Is it too soon to propose a quota on installations of contemporary art in period settings? Yes, I know, everything is mashable these days, but not all these border crossings of present into past deserve a visa. I recently went in search of a silver box in one of the period rooms of a major museum (it wasn’t there). What I found instead was a series of interventions by artists who had installed video projections of old movies, recorded interviews with local folk jawing about their relatives, and, for some reason, multiple reproductions of twentieth-century plumbing fixtures. Makes you wonder, who’s zooming who?
Not all conjunctions are so cockamamie, and many are simply wonderful. The recent sound installation by Janet Cardiff at the Cloisters in northern Manhattan comes to mind. There in the twelfth-century remnant of the Fuentiduena Chapel, Cardiff’s recording of Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century motet Spem in alium (In No Other Is My Hope) emerges from forty speakers arranged in an oval. If you stand in the center you experience the motet as if you are a member of its chorus; if you sidle up to one of the speakers you hear one of the forty voices-an alto, baritone, bass, or soprano-isolated from the rest. You get to choose (and you can make several kinds of choices) so the experience is, in the lingo of the moment, an immersive one-and it is sublime.
My preference, as will be clear from this issue, is for twenty-first-century interventions in the past that do not try to remake it in our image. When Cory Korkow projects a two-inch portrait miniature from the eighteenth century to gigantesque proportions onto the south facade of the Cleveland Museum of Art she is stretching a point. And her point is a good one: the little miniature stands up well to the digital age; its beauty is beautifully broadcast.
The Peabody Essex Museum excels in conjunctions of past and present, as our visit there with five contemporary artists who use a variety of mediums shows. “We don’t work simply in our own time and place,” Shelagh Keeley, one of the artists, observes; used intelligently technology can help us make connections that mark the passage of time, illuminating eras and styles.
Among the best exhibitions of the year was that of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Did the videos embedded in the wall showing how the artist achieved the near miraculous representation of, for instance, the marble quarries at Carrara, where every shade is white, demystify the artist? Actually, they remystified him. The miraculous remains miraculous.
Really nothing in this issue has been untouched by the improvements of technology-from Gavin Ashworth’s photographs of one of the finest collections of Americana to appear in ANTIQUES to Gary Graham’s handsome reinterpretation of an eighteenth-century coverlet as a twenty-first-century coat. We have seen the future, our version of it anyway, and it delights in the past.