The Tang Museum
By KURT MCVEY, OCT. 2015
Today marks the 15th Anniversary of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, located on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York. Ian Berry, the Dayton Director of the museum, who came on board in 2000 after serving as Assistant Curator at Williams College Museum of Art, has been along for almost the entire ride. Berry, who frequently uses the phrase “tease it out” when referring to the themes inherent in a work or the larger exhibition, moves through the museum, his obvious home away from home, with a playful confidence and a uniquely mellow eccentricity.
It’s hard to imagine a different person with a different set of idiosyncratic personality traits steering the Tang ship, as Berry’s patience and genuine excitement for the work succeeds in transcending any bourgeois New York art-world criticism and also, any undergrad indifference or ADHD millennial aloofness. And this is extremely important, as The Tang must directly cater to both demographics, while simultaneously appealing to buyers, board members and of course the transient Hudson Valley tourists looking to check out some art as fervently as the changing leaves or the famed local thoroughbreds. Though this is only slightly more than a presumption, one based on a recent and lovely early fall press trip to the museum, it seems quite apparent that Berry becomes the most excited at the prospect of Skidmore’s student body becoming equally inspired by the art. “The classes and the students change our view of what objects in the collection are of value,” says Berry. “It allows us to be more sensitive to how market influences can often contrast with spiritual and educational influences.”
Luckily, the two major running exhibitions at the gallery, Affinity Atlas and The Machine Project, should succeed in delighting art lovers no matter where they fall along the complex art-world spectrum. Affinity Atlas, which opened September 5th and will run through January 3rd, 2016, exists as what the Tang faculty refers to as a “cabinet of curiosities” which allows Berry to guide viewers through the museum’s main-floor gallery space as if it were a high-art Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! That being said, it may be preferable to move through the space without a curatorial Virgil, in order to piece the larger thematic puzzle together, like a curious sleuth on an art focused scavenger hunt.
Affinity Atlas is interesting, in a meta sense, due to the fact that it tells both a brief history of contemporary art while also illustrating the history of the museum itself. Visitors to the exhibition are immediately greeted by Nick Cave’s Sound Suit (2010), which serves as both an intimidating and alluring dweller on the threshold to a larger, interwoven anthropological experience. Fitting, as the first major group exhibition in the same gallery space, 2000’s S.O.S.: Scenes of Sound featured Tang students dancing around in similar Sound Suits. After successfully navigating Cave’s concave, basket-faced sentinel of Oxblood colored Dogwood twigs in this exhibit, one feasts their eyes on Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’ large scale digital collage print, Leaning Skeleton (The Anatomy of Bones), after William Cheselden, 2009. Vik Muniz, who Berry seems to hold especially dear, also boasts the first and very well received solo exhibition at the Tang, 2000’s Seeing is Believing.
Affinity Atlas’ thematic wellspring comes from cultural theorist and art historian Aby Warburg’s final work, the Mnemosyne Atlas (Warburg died before finishing the piece in 1929). If this piece was Warburg’s attempt to map the “after-life of antiquity,” Affinity Atlas takes it a steps further, as Berry’s show illustrates a sort of concurrent, almost Quantum Theory approach to the art of art making, in that all of these works-whether it’s a contemporary piece by Michelle Grabner, Camille Henrot (her amazing award winning video, “Grosse Fatigue” stands as a microcosm for the entire exhibit), Hew Locke, Toshiko Takaezu, or Sara VanDerBeek-exist outside of a linear timeframe, or real time gallery space for that matter, and exist comfortably in a once and future art-arena beside a Mayan-Toltec, Mexican Carving from 900-1200 CE or a 20th century Acoma Pueblo, New Mexican ceramic earthenware pot, both of which are also displayed in Affinity Atlas.
If Affinity Atlas is the type of show Berry would stand behind to expertly swerve the critical ire of sassy New York art writers, Machine Project: The Platinum Collection (Live by Special Request), on view through Jan. 3, 2016, is a welcomed slap in the face to all ye who enter with pretension. Founded in 2003 by the Echo Park, CA based artist Mark Allen (a former Skidmore alum), Machine Project is a poppy, fun, and somewhat deceptively ingenious collective of artists, poets, filmmakers, actors, and other creators, who seek to effectively engage with and ultimately merge seemingly disparate communities via creative collaboration and experimentation. The entire exhibit is a survey on the ephemeral nature of art objects, their connection to the past, and how our subjective and objective perception of these objects is as fickle as a Roman mob.
Colorful concert posters and flyers, many of which were designed by Skidmore students, line the back wall of the second floor gallery space. Each one stands as a record or a reference to a specific design aesthetic of a unique time, place, scene, or event, essentially functioning as cultural meta-data, a term that has become synonymous with an Orwellian and uninvited hunt for personal information in a digital domain and rarely psychedelic musings on vintage poster board. Here Allen turns low-art, into-high art, without a trace of an eye-roll.
“Poets Are Calling” is an amazing act of synergy involving performance and poetry. A lone black rotary phone (they still exist) sits in the center of the exhibition space and will ring at random throughout the show’s run. As the title suggests, a selection of poets, chosen by Allen, will call at will and recite their work to unsuspecting ears, mostly students, on the other end of the line. For five months, there will also be an eclectic selection of poetry recordings flowing through a speaker in the Tang’s main elevator (Field Guide to Poets of the Machine Project Region), replete with chairs should one decided to hang out in the elevator for more vertical trips than initially planned.
Following with the theme of transparency and thorough utilization of the museum’s second floor space, Allen and his team have turned a portion of the gallery into a live-in, fishbowl office space, opening up the behind-the-scenes administrative process to curious voyeurs. There is also a small functioning theatre adjacent to the office, which previously showed Mr. Akita, a two-night original performance starring the equally sweet and tan artist, comedian, and performer, Cliff Hengst, and written and directed by acclaimed contemporary playwright, Asher Hartman. A list of other performances is available on the Tang’s website. Just to hammer home the overall quirkiness of the exhibit, Mark Allen will actually sleep in a tent on the gallery’s roof, hopefully before the first frost.
For a relatively modest sized museum, Ian Berry and his team (Assistant Director of Engagement, Michael Janairo and Assistant Director of Curatorial Affairs, Rachel Seligman, just to name a few) have gone out of their way to maximize the square-footage and even the museum’s fluid collection, which the highly diverse faculty frequently pulls from to serve as the foundation for a lecture or simply ongoing inspiration for their students, or even just an opportunity to get them up and out of the classroom. There is an incredible amount of interesting things going on at The Tang, whether it’s the fascinating exhibition by Liz Collins titled, Energy Field, officially opening today in the museum’s mezzanine level, a textile wonderland with an LGBTQ bend the faculty lovingly refers to as “a new age crystal cave viewed through a pop post-modern lens.”
What a better way to usher in the fall, than to grab a fellow art connoisseur, a significant other, or even a single serving cuddle buddy, and head up to a bed & breakfast near Saratoga Springs before the weather gets too torturous, and the trees shed all they have to offer. There is life outside of New York City, and a decidedly excessive amount of it, at The Tang. WM