When Cell Phones in Water is a Good Thing

December 22, 2010

This is the final post in our series from the Zimmerli Museum on their Water exhibit (and our final guest blog for 2010).  The exhibit ends on January 2; we urge you to see it if you can, but if you can’t, be sure to read on and find out how an amazing audio tour of the exhibit featuring a wide range of contributions by Rutgers faculty is just a phone call away.

Zimmerli Water Exhibit

By Donna Gustafson
Andrew W. Mellon Liaison for Academic Programs and Curator
Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers

As I have written in an earlier blog, the Water exhibition on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University until January 2, 2011, was an interdisciplinary project involving many individuals at the university. The exhibition is wide-ranging in scope and the 105 works in the exhibition include a variety of artists, cultures, historical time periods, and different media.

Waiting by Geoffrey Hendricks at the Zimmerli Water Exhibit

There are paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, site-specific installations, videos and even a process piece that is continually unfolding in time. Titled Waiting, it is by the artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It came to us as two watercolor paintings on paper; one shows a beautiful blue sky with white clouds, the other shows a nighttime sky with a moon and clouds. The artist’s instructions were to immerse these works of art into a glass dish filled with water and wait. Beside each dish is a small card on which the artist inscribed the I Ching signs for water over sky.

We monitor the state of the paintings and the dishes of water daily, refilling when necessary, changing the water if necessary. On January 2, 2011 when the exhibition closes, we will remove the water from the dishes and assess the conditions of the paintings. Many people find this to be a mysterious addition to the exhibition; however, I see it as a beautiful representation of water’s role in nature as a constant instigator of change and a reminder of passing time. It also presents a certain irony in that we at the museum are actively engaged in the destruction of a work of art rather than in protecting and conserving art.

Cell phone narratives by Rutgers faculty at Zimmerli Water Exhibit

I wanted also to talk about our faculty collaborators who lent their voices and expertise to the cell phone tour that accompanies the exhibition. Fifteen faculty members each chose one work of art to discuss from their own interests and perspectives. We asked two professors from the Department of Art History, Joan Marter and Susan Sidlauskas, and three curators from the museum: Alfredo Franco, Curator of Education, Julia Tulovsky, Assistant Curator of Russian Art, and me. The five of us spoke as curators and art historians, which is to say, we talked about what we thought the works of art meant and artists’ intentions.

The other faculty members had very different points of view. The first to come in and record his impressions was Barry Qualls, a member of the English faculty and a scholar of British Victorian literature. He chose to discuss a painting of Brighton Beach by the English painter, John Constable, and explored Constable’s motives in going there in search of a sea cure for his wife who was suffering from tuberculosis. After Barry’s successful recording, we began to really get excited about the project.

It was clear that there would be some very interesting discussions and we began to schedule all our participants. Thomas Papathomas, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Associate Director of the Laboratory of Vision Research, was next. His description of how eye and mind work together to comprehend what we see, was concise and clear, so clear in fact that I used his description (with his permission) of how we see in my summer art history class. As the process continued we found each of our faculty participants to be both eloquent and insightful.

Yair Rosenthal, whose interests lie in paleoclimatology, paleoceanography, and geochemistry, and is a member of the Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, constrasted his interests in the ocean’s depths to Vija Celmins’ focus on the surface in her image of the ocean.

Rebecca Jordan, from the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources spoke about her research on the habits of fish and her observations of fish behavior and coloring in the context of Emma Amos’s vivid representations of swimming fish.

Peter Wacker (Geography) and Joanna Regulska (Women and Gender Studies and Geography) each talked about landscapes and described the historical events represented and the ways in which the land and water in the scene had participated in that history.

Ousseina Alidou, Director of the Center for African Studies spoke about a photograph of the Namibia Desert in West Africa by Cary Wolinsky.

Sumit Guha, a historian whose focus is South Asia, examined three photographs by Raghubir Singh of the Kerala Coast (the historic center of the spice trade) and Cheryl Wall, from the English Department and a scholar of African-American literature, spoke about the Mississippi River and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as presented by Thomas Hart Benton.

One of our participants, historian James Delbourgo, was in England for the summer, but we found a way to record his discussion long distance. While James specializes in early modern science and the Atlantic World, he chose to speak about Amazing Grace, a contemporary video by the Kenyan born artist Wangechi Mutu, and reflected on the Atlantic Ocean as a space of passage and labor for Africans sold into slavery.

All of these discussions can be accessed in the museum as you walk through the exhibition and they add fresh insights, historical facts, and new perspectives to the works on view. It is also possible to dial 732-339-6060 from your phone outside the museum and enter extensions 1 through 15 to hear the audio tour. You will not have the benefit of the individual works of art to look at while you listen, but you will get a sense of the exhibition and be reminded that approaching works of art from your own experience and perspective is a good entry point for all art. The cell phone tour and the Water exhibition will close on January 2, 2011 so there are just a few weeks left to visit the exhibition.

The museum is closed on Mondays. During the holidays we will be open between December 26 through January 30, closed on December 24, 25, 31, and January 1, 2011. On December 28, from 12:30 to 3:00 pm, the museum will host a special holiday workshop for children to “Create a New Year Calendar.” On Sunday, January 2, children can participate in a Scavenger Hunt and win a prize.

Part 1 of this series: Diving Into Water
Part 2 of this series: Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission

All photos courtesy of McKay Imaging Photography Studio & Gallery