This month the Phoenix Art Museum is showcasing Latin American art from the Bruce and Diane Halle collection. Many of these pieces were born out of fear and loss, created by people living within war-torn and poverty-stricken countries. Most are dark and troubling, some, confusing, some, begging the question of whether they can be defined as art at all.
Upon entering the exhibit one midweek night, my gaze was immediately drawn upwards by a vortex of black butterflies that rested on the wall beside me. They climbed upwards to the ceiling, swirling round and round, creating a path of sorts to the Halle Collection. I could not help but find it a fitting entry to an exhibit whose goal was find the happy medium between wild beauty and impenetrable darkness.
One piece caught my eye immediately from all the way towards the back of the room, drawing me irresistibly in. Strange, and certainly not an ordinary work of art, the weathered hutch stood tall against a back wall like a discarded ruin. It’s glass windows were pressed close against a suffocating force of dried cement laced with old clothing, metal like shrapnel piercing through. The hutch had been unearthed, along with the clothing and metal, from houses whose occupants had fled from the Columbian civil war in the late twentieth century. The piece, by Doris Salcedo, is untitled, as though not to give credence to the unspeakable events the wordless belongings witnessed within the abandoned home. The combination of empty clothing, metal, and cement, housed carefully, solidly within the wooden hutch created an aura not only of loss, but horror. I could only see children where their old clothing poked through, and bones where jagged bits of steel gleamed though the dust and concrete. I felt as though I was looking upon a mass grave of memories, kept like precious, sinister trinkets within a wooden box. We turned away from the piece, weighted heavier than when we first came.
Across the hall from the cemented hutch sat a rather different piece from the collection. A pile of mint-green wrapped candies lay in the center of the floor, piled into a shapeless mass. The wall beside it bore a plaque explaining that the artwork is ever changing in size and shape. Viewers are encouraged to take candy for themselves and the sweets are replenished each night. This is supposedly representative of our transient state in life, and the changeability in the world. I must admit, we stifled laughter when reading the plaque and comparing the deep, philosophical words about order and chaos to a pile of cheap candy on the floor. All of the art in the exhibit was contemporary, but this is as post-modern as it gets. I felt forced upon as I viewed this nameless creation, and got the impression that the artist was attempting to make a very particular point, as though it were propaganda of sorts. Perhaps he strove to say that anything could be art; that all is art; that everything we interact with on a daily basis says something about the universe and it’s ebbs and flows. But instead he left me more emphatic in the belief that not every expression of the self, or of the world, is art. If everything is art, then why create art at all? Perhaps next time I’ll skip the museum and head straight to my pantry.
After viewing many other post-modern pieces that I am hesitant to describe as “art,” we were tired and began to doubt we’d see anything else of interest. It was then that we happened upon a gem. In a small room off to the side a miniature theater had been set up, with film being projected onto three of the four walls. Across the walls spun dozens of black, twirling objects. The film portrayed the traditional Latin American game of battling tops. Although the hands of the players could be seen as they threw the tops into the battleground, the identities of the competitors were unknown, allowing the tops to attain a sort of personality. The tops were all black, varying in size, and the ominous, rolling sound of their tracking across the cement battleground filled the small theater. One by one they dropped, sometimes in violent bursts, as though suffering the shock of a bomb. They viciously cut into one another, drove across each other, destroyed all in their path. One large top in particular took enemy after enemy down. But in the end, the remaining top could only spin for so long, and wavering, collapsing, eventually succumbing to gravity, lay fallen amongst the other casualties on the floor.
This one art piece made the entire exhibit worthwhile to me. The concrete filled wooden hutch was a close second, and everything else was more or less worthless, but this gem left me feeling hollow and excited at the same time. The beautifully filmed game was fearsome and sublime. In those spinning tops I saw the battles of thousands of years and my own heart mirrored with countless others. Piles of cheap candy on the floor can never accomplish what those few minutes of beautifully filmed saga said of human dignity, powerful hunger, and soulless, crushing war.
We left the museum that night satisfied with the two excellent pieces we’d seen. Order, Chaos, and the Space Between is well worth the time of any museumgoer, if only for those two. The rest of the artwork from the Halle collection at the Phoenix Art Museum was convoluted or left lacking, and art, true art, does not say too little or too much.