Friday, January 18, 2008

fear of museums

Yesterday I went to London for the day* and went to the Horniman Museum and Tate Modern. The Horniman is an intriguing museum in Forest Hill with an odd mixture of things - natural history displays of stuffed animals, ethnographic/anthropological collections, a huge collection of musical instruments, a lovely aquarium in the basement and lots of other stuff. It was the first two I found unsettling. I'd forgetton how much museums can freak me out. It's stuffed animals mostly, especially when there are cases close together, so that there's always another case directly behind you and when the lighting level is low. I know it's irrational, but it's a real effort to make myself walk round corners and look at things. I gave up on the natural history cases pretty quickly, although I did have a good look at the case of extinct birds (Dodo, Great Auk, Passenger pigeon etc, all with their sad stories) and the huge over-stuffed walrus. (Its skin is naturally loose and folded, but the person doing the taxidermy didn't know this and produced an immense beast which a smooth skin, which now sits proudly on an iceburg shaped plinth in the middle of the gallery.) The anthropological stuff in the centenary Gallery wasn't much better. Too many plaster heads and statues and more close together cases and low lighting. I fled in the end, much earlier than I'd meant.

Having rediscovered my museumphobia, I wondered again why I love the Pitt Rivers so much. It has everything that I ought to hate, not much room between the cases, low light levels, shrunken heads and statues. Maybe because it's a sort of test to myself to go in there. Maybe because it knows it's a bit scary and revels in it (there's a brilliant Tim Hunkin collection box in which anthropologists with red eyes point accusing fingers as you approach.)

The Tate is rather less scary on the face of it, but potentially just as unsettling. I duly followed Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth along the turbine hall floor and then wandered the galleries. I tried to resist finding old friends and look at new stuff. I spent a long time watching animations by William Kentridge. They're beautifully made with drawings in charcoal and pastels (I think), each drawing changing and dissolving, as bits are erased and redrawn, leaving palimpsests behind them as characters or objects move about. The short films are set in South Africa in the 80s and 90s, surreally depicting the activities of an exploitative businessman called Soho Eckstein. One memorable image is in Mine (1991) in which the plunger of a cafetiere pushed down by Eckstein lounging in bed pushes down and down, becoming the mineshaft, drilling away and creating the structures of slavery - the infamous plan of a slave ship, a half built pyramid, the showers and bunks of the mine.

Finally, I went and stared at a Mark Rothko. I don't think I've ever done that before. I remember one of my OU tutors talking about Rothko and saying of sitting and staring at his paintings for a long time "The damn things move!". I can see what he means now. I didn't spend as long as I'd have liked, the gallery was closing, but as I stared and moved round the painting and looked at it from close to and far away and from different angles, it seemed to change and shift. The gallery blurb describes the paintings as 'brooding', which seems fitting. Next time you're in London, go!

*Saying that feels weird. London's my home town, but it's not home anymore, Cambridge is. Last night someone asked where I was from and I said Cambridge because that's where I live now. It's true, but it feels odd.

ETA: One lovely thing about the Horniman is its gardens. Green spaces in London are always special; this one is at the top of a hill, with a gorgeous view across London, has a bandstand and an enclosure with goats and geese and chickens and a rabbit and lots of bits of interesting garden and sculpture. I sat on a bench and ate my lunch admiring the view. It was a little bit cold and damp, but I sat on a plastic bag and braved the odd stares of parents with pushchairs and dog walkers.

Another lovely thing is the aquarium, which was full of very small primary school children getting excited at fish and crabs and frogs (especially the bright blue poison arrow frogs.) My favourite thing in the whole museum is the jelly fish tank. There's a large white rectangular window with curved corners, inside which white moon jellyfish swim around against a deep blue background, illuminated by blueish (maybe UV?) light. The effect is simple, beautiful and abstract, fitting these gorgeous, otherworldy creatures.


Elly said...

WHAT A LOVELY DAY YOU HAD. sorry caps lock on. I would have loved to come with you but actually had plenty of stuff to do not least cleaning the bedroom. Maybe we could have a Thursday together sometime though.

bfc said...

On the subject of Rothko, I remember my first ever visit to the Tate (as it was then), as a highly opinionated teenager who thought all modern art was rubbish, and seeing the Rothko room (do they still have a Rothko room?), and it was this that stood out for me as the epitome of the kind of modern rubbish anyone could do. It was only about 10 years later when I realised that the only thing I remembered about that first visit was the Rothko room, that I radically revised my opinion, and the next time I went to the Tate I spent as long as I could just sitting in the Rothko room. One of those special moments. I'm not sure I'd say they move, I think they make me feel like I'm moving, even when I'm sitting still. They kind of pull you in. But they certainly brood - maybe even bode ('I would croak like a raven. I would bode. I would bode' to throw in entirely randomly a bit of Shakespeare).
And now I have a Rothko calendar in my room this year!
Funnily enough, last time I went to Tate Modern, as a highly opinionated adult, I ended up thinking all modern art is rubbish, and in this case, nothing at all stood out in my memory. But maybe that's just age!!

Pig wot flies said...

Yep, there's still a Rothko room, with atmospheric low lighting.
The last time I went to the Tate before this time I went round some of the surrealist stuff, which I feel like I know quite well, to see how they'd hung it this time round. I ended up deciding I'd grown out of surrealism. It appeals to angsty teenagers, but coming back to it, it feels like a one level joke. Whereas the Rothkos bear looking and relooking and spending time with.

bfc said...

Glad there's still a Rothko room, I think that was a condition of the original gift! I hated Tate Modern last time I was there, if I don't see another tedious pretentious talent-less installation before I die it won't be long enough!! (is that a bit harsh?!!) I still like some surrealism, always had a soft spot for bits of Dali, even if he is completely mad.