Last week I had two unrelated experiences that, together, spoke profoundly about what I am trying to do with the OSU Museum of Art. First, I visited the campus of Wichita State University, just a couple of hours north of Stillwater, to see their yarn bombing exhibition, “Yarn Bombing—The Big Reveal.” Second, I attended the second biennial conference of the BABEL Working Group in Boston, Massachusetts.
The BABEL Working Group is “a collective of scholars … who are working to develop new cross-disciplinary alliances between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts.” The yarn bombing at Wichita State targeted the University’s public sculpture collection. In other words, both events were about turning unexpected encounters into productive dialogue.
What made me connect these particular two dots was a paper at BABEL given by our very own professor of medieval art history, Jennifer Borland, who discussed her process of inviting contemporary artists to weigh in on art-historical questions. Dr. Borland asked metalsmiths to think through the Staffordshire Hoard with her. Sitting in the audience, I was struck by the idea of artists commenting on other, older artists’ work—not verbally, as art historians do, but visually.
Artists do this all the time: the history of art is a history of visual quotation, citation, and appropriation. But where are museums in that story? This week it struck me that there’s a powerful difference between my job as a curator and my job as an art historian. As the latter, I am tied to the verbal. I read, I write, and I speak about visual experiences. As a curator, on the other hand, I juxtapose objects: my work is primarily visual. Most museum and gallery visitors barely read a word of the text accompanying exhibitions, and so I usually have to tell my curatorial stories by placing works of art directly in dialogue with one another, side by side.
That said, we ask our visitors to respond to exhibitions verbally. Our guest book is lined, implicitly inviting comment rather than cartooning. Not that this stops people—as an habitual reader of comment books, I know all too well that museum-goers are almost as likely to draw something as they are to create written feedback. So when the Ulrich Museum of Art invited local knitters and crocheters to participate in “Yarn Bombing—The Big Reveal,” I realized they weren’t just asking the community to create new works of art: they were asking for feedback about the public sculpture across campus.
Moreover, this feedback was not displaced from the objects themselves, set aside in a separate exhibition or sequestered in a guest book. Yarn bombing is more exquisite corpse than quotation: it engages the original sculpture in a conversation by temporarily overtaking and subsuming that work within a new sculpture.
Interpreted in this light, many of the most successful pieces in the exhibition were those that engaged thoughtfully—wittily, endearingly, or critically—with the sculptures they enveloped. Although I have to admit, covering a giant millipede in a personalized blanket and legwarmers was pretty fantastic, too.
Yarn bombing, like many recent street art movements, has the advantage of being non-destructive (the Ulrich staff can’t invite people to spray painted graffiti onto their collection!). The success of the project relied on the pre-existing public art collection, which was very—perhaps overly—familiar to campus residents. Coming back to Stillwater, I found myself asking how I, as the curator of the OSUMA, could give our visitors opportunities to respond visually to the work in our collection—and how, even, to allow them to transform those works temporarily, making new work that incorporates the existing work. I don’t have answers yet, but I hope that in the future you’ll see some.
“Yarn Bombing—The Big Reveal” was on view at the Wichita State University campus for about a week, from September 15, 2012 through September 23. Photos in this post are my own; the captions reflect the information for the original sculpture. Individual participants in the yarn bombing project were not named in the Ulrich’s publicity materials.