The Observant Eye: Influences in the Modern and Contemporary Galleries of the Met

On Friday nights, the Met is open till nine. The iconic steps are softly lit by exterior lighting along with the fountains splashing away, giving the museum an entirely different feel from during the day when it’s overwhelmed with crowds of people. The Observant Eye is a

Dusasa II by El Anatsui

series that runs every two weeks where a seminar-size group of students, graduates, and adults gather to focus on one gallery in the Met. Last Friday, I attended a lecture focusing on the Modern and Contemporary galleries of the museum.

Attendees are handed black fold out chairs emblazoned with the Met logo, a piece of cardboard, and some sketch paper. We sit ourselves down in front of a piece called “Dusasa II,” made by a Ghanian artist named El Anatsui. The piece is a sculpture taking up an entire wall of the gallery. It is made out of thousands upon thousands of liquor bottle caps strung together by copper wire to culminate into a massive cloth. The piece looks strangely organic, gathering into undulating folds as a regular piece of cloth would and demonstrates fluid changes in the types of metal caps used and in the techniques of how each cap was transformed.

Usually with contemporary art, a person hardly has the time to truly sit down with a piece and focus on it for a good amount of time before real meaning actually emerges. Instead, the meaning comes from the description laid out on the wall text or the first

Detail shot

impressions he or she gathers just from staring at a piece for a minute. For an hour, a lecturer detailed the back story of the piece showing videos of the process and encouraging us to reflect and discuss how our view of the piece changed after new information about it was revealed.

She pointed out how groups of people from the artist’s homeland came together to create individual patches of the cloth and how the artist put together each piece to create a sculpture that embodied the communal nature of its construction. She pointed out the dialectic between the randomness of each patch that was out of the artist’s hand and other characteristics that the artist was able to control, such as the aggregation of metal caps. Each point the lecturer made added to a richer understanding of the piece at hand.

What originally appeared to me to be a sculpture made out of post-consumer goods transformed for different purposes, developed into something with a much more complex narrative that revealed biographical aspects of the artist and something deeply cultural.

In the art history classes that I have taken we have visited museums and spent time discussing individual pieces in class. Yet it’s rare to take the time to reflect on something for an hour and have the work of art that’s being discussed right in front of you. Contemporary art is something that takes more than just a brief Manhattan onceover and requires revisiting to really form an understanding about it. Series such as The Observant Eye help create an in-person setting for these investigations, which is a lot more fruitful than analyzing a Piet Mondrian painting from a hi-res image on your Mac.

-Caroline Chen CC’15

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