Don’t touch! Don’t look?


Lunch set the theme of the day. While waiting to order, someone from the restaurant staff came over to my table and complimented me on my hair, which is a disorderly mop of color: gray, red, and brown, totally artificial and, I guess, reflective of my housekeeping skills (disorder) and my family (multiracial). The compliments kept coming, I was feeling flush with beauty, when all of a sudden Mr. Staff took a tress in his hand and twisted it wistfully. Hmm…that was a bit too much. Just bring me my smoked trout salad, please. The lines of public and private had been crossed (or twisted as it were). You can look, but please don’t touch! This is also the credo of museums.


Fast forward to two-thirty, after my interview with Erin from Los Angeles, when I was walking down the ever-changing Alsdorf Galleries, the long corridor (see above) that used to house the collection of armor and will soon house the Alsdorf collection of Indian, South Asian, and Himalayan art. The Alsdorf galleries remain open during the enormous transformations currently taking place in the Art Institute. This is no doubt due to logistics: they connect one part of the museum to the other. For a museum freak like me, seeing the transformation of this corridor is the chance of a lifetime. Each day a different Buddha shows up, gracing the corridor with his elongated ears and serene countanence and the museum shows a wholly different face, the face of an institution that paints, uses power tools, drill bits, rubber gloves and the likes to enable us to see amazing works of art in the most optimum of conditions.


Today, I paused to watch the installation of two South Asian sculptures. Two other visitors stopped and joined me. The head of the installation team asked one of the guards to reconfigure the roping so that traffic would flow a few feet further from the installation. The three of us moved back and continued to watch. That is when the public/private theme reared its head (to use a popular campaign turn-of-phrase!): a guard actually asked the three of us to leave. This was most unusual, considering that people continued to flow past the site in question. I found the novelty of the situation rife with interesting problematics about the politics of space (if one agrees that a museum exists for looking, in the same way an orchestra hall exists for listening, how can one be expected not to look at something uncovered and in view? It would be like having to put in earplugs during a movement of a symphony, something John Cage might have done had he thought of it!). However, the two people next to me (were they visiting for the first time? had they taken off work to come? were they from out of state?) simply felt harassed and confused. They were, after all, in a public space, watching something of great interest and standing behind the ropes that demarcated the proper distance. Not touching works of art in a museum is an almost universally understood notion, but not looking at a work of art in a public space is a whole other issue and one that I think public art museums are better off not exploring. Let’s hide it if it is not meant to be seen!








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