Monday, October 27, 2014

Bicycle Magic

Title: The Sculpture Garden at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Year: 1994-2008
Material: Metal (likely aluminum), held in place by grout, alongside ceramic, glass, and recycled materials
Creator: Isaiah Zagar
Collection: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

To borrow the words of author James E. Starrs, “Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling.” I couldn't agree more. For nearly a decade, I have navigated the mean streets of Philadelphia by bicycle. Granted, I've had a few collisions with slick trolley tracks, flat tires, and one stolen wheel, but I wouldn't want to get around any other way. Not only is it environmentally friendly and cost-effective, cycling awakens my mind, gets my blood pumping, and the keeps my spirits high. Bicycling is my therapy.

Visiting Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG) this week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with museum staff and the artist, Isaiah Zagar. For Zagar, the creation of the mosaicked wonderland was 12 year act of therapeutic artistry. One object included throughout Zagar’s work that particularly resonates with me is the bicycle wheel.

The wheels in Zagar’s work at PMG are composed of a round aluminum rim, a series of wire tension spokes, a metal hub at the center. Some perch like gargoyles along the tops of the sculpture garden, while others are integrated into the walls, like windows. The wheel’s strong circular form stands in contrast to the geometric shapes that encompass most of the other mosaic tiles, and the natural shapes of the bottles and ceramic folk art. Wheels are also represented in two dimensional forms, painted onto tiles, and included in series of Zagar’s drawings currently on display.  In addition to providing visual interest, wheels often symbolize a cycle or repetition, as well as health and strength. Perhaps they represent Zagar’s own healing, or the revitalization of the neighborhood. Like most materials in the space, each bicycle wheel is grouted into place. While individual objects, they are pieces of a larger, magnificent structure.

Curiosity Wheel
As a frequent PMG visitor, I have admired the bicycle wheels, but I never knew where they came from, or why they were used.  Since my last visit, PMG has installed a “Cabinet of Curiosities” in its center gallery, which through a variety of objects, images and reading materials invites visitors to learn more about PMG, Zagar, and the mosaic process. A small red wheel immediately caught my eye. As the attached text label notes, Isaiah incorporates bicycle wheels into his work because they create a strong, circular form, without obstructing light. What’s more, these wheels were donated to Zagar by Via Bicycle, a shop just down the street.  The label is presented in a narrative museum voice. Rather than simply stating facts, the label poses a question, “What other recycled materials do you see in the space?” which encourages visitors to be actively explore, rather than just accumulate facts.

It’s true, I thought, as I wandered throughout the sculpture garden on this particularly dreary afternoon, the wheels above me formed little windows into the sky, and the lower ones were portals from which to peer into the cavernous space. How appropriate, I thought, that the wheels were acquired through a neighboring business; the sculpture garden was an effort to beautify and revitalize the neighborhood, and this is great example of how the community has contributed to this vision.

In addition to the owners of Via, who may see themselves reflected in Zagar’s work, the wheels might also be important to cyclists, advocates of recycling and creative reuse, those interested in community revitalization, and artists and patrons of visionary art spaces. As a familiar object that has been transformed into art, I would assume that most of PMG’s general audiences appreciate the wheels. 

A glimpse of The Heidelberg Project
To better understand Zagar’s use of wheels, one could explore visionary art environments, folk art, mosaics and murals. One visionary art environment that I was fortunate to visit a few years ago was The Heidelberg Project in Detroit, Michigan. One could also trace the history of wheels back to the Bronze Age , or explore wheel symbology found in religions such as Buddhism.

While it is unlikely that the bicycle wheels stir up much controversy, individuals who are offended by Zagar’s visual and textual depictions of nudity may likely be disinterested in his body of work. It’s possible that other individuals might simply find PMG to be too visually overwhelming. Going further, it is plausible that someone could pass by the museum and mistake it as a junk yard, or the home of a hoarder.  From this point of view, the reaction might be, ‘What an eyesore. This wacko can’t even let go of old bicycle wheels and broken ceramics!’

To further engage visitors, I would partner with Philly Bike Tours create a bike tour that explores Zagar’s murals throughout the city.  Along the way, the tour would also visit The Resource Exchange, a local organization that promotes recycling and creative reuse, and Neighborhood BikeWorks, an organization that teaches and promotes bicycle building, repair and safety.

This was a particularly memorable visit to PMG.  At the helm of my bicycle riding away in the rain, I was reminded of how bicycle wheels, whether for art or transport, make me happy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Identities in Marble

Title: Statuette of a Hermaphrodite
Year: 199-100 BCE
Material: Carved Marble (Stone)
Creator: Unknown
Collection: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Marble nudes rarely captivate me. Entering the Rome Gallery, however, a small stone figure with a flipped-up skirt caught my eye. Here was Hermaphroditus, the deity of unions, androgyny, marriage, sexuality, and fertility, in all his glory. Or was it her glory?

Presented in a narrative museum voice, the accompanying text explains that Hermaphroditus was the son of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite, after whom he was named. Attracting a nymph admirer, who prayed for her body to be joined to his, Hermaphroditus became a hybrid human with both female and male characteristics. Among the many sculptural depictions of Hermaphroditus, the Louvre's Sleeping Hermaphroditus may be the most well-known.
Sleeping Hermaphroditus, The Louvre, Paris

While I am uncertain of how this item was acquired, among the 30,000+ items within the museum’s Mediterranean collection, many objects were acquired through Individual purchases or gifts, or through collections that were deeded to the institution. As a sculptural representation of a Greek Deity, this object is important to art historians, scholars and students of religion and Classics and anyone with a curiosity about ancient civilizations. It might also appeal to individuals with an interest in gender and sexual identity, like me.

It seems appropriate that this classical Roman stone sculpture object would be on display in the Rome Gallery among other marble sculptures that represent this period and culture. While most marble heads, bodies and busts appear static; this sculpture seems to be captured in motion. What’s more, this movement, the flipping up of dress, reveals something personal (and potentially controversial) about the object’s sexual identity: its genitals. Presented in a small glass case on a pedestal, this statue of a deity pairs nicely with an adjacent panel and coin collection about Deified Virtues. During the development of the Roman Republic, the introductory text summarizes, “a series of abstract, socially positive qualities were elevated into state-sponsored cults and provided with temples. Some had affinities with pre-existent Greek cults, while others were tied to purely local circumstances and events.” Libertas, for instance, is the personification of Liberty, and is presented on a coin as the silhouette of a woman with jewels in her hair. 
It’s interesting to consider what iconography might be used to depict  a modern-day Libertas...Firearms? The Starbucks logo? An iphone?

While our country is slowly getting itself together in terms of certain liberties, (Over 64% of Americans will soon reside in a state where same-sex couples have the freedom to marry), and sexual identity, rarely is intersex part of the public discourse. There is a spectrum of sex types beyond common definitions of “female” and “male,” and about 1 in 2000 babies are born intersex. The term “true hermaphrodite” refers to an individual who is born with both ovarian and testicular tissue, regardless of if and how this tissue functions physiologically. This describes some intersexed individuals, but others may not have any external indications. I’m not an expert, but its related to the wide possibilities 
of chromosomal make-ups. What I do know, is because of their “otherness,” people born with anatomy that does meet a culture’s normative of “male” and “female” can face a lot of hardship. And that’s not okay.

Wow, who would've thought that a small marble sculpture could incite this energy and engagement? This is probably a good time to note that this object may not be appropriate for school groups. While young people could and should be included in challenging conversations, during a museum tour with a bunch of their peers may not be the time and place (and could upset a lot of parents). In fact, I learned that the museum's Director of Education made sure that the sculpture be positioned within the gallery in a way that would allow for it to be easily bypassed by school tour groups.

Adherents of strict gender and sexuality norms would also not be interested in this object, although I wouldn't mind engaging them in a healthy debate. Opposing views might argue that the character in this statue was formed out of an ancient myth and does not and should not have any relevance to modern life. Or, one might argue that intersexuality is somehow unnatural and immoral;this sculpture represents how sexual deviancy was an underlying cause for the fall of ancient empires.
More Info

One could further explore this object through the lense of history, mythology, or classical sculpture, but I'd personally take a different approach.  In Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, author Alice Dreger discusses how the term “true hermaphrodite” was used derogatorily during Victorian times in attempts to make intersexuality disappear. Another book, Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex by Elizabeth Reis might be another good place to learn more about sexuality and medical ethics. The Intersex Society of North America is another great resource. 

Seeing that the museum already actively engages Penn students and faculty, I might create a program that caters to courses offered within the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department. Students would learn about intersexuality through pre-visit readings and class discussions. During a museum visit, students would be led through inquiry-based activity focused on the sculpture and other objects in the collection (I’m sure there are many) that are atypical depictions or ideas about gender and sexuality.

I am hopeful that someday  intersexuality will be better understood and embraced by our culture. Until then, Hermaphroditus can serve to inspire thoughtful dialogue about the issue, just by hiking up his skirt.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Quartz Petrified Wood at The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Title: Quartz Petrified Wood
Year: 200 million years ago
Material: Petrified Wood
Creator: Nature;  A tree in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park
Collection: The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Did this tree look like this?
Once a tree, now a rock, this beautiful hunk of petrified wood has undergone quite a transformation over the last, oh, 200 million years or so. Petrified is from the Greek root petro meaning "rock" or "stone;" literally "wood turned into stone." Basically, this tree slowly morphed to stone through permineralization, a process that occurs when a tree’s interior is replaced by the minerals from the surrounding soil, but the shape of the tree remains. It is now a fossilized version of its former self.
In order for this to occur, there must be some ideal conditions. A tree falls. It becomes buried in sediment, creating an oxygen-free environment, which prevents the tree from decomposing. As time passes, minerals in the surrounding sediment enter the tree’s cells. These cell walls decay and are replaced by a stone mould, often silica-quartz. Make sense? My grandfather was a geoscientist, but I unfortunately did not inherit his science smarts, so if you need a more thorough explanation, check this out. 

This object was given to the Wagner Free Institute of Science by John Goodhart Rothermel, who directed the Institute from 1903-1924. An avid explorer and collector, he contributed many specimens to the collection.  Rothermel discovered this specimen during a visit to Arizona’s petrified forests the summer of 1915, shipped it back to the Institute, and it was been on display ever since. The area where this specimen was found was declared a National Park in 1962 (appropriately named, The Petrified Forest National Park) and is considered to have one of the largest, most colorful collections of petrified wood in the world. 

Geologists, archeologists, naturalists, environmental biologists, artists, National Park Rangers and Park visitors might all be interested in this object. Knowing of my love of old trees and National Parks, a friend had told me about it prior to my visit, so I was on the prowl. I looked and looked (and even asked a staff member who didn't seem to know what "really old tree" I was talking about). Just when I was about to give up, there it stood, in the southeast corner of the room, hiding under a staircase. 

This object is presented in a glass case that sits atop a wooden stand. While there are other fossils from trees and other plants in a case far across the room, this one stands alone. Nearby cases include shells, many of which William and Louisa Wagner collected on their honeymoon. Just as the tree was once alive with roots and cells and leaves, these shells formerly contained a fragile, living creature inside. Large birds (also formerly living creatures) and nests are also within view. One could make an association between these animals and this ancient tree, as many birds call trees home. Given its origins in the Petrified National Forest however, any modern birds would not yet have existed when this tree stood, but perhaps a few theropod dinosaurs hung out in its branches?

As you can see from the images above, this object is accompanied by very little descriptive text. If the label did not identify this specimen as petrified wood, visitors, particularly those without a strong science background, might form a different narrative about this object. One might assume it has “always” been a rock. Without an understanding of how rocks are created, one might guess that this pretty rock was formed within the last few centuries. While its beauty is apparent, its age and compelling narrative are not obvious to the average viewer. Independent research and/or insights from an expert (such as the Wagner’s Archivist) are useful in order to fully appreciate this specimen. Unfortunately, without one or both of these information-gathering methods, many visitors might not express an interest in this object or at the very least, overlook it because of its placement within the gallery.
Book Info Here

To enrich my understanding, I could read more about the Petrified Forest National Park online, or check out Petrified Forest: A Story in Stone by Sidney Ash or When Wood Turns to Stone: The Story of the Arizona National Petrified Forest by 
K.S. Tankersley. It might also be fun to explore other species that likely existed during this tree's life. 

Book Info Here
Researching online, I was interested to learn that this object was highlighted through a special program in September of 2011, as part of the International Year of Forests. During “Fantastic Forests,” visitors could participate in an interactive natural history lesson, a forest-themed scavenger hunt and outdoor activities in the pollinator garden.  Attendees learned about types of forests and their surrounding ecosystems, why they are important, and how they can be protected. Personally, I would like to declare every year to be an International Year of Forests and would implement a program similar to  “Fantastic Forests” on a permanent basis. Knowing that this institution sees a primarily urban audience, I would also create a special program about the importance of city trees. Collaborating with The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Tree Philly, this event could include a presentations and interactive demonstrations about tree identification, tree care, and how to plant street and yard trees. In advance of the event, participants could sign up for a free street or yard tree and pick it up at a nearby location in Fairmount Park after the event (of course, this would take a lot of coordination).
While the scientific processes that transformed this wood to stone are a little complicated for me to comprehend, its beauty speaks for itself. I am eager to see more. Next stop, The Petrified Forest National Park.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Title: Cellblock 4; Voices From Eastern State Penitentiary
Year: 1829 (building) 1930s-1960 (photographs) 1992-2003 (audio interviews)
Material: Audio Tour, Black and White Photographs, Ruins of Cellblock 4
Creator: Unknown
Collection: Primarily Eastern State Penitentiary Collection

Rather than hone in on a single object this week, I’d like to tell you about a corridor of things. Decorated with pictures, lined with doorways that lead to little rooms, full of voices, this hallway may be reminiscent of a passage in your own home. However, I’m describing Cellblock 4 in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), the home to prisoners of times past.

Entering the cellblock, visitors are prompted to begin the audio tour, Voices from Eastern State Penitentiary. Scattered along the length of the cellblock, large photographs hang alternately on both sides of the walls. In between the images visitors can peer into the individual cells, each in a state of ghostly ruin.  Presented as a series of oral histories, the audio tour deepens the visitor experience. Let me explain how this works. Approaching the first image in the exhibit, one sees a photograph of a former inmate being fingerprinted in 1954. Written above the image reads the text, “I think I was there about three weeks, and then I went Four Block.” Listening through headphones, this text is the first line of former inmate, Maurice Talley’s oral history. The audio continues, allowing time for the visitor to listen, study the image, and peer into the nearby cells. Throughout the hallway, the text included with each image mirrors the first line of a new oral history, which cues the visitor into what images and audio correspond. Realistically, I assume some visitors do not listen to the audio. Please do. It'll make for a much richer, contextualized experience.

“I think I was there about three weeks, and then I went Four Block...”

"And we had television on the blocks at certain times..."
The images originate from a variety of sources, including the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives, Eastern State Penitentiary’s collection and gifts from individuals. Most of the audio was captured by Hal Kern and Associates in 1992 and 1993. Documenting daily life, these visual and oral stories tell of playing baseball and getting jobs assignments, to prison violence and the psychological effects of imprisonment. In some sense, the narratives stand in sheer opposition to each other; the narrative is perplexing and inconsistent. One after another, the depilated cells stress the stark reality of solitary confinement, while the images and interviews juxtapose the equally playful and terrifying experience of daily life. By design, these tonal shifts provoke visitors to reflect on the realities of incarceration.

"If you hit a guard at that time..." "At the time I thought this was a real horror..."
The exhibit in Cellblock 4 may be important to individuals and organizations interested in the history of the American justice system, as well as those concerned with social issues like incarceration, racial disparities and violence. Scholars and enthusiasts of architecture, historic preservation, photography, and oral histories would also value this place.  As their loved ones are memorialized here through image and word, this cellblock is also significant to the surviving loved ones of former inmates and guards. Each interviewee is recognized in a final panel. 
Final Exhibition Panel 

Exploring the Temple University's Urban Archives might shed some more light on the ESP narrative. ESP also has a wonderful list of resources available on their website. Political Activist and Scholar Angela Davis has written a lot about incarceration and racism (I was fortunate to hear her speak several years ago) like this one. 

Because of its pacing and content, Cellblock 4 would likely not be of interest to younger audiences, or anyone desiring a more interactive experience. These visitors will be more drawn to the spaces that include artist installations, cells that one can step inside, and “celebrity cells.”

Quite honestly, I wouldn't change anything about the Cellblock 4 experience. If pushed, however, I might consider taking the oral histories a step further, and providing visitors with access to the full transcripts from the interviews with former inmates and guards. This could be provided online, or a few printed copies could be available to read within the cellblock.

Each corridor within The Eastern State Penitentiary reads like a different chapter of a larger narrative; one focuses on the 19th century establishment, another addresses issues of gender, sexuality, some highlight famous inmates, like Al Capone, and others portions are dedicated to interpretive installations presented by individual artists. Most importantly, this story isn't over.  The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Something has to change.