How to Sound Like an Expert at an Art Exhibit

Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament exhibit opened yesterday at MOCA in downtown Los Angeles.

Contemporary art enthusiasts will want to see the controversial exhibit and accompanying five-act operatic film. Barney has changed the way we view narrative sculpture by using inventive casting techniques and performance art to explore issues of environmental and economic decay, American culture, death and rebirth. According to the website, this is “one of Barney’s most challenging and ambitious projects to date.”

If all of that made your eyes glaze over
and your legs itch to run AWAY from the museum,
don’t worry. You’re in the right place.

A lot of regular people are scared of going to an exhibit like this. They don’t want to be confused or bored, and, most importantly, don’t want to look stupid in front of their friends, family, or — heaven forbid — date. What if your museum mate asks: “So what do YOU think that water cast in bronze means?” (And all you can think is: that’s supposed to be WATER???!!!)

If this sounds like you, do not fear! There is a simple way to not only GO to an exhibit like this one, but ENJOY IT — and sound like you know what you’re saying.

Here are my 8 Steps for Mastering ANY art exhibit, no matter how esoteric, obscure, or “challenging.”

STEP 1: DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. If you don’t know it, don’t worry about it. “IT” is not relevant to your experience of art, anyway. Art is meant to speak to everyone. People who “know” more may get a different read, but it doesn’t make their reading any more valid than yours. You know what you know; that is enough. YOU are enough. So, when faced with this view at the Barney exhibit: image1-9First, empty your brain of questions like: “What am I supposed to know? What is everyone else thinking? What did the artist intend?” And please don’t look around in a panic and scream, “What the hell is THAT?” Take a deep breath. Clear your mind. Get ready to find YOURSELF in that art.

(IMG_1091As an addendum to this step: feel free to IGNORE things like this. You are not an idiot if you don’t read the literal writing on the wall. If you want to read it, great. You might learn something. But if you don’t want to — Don’t. I’m giving you permission to keep walking).

STEP 2: HEAD TOWARD SOMETHING YOU LIKE. Many people feel compelled to follow the exhibition as it’s designed: “The museum tells me I’m supposed to look at this first, so I will.” Don’t do that. Instead, scan the room and walk toward the first thing that “grabs” you — in a GOOD way. Don’t question it; listen to your gut. I don’t care if you like the color, shape, size… whatever. Why do this? Because: 1) you’ll start the visit off on the right foot. Your mood will lift; you might even smile. 2) you’ll free up your mind, heart, and gut. This simple act will empower you. 3) Since most people will follow the exhibit as is, YOU will look like you know something others don’t. YOU will look sure of yourself in a museum. Your friends will be impressed.

At the Barney exhibit, this was the first piece that grabbed me:
IMG_1099Why? I didn’t know — at first…

STEP 3: STOP AND LOOK! Don’t think. Don’t worry. Don’t panic. Just STOP and LOOK. Take the piece I liked. I didn’t read the signs, but walked around the work and looked at it….

image1-7

I saw coils and seats and framework… and that’s when I realized… AH… That’s an undercarriage of an old car… And as I looked around, I realized there were old car parts throughout the exhibit.

image1-10 image2-8 IMG_1104
A quick glance at a wall plaque confirmed what my eyes had already told me. But if I had relied on the plaque to TELL me what I was seeing, I might have missed the details of the coils, the crunched up headlights, the different colors of hoods… But since I forced myself to LOOK before I READ, I SAW it all for myself… That gave me a sense of pride, made me feel connected to the art, and also gave me plenty of fancy details to point out to my fellow museum goers.

STEP 4: LET YOUR MIND WANDER. Don’t ask WHY — just let your mind go where it goes. When I looked at those old cars, I thought of my dad, who owns a classic car store where he sells and restores classic cars. I thought about him giving me a tour of his new shop when he first opened the doors; those grease-monkey mechanics fixing engines in the Arkansas heat; that old red Jeep with the rusted out floor we used to drive through the woods when I was a kid… No wonder those cars “grabbed” me when I first walked in. I was connected to them…  Wherever your mind goes, it is valid and connects you — emotionally, mentally, spiritually — to the art. So now, when your museum companion whispers, “What do you think it means?” You can say, “I think it’s about how cars decay, but memories never do.” Your museum mate will follow you around for the rest of the day, waiting for you to say more brilliant things…

STEP 5: CHECK IN WITH YOUR SENSES. Now that you have a memory or idea in mind, focus on your 5 senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste… I am not telling you to touch (or LICK!) the art; I am telling you to focus on the SENSE memories that come up. For me, I smelled car exhaust, paint fumes, and stale Miller Lite; I tasted spicy cheese dip from the Mexican place next door to my dad’s car store. Sense memory is a powerful tool (whether painting, sculpting, writing, acting…). Through sense memory, I was no longer standing in an art museum in Los Angeles, but back in my hometown 30 years ago; I was on an emotional journey. What could have been a boring, overwhelming art exhibit had brought tears to my eyes. Now, I was feeling inspired. I was ready to go home and create something of my own… Plus, when you weep over something like THIS:
image2-7

Your museum mates won’t just want to stand next to you, they will want to BE you.

STEP 6: MAKE YOUR OWN CONNECTIONS. Now take all of those thoughts, memories, tastes, smells, sounds and ask: what does this MEAN to me? What might this tell me about MY LIFE?  Do not wait for someone else to tell you what to think. The point is for YOU to make your own connections to your memories, family, friends, knowledge, and experiences. As long as you make honest connections, you will not sound stupid. I promise. You will sound thoughtful and UNIQUE, not like you are spouting off someone else’s theory… My personal connections had to do with growing older and reconnecting with things from my childhood in a new and deeper way. Is that “right”? Of course it’s “right.” Art made me FEEL things and THINK things. THAT is the point of it. Every answer is right. And when you feel moved by your museum experience, you will be able to explain to your museum mate what the exhibit “means.”

STEP 7: HEAD TO SOMETHING YOU DON’T LIKE. Now that you’ve visited things you DO like, head to something you ACTIVELY HATE. Again, don’t question it; follow your gut. You may hate the color, size, shape, design… But if you HATE it, it got a RISE out of you, which means there’s an emotion there. Which means there’s something to mine. At the Barney museum, this piece REALLY BUGGED ME:

image1-6
Why? I didn’t know. Yet…

STEP 8: REPEAT STEPS 3 THROUGH 6. You may find the things you hate are even more meaningful than the ones you liked. Those pieces may really change you… So, when in an art museum, do not ignore the things you hate. Gravitate toward them. It’s all part of the journey.

STEP 9: IF ALL ELSE FAILS, PEOPLE WATCH. Because, come on. You are at some esoteric art exhibit. There are BOUND to be interesting, odd, eccentric people ALL around you… so if your museum mate seems bored or overwhelmed by all of your brilliance, turn to them and remark on the girl with the neon pink leopard-print skirt paired with the grungy hippie jewelry… You’ll both get a laugh… Plus, the point of art is to connect to humanity and those crazy museum goers are certainly one interesting collection of people.

###

Often, when I go to a museum, my museum mates want ME to give them a lecture about the history of art or what a work MEANS (as if, since I have an undergraduate degree in art history and write art historical novels, I have some special insight into EVERY piece of art ever made)… I often DON’T accommodate them. It’s not because I want to leave them out of the art experience; it’s because all of that “art history” stuff would just get in their way of having their OWN experience. I’m having a personal experience; they should, too. Because it’s the best kind of art experience there is.

So go, take your mom, friend, or girlfriend to the Barney exhibit at MOCA, and impress them with your brilliant insights. And get over your fear of esoteric art. It’s not MEANT to be over your head. It’s meant to speak to YOU.

###

Matthew Barney: River of Fundament

At The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
in downtown Los Angeles

On now through January 18, 2016

Website

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