Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Finding Meaning in the Attic

I was reminded this week of how hard it is to know how museums impact their visitors. It's often very much in the long run--it might take a visitor some time to process that information into their own life experiences. A colleague emailed me asking if I'd seen the installation by Song Dong at the Museum of Modern Art, saying she thought of it when she went up into her attic to look for something. The work, called Waste Not, contains the complete contents of his mother's home in China, including the frame of the house itself, amassed over 50 years, when nothing was wasted.

I had seen the exhibit and had been fascinated both by the array and arrangement of objects and by the way the installation engaged visitors who could walk through and around a lifetime of possessions. But this friend's following email really brought home the sometimes unexpected ways in which meanings can be made:
It kind of hit me over the head when I went up to find something in the attic. Our things are organized by type...all sorted visibly on the floor just like the installation. I stopped in my tracks and had to get my head around it all. Pretty powerful.

Funny, I remember as a child being confused by my Greek grandmother's practice of getting every bit of toothpaste out of the tube...and then she would flatten the tube and cut it with scissors and then scrape the remaining toothpaste out.

I have to say that when I saw the toothpaste tubes in the installation, I had to take a deep breath. I was never close to my grandmother, and she died when I was very young, but I was certainly transported back. It was not until seeing this in the exhibit that I made a connection between the toothpaste tubes and my grandmother's experience in the Turkish war (early 20th c.). I remember her talking about the suffering...and the need for "waste not" all stayed with her until she died.
So from China to Greece to New York, a through thread of toothpaste tubes and family memories thanks to an artist and a museum.

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