Hiroshima, 1961 ca.
Dry pigment in synthetic resin on paper mounted on canvas
54 5/8 x 110 1/8 in. (138.7 x 279.7 cm)
The Menil Collection, Houston
Photo: Rick Gardner, Houston
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
The halls of the Menil Collection stand still in the calmness of quiet contemplation. Experiments with Truth: Ghandi and Images of Nonviolence currently occupies the East and West galleries with an undisputedly moving examination of Monhandas Ghandi, his contemporaries, ideological followers, and the cultural influences that create our understanding of nonviolent struggle.
Disputing the content of this exhibition would be foolish; the Menil Collection routinely presents some of the most moving and poignant exhibitions in the city and has the reputation and budget to pull them off beautifully. Experiments with Truth takes a cross-cultural look at struggles against oppression over the last 300 years, examining not only Ghandi’s struggle for Indian independence, but issues that include Apartheid and the Kent State protests, and their corresponding figures. One cannot critique the content of the exhibition; Ghandi and all who struggle against oppression should not be treated lightly.
Beyond the intrinsic power of the exhibition however, we can consider the handling of such an issue in the context of the art space, examining its cultural underpinnings and presentation to the viewer. Most interesting is the way the Menil has been treating their exhibitions of the last few years by incorporating parts of its own collection into its temporary exhibitions. This treatment alters both the viewing context and the way we view the art.
Upon entry into the Modern and Contemporary wing of the exhibition, the viewer first encounters Mark Rothko’s backup/auxiliary canvases commissioned for the Chapel that bears his name. Powerful and quiet, in this context the works speak less to a plug-and-play religious experience, but more to the necessity of the Rothko Chapel as a shared space for human spirituality. These certainly are two sides of the same coin, but we can appreciate the change in mode as instigated by this shift in context. Nearly everything in the exhibition begins to resonate on a different tone.
Some contemporary curators place art as an experience with the art object as a catalyst triggering the experience through viewing. Virtually every spiritual artifact was created to take advantage of this mechanism, and some are even included in the exhibition. Cloth paintings of Krishna and sculptures of Mahavira function this way outright, but so do the firehose readymades from Theaster Gates or Yves Klein’s Hiroshima. This object-as-catalyst approach can be problematic when attempting to make distinctions of what art is or is-not, but the approach is increasingly helpful to understanding how this exhibition is effective: exploring the greater humanities through art, rather than loosely straddling an arbitrary theme.
Often the art experience is used as a proxy for alluding to issues of the human condition; however, Experiments treats the objects as anthropological artifacts that speak directly to oppression and nonviolent resistance. The theme is less abstract than most exhibitions that primarily showcase art, and the show presents a focused but wandering survey, with room to connect the dots for yourself.
Beyond the obvious humanitarian themes of Experiments with Truth, the exhibition reminds us of the ways in which we can be primed to experience art, and how art can prime us to experience the world we inhabit.