Curators of contemporary art museums face a competing set of challenges, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis responds to them all with dazzling creativity in the set of shows that opened on Friday, May 17 and closes August 18.
They have to be brainy in unique and daring ways because that is the industry standard of contemporary art museums. All of the new shows on CAM’s ground level — extending outside into the courtyard and, through a conceptual portal there, into the streets and surrounding neighborhoods — are brainy in ways that will keep attentive visitors thinking in new ways long after the shows close.
Beirut-based Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s three-part show “Earwitness Theatre” rethinks the sensory parameters of what constitutes evidence, including evidence in a legal sense, very much including criminal evidence. These conceptual explorations depart from work he did for Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture documenting victims of violence at a prison in Syria. He has designed a listening room where he explores the threshold of sound, how the absence of an answer in interrogation or the purposefully muted sound of a whisper constitute important evidence that escapes legal definitions.
In a newly commissioned work, he presents various implements and props that make sounds associated with actions that can land people in criminal court. It turns out that dropping a young coconut makes a sound similar to a beheading. He also designed a sound chamber using a car door that simulates the sound of a body being thrown around in the back of a van. A separate video piece explores sounds heard through barriers like doors or walls that were critical in criminal cases, such as Oscar Pistorius murdering his girlfriend.
No, this is not a feel-good summer show, but then we count on contemporary art museums for providing alternative realities to feel-good summers. Executive Director Lisa Melandri and Chief Curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi understand this responsibility and respond unflinchingly.
Not only brainy and alternative, but contemporary art museums must also be beautiful. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his analysis of what constitutes a “supreme fiction” (that is, great art): “It must give pleasure.” A contemporary art museum cannot be all brains and no beauty, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s new self-titled show at CAM features many photographs of great beauty.
Sepuya’s work has theoretical and formal dimensions, which should go without saying in this setting, but you can forget all that, if you’re not feeling very brainy, and just keep saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful. Cool photo. This one is awesome.” A gay black man from Los Angeles, Sepuya mostly shoots portraits of diverse men that he disrupts by using mirrors while shooting and also cutting and splicing images after the shoot. What’s most beautiful is how he cuts and reconnects images of different bodies and body parts without anybody looking mutilated or any composite form looking monstrous, even when they look really weird.
Therein lies one conceptual dimension of this work. Sepuya reminds us that people can complete each other, even if we are fragmented when we find each other and our new, combined form was not what we were looking for or even something we could have imagined before we mashed up.
Particularly in this cultural moment of mutilated bodies and fragmented communities, when our culture is unusually focused on these crises, contemporary art museums must be relevant. They can’t be only safe, enlightening spaces for art lovers (which is not to doubt or discount the value of safety, enlightenment, or loving art). Museums also must be engaged in dialogue with their communities and be actively doing things to unite and elevate those communities, and CAM is heavily invested in community-building.
This new set of shows includes “Tool Shed” by Eric Ellingsen of Washington University, an exhibit in the courtyard that will evolve as Ellingsen conducts field recordings on walkabouts with museum visitors in CAM’s neighboring communities. But even more deeply ingrained in the community are the museum’s ongoing programs New Art in the Neighborhood, ArtReach, and the LEAP Middle School Initiative. Consider this brief note a promise to revisit all of these programs for feature stories while the beautiful new shows emanating from them are still on view. For now, two points.
One: go upstairs and see the youth shows. Your visit to CAM is not complete unless you do. It’s a creative use of what could have been mere office space that the museum dedicates, along with staff resources, to developing our youth. The museum did not waste that space, and the public should not waste their effort and investment or ignore the striking art made by local youth.
Two: let’s go out, for now, listening to museum educator Jose Garza talking about his approach to developing youth through contemporary visual art.
“I am interested in their ability to come into a space they are not familiar with and engage with new peers,” Garza said. “The unknown is where learning happens. I want them to achieve some empathy with the unknown. You get some unexpected results. And these things extend to their lived experiences.”