REVIEW: The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene

The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new exhibition Art in the Age of the Anthropocene is a powerful collection that forces museum-goers to grapple with the harsh realities of human impact on the environment, climate change, and our future. Here is a sampling of what I found to be the most impactful pieces:

 

Chris Jordan: CF000313, unaltered stomach contents of juvenile Laysan albatross (2009) & CF000668, unaltered stomach contents of juvenile Laysan albatross:

These photographs show the half-decomposed carcasses of albatross, the former location of their stomach filled with brightly-colored plastic detritus. According to the placard accompanying the work, their parents would have mistaken the plastic for food and fed it to their young (as well as eating it themselves). As a result, albatross of all ages suffocate and die. The photographs cannot avoid being interpreted through the lens of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “the death of the albatrosses heralds humanity’s impending destruction.” However, I believe that one of the purposes of this exhibition is to work toward a world where the impending destruction doesn’t come to pass. All hope is not lost, if only we would wake up to the reality of what is happening to our world.

 

Nicole Six & Paul Petritsch: Special Intervention 1 (2002):

You will hear this work long before you see it. A video in a dark room off the main gallery, it shows Petritsch in the middle of an expansive frozen landscape, repeatedly chipping away a circle around himself with a pickaxe. “Regardless of impending disaster, he persists in this futile and ultimately deadly activity” … clearly a commentary on our own inaction regarding climate change. The sound of this pickaxe echoes across the entirety of the exhibition, and it continued to echo in my mind once I left the museum. It drills into your skull, incessant and without letting up, and even now I can hear it in my mind’s ear.

 

Kimiyo Mishima: Akikan [Empty Can] (2012):

From far away, these appear to be actual crumpled soda and beer cans, but close inspection reveals that they are impeccable ceramic replicas. Sitting in a glass case in a museum, it is impossible not to wonder if this is what the future will see us as. Is the legacy we are leaving behind on the planet one of disposable materialism resulting in environmental destruction? Is this what the archaeologists of the future will find we left behind?

REVIEW: Collection Ensemble

Walk into the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and you will be greeted by Collection Ensemble, the new museum entry way. It is certainly a stark contrast from the previous collection in the apse, which housed only European and American paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Where heavy gilded frames once hung on white walls, a diverse collection of art graces the now-black walls in the grand, columned space. Collection Ensemble is a museum entrance fit for the modern world: it feels sleek, modern, and almost minimalist compared to what only just recently hung on the very same walls. The white columns stand out against the black background, and though the frame of the entrance is still very much recognizable, it’s fascinating to me how something as simple as a change in the color of the walls could change the entire feel and light dynamic of the museum’s space.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in the museum’s front doors was Candida Höfer’s photograph Basílica do Palácio Nacional de Mafra. From far away, it appears to be almost a portal through the end of the apse, like you could just keep walking right into it. Walk closer, though, and you will see that it is actually a photograph of a Baroque church. Almost ironically, two marble statues, one by Richard James Wyatt and the other by Randolph Rogers, remain unmoved on either side of the photograph, survivors of the apse’s reimagining.

The exhibition is divided into nine “gatherings,” separated by the apse’s already existing columns. Among the titles of these spaces are “Community Blocks,” “Constructing a Scene,” “Light Details,” “Entrancing,” “The Cosmos + Me,” and “Water Protocols.” I appreciated these carefully thought-out names, as they offered a lens through which to view the artwork in each gathering. Additionally, signs with each gathering title give a “key” of which artwork is which.

Also new is the seating space just inside the doors of the museum. With comfy seating, coffee table books about art, and art hanging over your head, the little area seems as much like someone’s home as it does an art museum. From the vantage point of this seating, it is possible to admire most of Collection Ensemble.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new entry space, stop by for a visit!

REVIEW: Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a quietly touching movie. It neither strives to be a tear-jerker nor is it overly pessimistic. It simply is. It is a story set perfectly in the real world, even though most of its characters are ignored by the rest of society. Constantly, they are told by others that they don’t exist. Most interestingly though, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), the central couple of the story, simply don’t care. They benefit from inattention, cultivating an unusual family in the midst of busy Tokyo. They are not married, but they have a child. Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), the older women that lives with them, is not their mother, but they call her ‘mother’ in front of the housing authorities. They are living false lives, but so is everyone around them. Osamu and Nobuyo see their lies as necessities for both their survival and the survival of the family that they have built together.

In addition to Osamu and Nobuyo, the ostensible ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ of the household, and Hatsue, the ‘Grandmother’ figure, the household consists of Osamu’s younger ‘sister’, Aki, and their ‘son’ Shota. All of their histories are carefully veiled, the audience only occasionally glimpsing their true pasts. The characters, themselves, seem to avoid their prior selves. They have discarded themselves as easily as the plastic wrappers thrown next to the road. It is freeing and empowering to only live in the present. For them, it doesn’t matter how they have gotten to this moment only what they can do now. It is a life with few regrets, but also little thought for the future. The fragility of their situation is constantly threatened and one of the greatest threats comes in the form of a little girl, Yuri. Yuri’s biological parents are constantly arguing, leaving her to play outside unattended. One night, Osamu and Shota find Yuri who has run away. Instead of returning her, they decide to take her into their own family. Other movies would simply assume that the adoptive family is Yuri’s salvation. But they, too, are dysfunctional.

Shoplifters, admirably, never chooses sides, instead finding the happiness in the messiest, most unorthodox situations.

REVIEW: The Favourite

Sometimes, the best twists do not manifest as supernatural ghosts or as a long-lost relative. Sometimes, the best twists are not external but ones that were within the character all along. The characters of The Favorite think they know each other, inside and out. As members of Queen Anne’s court, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) vie for her favor and the power that entails. But Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) is more than a figure to be manipulated. She, too, has a motive. As the three women pull and push each other, though, each one’s goals become more and more unclear. Director Yorgos Lanthimos reveals the characters as much to the audience as to themselves.

18th century England is a land of strict propriety, but Lanthimos finds the farce in it. The wigs and excessive make-up are treated as constant visual jokes. Even the extravagant palace settings are used more to make fun of than to glorify. Certainly, the entire film is visually fabulous, but all the gold veneers only serve to highlight the messiness of the lives within. The humanity of the characters and most of the supporting cast help greatly in grounding the film in emotion. Lanthimos does not want the audience to think of the character merely as plot points but as insecure bundles of nerves and feelings. No matter what Sarah and Abigail might say to themselves, they are vulnerable. And not even their impeccable table manners or frighteningly tight dresses will impede them from demonstrating how they feel.

This movie is a testament to each of the actresses’ choices, too. Stone is physically sloppy while being entirely emotionally composed. Weisz, too, schemes and maintains a careful exterior, but the few times she allows it to slip are the most touching of the entire movie. Together, the two characters engage in combat over who can win Queen Anne’s affections. It is a delicate political dance and a bruising fist fight. It is warfare and a promenade. It is women fighting women in ways only women can. The Favorite is message driven without being pandering. It allows its characters to explore issues without forcing the issues upon them. It is also easily one of my favorite movies of the year.

REVIEW: Captain Marvel

We hurried to the darkness of the theater even as the sunshine beckoned. We hurried, compulsively, because the newest Marvel movie, Captain Marvel, had finally been released for our eager consumption. We hurried without much contemplation for this was just the latest piece in an expanding narrative. I wonder when I will stop hurrying to MCU movies. I have watched them with my sister, my friends, even dragged my parents along to some. It used to be that such communal experiences would thrill me. Each movie spawned a conversation, one of the few that encompassed my entire community. Yet, I find myself balking now, twenty-one movies later.

This is, of course, not entirely due to Captain Marvel, itself. It is a perfectly serviceable movie that has a perfectly acceptable mixture of action scenes, inspirational montages, and banter. But Captain Marvel was never going to be judged entirely on its own merit. No Marvel movie can separate itself from the overwhelming pressure of living up to greater expectations. Each must reach outside of its own story to connect to its predecessors as well as serve as infrastructure for future entries into the pantheon. Perhaps it is here, where Captain Marvel stumbles the most. Set in the 90s, the movie is situated in an era far before the one most Marvel films take place in. Due to the difference in time period, it is often tasked with being a prequel to the rest of the cinematic universe. This is most evident in the excessive incorporation of Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) into a movie that is ostensibly about Carol Danvers (Brie Larson). Instead of being an origin story for one character, it is the origin story for Nick Fury, and for the MCU in general.

With much to accomplish, it is Carol’s story that gets shortchanged. It takes half of the runtime even for her true name to even be revealed. She is instead introduced as Vers, a warrior for the Kree race in their war against the shape-shifting Skrulls. Vers is a dedicated soldier whose quips are as sharp as her blows. But beyond the occasional sarcastic turn-of-phrase, not much of her character is revealed. Brie Larson plays this initial version of Carol with a discomfort that doesn’t quite fit with the character’s brash confidence. It is, indeed, difficult to see her as a cocky, but selfless hero. It is a strange combination that the movie fails to justify with further backstory. Instead, the movie substitutes character development for easy montages and deus ex machinas. It allows Carol to fly before we even see her learn to run. It is a movie out of sync, which is ironic, for one that seems so concerned about continuity.

It is those that are invested in the Marvel Universe that will benefit most from this movie. We will be the ones that ‘get’ the references, the ones that understand the significance of Captain Marvel in a greater narrative. But as a movie unto itself, it does not understand the characters at its heart.

REVIEW: Six Senses of Buddhism

Like all special exhibits in UMMA, this exhibit is a very small exhibit, only taking up part of a hallway and consisting of a few art pieces. It is an interesting exhibit because it is about how Buddhist art and objects invoke our senses; smell, sight, feel (there are lots of things to touch in this exhibit), and most importantly mind (thought), our sixth sense. In fact, I have always thought of Meditation as a release from all six of our senses, we close our eyes, sit still, ideally only smelling one fragrant of incense, hearing only silence, and letting our mind relax, detached from any thought.

The main piece of this exhibit is a painting of a Buddha heaven. This painting is from Pure Land Buddhists, one of the biggest sects of Buddhism in China, and is of someone, probably a monk, being welcomed into heaven. I like that the heaven is on the clouds, it makes me think that heaven is always watching over us. In this painting figures with halos represent Bodhisattvas. Tea is an integral part of Buddhism, and so there were two tea bowls, one from China and one from Japan. The Chinese bowl is a lot older, but it looks more modern because it is symmetrical and completely smooth. The Japanese bowl, on the other hand, seems much more hand crafted,maybe even by an amateur, because it is rugged and asymmetrical. However, in Japanese art this is intentional because Japanese ceramic art considers asymmetry more beautiful and more impressionable.

The featured photo is of Bells and Vajra. This bell is very ornate, and was probably used to call monks to the meditation hall. You can touch a 3D printing of the bells at the exhibit. There are beautiful incense holders. Next to them are cards you can take that smell like clove incense. Incense is often used to keep track of time while meditating. When the incense burns out, you are done. No sporadically looking at a clock is necessary. The last piece in this exhibit is a Rakusu, which is the garment monks wear outside their robes. This Rakusu was pretty ornate and had designs, so it was probably of a monk that had a higher status. Monks like to make their own clothes, because it is a tradition from monks who were too poor to afford clothes and would patch together old rags.

The exhibit is small, but there is actually a lot of Buddhist artwork in the Asian Art gallery. If you can’t get enough from the exhibit you can see more paintings, actual scrolls, and shrines that were in temples in the gallery.