The contemporary program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is living proof of the timelessness of art and of the electricity that runs between old and new art. Established in 1992 by director Anne Hawley, the program serves not only as a counterpoint to Mrs. Gardner’s legacy but also as a continuation of the spirit of her salons and friendships with living artists. The museum is now at a pivotal point as it undergoes its first expansion since opening in 1903 and, 2010 will mark the tenth year of the contemporary program under the direction of Pieranna Cavalchini. During her tenure Ms. Cavalchini has succeeded in raising the international standing of the contemporary programs at the Gardner while maintaining their wonderful, jewel-like intimacy.
At the core of the contemporary program is the artist residency, which is its most personal and private aspect and involves an actual stay on the premises, allowing artists access to the museum’s archives and collections. Ms. Cavalchini regards the residency as a time to work and there are no stipulations requiring the completion of an artwork. “The work is self-generated and it is a gift, not a product,” says Cavalchini. Part of the fun of the residency is, as she points out “artists have to find their own path through the museum.” And they have made use of everything from Mrs. Gardner’s letters and diaries, to the greenhouses, over-looked objects in the collection, even the wallpaper. Usually resident artists exhibit work related to their time spent at the Gardner, and this forms the exhibition program, which on average results in two shows of several month’s duration per year.
Although it was always planned to be a museum, the building has the feel of a house since it was also Mrs. Gardner’s residence, and a sort of artwork, an assemblage of interiors arranged by Mrs. Gardner. As Cavalchini puts it- “ Walking through the door is an emotional experience. At once you sense modern ideas about installation. It’s Victorian era but not Victorian; it’s mysterious and personal.”
Rooms are not organized by period but rather by the visual associations Mrs. Gardner made as she selected and placed the objects. This non-chronological collage and the absence of wall plaques identifying individual pieces, forces you to simply look at the artworks and invent connections between them. Objects at the Gardner remain where Mrs. Gardner put them, and up to this point there have been no new acquisitions. With the exception of the notorious thefts in 1990, the Gardner has not changed. It is as if under a spell. Cavalchini noted that this “is brilliant. All of those decisions have been made and it gives the director great freedom to think about other things.”
Conversely, the contemporary program is constantly bringing artists to live at the museum and to exhibit and lecture. This creates a sort of polarization of time: the old and fixed, the new and moving, but it also feels as if time has been eliminated. To quote the British artist Dan Harvey, a Gardner museum resident in 2001, ” The museum plays into the nature of our work as a fundamental collaborator. This gives the work a charge, an essence particular to this place and time.”
Ms. Cavalchini has brought a fascinating and unpredictable selection of artists of varying disciplines including a jeweler, an actress, and a few big names such as Sol Lewitt and Joseph Kosuth. Cavalchini tends to be interested in things that cannot be grasped all at once and that reward long study.
A recent performance by Turkish actress Serra Yilmaz was endemic of such erudite taste. Yilmaz performed in various rooms, including the museum’s Dutch Room before a small audience gathered around the fireplace. She stood by the windows, a bird like figure with great presence, illuminated by the light from the courtyard and in turn animating the room with her voice and very large green eyes. Sitting in the shadowy room while Yilmaz told stories about Turkey was enchanting; even the dour Holbein’s framing the door relaxed into listening mode.
The current exhibition, a stunning piece by Su-Mei Tse of Luxembourg entitled Floating Memories, demonstrates the cross-pollination between old and new. The installation consists of, a sculpture, a video projection, and a sound piece based on the artist’s impressions from the Dutch Room. The three dimensional part is a large wooden platform on the ground, decorated with a green pattern and embedded with a carpet of brilliant gold.
On the rear wall of the gallery, a close-up of a record as it spins on the turntable is projected on a long horizontal screen, while the sound of a needle striking vinyl fills the room. This isn’t conventional music but rather a quiet whirring. The bulk and intricacy of the platform, combined with the motion of the record, and the delicate crackling sound, is mesmerizing.
The colors and textures seem especially alive: the wooden platform has been mechanically incised with a pattern of tulips and peacocks based on wallpaper from the Dutch room. The shallow depressions are filled with an emerald green resin that changes color with the depth of the carving, and in places the pattern fades or disappears altogether.
In relation to the overall block of the platform, the pattern has been applied “off-register” as if it has slid over to one side. The carpet has a shimmering, silky surface. Cavalchini explained that the platform is the artist’s response to the empty frames, which hang in the Dutch Room commemorating the loss of the paintings they once held. In Floating Memories, the frame has become a platform, a color-field painting on the floor.
In contrast to the wooden platform, the video is soft and fuzzy. The record, which is very large, about ten feet, wobbles as it turns, and appears, as Cavalchini says, “like a mirage, undefined and off center.” The artist Su-Mei Tse is an accomplished cellist from a musical family and is equally at home with the vocabulary of sound as she is with visual forms. Because both the image of the record and sound of the needle are magnified they seem to merge and envelope the viewer/listener. The wavering horizon produced by the rotating record and the rhythmic sound conjure a meditative longing, in Cavalchini’s words “like a German Romantic painting.”
At various times resident artists have exhibited or juxtaposed objects from the permanent collection with their own work. One memorable example of this was the inclusion by Stefano Arienti of a pair of seventeenth century Japanese doors painted with bamboo in his 2007 exhibition entitled The Asian Shore.
Since the doors were usually exhibited the other way around, no one had been able to see the exquisite painting of the bamboo amidst the gold leaf for a very long time. The concept of the hidden image was also thematically linked to Mr. Arienti’s installation, featuring drawings of missing artworks and motifs emerging from carpets. Each object underwent a transformation: the doors were restored and exhibited, and the carpets were dyed, changing the color relationships and bringing out new patterns. The drawings, a unique form of manual transfer using carbon paper and a wood burner, were exhibited with their photocopy sources. All of the objects seemed to advance and to recede with an optical pulse.
In Cavalchini’s eyes the old and new art of the Gardner inform each other but by bringing artists into the museum, creativity itself comes alive. What is known of the artistic processes of the past is often limited and an artwork can appear in retrospect like a foregone conclusion. As artists search for a way of interpreting the collection, they reveal how they work and think. For me as a viewer, the Arienti show created a clear connection to the passage of time and specifically to the Japanese doors. Although Floating Memories has an unmistakable ambience and impact, I find myself unable to define its relationship to the past, one that goes well beyond wallpaper and empty frames. This particular piece I experience without being able to intellectually trace it. Maybe this is what Cavalchini meant when she said simply, that the resident artists “teach how creativity works.”
Su-Mei Tse’s Floating Memories will be on exhibit until October 18, and on November 5 Taro Shinoda’s Lunar Reflections will open. More information is available at: www.gardnermuseum.org.
Hannah Barrett is a Brooklyn-based painter, whose work reassembles elements from Old Masters portraiture and other sources to, in her words, “create portraiture that deviates from the conventional male or female, and to explore the resulting pictorial and conceptual possibilities.
Check out her work at www.hannahbarrett.net