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Form? Function? Does it Matter?

Form? Function? Does it Matter? It makes us stop and take a look.


Cildo Meireles, Thread, 1990-95
48 bales of hay, one 18-carat gold needle, and 58 meters of gold thread
First time on view at MoMA

I saw this sculpture at MOMA a few weeks ago in New York City.  Here’s what is written about it:

“Meireles creates sculptures and installations that tie everyday materials to larger political and philosophical concerns. ‘Thread’ is a modular cube, a form evocative of the geometric rationality of Minimalist art, but it is constructed of a material generally associated with agriculture. At one end of the wire, a single 18-carat gold needle is inserted into the cube, recalling the common expression, “Like finding a needle in the haystack.” The pairing of substances with different monetary values but that here are nearly indistinguishable visually suggests the precariousness of economic relationships, and the minute needle embedded in the massive cube may call to mind the place of the individual within a larger social system.”

A pile of hay in Montana at a horse ranch.  circa right now.  Artist unknown.  On view most every day for the last 50 years.

Here’s what comes to my heart and mind:
The hay stack at MOMA was ridiculous to me, and as open as I am to receiving art and what it might teach or inspire, I scoffed at “Thread.”  Scoffing is not my usual practice at an art museum.  I am the one who walks around the piece a few times, no matter how “ridiculous,” giving it a chance to touch me.  I once watched a woman sucking her toe in an art installation in Paris for a good fifteen minutes.  There’s always something to learn or feel.  Violent aversion is better any day than scoffing.  Scoffing, yes, is a reaction.  But not one of any elegance.  It feels limited and akin to someone looking at a Pollock and saying, “My three year old can do that.”  “Yes, but your three year old DIDN’T do it,” I like to say. 

I suppose this brings up ye olde form follows function argument.  The very act of taking a tube of toothpaste– the commonplace, and being deliberate enough to put it into a museum, out of context, to inspire some sort of new relationship with that tube of toothpaste, is the kind of stirring-the-pot-of-perspective that art is all about.  But hay?  Good hay?  Do they know what the price of hay is these days?  Do they know how many people are being forced to get rid of their horses because of the price of hay?

I guess that’s what’s happened to the once art history major in me– after 17 years, I am a country girl.  Maybe that’s what I was scoffing at on some level.  I couldn’t “go” with this one.  It seemed wasteful and stupid.  Why not show a film of my farmer friend climbing all over her three story stack of hay, risking her life twice a day to feed forty head of horses, solo.  To me this hay sculpture was wasteful, or almost a mockery of farm life. 

All I could think of was this Montana friend, who works so hard to pay for and care for the hay which sustains her horses, standing there looking at this “sculpture,” and no, not scoffing.  But feeling kicked in the face somehow.  Some people don’t have time for this kind of perspective-pot-stirring.  They don’t want to see their livlihood on display; played with; wrapped in gold thread, and not orange baling twine– an example of the “precariousness of economic relationships.” Worse: “The minute needle embedded in the massive cube may call to mind the place of the individual within a larger social system.”  They know they are within a larger social system– one which doesn’t often offer much help. 

But here I am scoffing on their behalf.  Maybe I’m the problem because I need to report on it.  Truth is, my friend wouldn’t find herself at MOMA.  And most probably, this “scultpure,” wasn’t meant for her.  Hers is a different consciousness.  Her perspective gets stirred by the bald eagles who ride thermals above her while she climbs up this three story stack of hay and ties down tarp in wind storms. 

Maybe it’s because I don’t see hay as form and I don’t want to. I see hay as function.  Hard won.  A lot harder won than toothpaste; I don’t mind trying to see a tube of toothpaste out of context and receiving the lessons therein.  And even calling it art. But when I see my friend up on that hay stack, risking her life twice a day to feed forty head of horses, and never complaining about it…when I see her up there, I feel the passion and hardship of farm life.  And yes, my perspective is stirred.  Because when I offer to help, she declines.  She has her system.  I would be in the way.  Maybe then, you could say, that she has her “art.” And it’s not important that it’s witnessed.

Once I got over my initial scoffing that day at MOMA, I walked around the sculpture a few times– reminding myself that it is best to see where we are in our own way, and let go of it. There’s no real power in scoffing unless we’re going to do something about it. And really, this wasn’t one of those times. And finally, this stack of hay, erected there in a museum, was benign.  In fact, I decided that I would have liked it more if it wasn’t wrapped in gold thread and if it was missing its gold needle.  I would have liked it more if it was just the same as what stands tall in my friend’s field, waiting to be eaten, threatening to rot in its place.  Because at least in that form, it would be like an animal in the zoo– sacrificing its freedom to educate those who would otherwise never see it in the wild. 

That’s it!  I thought. The reason for the scoff.  It was clear to me then. Having lived in Montana for 17 years, I realized that I am protective of wild things.  Or just rural things.  They don’t belong in museums and zoos.  The sacrifice I just described is the only justification I can think of.  As a city person in origin, I guess that I have become defensive of the country, as if it needs me to be.  And then, I scoffed at myself. Because we all know that the country does just fine on its own without some woman standing in an art museum in New York City trying to save it from art rape. It’s being raped in all sorts of ways that are way worse “crimes.”

And I wondered in that moment, if that means that I am finally at home here in the rural west.   I don’t think I was looking to find that when I paid my $20 to go to MOMA the other day.

In the end, I sat on a bench, deflated.  People were walking around the stack of hay, looking at it as sculpture.

And then, as it usually does when I take myself too seriously, the funny part came in like a MC with a hook and a hat telling me I’d been on stange too long: I felt a tickle in my nose.  That old familiar tickle that means I’m going to sneeze.  Over and over and uncontrollably so.  You see, I am allergic to hay.  Badly allergic.

And I did.  I sneezed. People avoided me like the member of the Great Unwashed that I was to them then, letting loose into my shirtsleeve.

So in that case, the hay, in whatever form it presented itself, was NOT benign.  In that case it was purely itself, whether it was wrapped in gold thread or not. 

Here are some comments on modern art.  What are some of yours?

“What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”
–Octavio Paz

“It is not hard to understand modern art. If it hangs on a wall it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it it’s a sculpture.”
–Tom Stoppard (British Playwright, b.1937)

“Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves that they have a better idea.”
–John Ciardi

“Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask.”
–Robert Motherwell

[Abstract art is] a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.
Al Capp (1909 – 1979)

“The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
–Jackson Pollock

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City: mind/ Country: body?

A wonderful comment showed up in my inbox this morning. Apparently Camus had his own questions about living in the city or in nature. I’ve just located a used copy of the book, “Summer in Algiers.” I’ll include an excerpt below. I’d love any other suggestions that have to do with this subject, because I know I’m not the only one who struggles with where they live. I hear so often from people, “I envy your life. All that open space.” And I agree– open space is under my skin and engraved in my being. And yet so many Sunday mornings I wake up longing to go get bagels and coffee and a paper at the corner deli, and walk around. Pop into an old record store or a gallery, or catch a matinee at an indie theater. But then even as I write that, the loon that flies over every morning of summer bugles, and I can’t help but smile and feel grateful. It doesn’t have to be here or there. Home has to be inside. This I know well. Stegner’s “The Angle of Repose” is all about this. But it does seem true that life in nature is so much about the body. And life in the city, so much about the mind. E.B. White’s book of essays when he moved from NYC to the city comes to mind too: “One Man’s Meat.” Feel free to add to the list.

“The loves we share with a city are often secret loves. Old walled towns like Paris, Prague, and even Florence are closed in on themselves and hence limit the world that belongs to them. But Algiers (together with certain other privileged places such as cities on the sea) opens to the sky like a mouth or a wound. In Algiers one loves the commonplace: the sea at the end of the street, a certain volume of sunlight, the beauty of the race. And, as always, in that unashamed offering there is a secret fragrance. In Paris it is possible to be homesick for space and a beating of wings. Here, at least, man is gratified in every wish and, sure of his desires, can at last measure his possessions.

Probably one has to live in Algiers for some time in order to realize how paralysing an excess of nature’s bounty can be. There is nothing here for whoever would learn, educate himself, or better himself. This country has no lessons to teach. It neither promises nor affords glimpses. It is satisfied to give, but in abundance. It is completely accessible to the eyes, and you know it the moment you enjoy it. Its pleasures are without remedy and its joys without hope.”– Albert Camus

I would add that: nature has its lessons. It’s just that it doesn’t care if you learn them. Therein lies the lesson of humility.

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, City Hits, Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts