Welcome to day 18 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
In an article about museums (Foucault’s Museum: Difference, Representation, and Genealogy), Beth Lord writes: “As we will see, the space of representation is the heterotopia. … the ‘space of representation’ makes possible an institution that interprets objects; an institution that puts on display the ways that objects are conceptually understood.”
This weekend, I visited The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), which in itself seems to be reinterpreting and reconceptualising the way it is understood. Speaking of the Anne Truitt installation “Intersections,” Kerr Houston (in Bmore Art, April 2017) says:
“[I]t seems clear that this show of work by Truitt was developed with larger ideas in mind. In recent months, the BMA has done a great deal to recast the experience of entering visitors, and it’s worth thinking at least briefly about how this show thus plays a part in a larger museological project.
“The most radical change, of course, involves the rehabilitation of the museum’s traditional, formal entrance. Placed at the top of a dramatic set of stairs, the large portal features two massive sliding bronze valves, and can feel almost forbidding in its scale and associations; as Carol Duncan once noted, such entries suggest that the art museum is a modern, secular, equivalent of a temple. …
“The architectural historian Vincent Scully used to claim that, in arriving at New York’s elegant Penn Station before its destruction, ‘you entered the city like a god.’ Mount the stairs of the BMA, stroll through the large doors into the renovated Fox Court, and you can gain at least a sense of what he meant.”
That is how we entered the BMA on this occasion, and grand it is.
The special exhibition at the BMA right now is Tomás Saraceno’s “Entangled Orbits,” which I touched on in a previous post. Today I want to highlight Anne Truitt’s “Intersections,” and particularly some of Kerr Houston’s comments about it and the BMA itself, as well as Truitt’s own words in an extensive oral history interview, which I think are pertinent to heterotopia, blurring of real and representative, and perhaps related to this conversation about motels and hotels as well.
First, I want to say that as a child and teen visiting relatives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I swam in a pool that belonged to the Truitt family and I heard of Anne Truitt as an artist. I don’t think I ever met her personally, but I understood then that a woman could make art her life’s work.
So, with that tenuous connection, I always look for Truitt’s art when I visit museums. Anne Truitt: Intersections, installed in one small open room near the BMA’s Asia and Africa collections, consists of five wooden columns of different colours (perhaps, as Houston notes that Walter Hopps once claimed about her work, evoking the “light and color of Maryland’s Eastern Shore”), “roughly human in scale,” spaced apart and actually created at different times in the 1960s. She has layered acrylic paint on them, “using increasingly fine sandpaper in order to create a surface that was so smooth that it looks almost ethereal;” Truitt said of the pieces “‘I let the color, which must have been gathering force within me somewhere, stream down over the columns on its own terms.'”
Probably Hopps is right about the Eastern Shore influence of colour and light on Truitt’s work; she herself says this in an extensive oral history interview in April 2002, two years before she died:
“So that gave me a place on the Eastern Shore. What I’m really leading up to is the fact of why this is so charged for me, the whole Eastern Shore. It was the first thing I opened up my eyes on. I think it’s very important what you open your eyes on first. There’s a kind of decision that you have to take as you go through your life: whether you’re going to stay in your body, so to speak, whether you’re going to look at it realistically or actualistically and whether you’re going to settle and address yourself to the situation. [Laughs.] I think the first environment on which you open your eyes tends to tincture or tint or color the way in which you view the world from then on. … The exterior world as opposed to the psychological world. … So the first things I opened my eyes on were in the Eastern Shore. And they’re still there in my work. I’m still, you know, never — it’s just ingrained in me.”
Later, she adds
“On the eastern shore of Maryland, the sky seems to be uniform, more or less. It’s not a place of clouds. It’s a place where the molecular — the osmotic — everything, all the color is held up in osmosis in the moisture, but it’s not cloudy.”
Also on the subject of colour, Truitt says you couldn’t pay her to study it — “I suppose if they offered me a million dollars, I would leaf through Albers’ book; but it would take a million, and I would leaf” — because “I think if you apply your linear mind to color, you’re going to come out with a linear scheme for color, schema, and I think it would bear no relation to what color means to me.” In other words, studying colour would intellectualise what is essentially experiential. It would falsify in some way what is real, what is true to experience, emotion, perception, intuition.
Houston notes the “stark geometry of her columns and the way in which they casually blurred the lines between painting and sculpture,” which is exactly how it seems when you’re looking at them. They are like standing paintings. He also describes them as “mute witnesses” that are “testifying to their presence in a manner that only affirms their thereness.” Truitt herself affirms the referentiality of her work — that it represents something in the real world, a real there there — and Kristen Hileman (BMA curator of contemporary art) has written that “Truitt’s pieces were commonly rooted in her own experiences and memories. They often bore titles that evoked intensely personal associations: Odeskalki, for instance, was derived from a late-night fireside chat with a friend, who told Truitt of a Hungarian nobleman who had been hanged on a meat hook. Far from being chaste exercises in form, Truitt’s pieces are thus bound to specific lived experiences.”
Truitt has said “I have struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form.” Her sculpture in some sense then may act on us, standing alongside it or looking at it, as heterotopic space does; because it holds multiple layers of overlapping meaning, it may disquiet in its ambiguity, may disturb us or evoke ambivalence as we absorb her life’s experiences emanating from the painted form.
At the time Houston wrote his article (but not now), there was also an installation called “Imagining Home” at the museum, featuring “recorded interviews with local Baltimore residents who were allowed to live, for a time, with an object of their choice. Through this process of temporary loans –- an idea occasionally practiced by other museums in recent years, as well –- the works literally became a part of a home, and the line between public and private is momentarily dissolved.”
Dissolving the line between public and private is a heterotopian concept, a way of bringing our attention to what we normally don’t notice about the hegemony of places, the official and authorised purpose of spaces, who may inhabit them, how they may be used, how they’re accessed, whether they are closed or open, what they demand of us, how they divide or unify us, and so on. As Laura Rice writes in Of Heterotopias and Ethnoscapes: The Production of Space in Postcolonial North Africa (2003) about the mirror, it “serves as a heterotopia when it focuses our attention on the ambiguous relationship between what we think of as reality, and representation: a site where this dynamic of recognition/misrecognition is especially pronounced. The destabilizing force of the heterotopia rests in its ability to foreground [i.e., to make us notice] the representational foundation upon which we construct what we commonly think of as reality. It shifts our attention to the power of representation to manage, manipulate, and distort reality.”
I can just imagine this awareness of reality’s basis in the representational when sitting with an exotic Matisse or an ornate bowl & spoon in your familiar living room.
It would act as reminder that all the decorative objects in our house are actually representational at some level, and yet they seem so real to us; and if that is so, we might wonder what else seems solidly itself when in actuality it’s not only itself but a rendition of something else, a depiction that could be otherwise, that could carry multiple meanings, harkening back to memory, history, experience or forward to imagination, dream, recurring patterns, eternity.
Interestingly, Truitt recalls growing up with troves of great art in her house — tapestries, Chinese art and clothing, French furniture, sculpture, paintings of ships — which she was allowed to interact with as she liked.
I hear echoes of heterotopia — of a non-place place that makes more noticeable the structure and purpose of other places — also when she muses (in the oral history again) that “when you see something, its opposite is implied. If you see black, white is implied; if you see light, dark is implied; good, evil. It seems to be set up on a line of dichotomy.”
When we feel disquiet in an familiar yet unfamiliar space, like a hotel room, it maybe be because we are reminded of a familiar space, like a home, and in the junction between the two, in our minds and experience, we sense how there is like here, how away is like home, how being a stranger is like belonging, and we also sense how it’s different, what governs each place and identity, perhaps how we are different or feel different in different places.
“In sum, it does more or less exactly what a museum show should do, presenting iconic works in a way that implies their current relevance, while also framing them in provocative, productive ways.” For example, the text on the wall accompanying the sculptures offers a short essay by Shannen Hill in which she suggests that Truitt’s vertical forms can be compared with verticalilty in traditional African art. Houston sees this as the BMA’s encouraging “a conversation between its curatorial departments, while openly acknowledging that our responses to works of art need not be monolithic. Does the asymmetrical positioning of the columns remind you, perhaps, of the idiosyncratic placement of the rocks in a Japanese rock garden? Carry on, the museum seems to say.”
Again, a heterotopia is one kind of place that’s in conversation with many places; it comments on, questions, and subverts culture by connecting with it in unexpected or disruptive ways, by contrasting with the mores and conventions of other places in the culture. That seems to be what Houston could claim for the BMA, in its quest to juxtapose unexpected pieces of art and to prompt viewers to consider them in unfamiliar ways.
Some other interesting bits at the BMA on Sunday: