The Discarded

IMG_0702Walking through the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art the first thing one encounters are massive veil-like curtains. Made of the bits and pieces of modern refuse, carefully folded into a loose color rich chain-mail, its delicate beauty and fragility envelopes. Close up the dazzling perfection of the crafted tapestries and sculptures imbue the viewer with a feeling that is all at once strength and grace. El Anatsui is an Ghanaian artist that creates works of art with what is unthinkingly thrown away. He works with collected bottle caps and metal wrappers, the tin tops and bits of wood that litter our every step and what he creates is Byzantine mosaic meets Medieval tapestry meets Gustave Klimpt meets material seduction, and global commerce. The results are stunning.

His work is site specific and the conceptual ideas flow through the entire exhibit: what moves, what changes, what we leave behind and how distance gains us a perspective and clarity of place while the intimacy of detail reveals tangible subtlety. His world view is one where nothing is fixed, there is beauty in the fluidity.

There are short films throughout that show in which Anatsui explains his process both practically (a typical wall hanging will take some 25 workers three months) and philosophically. My daughter ( an artist currently doing a turn as an art-world intern) and I wondered about the the more mundane aspects of the work as well: did he pay for people to collect the thousands of pieces of debris, if so how much? Were we right to feel discomfited by Anatsui’s use of unpaid interns- in a world that so freely abuses the rights of workers I balk at arguments that suggest “the honor” and “experience” of working for anyone is worth compromising our sense of what’s fair. Neither of these topics came up in the show, but a discarded argument has as much power as a discarded bottle cap when joined in powerful numbers.

El Anatsui’s work is still mesmerizingly beautiful despite the pragmatic musings of two pecuniarily pressured women. But having just finished Zola’s Rome, (despite never actually beginning it- but never mind that) the interior space of my head still rattled with Pierre’s lament, In a quivering voice Pierre was bold enough to answer: “I look for some kindness and justice.” (87)


9 responses to “The Discarded

  1. I like your question so very much. I would love to know more about the methods. The work is stunning. Thank you for inspiring me to hopefully go and see this exhibition. Although the work is completely different, your thoughts made me think of one of my favorite photographers, Sebastiao Salgado. His exhibition, Workers, is absolutely incredible. The stuff of extraordinary compassion. And this recent TED talk will give you a flavor for the kind of person he is if you haven’t already seen it:

    Fairness is something I think about more and more. Privilege, who gets, who doesn’t, who exploits and in the name of what….

    Thank you for really giving me a lot to think about.

    • Oh my, Amy. That was incredible. “We need to breathe” in more ways than one. Thanks for the link. Very moving, very hopeful, very inspiring. Wonderful photography. Thank you.

  2. love that two of my favorite people in the whole entire world are connected,and inspiring each other as they each inspire me. xo

  3. Yes, Thank-you Amy. I watched it too. Glad that you are questioning the economic underpinnings of the beautiful art Jessica…but I guess we could also ask how much the people got paid to replant the trees on the land too, right?
    I was struck by Salgado’s dual role of artist/activist. It would seem that he is sometimes both, and at other times one or the other….

    • Yes, but his mission to ensure a breath of air for future generations placates my concerns…he did mention donations coming in from home and abroad, and perhaps he had a small army of activists to do the planting, volunteerism is distinct from unpaid intern, I think.
      The duality was interesting in that there was a separation but one also fed the other…

  4. Hahaha! — I saw this piece at the Brooklyn museum — I love your musings about who might have collected the pieces! I must say I wasn’t that inspired by his work. I had a great time at the museum that day, however, roaming around to the parts I never had the opportunity to see.

    • I haven’t been to the museum for years, but I really enjoyed it. It has a unique style of curation…I want to go back on the sooner side of things…we were sorry to miss the J S Sargent show…

  5. Oh right — J. S. Sargent! I enjoyed that one — there were so many things there that day that I took in — for a change I allowed myself to go to more than just the main exhibit (I usually resolve to limit myself because an experience in a huge museum can be overwhelming and exhausting if you take too much in at once). Judy Chicago was interesting too… On the subway yesterday I saw ads for the next exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. It will feature photographs of all the icons in the museum industry — I want to see that one!

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