Across Time and Space
“Face to Face” with Chitra Ganesh and the Rubin’s Beth Citron
The future (of museum curation) is female, or at least it will be if the Rubin Museum’s Beth Citron is in charge. Through her creative collaborations with practicing artists, Citron, the museum’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, has gained the reputation of being one of the most committed and resourceful curators who “can actually pull [big ideas] off,” according to the artist Chitra Ganesh, her friend and collaborator on The Scorpion Gesture, a series of Ganesh’s animations which Citron organized and helped shape within the Rubin’s permanent collection last year.
Interventions, which address the incomplete picture many museum collections present to their audiences, are most desperately needed in those institutions whose collections seem not to have evolved since their inception. The idea is catching on, with high profile artists like Yinka Shonibare and Kara Walker asked to respond to (and recalibrate) the displays of major museums by using their own work to address the collection’s shortcomings.
One might not see the immediate need for the reevaluation an intervention demands in a museum like the Rubin, which is a rare example––even in the context of progressive New York––of a museum which treats objects from the Himalayas not as anthropology or artifact, but as art. But Citron is savvy enough to know that the concept of the intervention can be used to address a variety of problems that face the presentation of visual culture today.
For many viewers Himalayan art presents its narratives in unfamiliar ways. Those of us who are accustomed to a linear narrative which unfolds from left to right will find thangka paintings difficult to parse, as in them a complete story (the life of Buddha, for example) appears to our Western eyes to take place on a single plane.
Looking for a way to engage the museum’s audience when encountering difficult subject matter, Citron thought of Chitra Ganesh, whose drawings, comics, and mixed media work addresses the rich imagery of history and myth from perspectives that are rarely seen in art. Prompted by the museum’s 2018 theme “The Future,” the idea of an animation struck both curator and artist as appropriate, as the time-based medium directly engages with the relationship between past, present, and future. By incorporating imagery that is “iconic and familiar” to her in the work, Ganesh was able to immerse the museum goer in the history of these objects, many of which are still embedded in Himalayan cultures’ everyday.
And as for the future? It turned out that the heartiest engagement The Scorpion Gesture would have with the future lay beyond the walls of the museum. In collaboration with the Rubin and the Kitchen (where Ganesh also presented a solo exhibition), the series was the Times Square Alliance’s “Midnight Moment,” where it appeared on the billboards of New York’s busiest tourist hub from 11:57 pm- 12:00 am every night of November 2018. For three minutes each evening it vied for the public’s eyes, making a convincing visual argument for the inclusion of artwork in commercial spaces.
Though only a half hour walk down Seventh Avenue, Times Square could not be more separate from the Rubin: where the Rubin is meditative, Times Square is hectic, where the Rubin is deliberate with its visual stimulus, giving each object its space, Times Square is overwhelming, with each billboard competing with its neighbor, and where the Rubin is low-lit to protect the work on display, Times Square is as bright as noon at any moment of the day.
Hearing Chitra and Beth describe it, it’s as if The Scorpion Gesture, lit up on billboards, brought the Rubin with it. Citron describes a moment, right before midnight, when a rare autumn snow began to fall and a hush––almost unheard of in New York––fell on the streets, making her stop in her tracks. Standing among the women who had brought the project to fruition (including animator Mary Nittolo of the STUDIO NYC), past, present, and future were––fleetingly–– a single node amidst the never-ending bustle of the city. It was “our own personal ball drop,” says Ganesh, a native New Yorker.
Though it was not part of the Rubin’s programming, the otherworldly nature of the space in which it was staged (a “Mad Max environment”) “gave a different valence to the idea of the future.” Ganesh’s animations in Times Square were a concrete visualization of what that future could be, and instead of the barren wastes of Fury Road, or the empty cavernous streets of Blade Runner, this was a future where art and advertising could commingle.
All museum interventions hold a unique place as art object, since they are both works in themselves and the activators (or agitators) of other works. They aren’t self-contained objects, but open ended statements grounded in artwork. By employing animation, whose cobbled effect has embedded in it the demand that its surroundings become part of the action, The Scorpion Gesture implicitly engages whichever environment in which it is displayed. A self-described “comic fanatic,” Ganesh says “animation is receptive to different kinds of visual languages flowing together” and is well suited to collage of a both visual and thematic nature.
The narrative action of Times Square is similarly collaged. Though it is by no means a thangka painting, Times Square is our cultural moment represented on a single plane of advertisements––Kinky Boots next to Homeland next to Levi’s jeans, where we watch trends and celebrities ascend, only to be dethroned at the next turn. Placed among these billboards, the dominant cinematic mode of The Scorpion Gesture is one of spatial transition. The series begins with a hand holding an orb in space, which quickly becomes a portal through which we travel into the world of the animation. Each frame is quickly subsumed by another. (After all, the scorpion gesture is a sign of transformation.)
And while the similarities between art and environment might end there, the presence of The Scorpion Gesture was enough to add depth, even just for three minutes, to a setting of unadulterated commercial consumption. Just as in the Rubin, it intervened on behalf of its surroundings, leaving both the richer.