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Human Rites at Bass Museum of Art

(Near to far) John Beech, 22 Doorstops from SFMOMA, Allan McCollum, 240 Plaster Surrogates and Mark Dion, Brockton Cabinet.

Art is inherently ritualistic. Whether painting images of God Almighty, offering a transcendent color field, or engaging in and documenting repetitive action, an artist is carrying materials and images from the mundane into the symbolic. Resonance must eventually be established between a microcosm and a macrocosm, and this is the essence not only of the rite but also the ritual object. These may not be your first thoughts when visiting a contemporary art museum ­– spirituality and art have a somewhat troubled relationship these days. But the Bass Museum’s Human Rites exhibition makes a strong argument for the analogy between art and ritual.

For Human Rites, the Bass Museum’s current exhibition, the concept of ritual serves to bridge an enormous gap between histories that would normally be consigned to separate wings. Contemporary sculpture, video and conceptual works selected from major local collections are intermixed with objects from the Bass Museum’s permanent collection including honor society medals, altarpieces, paintings of the Madonna and Child, and both Eastern and Western devotional statues.

The result is a vivid illustration of how far contemporary practice has traveled from its historical roots. While the contemporary works are at home on the walls of the museum, the religious objects have been removed from their original context and, in the process, lost most of their power. Their ritual functions are of another time and place. In Human Rites, the two groups of work are interwoven piece by piece, and so the differences between them stand out more than the similarities.

Installation view.

There are a few moments where the two groups of work converge enough to actually give life to the juxtaposition. Though it may be sacrilege, a pair of Pumas designed by Kehinde Wiley sit comfortably next to a set of 19th century jeweled chalices. And Rikrit Tiravanija’s Buddha Project replicates and distributes a traditionally carved Buddha statue as a way to create dialogue in the present between divided communities in Laos and Thailand.

Although the comparison between actual works doesn’t always flow, Human Rites succeeds in the proposal that the contemporary work is just as ritualistic as the alters and the Virgin Marys. Some of the artists included in the show are familiar enough that it can be hard to see their work from a new angle, but here, the curators win. The repetitive aspects of the contemporary work take on new meaning, as do the sometimes altar-like presentations. Sophie Calle’s Gotham Handbook and Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm O become documents of ceremony. Mark Dion’s object arrangements in Brockton Cabinet and John Beech’s museum doorstops in 22 Doorstops from SFMOMA translate as parts embodying a whole. Erwin Wurm’s 59 Positions represent a transference from the familiar forms of people in sweaters to strange unrecognizable biomorphic entities. These all could easily be described in anthropological terms for ritual behavior.

Marina Abramovic, Rhythm O (detail).

The next logical assumption is that the museum is a sacred space. Which brings me to a complaint. Any museum should keep to a high set of standards, take some pride in the exhibitions it presents, and hold at least a little reverence for the objects displayed. Why was a piece of heavy machinery sitting in the corner during visiting hours, interrupting the view of two different works? Why were the text boxes so sloppily done, with text sometimes spilling over onto another box of obviously different width – could nobody afford an extra fifteen minutes to actually measure before cutting? And why was Sophie Calle’s wonderful Gotham Handbook squeezed into the back hallway connecting the bathrooms with the elevator, with the scent of… Ty-D-Bowl? Bass Museum is one of Miami’s major cultural institutions presenting work by significant artists from around the world. Furthermore, right in the middle of the tourist district, Bass represents our cultural values to visitors from other places. As such it was heartbreaking to see quality work handled with such carelessness[.]

(Left to right) Maxi-Lift and Massimo Vitali, San Marco, Venice.

Human Rites at Bass Museum of Art is on view until October 3, 2010.

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This post was contributed by Annie Hollingsworth, winner of this year’s Miami Writer’s Prize.

1 Comment

  • pepinillo

    the maxi lift is clearly part of the exhibition. You clearly don’t understand the meaning of it.

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Human Rites at Bass Museum of Art