Pleased To Meet You at the Museum of Anthropology is both captivating and unsettling
Pleased To Meet You: Introductions by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott
At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until March 24, 2013
A lone museum case greets us outside Pleased to Meet You, a new exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. In the case, half a dozen plain yet delicate porcelain objects, created by Australian potter Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, stand in hushed relation to one another. Their pale glazes and pared-down forms—simple bottles, cups, and bowls—create a still place of contemplation, and serve as an introduction to her sensibility. Before guiding the Straight through the show, this internationally renowned artist describes her ceramic groupings as “clusters” rather than installations or tableaux. The modesty of the word seems characteristic of her approach to art and art-making.
Based near Brisbane, Australia, Hanssen Pigott was invited by MOA to look through its collection, which encompasses 38,000 objects from across vast expanses of time and place, and invent arrangements for some of them. Working collaboratively with MOA curator Carol Mayer, guest curator Susan Jefferies, and MOA designer Skooker Broome, she selected 120 mostly utilitarian or decorative objects and arranged them into 18 groupings. In some cases, she also produced her own ceramic vessels to complement the museum’s art and artifacts. These range from a Wei Dynasty clay figurine to a Samoan tapa cloth to an Ecuadorian snail-shell necklace, and from a Northwest Coast bark shredder to a Javanese shadow puppet to a grass ball from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Not that any one of these objects is identified as such. There are no labels in the exhibition. We are intended to react to the works on offer as visual entities that relate to each other through colour, form, line, and texture rather than through cultural context.
As we move from display to display, Hanssen Pigott talks about the intuitive impulses behind each. In one case, the graceful arm gesture of a clay figurine corresponds to the curve of the spouts of two porcelain ewers. Along with a couple of translucent porcelain bowls, a little bronze mirror, and a silver necklace, the arrangement communicates dancelike gesture and delicacy of materials. In another case, a thick, dark wooden bowl, clay net sinkers, and carved wooden cups convey impressions of weight and volume. And in yet another, a palm leaf fan, a couple of bamboo whisks, and two unfinished baskets create impact through the impossible lightness of their being and the delicate network of shadows they cast. Throughout the exhibition, new sets of visual dynamics emerge—and the effect is both captivating and unsettling.
Inviting artists to create exhibitions from museum collections, to cast the net of their inventiveness over a school of institutionalized objects, is not a new strategy. In the western world, anyway, it’s been happening for more than two decades. And, as Mayer writes in her catalogue essay, highly political artists such as James Luna, Jimmie Durham, and Yinka Shonibare have used guest curation as a way of rewriting mainstream histories. They reposition artifacts to shift our understanding, opening us to new readings and admitting alternative and often marginalized perspectives.
However, what MOA has done in inviting a modernist, mainstream, and apolitical artist to choose and group objects from its collection based on their visual appeal is to release those objects entirely from their histories and cultural contexts. As with her own ceramic clusters, Hanssen Pigott’s criteria in Pleased to Meet You are mainly aesthetic, although with perhaps an inflection of Zen attentiveness. Again, she’s not interested here in an object’s origins, the circumstances of its production, or its cultural meanings. “In museums, we contextualize everything, we historicize everything, we name everything,” Mayer told the Straight. “So to let go of that is incredibly freeing. It moves you into a different place.”
Pleased to Meet You is indeed a different place from what we expect of an anthropology museum, and in some senses, that’s troubling. Isn’t it retrogressive to abstract cultural objects from their intended meanings and functions? To revert to the early modernist habit of admiring them purely for their formal qualities? And yet when we’re in the gallery, looking intently, we can’t help but be seduced by the very aspects that have attracted Hanssen Pigott to these works. Clusters of visual delight are on offer here, pulled together by a marvellous sensibility, and our job is simply to enjoy them.