On Saturday, I pulled on some fleece-lined leggings and gloves and adventured into the city with my friends Jill and MacKenzie. We’re all community art students, in one way or another, and we wanted to make a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art together. This blog isn’t about opinions or advice or essays. It’s about thoughts and memories and the tangled bits and images of days. So while I know I can’t do justice to the stories we made together on Saturday, this is the place where I can record some of those conversations and hold onto them for a bit as something precious.
Our college sits right next to a train station, so we bundled up after brunch and meet by the tracks just in time to catch the 10:57 train. It rolled in on time and we barely made it, climbing the steps to the higher seats and sitting above the heads of everyone else. It’s about a forty five minute ride from our campus to the heart of the city, and the only time I like to make the trip is when I have someone to sit and talk with. On this day I had two people on my right–Jill with her pale skin and pom pom sweater and MacKenzie with layered scarves and snow boots. We spent the train ride talking over and around each other. We took turns practicing listening. I think it’s important to have friends whose words you value.
Getting to the museum was a breeze, and they gave discounted $7 for students. To be honest, I didn’t know what it would be like to go to an art museum with artistic friends. I’d been to numerous art museums with other friends in the past and it was a blast. But I’d still always felt a little alone in the room, like everyone else was focusing on seeing and liking and I was focusing on seeing and being.
MacKenzie and Jill are both community art majors though, and they have a deep passion for feeling art in and with their bodies. Jill is a dancer–just over five feet tall with wide eyes and a constant desire to move. “I have this thing I like to do,” she said in the first room of the museum. We were standing in front of a huge canvas that towered over our heads. It was several inches thick with paint, blotted and spread and layered in a myriad of colors like the backside of a tapestry. “Sometimes, when I see a piece of art, I like to move in response to it.”
“Oh, I love that,” MacKenzie almost jumped in excitement. “Let’s approach each new work together and count to three, then we can all move in an immediate response to it. Okay?”
Someone counted to three and, with slow, unhurried limbs, we moved in response to the large canvas of layered paint. Then we took a few steps toward the next piece and did the same thing. Within the course of the next half hour, we’d covered the majority of the room with footsteps, spins, curls, and bends. Some pieces made us hurt, caving inward with hands gripping our stomachs and hearts. Framed works created out of colored pencils and crayons sparked our inner sense of play. A hanging mobile made us gently turn beneath it, imagining the object to be a bird suspended in flight. Something made us sad and we might stop. A few feet over, something might make us laugh. The gallery was full of us.
I had a thought in all of this. By physically reacting to art, are we, in some way, becoming art ourselves?
I don’t think art is meant to be hung and examined in galleries. Don’t get me wrong–I love galleries. I love sharing a space with people who are fully experiencing enjoyment and pain and play. But I’ve found that what I enjoy even more than standing in a gallery is moving in a gallery. I enjoy touching things. I enjoy rawness. I enjoy being art.
Jill made a comment near the end of the day that made me laugh. I’d just been talking about how I go to art galleries to feel inspired to do something–to write or create in some way. “Yeah,” Jill said. “I like to leave an art gallery feeling like I’ve just eaten a meal. My belly is full, you know?”
We obviously don’t look to art to fill us. I realize that art can’t fix all the brokenness in the world or make us whole. But art can capture the wonder and play that we are too often scared to release. Recently I’ve been looking at photographs cave paintings in an art history class. One in particular strikes me as whimsical. It’s the smudged into stone portrait of a pregnant deer. There’s something breathlessly beautiful about that. When you look at a photograph of a cave wider than an IMAX theater, covered with bright paintings of red bulls somersaulting through the sky, you can’t help but be reminded of the physical nature of art.
Creations made in the image of a Creator are full of movement. They are full of play. And the moment you start to think of art as something sterile, something protected, something glass-covered–you’ve lost the ability to experience it.
Here’s to moving in the MCA Chicago. Maybe someday we’ll all go dancing in the Met.