Wednesday, November 08, 2023

What Matters at SFMOMA

Two wildly successful Japanese artists are currently having exhibitions at different San Francisco museums this fall: Takashi Murakami at the Asian and Yayoi Kusama at SFMOMA.
We walked quickly through SFMOMA's Third Street lobby because there is a large screen installed over the coat check room showing Wu Tsang's 2022 video art piece Of Whales. From what I have seen of the looping, two-hour, digitally animated video over the last few months, it somehow manages to make whales boring which I had not thought possible. The real problem is an endlessly irritating musical soundtrack, credited to Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, which sounds like a combo of Kenny G, electronic bloops, and banal film music.
When I asked employees if the new, recurring soundtrack for their work lives was annoying, the responses have ranged from diplomatic smiles to eyes rolling right out of their heads. There must have been staff pushback because there is now a small note on the SFMOMA website which states: "The volume of this work is lowered during non-peak hours. To experience it at normal volume, please visit between 1–4 p.m. Friday through Tuesday, or on Thursdays from 1–7 p.m." The installation is scheduled to remain in the lobby through December 2025, by which time a few front-line employees may have gone mad.
Upstairs on the fourth floor, there is a new curatorial concept called What Matters: A Proposition in Eight Rooms, which the website blurb describes as "thought-provoking contemporary works from the museum’s collection that offer individual artistic responses to questions about life and art. These works propose engagements with both physicality and the ephemeral, addressing tangible matter of artistic media as well as urgent subject matters. Presented across eight rooms, What Matters addresses materials, conditions of space and architecture, and, most importantly, social relations."
It doesn't get more vague and artspeak than that, and the installations didn't spark much interest on their own, with the exception of ...three kings weep..., an eight-minute Jamaican video from 2018 by Ebony G. Patterson. Three men cry and get dressed in a backwards running, hypnotic film.
On the sixth floor, there is a huge Yayoi Kusama sculpture, Aspiring to Pumpkin's Love, the Love in my Heart, created this year.
Yayoi Kusama is 94 years old, and according to Hanna Schouwink of David Zwirner Gallery, Kusama is "officially the world's most successful living artist". I had never heard of Kusama before but her Wikipedia entry is astonishing. She left Tokyo in 1957 for New York City and was in the middle of every avant-garde art movement there for the next 15 years. Warhol and Oldenburg outright stole a few of her sculptural innovations, and upon her return to Tokyo in 1972, she was despondent and suicidal. Kusama then entered a mental institution for "art therapy," where she has been living and working for the last 50 years.
SFMOMA is exhibiting two of her Infinity Rooms, and the set-up for visiting them is a bit strange and rushed, with museum staff dividing the reserved ticket queue into groups of six to eight people.
You are then led into a small, cube-shaped room that is a conglomeration of mirrors and polka dots that do seem to stretch into infinity.
After two minutes in the first room, employees open the doors from the outside, and your group will be ushered into a second room with cooler colors and soft sculptures.
The museum might consider going full Disney and have their people movers wear polka dot uniforms during their shifts.
With only two minutes allowed in each room, the experience does not exactly make for contemplation of the infinite, but it's perfect for Instagram.
Down the hall on the sixth floor, Ragnar Kjartansson's nine-screen video masterpiece, The Visitors, continues to play on a loop in a room of its own. The Washington Post recently published a fabulous behind-the-scenes article about the making of the work with interviews of all the participants. They're calling it the ultimate zeitgeist artwork, on a par with Manet's Olympia or Picasso's Guernica. "The way Kjartansson’s immersive exhibit echoes and distills our gradual, vaccine-assisted transition from prolonged isolation to summertime resumption of social life is uncanny."

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