How does the Met keep their sculptures so shiny?

14 May 2009

With a swiffer! P&G couldn’t make a better ad if they tried.

Seriously though, there was something really joyful about seeing this no nonsense woman assiduously dusting stone abs and bronze buttocks as though they were furniture in someone’s apartment. This is a joy example that doesn’t bear many of the typical signals of joyful aesthetics—saturated colors, cuteness, youth, play, or nostalgia. In fact, just the opposite, here is an instance of work, and not just any work, but manual labor often considered drudgery, seeming joyful. Why?

It hinges on the pleasurable disruption of expectations. The expectations here are unconscious, stemming from the conventions of a museum. In a museum, the boundary between art and viewer is a sacred line. We can look, but not touch. To see someone so matter-of-factly breaching such a barrier jars you out of your normal experience and diverts your attention.

So it’s a noticeable disruption, a departure from the ordinary. But why is it joyful? First, the idea of touching the sculptures is appealing, and it appeals to the unfiltered, tactile inner child in all of us. Children always seek to touch as part of their sensory experience, and it’s only as adults that we learn to control that desire. So watching someone touch the sculptures connects us to our own desire to do just that, and the sensation is something we imagine as pleasurable. (This is well-trod territory, cf. “Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” among others.) Second, there is the fact that most of us never think about the cleaning of the artworks in a museum. We assume that they must get cleaned, but that it’s probably done off-hours, at night with special high-tech cleaning instruments. So the second joyful aspect, beyond the breaking of the touch-barrier, is that it reveals something normally hidden to us, and reveals it to be contradictory to our assumptions. The revelation of hidden aspects of things is naturally pleasurable to us (think voyeurism, or The Discovery Channel) as it satisfies our natural curiosity.

But the kicker is the juxtaposition between the glossy, venerable sculpture and the mundane household cleaning tool with the faintly silly name. The swiffer is a complete oddity in a museum, and that contrast is ironic and enjoyable.

The best part of all this is how it then gets encoded into memory. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that sculpture again without imagining this matter-of-fact woman and her swiffer, and having a little smile at the memory. And I think the Met will always be a little more joyful now that I’ve had a funny little peek into its hidden side.

The aesthetics of monsters

14 April 2009

Extraordinary insight from a NY Times op-ed piece today on the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Monster stories are a projection of our collective anxieties — and that may explain why in the current economic downturn, zombies are starting to catch up with the long-fashionable vampire. Vampires are sleek demons for good times. They suavely leach off society — like investment bankers who plunder outsize shares of deals for themselves or rapacious fund managers.

Zombies are more bluntly menacing. When they rise up, what results is a “zombie apocalypse,” or complete social breakdown. That image resonated in 1968, the chaotic year when “Night of the Living Dead,” the black-and-white zombie classic, was released. And it resonates today, when the banking system teeters on the brink of collapse and once-solid companies like Lehman Brothers are melting into air.

“Vampires are sleek demons for good times.” Yes, it does feel like we’ve no more blood left to drain, doesn’t it?

Mongolian feltmaking

20 January 2009

I’m starting some experiments into making my own felt this week and I came across this really interesting video on Mongolian feltmaking. As shown in the video, the nomads in the Mongolian/Kyrgyz/Kazakh area use felt for their traditional houses, called gers or yurts. Having spent some time in one (in Kyrgyzstan, not Mongolia) on a very cold day, I can tell you their felt is amazingly insulating.

My felt will be for an entirely different purpose, to be seen in the coming weeks if I can get it to work.

Disturbing design: Laura Splan

29 September 2008

The Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland has a wonderful exhibit on right now entitled “Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects” featuring the work some very thought-provoking designers. I can’t get to Portland right now, but it’s ok because the exhibition website is such an excellent example of an online catalog that I almost feel like I’ve been there.

One designer-artist previously unknown to me whose work I’m really resonating to right now is Laura Splan, a Brooklyn-based designer who weaves traditional crafts with disturbing biomedical themes. The doilies pictured above, for example, are machine-embroidered in patterns inspired by some of the most deadly viruses known. Other pieces in the show include wallpaper patterns created with Splan’s own blood, and a piece of lingerie sewn from pieces of a facial peel-off mask, conflating beauty and revulsion into one moment of reaction.

I’m interested in this dark aesthetic – the idea that beauty can coexist with fear and disgust. That beauty is what draws us in, only to be repelled by what discover, is a powerful idea for the design world. This is deceptive design, but in another way it is actually quite direct. Nothing is what it seems, and to call attention to this fact is perhaps the most honest statement a designer can make.