Feb 21, 2011

A thousand peaks
without leaving
this small window

The Emperor's Private Paradise

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
February 1- May 1 2011

Jennifer Steinkamp Video Installation
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California
February 12 - March 12, 2011

When seemingly diverse events come together and form a connection in my mind, it's time to write a blog.  The current show:  The Emperor's Private Paradise at the Met and Jennifer Steinkamp's video installation, Madame Curie have something in common, but we will get to that  later.
When your contemporaries are Louis XV, Frederick the Great, George III, George Washington and Catherine the Great, you've got some competition. The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) wasn't much bothered by this fact.  Not concerned with keeping up with the Jones', he created his own Chinese version of Versailles, a complex of buildings and gardens, which rely on illusion as much as any other technique.

Qianlong Garden - The arificial stream references 4th century tradition of
cups of wine floating down the river as poems were written.
 "In one sense, this interest in illusions matched the whole conceit of the garden, which - as a sanctuary from political intrigue situated right in the heart of the palace, a mountain gateway in the center of the capital city - was nothing if not illusory." 
Sebastian Smee, The Boston Globe
 One of the pathways within the Qianlong Garden,
a circular path deviates from the usual Chinese convention of straight pathways.
The Emperor was interested in manipulating art.  He kept a Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione as his sidekick and adviser on what was happening in the arts on the other side of the globe.  The extensive use of trompe l'oeil painting is only one indication of the Emperor utilizing art to create image and persona. 

Walking through the rockeries,
a series of caves, sitting areas  and grottos created by the Qianlong Emperor.
On Sunday, Nancy Berliner, organizer of the show at the Met, gave us a virtual tour of the garden.  Among the 27 buildings in the garden, a pavilion created to honor an ancient Catalpa tree. Another viewing pavilion, contains a mural of perpetual Spring, just in case Mother Nature displeased the Emperor.  He didn't need a weatherman to tell him which way the wind was blowing; he created his own reality. 

The Three Friends:  Bamboo, Plum Blossom and Pine
Jennifer Steinkamp is an Artist, not an Emperor, but she has an empire: the world of videography.  Her piece, Madame Curie was inspired by reading a biography of Madame Curie written by her daughter.  In the book, Eve Curie names 40 plants Madame Curie was fond of.  Apparently she was an avid gardener.  This was the jumping off point for Steinkamp's video.

The video, a field of moving flowers and trees puts the viewer in a timeless space. 

"As powerful phenomenological environments, Steinkamp's installations ask for a novel reading of the role played by architecture and takes viewers beyond the physical boundaries of a built interior to contemplate their surroundings as more than a matter of space, but also as a factor of time, desire and memory." from the Museum of Contemporary Art announcment, San Diego, Ca.

The Qianlong Emperor used every means possible to compose a world for contemplation. Steinkamp uses a 21st century art form to create another kind of retreat.  Both have achieved an "abundance of things" within four walls.

With a gentle breeze that is blowing freely.
When looking up, one can see the vastness of the heavens,
And when looking down, one can observe the abundance of things.
The contentment of allowing one's eyes to wander.
Excerpt from Poem Composed at the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi

Madame Curie

P.S.  It's weird.  The day-long Qianlong lectures at the Met were introduced by the Director of the Museum, Thomas Campbell. He has  launched a new series called Connections.  Curators pick a topic, like Motherhood, choose  pictures or sculptures in the museum that have to do with that theme and talk about it (on screen) in a very personal way.  It's not art history speak, it's more like facebook chatter.  This venerable institution, like the rest of us, seems desperate to make CONNECTIONS.