Playing Pretend: Impossible Exhibitions in the Time of COVID-19

Graphic by Kapp Singer

Prologue

In these past eight months of life under COVID-19, we have learned to navigate the unidirectional labyrinth of grocery store aisles, turned masks into precautionary fashion accessories, and transformed our homes into workplaces, schoolrooms, and even coffee shops. Although many businesses, functional and recreational alike, have found ways to carefully welcome back visitors or adapted to a temporary online format, it is not the same as?. Concert-goers, arts-appreciators, and museum-lovers are feeling particularly malnourished these days, since very few venues are accessible and able to operate safely at full capacity. 

Right now, things are looking bleak for arts enthusiasts who crave in-person experiences in exhibition spaces. However, amidst the severe restrictions, curators like Kathryn Miyawaki, MY ’21, and Maddie Blonquist Shrum, DIV ’21, have leapt at the opportunity to conceptualize the impossible. As part of a course assignment, the pair was invited to curate imaginary, two-piece exhibitions in surprising locations. Pulling works from Egon Schiele and Wangechi Mutu, the two authors have crafted vastly different but similarly compelling exhibition proposals during a time when both nothing and everything is impossible. 

An Immodest Proposal: Schiele, Mutu, and You in the Nude by Maddie Blonquist Shrum

I am fascinated by the genealogical relationships between contemporary artists and those that have come before them. The Met’s Artist Project attempts to highlight these connections through a series of videos in which artists engage with the museum’s historically notable works. While these clips provide an intimate introduction to artistic figures of past and present, I believe the concept could be taken further if works of two complementary artists were placed in conversation with each other.

Wangechi Mutu, for example, speaks highly of the work of Egon Schiele in her Artist Project feature. In awe, she comments on the way that his humble drawings give the “minimum amount of information to guide your eye” without sacrificing the essence of his figures. These works are special: during a time when Cubism and abstraction were on the rise, it is a wonder that Schiele continued to dedicate such care and attention to depicting the human form. However, it is not an idealized endeavor. Schiele’s work is often raw, unpolished, some might even say improper—a style that  resonates with Mutu’s own fantastical exploration of the Black female body.

Though proficient in nearly every medium, Mutu is perhaps best known for her collages. Rather than pen and paper, Mutu works with found images ranging from Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s African Ark photographic documentations to pornographic magazines. Her final compositions point to the infinite expressions of the Black body, suggesting that such representations require assembly and do not exist on their own. Of her own work and in reference to Schiele’s intuitive strokes, Mutu observed, “If I’m seeing things that disturb me, those things come out of my work in an unedited and unfiltered manner.” While Mutu and Schiele’s works are not explicitly narrative, each body tells a story. Schiele’s figures are often characterized by their subtle but peculiar details: black stockings, lace patterned chemises, bruised skin. Likewise, each piece of borrowed material in Mutu’s collages brings its own baggage: pornographic poses, generative flora, biased anthropologies. Thus, these artists invite us to consider the way individual life experiences are etched and broader societal expectations are inscribed upon fleshy tablets of the human form.

In an exhibit featuring Schiele’s Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait) (1910) and Mutu’s Mask (2006), I propose an intimate and unorthodox confrontation. Schiele’s Seated Male Nude features a shy, but fully exposed self-portrait in the nude. Using visual language that one typically associates with classical renderings of the female body (i.e. a thin and delicate frame, emphasized breasts, a hollow gesture of modesty with the upper arms, understated genitalia, etc.), Schiele instead presents the viewer with an alternative definition of masculinity. In Mutu’s work, she similarly subverts our expectations of erotic feminine representations by carefully collaging a stylized sculpture of a head into the torso of a woman’s body. This effectively frustrates any attempt on the part of the viewer to fixate or fetishize any one part of the female form. Thus, the appropriated “mask” sculpture forces us to reimagine her sexualized body parts as an art piece in and of itself.

While the Schiele and Mutu pair well together on their own, deliberate manipulations of their placement and how the viewer engages with them create the maximum impact. If the sky were the limit, I would place the two works on opposite sides of a black-walled, softly-lit circular gallery space, with entrances and exits available from four cardinal directions. The spherical nature of the structure and the choice of entrances would prevent a strictly teleological comparison of Schiele and Mutu’s works. In this setting, they could more easily engage in a dialogue.

I would then invite participants to enter one at a time. But here’s the catch: in order to view the work, you yourself need to be unclothed. While the comfort level and degree to which one undressed could vary and privacy would be of the utmost concern, I imagine that the potential of this type of vulnerable art-viewing could reveal hitherto untapped reservoirs of human empathy. (Un)dressing rooms would be located prior to entrances and after the exits, allowing the ceremony of uncovering and covering to become a part of the work itself. Each visitor would be allowed a maximum of seven minutes in the space, with three minutes to change before and after their entrance. Ultimately, the paradox of total privacy accompanied by complete vulnerability in the space would allow visitors to experience an unprecedented amount of intimacy when viewing these works. Further, it would encourage visceral self-examination; one’s body becomes a third “object” for consideration in dialogue with Mutu and Schiele’s nonconforming nudes.

Icons in a Subterranean Cathedral by Kathryn Miyawaki

In the outskirts of northern Tokyo is a small town called Kusakabe: a typical suburban scene with concrete office buildings, convenience stores, small parks, and clean streets. But underneath your feet lies a dark, cavernous world: four miles of tunnels and towering cylindrical columns that mitigate flooding of the city’s major waterways during typhoon season.

The Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel is like an industrial, mega-scale hypostyle hall. After descending fifteen flights of stairs, you are now 160 feet below the surface. An 80-foot tall water tank, supported by towering pillars, connects to pumps that transport 200 tons of water into the Edo River per second. The columns intercept the minimal light diffused from the ceiling, casting the space with bands of shadow. Echoes bounce around the hall like pinballs. You wander the seemingly endless forest of concrete and experience something surreal, disorienting, perhaps even spiritual.

Hidden within the maze of shadows, you notice a canvas hanging eye-level on one of the columns. It shows a woman straddling an arched tree trunk with a halo radiating from her head. Across from it hangs another image: a spindly figure in an overcoat, painted on brown paper. Strokes of stark white gouache surround his head, as if he too emits some kind of spiritual aura.

The first image is by Kenyan contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu. Her protagonist splays out on a tree, whose bending, double-rooted trunk stands opposite the concrete forest around. In this image, Mutu interrogates associations of verticality with growth and the arbitrary hierarchies assigned to race, gender, and species. The humanoid figure lacks hair or genitalia; their skin bursts with microbial growth like spores dispersed from the gilled underbelly of a mushroom. The figure is post-human, ascribing to no specific categorization.

Across from Mutu’s figure, a waifish man stares out with a sly smirk. With his sunken cheekbones, icy blue eyes and spiked hair, he looks like a heroin-chic model from the 1990s. It’s a self-portrait painted by Egon Schiele, an Austrian painter whose early 20th century figurative works elicit visceral reactions with their mangled, grotesque anatomy. This self-portrait is unlike his others. He paints himself frontal and upright. With that seductive stare, he gives off haughty confidence. In this cathedral-like space, Schiele, with his quasi-halo of white paint, transforms into something that so clearly resembles a Byzantine icon.

The icons most common in sacred images include Jesus Christ, Mary, and their complementary saints and angels. In Byzantium, an ancient Greek city, devotees would observe these gilded portraits beneath the flickering candlelight of the cathedral. The eerie shadows cast across The Distribution Channel emulates this experience. Mutu and Schiele’s portraits become icons of their own, figures of reverence and contemplation in this subterranean cathedral.

Epilogue

These exhibitions may never be realized physically, but they very much exist within the realm of the imagination. Our current reality is that of physical limitation, isolation, loneliness; why not dream of an industrial underground space or a naked visitor walking around a small circular room? Ephemeral imagined spaces like these are precious things, little treasures of the mind that can satisfy our museum-going, art-viewing needs.

Leave a Reply