By Juan Barquin
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What does a baroque altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus have to do with a pair of incandescent pink and purple ghetto-fabulous sneakers? At the Bass Museum of Art, the answer is a fresh way of presenting historical and contemporary artworks side by side to pique interest and get people talking.
Titled "Human Rites," the exhibit showcases works that reflect both the subconscious and premeditated need for rituals in everyday life. It's aimed at understanding the timelessness of ritual, expressed historically and anthropologically in religious as well as other contexts.
"We want to become the place where art history and contemporary art come together to inspire conversations," says Silvia Karman Cubiñá, the Bass's executive director and chief curator. "I would like the museum to become a destination where families and young people come to hang out on Sundays and experience art in a nontraditional way."
During a visit this past Sunday, a trickle of visitors, mostly women and children, approached with almost reverent silence a 16th-century polychrome altarpiece by an unknown artist. As the women were looking at the scene of the Virgin and Christ child next to two biblical prophets, a young boy furtively pointed at a striking untitled photograph by Roberto Marossi depicting a staged modern re-enactment of the Lamentation of Christ.
The boy stared at the photo's two sweater-clad middle-aged women, ostensibly the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, tending the prone body of a bare-chested young man playing the role of Jesus at the moment he is removed from the crucifix. The boy's mother offered him a sweet before bending over to explain the picture's symbolism and point out the similarities between the two works.
It is the kind of touching reaction Cubiñá craves. Since taking the museum's reins a little more than a year ago, she has turned the Bass on its head.
During the last edition of Art Basel, Cubiñá organized "Where Do We Go From Here?: Selections From La Colección Jumex," representing one of the largest privately held collections of contemporary art in Latin America.
The stateside debut of the Mexico-based collection marked a major coup for Cubiñá and was arguably one of the most talked-about and visited local shows during the December fair.
Since then, the dynamic curator has also rescued a mummy from obscurity and launched the Egyptian Gallery at the Bass, which features an ancient stiff and a collection of rare artifacts on permanent display in the only space of its kind in the state.
"My goal has been to integrate a variety of different and interesting works and artifacts from the museum's collection for the public to discover them in a new and exciting way," Cubiñá explains.
"In our current show, we have juxtaposed many historical pieces alongside new works from various local collections to encourage novel interpretations and approaches to experiencing a museum exhibit. By placing them in a new context next to contemporary art, it allows a broader understanding of how art history has evolved and appeals to young audiences who might be more interested in cutting-edge art as well," the curator adds.
Cubiñá's thumbprint is all over "Human Rites," which she organized along with adjunct curator Steve Holmes. The exhibition features everything from 15th- and 16th-century devotional altarpieces and statues to provocative works by top-drawer contemporary names. Among them are Marina Abramovic, Shirin Neshat, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Mark Dion, Ai Weiwei, El Anatsui, Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, Subodh Gupta, Thomas Hirschhorn, Roberto Marossi, Massimo Vitali, and César Trasobares.
Around the corner from the 16th-century polychrome altar and Marossi's photograph, Subodh Gupta's arresting aluminum and bronze sculpture appears at first like a giant hand grenade. A closer look reveals it more closely resembles a duffel bag secured with rope perched on one of those luggage carts typically found in an airport terminal.
Titled Dubai to Mumbai, the sculpture represents a common sight found at airports in Islamic cities where the devout undertake the Haj in transit to Mecca. It brought to mind the devastating 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
Above it, Rirkrit Tiravanija's Buddha Project, placed in a corner above eye level as if to provoke veneration, features 200 hand-carved wooden Buddha sculptures on a gleaming stainless-steel shelf. The artist found a small statue in an antique shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and asked a master carver to create a thousand replicas in various sizes. Tiravanija later donated many of these statues to monasteries in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang as a gesture of reconciliation between the Laotian and Thai peoples, who share a troubled political history, according to wall text.
Across from the Buddhas, Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles resembles a mammoth Tibetan prayer wheel. Constructed from 72 bicycles arranged in a circle and soaring heavenward in the center of a gallery, the totemic opus catches the dappled sunlight filtering in through a skylight and looks like it would be more at home in the center ring of a traveling circus.
Equally visually poetic is a silver gelatin print photo of Islamic men wearing pristine white shirts and praying while seated in a tightly concentric circle. It is part of Shirin Neshat's Rapture Series, depicting the consequences of gender separation imposed by the Islamic religion. The series garnered the International award at the Venice Biennale in 1999.
Perhaps the most compelling work on display is the photographic documentation of Marina Abramovic's iconic 1974 performance, Rhythm O, in which the Serbian artist tested her physical endurance and sought to transgress boundaries between herself and the public. During the performance, Abramovic stood next to a table on which she had placed 72 objects that visitors could use on her nude body. Some of the items would result in pleasure; others would inflict pain.
While Abramovic stood in a trance-like state, spectators were invited to ritually engage her body with sundry items such as a whip, lipstick, a fork, matches, a hairpin, a lamb bone, scissors, a candle, and a bandage. The performance was abruptly stopped when a man pointed a loaded gun at the artist's head, and the rest of the audience tackled him.
Scenes from Abramovic's ritual offering of her body linger in the mind long after one leaves the exhibit.
"Our goal was to create an environment where people can explore everything from rites of passage to the everyday rituals that consume our attention," Cubiñá muses.