Saturday, March 11, 2017

Watch Your Step

The credit usually goes to Chief Seattle, a prominent leader of the Suquamish tribe, and the person for whom the city is named. A skilled speaker and diplomat, he gave a speech in the 1850's to more than 1000 members of his tribe that has been romanticized as a manifesto encouraging respect for the land and animals. It laid out broad themes that have become the underpinning of the environmental movement today.

However, contrary to popular belief, he never really said any of it. Not "The earth is our mother." Not "How can you buy or sell the sky?" Not "What is man without the beasts?" Those and other pithy naturalistic touchstones turn out to constructs of newspaper men and Hollywood screenwriters and attributed to the Chief for dramatic effect. Still, if you have to give someone props, Chief Seattle is as good as any. And so let's believe another fiction attributed to him, that whenever you travel you should "Take only memories, leave only footprints."

Yet these days that maxim needs to be updated. With the proliferation of smartphones, memories are less about synapses and more about pictures. While photography has been around for nearly 200 years, it's only been recently that almost everyone has a camera on them all the time. And that means that virtually everything is being documented every instant of every day. So perhaps Chief's Seattle's non-mantra should read "Take only photographs, leave only footprints."

But even that falls short. Because like the old adage about a tree falling in a forest, have you actually been anywhere if you don't have a picture of yourself as a part of it? Walk around and you will see people not looking at a given site, but with their backs to it, the better to capture a shot of themselves at that place and time. Sorry, Chief, call rewrite once more: "Take only selfies, leave only footprints."

Then last week that approach went horribly wrong. The Hirschhorn Museum in Washington is mounting a major exhibit by Japanese artist and writer Yayoi Kusama. Kasama came into the art world in the late 50's, exploring almost every media from painting and drawing to film and fiction. A fixture of the 1970's pop art movement, she became known as the "Priestess Of Polka Dots" when she created dresses with that design, as well as painting dots on naked participants and staging them as performance happenings. It all fed into her obsession with infinity, captured nicely in her comment "Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos."

That obsession is best realized in her mirrored rooms stuffed with abstract forms. The rooms vary, but are sculptural, architectural and performative all at the same time. The shapes and mirrors combined to create endless disorienting views with names that reflect that, such as "The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away" and "Love Transformed into Dots."

The current popular exhibition at the Hirschhorn is no different. Consisting of six of her installations, one of the most popular is "All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins." It is a small mirrored room filled with lighted gourds decorated with polka dots. A small viewing platform accommodates only 2 or 3 people at a time, giving them a visage that hard to explain to others. Not content with Chief Seattle's original manta, most people don't trust their memory, and so move on to our first rewrite, snapping a photo to capture the view.

But what is art if you're not a part of it? And so many visitors move to the third iteration of the Chief's words, and pose for a selfie. However, that observation platform is pretty small, and denoted only by a small barrier just several inches high and across. There's no way of knowing for sure what happened, as once visitors are inside the room and on the platform, the door is closed. But the results tell the tale: some hapless Instagramer looking for the perfect angle put a foot over the barrier, crushing one of pumpkins.

A tragedy for sure. The room was closed while the artist was consulted and a replacement was being secured. At least only a pumpkin was hurt. But perhaps we need to update the Chief's words yet again: "Take only selfies, and be careful where you put your feet."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to take pictures, mostly without himself. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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