For the blind man
Contemporary art will always inspire fierce debates; this is undeniable. What is or is not art? Is modern art of comparable quality to previous bodies of work or artistic movements? Art can be variously defined; but, in general terms, it is often described as something that gives rise to emotions in the viewer. If this is an accurate description, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis unquestionably contains art. It bewilders, confuses and forces the viewer to think.
Located at the corner of Washington Boulevard and North Spring Avenue, a block from the Fabulous Fox Theatre and Powell Symphony Hall, the museum is part of the small arts district of St. Louis, otherwise known as Grand Central. It is 10-15 minutes from the Grand MetroLink station on foot; the walk takes one past much of the Saint Louis University campus.
The museum is non-collecting, which means that it only hosts exhibitions. Its current exhibit, “For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there,” also known as “For the blind man…” is certainly a site to see. The exhibit takes up the entire ground floor of the building, a concrete two-story structure. The first floor has several large, open and well-lit rooms, while the second contains a walkway, a media center and the museum’s offices. The exposition is dedicated to the blind man named in the title, which was how, according to the exhibition guide, Charles Darwin described a mathematician. The principle behind the exhibit is that art can explain the world in speculative terms, much like mathematics, and mystery can be as exciting as knowledge and facts.
The exhibit begins with a dialogue by Marcel Broodthaers, a Belgian poet and artist. A speaker, a single black box protruding from a concrete wall, projects a recording, aptly titled “Interview with a Cat,” in which Broodthaers asks a feline a series of questions about art in Swiss French.
The viewer then continues into the exhibit, walking through a small dark room that houses a short movie, in addition to a 17th-century book open to a depiction of a “Wunderkammer,” or cabinet of curiosities, which is a form of proto-museum. “Wunderkammers” would most often consist of a room in someone’s home and would contain various exotic and rare objects that the buyer collected from around the world. The book conveys an idea of the museum’s history. Both the movie and the book provide an appropriate introduction to the exhibit, which is made up of a variety of works that are disparate in both subject matter and topic.
Notable works in the exhibit include “Voyage of the Beagle” by Rachel Harrison, “To do with a wide spot along a dusty road crossing a dry channel, between the old end of Old Red and the dead end of the New West” by Dave Hullfish Bailey and “The Klein Bottle Piñata” by Mariana Castillo Deball. It is hard to pick individual pieces, as all are fairly avant-garde and experimental, the sole exception being a pair of minimalist still lifes depicting bottles and cans by Giorgio Morandi.
“Voyage of the Beagle” is inspired by Charles Darwin’s journal of the second survey voyage of the HMS Beagle. Consisting of 57 photographic portraits, the artist heads off in a different direction from Darwin. Instead of following his theory of evolution, Harrison opts to juxtapose unrelated portraits. In fact, very few of the photographs are even of humans, and some even portray animated characters such as Patrick from “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The total effect is the creation of an almost “sliding” effect—the viewer’s eyes rove over all the photographs, attempting to find order when chaos may be the intended effect.
Bailey’s work, influenced by the community library at Slab City (the California community where he works), is a disorganized clutter. Arranged around the skeleton of a boat trailer, Bailey appears to have contiuously added household and artistic items, almost, as the guide to the exhibit says, “as if he is literally taking his research on the road.” When one initially glances at the oeuvre, it appears as if Bailey has merely haphazardly thrown objects together. Upon closer inspection, a slight method to his madness begins to emerge.
Deball’s work is much more simplistic than both Bailey’s and Harrison’s. “The Klein Bottle Piñata” is, unsurprisingly, a papier-mâché Klein bottle suspended overhead. A Klein bottle is, according to WordNet, “a closed surface with only one side; formed by passing one end of a tube through the side of the tube and joining it with the other end.” The work is a testament to impermanence. In fact, when the exhibit ends on Jan. 3, visitors are invited to break the art “piñata” apart. This, coupled with its confusing, almost illogical nature, is certainly in keeping with the exhibition’s theme.
Overall, the exhibit succeeds in showcasing the fascinating nature of enigmas and the unknown. From perplexingly shaped piñatas to pack rat-styled installations to bewildering photographic evolution, mystery is indeed achieved. “For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there” draws from several eras, mediums, artists and themes, yet it manages to hang together nonetheless. Its host, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, may be relatively unknown, but this exhibit and many others definitely make it worth the visit.