August 24, 2012
Seen from above, a soft, sepia-toned still of expansive crop circles somewhere in the south of Jordan floats beneath the camera. The image zooms gracefully closer. From such a distance, the landscape is unarmed, decontextualized and calm–like the comforting pan of a Ken Burns documentary. A crescendo of intrusive industrial sounds interrupt the still. The beat of propellers and a blast of static radio transmission erupt over the sequence of aerial images.
This is the dichotomous world of wide-open space and acoustic density that greets the viewer at the Sackler‘s new exhibit opening August 25, “Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne Al-Ani.” The Iraqi-born artist has long been interested in the ways the Middle Eastern landscape has been visually transmitted. From archaeological documents to early military surveillance images, the region has been presented as a blank and ominous background.
Working closely with the Sackler’s collection of negatives and prints from the early 20th-century German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld, Al-Ani was able to juxtapose her modern footage with historical documents. Split between three galleries, the exhibit begins with Herzfeld’s photographs before moving to Al-Ani’s 2008 piece The Guide and Flock, which features two screens, one with a man walking into the distance along a desert road and a smaller once placed inside the first with a stream of noisy traffic zipping across the frame. The final room includes Al-Ani’s new Shadow Sites installation as well as a small box that allows visitors to peer down on a screen of ants crawling over the desert sand.
“I was very interested in the idea of the disappearance of the body in the landscape through crime, genocide and massacre but also in the idea of the artist trying to remove himself or his presence from the image,” explains Al-Ani, contemplating the persistent desolation that carries into her work as well.
Al-Ani began to consider the enduring legacy of such presentations during the first Gulf War. She cites the work of theorist Paul Virilio and his 1989 text, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, when she describes the dehumanizing effect of a diet of desert imagery that comes out of the Middle East. But it was cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard who applied a visual analysis to both the implementation and presentation of the Gulf War in a series of 1991 essays. Published collectively in 1995 in a book titled, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Baudrillard’s writings argue that the new military technologies delivered a hyper-real sense of violence that was at once precise and disembodied. Indeed, the casualties were markedly uneven because of the use of air attacks, supporting Baudrillard’s assertion that the war was in some ways a virtual war. Seen in this context, the calm aerial panorama of a desert landscape takes on a much more sinister quality.
Using research collections from the Air and Space museum on military technology and the Sackler’s collection of Herzfeld’s photographs, Al-Ani was able to highlight the ambiguity of both military surveillance images and archaeological documents. Describing Herzfeld’s records, she says, “I thought his work was very interesting because often he photographed his journey to the site, or the site from such a distance, that you’d almost not be able to see what the subject of the photograph was. They became kind of autonomous landscapes.”
Likewise, her images exist somewhere between the blurred lines of art, documentation and surveillance. And indeed she had to work across multiple agencies, including the Jordanian military to secure permits for filming. After waiting out a rare stretch of rain, Al-Ani was able to take to the sky with a cameraman and pilot to photograph sites, including a sheep farm, crops, ruins and Ottoman military trenches.
Explaining the process and the show’s title, she says, “When you’re up in the air and the sun is just rising or setting in the sky, these very slight undulations that wouldn’t be present on the ground reveal the site as a drawing from above because of the shadows. The ground itself becomes a kind of latent photographic image of a past event embedded in the landscape.”
Al-Ani still hopes to add to the series with similar treatments of landscapes from the United States and Great Britain. Comparing the deserts of Arizona with those of Jordan, her work would connect disparate lands. For now, viewers can survey a visual history of the Middle East right in Washington, D.C.
“Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne Al-Ani” runs August 25 through February 10, 2013. On August 25 at 2 p.m. curator Carol Huh will be joined by artist Jananne Al-Ani to discuss her work.
August 6, 2012
Barbara Kruger’s iconic red, white and black words are finding their way back into a familiar place—one that is not a gallery. “Belief + Doubt,” the latest exhibition by the artist famous for slogans like “I shop therefore I am,” opens August 20 in the bookstore at the Hirshhorn Museum. Until then, visitors can preview a site-specific installation in the lower lobby that plasters the escalators, floors, walls and ceilings with words that portray themes from absolutism to consumerism.
The space is one of the Hirshhorn’s most highly trafficked locations, but it has long remained a subdued passageway that simply connected visitors to more contemplative, artistic galleries. Exhibition curator Melissa Ho says that the decision was “based on a larger effort by the museum to activate new parts of our campus to show art. The lobby is a place of total movement. It is not a sheltered place but one with lots of bodies, all going places.”
Kruger’s work was deemed a perfect fit for both the museum’s iconic architecture and for the bustling hum of the lobby. “[Her] art operates outside of galleries, in the middle of everyday life. It really has the power to grab your eye and stick in your head. This space was previously ignored, but now people are riveted. They spend a long time reading down there.”
“Belief + Doubt” invites its audience to participate in a lobby of language. The power of words can be found not only in meaning but also in size, with some words taking up entire walls, and open-ended questions covering the floors and ceilings. Kruger makes use of architecture so that reading, an act generally considered still and personal, becomes a much more physical experience.
Many of the themes represented in the exhibition will be familiar to Kruger fans, including consumerism and questions of the circulation of power. Different, though, is how these themes echo given their new context: the nation’s capital during the onset of an election year. The largest display and the inspiration for the exhibition’s title, reads: “Belief + Doubt = Sanity.” This language contrasts starkly with the absolutism that abounds in many political campaigns. “It’s telling us that ideological absolutism isn’t always a good thing,” says Ho.
The exhibition continues into the museum’s newly renovated gift shop, forcing shoppers to consider the act of purchasing while browsing. The words, “You want it, you buy it, you forget it” loom over museum-goers as they shop, a detail that Ho says makes the experience more valuable. “When those words are actually executed,” she says, “you understand them all the more.”
April 30, 2012
Tuesday, May 1 Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Tour
Happy May Day! May 1st kicks off Smithsonian Gardens’ Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Tour, which runs every Tuesday through October. The garden’s namesake, Mrs. S. Dillon Ripley, wife of the Smithsonian Institution’s eighth Secretary, dreamed up a “fragrant garden” on the eastern border of the Arts and Industries Building, which was originally designated to become a parking lot. In 1978, she made the dream a reality with the help of the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Associates. Join horticulturist Janet Draper for a guided stroll through the garden. Free. 2:00 p.m. Meet at the fountain in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.
Wednesday, May 2 X-Ray Astronomy and the Multicolored Universe
Space telescope Chandra’s X-ray camera can see some of the most dynamic events in space—erupting black holes, exploding stars, and colliding galaxies. In this lecture, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explains how X-ray telescopes like Chandra probe cosmic dramas. $40 for general admission, $30 for members. 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. S. Dillon Ripley Center.
Thursday, May 3 Meet the Artist: Roni Horn
The New York Times once remarked, “Sometimes it seems as if Roni Horn’s art were considered the greatest thing since sliced bread, at least in certain regions of the art world.” Horn’s work, which spans sculpture, photography, painting and drawing, has certainly attracted attention for its provocative statements on gender, androgyny and identity. In this latest of the Hirshhorn’s “Meet the Artist” series, Horn will discuss her recent projects and inspirations. Free. 7:00 p.m. Hirshhorn Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
January 25, 2012
Throughout her career, world-famous photographer Annie Leibovitz has produced countless stunning portraits of notable figures and celebrities. Her new show, “Pilgrimage,” which opened at the American Art Museum on January 20th, features photography that takes visitors on a biographical tour in a much different way. Rather than showing even a single face or human body, she captures objects and landscapes that shed light on a number of transformative figures in both American and world history—a range of people that includes Eleanor Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud and Annie Oakley.
Ironically, the exhibition arose from Leibovitz’ personal journey of renewal, she explained during a press tour of the exhibition yesterday. ”I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I was first doing it,” she said. “I was trying to find a reason to live, or a place to be inspired, and found that this country has a deep well of places to go.”
The project differs greatly from her previous work, Leibovitz says, because she conceived it while looking for an escape from many of the difficulties—financial and otherwise—that had recently come into her life. As she writes in the book that accompanies the exhibition, after her fortunes took a unexpected tumble, she took her children on a trip to Niagara Falls only to find that her credit card had been declined at the hotel where they had planned to stay. Dejected, she brought her children to the falls and was unexpectedly filled with inspiration. “I was sitting off to the side, feeling a little down, and I saw my children mesmerized, studying the falls,” she said. “I walked over, stood behind them, and took this picture. It’s a photograph that anyone can take—an American snapshot.”
Although Leibovitz was energized by the experience, she was unsure how to proceed. “I wasn’t totally sure if I should do the project, because I was worried,” she said. “These pictures had come out of an escape, of not being on assignment. I was worried that if I made it a project, then it would become something I had to do.”
Nevertheless, she put together a list of places that captured some of history’s most influential and fascinating people. Over the next several years, she traveled to dozens of locations—places like Graceland, Monticello and Yellowstone. “I was swept away when I walked into these places,” she said. “I found myself taking pictures without thinking about the consequences. I was seduced.”
Museum-goers who view the results of Leibovitz’ journey are sure to be seduced as well. The photographs in the exhibition range widely in scale, with some focusing on quotidian minutiae (such as Emily Dickinson’s nightgown) and others revealing vast and uniquely American landscapes (such as the Great Salt Lake or Yosemite Valley). In all cases, the photos convey how Leibovitz chose what to photograph: she captured the objects and scenes that most deeply moved her. The items—things like Georgia O’Keeffe’s handmade pastels, or John Muir’s botanical specimens—are just as moving in the gallery as they must have been when Leibovitz first set eyes upon them.
The journey that led to “Pilgrimage” was first prompted by Leibovitz’ own children, and she hopes the photography can resonate especially well with younger audiences. “When I came into the Smithsonian, there were so many children running around, and it was so exciting to see, so I hung the show low, for the children,” she said. “This book is dedicated to my children, and it’s something that we want to pass on to them. I can’t wait to see a young class in here and see what they think.”
Leibovitz says that she hopes the show will remind others just how much there is to see in this country—and inspire them to start their own pilgrimages. “It was so much fun. I only hope that others see what anyone can get out of this,” she said. “We have this great country, and you can just hit the road and find places that inspire and mean something to you.”
Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage is on view at the American Art Museum through May 20th. Signed copies of her book are available at SmithsonianStore.com.
December 12, 2011
Monday, December 12 Discovery Theater: Seasons of Light
This popular annual event captures the warmth of the holidays and provides a great interactive experience for children, ages 5 to 10. In this theater performance, audience members will have the chance to explore the customs and history of Diwali, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and more. Bring the whole family for a educational event. Tickets are $5 for Residents Associates members, $6 for children non-members, and $8 for the general public. 10:15, with a repeat performance at 11:30 daily, weekdays through Dec. 23. Ripley Center.
Tuesday, December 13 The Expert is In
As part of the Natural History Museum’s “The Expert Is In” series, where curators are stationed within exhibitions to provide visitors with fascinating background information, bird specialist Carla Dove will speak about bird identification. When birds collide with aircraft, highly trained scientists are able to identify species and other information from feathers and small fragments. Listen to Dove’s expert perspective and ask your own questions. Free. 1 to 3 p.m. Natural History Museum, “More Than Meets the Eye” exhibition, 1st floor.
Wednesday, December 14 Day With the Artists
The American Indian Museum’s Artist Leadership Program enables Native artists to build their skills in various contemporary mediums and return to their communities to share their knowledge through art. Take this chance to meet two recipients of the program: Angela Babby, an Oglala Lakota who works with enameled glass mosaics, and Leah White Horse-Mata, from Northern California’s Northern Chumash area, who researches traditional regalia and jewelry. Free. 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. American Indian Museum, Room 4018/4019.
Thursday, December 15 Holiday Jazz
Come for a festive holiday-themed jazz concert with the local DC group “The Minor Thoughts Quartet.” The group, according to its website, plays a “repertoire of straight ahead jazz standards, post-bop, and Lain-influenced jazz.” Attend this performance of the “Take 5!” series to hear their take on the seasonal classics and put a little pizzazz in your holidays. Free. 5 to 7 p.m. American Art Museum, Kogod Courtyard.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.