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Miracle in Indy: When Art Transcends Intention

Sunday, January 24th, 2016: Arts, Musings.

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For many years, when visiting family in Indianapolis, I’ve escaped the confines of the cramped family home to spend a few hours at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), which, unlike many urban museums, occupies a bucolic site in the midst of park land on a bluff above the forested floodplain of the White River. The museum grounds are surrounded by an even larger forested cemetery, so there’s literally nothing in sight to remind one of the city, and the architect took advantage of this by providing large windows in all the outer galleries, for an indoor/outdoor feel and expansiveness that’s missing from most urban museums.

As I identified favorite works in the collection, my sporadic visits became more like pilgrimages, and as I fell in love with the Japanese gallery, which most often features scroll paintings, I came to think of my visits as a form of meditation, ritually beginning with the Japanese gallery.

But at some point, every visit continued to the back of the 4th floor, the contemporary floor, where a sound installation by Julianne Swartz had been more or less permanently relocated.

The Swartz installation, “Terrain”, had originally opened in the museum foyer, the highest-traffic site in the museum. It consists of a broad network of audio speakers suspended overhead, playing continuous, spatially distributed loops of people breathing, whispering and humming, a soundscape which comes and goes in gentle waves. Swartz asked her recording volunteers to think of someone that he or she felt tenderness for, and to say what he or she would whisper in that person’s ear. According to Swartz, “the piece is negotiated by the movement of your body – it’s all happening overhead and you negotiate it by the path you walk.” What the listener hears, if they hear anything, is unintelligible, seemingly random, and can often be interpreted as nature sounds. All good so far, except that the unfortunate “negotiate” should be replaced by navigate.

I had sampled this installation since its opening in the foyer, and had always found it underwhelming, visually distracting, and somewhat pretentious. The foyer installation just couldn’t work, with the high ambient noise level and high traffic. I can’t imagine what the museum and the artist were thinking, opening it there. And even in the upstairs location, the artist and museum provided no effective guidance on how to experience the work; the strong overhead visual network of cables and speakers overwhelmed the gentle audio component, and visitors tended to enter talking with each other, walk around talking inside, and leave without ever really experiencing the work.

But after my recent hip surgery, I arrived at the IMA to find the Japanese paintings replaced by ceramics, and when I reached the Swartz installation, my hip was aching, the room was empty for a change, and I laid down on one of the two padded benches and closed my eyes. Finally, in its aerie high above the river and the winter landscape, “Terrain” began to work on and for me, teasing my ears and freeing my mind. My thoughts slowed to a standstill and my hearing expanded, at least until a group of talkers came in, circled cluelessly, and left. Contrary to Swartz’s stated intention, the audience needs to be still, not in motion, in order to apprehend how the sound is changing across the space of the installation.

Hence, in yesterday’s return visit, I took the elevator straight up to 4. “Terrain” was occupied, but this time, amazingly, by other silent, motionless kindred spirits: 3 on the benches and one on the floor in lotus position. I tried standing at the wall of windows for a while, gazing out over the stark winter forest and river to the dull western plains, but full attention required full relaxation. So I went elsewhere and returned later, when I found a young man sprawling on one bench and the other bench empty.

I laid down again, and we two strangers shared the ever-changing soundscape for a blissful 20 minutes or so. Whispers from one direction, tickling my ears, fading away. Tuneful humming from another direction, building, fading. A sustained silence, emptiness outside and in. Eventually, my body felt like moving again.

The least distracting way out is thru a narrow lightless corridor, past a James Turrell installation, and through a small video projection room. As I emerged into the bright central atrium of the museum, I heard someone behind me saying “Excuse me, sir.” It was the young guy from “Terrain.”

“Do you visit often?” he asked.

“Yes – I don’t live here, but I visit every chance I get, just to meditate,” I replied.

“Have you tried the Turrell?”

“No, not really. What’s up with that?”

He led me back into the darkness. From the narrow corridor, the Turrell room is so dark the room itself is indistinct. “Hold your hands out in front of you and walk to the wall,” he said. Together, we slowly advanced into the darkness. As your eyes adjust, you begin to recognize an even darker rectangle centered in the opposite wall, like a large black painting. Then when you reach the wall, your hands go right through – it’s actually an opening, but the inside is not just black, it’s a colorless void – you can’t see an end to it. It could be infinite.

“Amazing!” I said quietly. “Thank you!”

We stood side by side staring into the void, alone in the silent room, for 10 minutes or so. It was another form of meditation, that would’ve been spoiled by others passing in the corridor or entering the room.

Then I turned and thanked him again, slowly returning to the outer world.

I don’t know of any other museum where an experience like this is possible – and at the IMA, it seems to be an unintended and well-kept secret. We artists are painfully aware of the gulf between our intentions and our achievements, but we are much less aware of the broader potential of our work to come alive and transcend our intentions in different environments and with different audiences. Swartz’s original idea that “it’s all happening overhead and you negotiate it by the path you walk” turns out to be a very limited way of experiencing her piece. You really need relaxation, stillness and silence for something like this. But going beyond the artist’s intention is a success, not a failure.

Even now, years after their openings, I think the Swartz and Turrell installations have the potential to be the most powerful works at the IMA, but largely accidentally. I’m dreading the day when the museum will retire them.

Julianne Swartz’s “Terrain”

James Turrell’s “Acton”

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