What is an exhibition without spectators, would it continue to exist or not?
While this question may have limited value on a purely objective level, it is still an important conundrum to pose since I chose to attend Treasure Florescence – the 10th bi- annual exhibit held at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in mid-April, presented by the Garden Club of Houston – River Oaks Garden Club. This event is an opportunity to display floral arrangements and ikebana that respond to the individual works of art in the museum’s permanent painting collection.
Although I did not have particularly high expectations for the Florescence show, nor did I have the time given some family duties, I still wandered into the show as if something had pulled me there. I thought that it would be a perfectly suitable event to distract myself from recent events in my family.
I was informed that the show occupied all of the galleries of the museum’s permanent painting collection, both upper and lower floors. After passing through a tableaux of Astroturf and hidden potted trees that could have held mannequins in a themed river ride of memory, I walked up the long stairs of the building designed by Rafael Moneo (Audrey Jones Beck Building of MFAH) that opens onto the street with a heavy hermetic mausoleum-like floor that is crowned by upper galleries that seem to float upwards removed from any recognizable location.
As I walked into the galleries, I was immediately startled by unusual floral arrangements that really seemed to capture the inner essence of most of the paintings that were placed in front of or near to most of the paintings of the museum’s permanent collection. There was a subtle counterpoint of line and color to the works that affected a synergistic doubling, commentary, a conversation of mediums that amplified the effects of the paintings themselves.
They seemed as offerings to the paintings, yet stood apart instead of reduplicating nature in line and color, nature was doubled back to reduplicate art – with a blend of consummate skill and artifice, blending the artificial with the natural shapes and hues. Some arrangements were a bit mannered and predictable, while others were truly startling – submerging blossoms in glass vases of clear and colored gels, yet all of which created a resonance with the two-dimensional surfaces of the paintings that seemed to pay tribute to each other silently.
The galleries were only fairly populated at that time, but aside from a few officious garden club members, the people all seemed to take in the amplified enjoyment of this truly unusual museum event – and the usual frozen sepulchral nature of the galleries effloresced into an almost palpable sacra conversazione between nature and art. As I turned into another directionless gallery of its suspended labyrinth open to the sky, I was struck by long white unadorned tables with small clear glass vials with single sprigs of non-flowering plants and others that had only a single blossom.
I was reminded that the historical origin of Zen Buddhism began with the historical Buddha’s infamous Flower Sermon where he held up a single cut lotus blossom and twirled in his hand slowly and said not a single word and only one of his disciples, Kasyapa, smiled in acknowledgement. I have since found the small volume of essays with exquisite brown textured hand-made paper cover written by a contemporary Zen master, entitled A Flower Does Not Talk. Being a resident of today’s world, what immediately struck me was the title today could have easily been A Flower Does Not Text OR A Flower Does Not Multi-Task.
And this brings me back to the question: What is an exhibition without spectators, would it continue to exist or not?
And when I say without spectators – I do not mean the complete absence of spectators; rather what I mean is the presence of frenzied, texting, multi-tasking people who pose as spectators today? People who are there but not really present? Are they spectators in the true sense of the word or are they just junkies getting high on a “spectacle-rush?” As they rush from one spectacle to another…
Certainly, I do not discount technology in itself with all of its many vital options and conveniences that it brings, but it reminds me of what Oscar Wilde said that “the value of technology should be judged solely on the use to which it is put”. What I am advocating is an inclusion of other technologies, inner ones. I am not advocating cloistering oneself away from the world, nor even thinking that daily private meditation is enough unless that meditation can be taken outside for a walk, or intimately be there in your day to day activities. For much like the startling words of the Mahabharata, “What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere”.
I do not believe that there is an ideal state outside of the state that we are in and yet it still can be found embedded within the fabric of our minds, perceptions, bodies, society and world and not outside of them. Our frenzied friends (rushing from one text-message to another) have to be reminded to be in the present – for what is here is elsewhere, but what is not here is no-where else.
There is no need to be in a thousand places at the same time.
In this digital mediated environment, there is something to the notion of image-saturation which causes countless numbers to rush to see the digital image of something rather than the original object or to think that it would have the same overall effect, but it doesn’t after all. There really seems to be a generalized visual numbing taking place. Personally, I do love the fact that I can instantly have access to information, although frequently unreliable, on any of the most obscure miscellany that would have taken me laboriously to the heart of the printed labyrinth a generation ago. Nevertheless, there seems now to be a converse lack of curiosity about things that seems to correspond to the ever increasing speed of access to that information. I feel this acceleration and multiplying and continuous distraction has essentially led to a general culture without depth and without memory, where entertainment is everything – much like the mysteriously obsessed silent protagonist of Edgar Allen Poe’s horror story – The Man in the Crowd – with no real plot, rushing continuously from crowd to crowd to keep from being alone with his own emptiness.
I would like to pay tribute to the Slow Art movement in this essay with April 27 as global Slow Art Day: www.slowartday.com, whose site challenges “speedy Internet users to slow down” and try to see if participants could spend at least ten minutes looking at one work of art. I can only hope to inspire this in myself and others in my written wanderings and I do feel that there are many correlations between this and flaneurie (link to the article on flanuerie).
I wish to walk my own turtle on a leash in promenade of these pages in protest of contemporary culture’s escalating feverish distraction with mindless entertainment in the hope to inspire others to take the time and the attention to taste, if not ultimately to digest, the meal that life puts forth and not to be content with merely a digital clip of the meal; nor also to necessarily need anyone else’s confirmation or recognition of your own enjoyment aside from your own reflexive awareness. Stephan Marllarme wrote that “everything in the world exists to end up in the pages of a book”, but I doubt he would have agreed to include Facebook.
Certainly the random notes of this rambling essay would not have come into existence without my first having come into the space and engaged perception with the exhibition. To bring awareness into the field of perception and experience is of particular importance today in my estimation. Is modern life today only about choosing what you want to experience and perceive at the expense of all else or are there key experiences missing for our development in keeping to this strict exclusionary, myopic obsession in exercising total control at every moment of our public and even private lives to live more and more of a mediated existence, never quite truly experiencing what we experience, never listening and never digesting what we feverishly continually consume.
I am back at the hospital. I see flowers and flower-shops in the lobby. I see my mother in her room. Do I really see her? Do I feel her? Am I with her? Can I be a spectator as she fights this sickness and suffering? Do I hear her? I am reminded of the Zen title: A Flower Does Not Talk.
I leave my mother’s room to take a walk around the landscaped track that encircles the artificial lake. One can landscape Houston all one wants but cannot restrain the weeds that just seem to sprout from anywhere. Houston’s beauty lies in the abandoned stretches of weed-overgrown land.
However, I turn away from the landscape and ground my attention in the body, imagining a bright glowing void that pierces my navel area, lifting up out of the pelvis and serving as a suspended axis to the body in movement, feeling the contact with the ground on the full surface of the feet, rolling through to the big toes. Gauging my pace by not pushing past the natural pranic energy in the body, yet also not restraining it. Bringing the focus up and out to listening.
Listening with the body listening with the full array of the senses, sensing the moment by moment kaleidoscopic projection of the trees, ducks with their ducklings, the glistening, shimmer of twilight on the ripples of the artificial lake that turns it to gold. I notice my gaze goes back to the abandoned stretches of weed overgrown land and rests on them. I remember the passages of the Vijnana Bhairava that recommend these natural experiences of emptiness. Turning the attention, senses then to the fellow walkers on the track, not invasively staring, just listening.
Watching the possible scenarios, noticing the narratives and the pathos of people visiting loved ones; babies being born and the aged and ill dying, all travelers along the track of samsara.
Reminds me of the Exhibition of Flowers and Flower arrangements that I just attended at the Museum of Fine Arts and my conundrum.
What is an exhibition without spectators, would it continue to exist or not?
My mind goes back to Avalokitasvara, the quintessential Bodhisattva, who translates as “the one who looks down upon sound” as one who witnesses, listening with infinite eyes and ears.
A true spectator of this exhibition of flowers and art called life.
It is also interesting to ask oneself: Where does the exhibition and your experience of it go when you finally leave?
© Paul Smith, 2013
- Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) http://www.mfah.org/
- About Treasure Florescence https://www.flohouston.org/site_media/Florescence%20Schedule.pdf See Florescence exhibit: http://www.riveroaksgardenclub.org/Florescence.cfm
- Rafael Moneo (Spanish Architect) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafael_Moneo
- Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo http://archinect.com/news/article/8315955/three-firms-selected-for-museum-of-fine-arts-houston-expansion
- Florescence Images http://www.riveroaksgardenclub.org/Florescence.cfm ; http://herselfshoustongarden.com/2013/02/florescence.html; http://houston.culturemap.com/news/home_design/04-20-11-floral-arrangements-and-art-vie-for-space-at-the-mfah/ ; https://www.flohouston.org/what-is-florescence.asp
- Caroline Weiss law Building http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Museum_of_Fine_Arts_Houston.jpg
- Butterfly Weed (Cover/Landing Page)
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