Art can be selfish. I definitely have times when I’m writing “just for me” because performing your art without an audience can be extremely therapeutic. I think that’s why so many people are silent in galleries—they don’t want to disturb anyone so everyone can have their own experience; effectively making each piece you pass “just for you.”
I don’t think Julianne Swartz had me in mind when she constructed Terrain, but maybe I was more in the process than one would think. Terrain is a contemporary work that was originally in the Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion but has been re-strategized to spider web the Caroline Marmon Fesler Gallery in the Contemporary Art Collection. It has a network of speakers that hang over head from a rainbow of wire.
The speakers play the voices of 37 different volunteers whispering. They start and end on their own accord and echo thorough out the space. As you move through the room and pick-up on varying voices it’s like you’re the conductor of 37 hushed ghosts. Basically, it’s really creepy. Logging time in the gallery, I watched quite a few people enter, get freaked out and leave. However, those who stay just long enough to read the label are rewarded.
The exhibition’s label tells you that the ghostly voices were instructed “to think of someone for whom they feel tenderness and to recite what they would whisper in his or her ear.” Very quickly the whispering doesn’t seem so haunting–it’s loving. “The murmuring mass of voices is largely indiscernible; however, in certain moments private intimacies can be distinguished, such as the words ‘I love you.” While some patrons may continue to drift in and out in various levels of spooked, these hushed voices give me the feeling of wrapping myself in a blanket.
My favorite speaker hangs near the entrance on a pale purple wire. The whispering is too soft to make out but it seems almost constant, as if the stranger is completely caught up in their loved one. There’s something juicy about listening in on a stranger’s most intimate musings. (Creating a great irony because this is where I go for my little dose of selfish art.) These hushed words aren’t for me. The speaker has no idea who I am and we’ll probably never meet and who am I to listen to this private conversation?
Well, for one—it’s echoing through the entire collection– not private. Two, if I’m being affected by it then who is a better candidate for listening? I have a love for works of art that initially seem like craziness but, if given a chance, melt into something really approachable. Terrain, Julianne Swartz’s installation, falls in this category. I know by the worried looks of the people leaving its gallery that Terrain isn’t for everyone, but there are other pieces I can’t wrap my head around that are very approachable for others.
I think the point is the joy in finding a favorite; taking the time to read that extra label or stay another minute to let something soak in. What can you get out of it? Well, I have 37 people on the 4th floor that tell me they love me every time I walk by and someone else could find something equally as good. Either way, we’re being inspired, engaged and I think that is what this whole museum thing is about.