Labyrinth of shadows

Art galleries are closed, in this year of 2020-Covid-19. It has presented opportunities to visit virtual exhibitions at galleries and museums around the world. Bendigo Art Gallery and Beinart Gallery are two I’ve had a peek at online.

In less plague-ridden times, I visit art as often as I can, usually in spaces designed for it, but also in former factories full of dark nooks, with paint spattered floors. Art has been medicine, therapy, an escape, or a fantasy, an ambition. Even if I don’t “like” it, I find something to think about, or increasingly, to not write about, when I am standing in front of art.

Sometimes, it is about the experience of the gallery, the calm, or the noise, the crowds, or the lack thereof. The cathedral-like respect some exhibition spaces demand is an artefact of my enculturation and by design. Observers of art are, in these places, meant to be awed and hushed. Sometimes, it is worth it. Often, I seek this hushed sense of awe.

When it’s not the art, or the architecture, I look for, and at, the shadows. Especially with big installations or blockbuster exhibits I am searching for where the shadows take me.

At the Terracotta Warriors last year (or a million Covid19 eons ago), I walked a path of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Transient Landscape heaped with piles of porcelain peonies and gunpowdered birds. As I traced their shadows on walls and the floor, no one else looked down. No, most heads tilted up, to examine the delicate figures carved in clay or the pictured on silk.

It felt as if the intention was for these terracotta birds was to create a kind of landscape; a floating hillock of silent murmuration. But the shapes they cast all around were even more apt to the artist’s theme, shadows were the most transient of phenomena here.

The transience of the art, and the shadows reflected my own passing visit. I too am a ghost, a memory of when I followed the shadows cast in the gallery, in a path that always lead away from the space and back to it again, in thought.

In this exhibit such shadows leant depth to sculpture; they hinted at history and meaning where bright, clinical light would have denuded the art of its capacity to inspire myth-making and story telling. Or perhaps mood lighting looks cooler.

Intersecting lines, and collisions of wings and beaks, and bodies across surfaces and those who passed under them were closer to life than the larger than life size warriors and bureaucrats I had gone too see, and more active, too.

Both art and shade are then suspended. Not quite of the air and not so substantial. They occupy, or perhaps create, the much touted liminal space.

But the Terracotta Warriors were one exhibit, and I have chased the patterns the shadows make everywhere I find them.

Some exhibits lean into the darkness,  and cultivate the gloom such that it seems like too much of a trend.  I look at fossils in the dark and wondered if this is how they died. Alone under a spot light 60,000 years ago.  In such settings my thoughts begin to loop and ponder the darkness, instead of the pieces in light.

I see among the shadows the masks we present to the world, and how others can perceive such masks in different lights, and circumstances. I see the show we put on.

Among the shadows, I can be less observed, and take my time to see how delicate and flimsy ephemeral structures, full of holes and doubts, can somehow become something different, more solid and substantial, via their shadows.

I will go back to see art, when I can, to follow my own shadow one afternoon, tracing well worn but somehow unfamiliar paths. My state government has announced the date when the galleries can reopen, but I will wait for the crowds to subside, before I venture out.

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