Race, Background, and Culture at the MoMA
By Ali Russo
My father and I only had three days to spend in New York City until the throes of work and schooling pulled us back, so, we needed to coordinate carefully. The train we took out of the Route 128 Station in Westwood, Mass., left at 5:45 in the morning; meaning, if we timed it right, we’d be pulling into Penn Station at 10:45 a.m. the latest. If we wanted a full day at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), we had to leave it a full day undisturbed by travel. So, it was decided: Sunday was our Museum Day.
This wasn’t our first time visiting MoMA. In the past, we had visited museums such as The Metropolitan, the Museum of Fine Art and even the Museum of Natural History, but the MoMA has always been my favorite. Not only is the staff incredibly kind and helpful, the people are so, so excited to have a job that involves them talking emphatically about art. There wasn’t a single employee who couldn’t answer my question, whether it was in inquiry to the location of the bathroom, or the art that hung in front of us.
The MoMA also feels very open; the lobby it empties out to has an open foyer, so you can be on any floor, peer up or down, and see the rest of your surroundings. It’s also nice if you’re prone to having absolutely no sense of direction, such as myself.
I tried to do as much research on “Scenes For A New Heritage” as I could before spoiling it for myself entirely. As the wall read in front of me, the exhibition was “a selection of many different approaches, narratives and temporalities with which artists have responded to this constantly shifting world [of technology, major geopolitical events and the impact on the distribution of art].”
Stepping into the Kirk Varnedoe Gallery reminded me, once again, of my love for the design of the MoMA. I was greeted by that same kind of openness I had felt when I first stepped into the building, and this led me to Kara Walker’s “Gone: A Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.”
Referencing the infamous “Gone With The Wind” in title, Walker’s medium is black paper, and it is against a stark, white background; the paper is cut and carved into various figures engaging in violent, romantic or sexual gestures. In accordance to Walker, and to the headset I borrowed from the museum, the piece is based on any kind of misreading of a historical text. To quote the artist herself, she wanted to make sure that the viewer would feel a punch-in-the-gut feeling of extreme “wishing away [of] the unseemly icky part of the story,” and focus on the story that “comes back to an American mythology that involves race, slavery and pseudo-masochistic constructs that underlies in American history and narrative.
The piece itself is striking, and that is meant with the highest of intentions. Spanning just a little over 50 feet, and standing at 13 feet tall, I had to crane my head back to fully experience this piece. With the contrast against black and white, as well as the size of the actual piece, Walker does an incredible job of sparring no detail and really pushing the juxtaposition of the lovers’ beginning embrace, to their final, crass ending.
Rounding a corner in the gallery, I found myself standing in the center of a long, dark room, exhibition hall, with both of the walls to either side of me lit up by a crisp, colorful video game. Staring at the moving pictures around me, I wasn’t sure of which to follow until a man handed me an XBOX controller and asked, “Have you played yet?”
Not only is Feng Mengbo’s “Long March: Restart” an interactive video game that one can play in vivid detail and life, but the narrative is fairly historical. The protagonist followed is a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Red Army, under the rule of Mao Zedong. As this warrior, the player fights off other enemies, alluding to be members of the ruling Nationalist Party at the time, from 1934 to 1936. With popular motifs and Communist propaganda, the game falls in the similar style of Nintendo-64-like Super Mario with a little bit of Street Fighter, too.
Starting from a series of forty-two paintings done in 1993, Mengbo’s project has come a long way. This is the first time “Long March: Restart” is on view at the MoMA.
“Scenes For A New Heritage” was an exhibit I’d urge everybody to see; it was eye-opening to view art from around the world, and how it was made in response to the ever-changing pulse of society. It lasts until April 10.
In the Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, I found the exhibit, “Ocean Of Images: New Photography 2015.” This exhibit really focused on the way photographic images are being digitized, edited, filtered, distributed as zines and uploaded onto the Internet. The stress fell on the idea that the art from these 18 artists, and one artist collective, redefined the way digital and analog intersect with one another, and what that means in terms of photographic art as a whole.
For the best embodiment of this, I was drawn to something simply entitled, “The Newsstand,” by Lele Saveri. The installment itself sat in the back corner of the room. The title card read that from June 14, 2013 to January 25, 2014, the newsstand acted as a pop-up store in the Lormier Street/Metropolitan Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, which connects the L and G trains. This was not like any other newsstand, though; instead of magazines and cigarettes, this one sold various kinds of zines, records and artworks. Soon, the pop-up store became a central place for the distribution of authorship, fostered a strong community of artists through art-making events, and helped blossom the trade of zines and other creative works.
“The Newsstand” is in mint condition, with artifacts ranging from posters of the musician, Drake, to hundreds of Polaroids of people we’ll never know plastered behind the counter. There are multiple, hand-made signs advertising zines, various, local artworks and details of different kinds of art events. There isn’t a square inch of the space that is not somehow influenced by the very essence of New York, of the manner of working hard, and not taking yourself to seriously, as evidenced by the plastic pigeons and skeletons hidden in the corners of the store. Not only does “The Newsstand” infuse the idea of digital and hand-made art, but it is a large reminder in itself of why both of these things can, and need, to work in tandem.
The art written and described is only a mere fraction of what is happening at the MoMA, but when released into an open museum on my own, these were the pieces that drew my attention. The MoMA is a museum well-revered for a reason — and I hope you enjoy it as I have.
(The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is located at 11 West 53rd St., New York, New York. For more information, visit moma.org or call (212) 708-9400.)