These Objects are Loved

Vortexhibition Polyphonica” is an intimidating exhibition title.  A vortex is a swirling mass, coming from the Latin vertere, meaning “to turn.”  A polyphony is a vocal texture derived from multiple independent voices.  How this could be applied to an exhibition was perplexing.  It sounded like it could be a psychedelic journey of sorts (at least metaphorically), or a perhaps just a concept impossible to grasp.  My biggest concern was this title sounded impersonal, something an exhibition of a museum’s collection should never be.

E.V. Day. Cherry Bomb Vortex (detail). 2002. Red sequin dress with monofilament and turnbuckles and stainless steel base. Image from

But, I went to the Henry, wandering into the galleries knowing only that Vortexhibition Polyphonica (V.P.) is a collection-based show in which objects will change periodically. When entering, I used the large, cascading staircase overlooking the space.  From above, the exhibition was noticeably interdisciplinary and immediately felt robust: photographs, paintings, dresses, an historical rug and red stilettos were among the curious objects filling the Stroum Gallery’s vast landscape.

At the bottom of the stairs, I was expecting exhibition text; instead, I immediately was drawn to a curtained video gallery and encountered Gary Hill, emphatically throwing his body against the wall.  Pained, disjointed sentences physically combine with an intense strobe effect (both a filmed strobe in the video and a physical light the room of the installation), heightening the impact of the repeated collisions in Wall Piece. The work can be seen as a direct confrontation and dissolution between the artist and myriad forces: the creative process, language, the mind, the physical being.  All the while, the altercation is displayed prominently on the wall for us to see.


Gary Hill. Wall Piece. 2000. Single-channel, video/sound installation with strobe light, 2 min. 17 sec.

In a video created by SFMOMA , Hill discusses the active role of the viewer in Wall Piece because of the nature of the images in the video as what he describes as “verbs.”  While this idea is certainly essential to experiencing this particular work, it is also an idea that V.P. as a whole appears very conscious of, in the best of ways.

Modern Art Notes recently examined questions related to permanent/semi-permanent collection displays in contemporary art museums.  Collections-based, temporary exhibitions are similarly complicated in that a museum’s permanent collection is more than a series of objects; there is also a community of people who are invested in the objects, often in a highly emotional regard.

In essay “Collecting: Body and Soul,” Susan Pearce notes,

“A number of studies carried out in America unite to demonstrate how significant possessions are to the self-image… and interestingly, these [studies] tend to suggest that the critical factor is the extent to which we believe we possess or are possessed by an object: control, one way or another, is what makes an object become more a part of the self.” (Museums, Objects, and Collections 55)

Although a museum’s collection is not a possession of the public in the traditional sense, individuals can feel a certain sense of ownership and intimacy with the objects as resources within their communities.  As Pearce suggests, the feeling of ownership can include a desire for control. Vortexhibition Polyphonica excels in its reverence for the relationship between a museum’s collection and its community by incorporating interesting shifts away the standard format of an exhibition during its “polyphonic” moments, which come through the exhibition text as much as they come through the works on view.

Curator Sara Krajewski’s voice is acknowledged in the text she wrote through the use of bylines, which has become standard practice in many institutions as of late. However, Krajewski also incorporates the subjective “I” in a way more forthright than most wall text I have seen.  This approach highlights the way exhibition text in general is written from someone’s point of view rather than from “the institution,” with a greater call for active viewing among visitors as they consider and compare their own perspectives.  The subjective statements also emphasize the more emotive aspects of art, including a curators’ close relationship with the organization’s permanent collection, which can be put at a distance by the “institutional voice” of standard text.

The rest of the polyphony stems from a letter from the donor of one of the objects, graduate student writings, external scholars’ responses and re-used exhibition texts (some with notation of the original author) comprising the majority of the extended labels.  Some of the writings are factual and lengthy while others display their objects’ histories in such a way that the texts seem to become part of the works rather than merely a form of presentation.  Even the physical way these objects inhabit the Henry’s building and its multiple entrances to the Stroum Gallery (center staircase, cascading staircase and elevator) is represented: the introductory text invites viewers to begin from any location, ultimately enabling them to take ownership of the process of interacting with the art.

This summer I visited a collections-based exhibition at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art featuring new acquisitions that happened to be seminal works from the last seventy years of art history. I expect to remember seeing some of those works for most of my life.  However, I do not anticipate remembering the exhibition: a white cube display of objects that relate to one another in terms of an institutional mission, as told through an institutional voice.  The art was impactful, but Louisiana itself kept a traditional role as the distanced keeper of this art. There is nothing wrong with this. However, there is a particular value in creating a dynamic presentation of a permanent collection in a way that contextualizes works of art within a greater dialogue of timely perspectives.  Exhibitions like Vortexhibition Polyphonica facilitate the rethinking of objects that are already loved by creating a “verb” experience and inviting the viewer into the conversation.