The show mixes fact and fiction, reality and imagination to the point where it's often difficult to know which artist created which installation, or what's real versus fake.
Spaces Director Christina Vassallo assured me that the installation on faux stolen moon rocks by Cleveland artist Lauren Davies is actually based on factual information about how real moon rocks given away by the U.S. as gifts to other countries have indeed been stolen or lost.
And she said that artist Jonathan Gitelson, who spoofs the idea of expensive museum-sponsored tourism, actually corresponded with real maritime or fishing charter companies in a quest to find someone willing to transport him to the antipode of his home in Brattleboro, Vt., a point on the opposite side of the globe that lies somewhere deep in the Indian Ocean and is hard to reach from most ports.
The joke here is that Gitelson's respondents, whose replies are posted on a gallery wall, apparently took his request seriously and told him in all sincerity that it would be difficult or impossible to fulfill his request, and that it would set him back quite a bit if he could find anyone willing and able to do so.
"Pretty sure you'll need lots of spaces for zero's [sic] on your cheque book [sic]," wrote one south Australian fishing charter company in response to Gitelson's request.
To create the exhibition, Spaces assembled a roster of 11 artists from Cleveland and Akron; Collingswood, N.J.; Brattleboro, Vt.; Boston, Chicago and Houston. It then coordinated their installations to work collectively according to the show's theme.
The results, in the edgy, raffish manner typical of many Spaces exhibitions, are enjoyable and thought provoking.
But what makes this show especially noteworthy is that it reaches for laughs – something rare in contemporary art exhibitions.
The general conceit of the show is that it transports visitors to the rather Soviet-sounding People's Museum of Revisionist Natural Itstory in the 24th century to enjoy exhibits looking back on how people in the 21st century understood nature and natural science.
Some of the exhibits have the dry feel of an inside joke. But the best installations don't require a background in science or museology.
My favorite comes from Houston artist David Politzer, who created a mash-up of YouTube videos taken by visitors to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Politzer also mounted several dozen cellphones on tripods in a semicircle around the bigger screen. Each one replays loops of images of the canyon along with selfies taken by visitors posing with the canyon as a backdrop.
The installation affectionately mocks the way people clown around at the edge of a spectacular natural wonder by doing ridiculous things and recording their behavior on digital devices.
A stylish woman turns her derriere to the camera and hitches up her expensive looking leather britches while gazing into the canyon's infinitude.
A teen boy flips a double bird with his middle fingers. A pair of teen boys perch themselves atop a tower of rocks and risk death by striking goofy poses before returning to safety.
Politzer's video, which unspools to evocative music clips that include a sample of the Ennio Morricone score to the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," doesn't judge his subjects.
But his installation gently questions the compulsion, when confronted with something as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon, to record and share moments that might be viewed as embarrassing, goofy or just plain silly.
Come to think of it, that sounds a lot more like a question for an anthropologist or a psychologist than a curator at a natural history museum – even a fictional one.