art museums: Intersections, The Infinity Machine, and the Surrealists

I made my first trip to Europe with my then-boyfriend, who had an art degree. We went to Brussels and therefore to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. We spent 8 or 9 hours there, and I have felt an aversion to art museums ever since. (I will say that the Mauritshuis in den Haag is a nice, small art museum filled with classics, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is easy to get through fairly quickly and is worth the time.) Despite this aversion, on a recent visit back to Houston, I went with my mother and my “other parents” (old family friends) to a few art museums on a Friday afternoon.

We started with Intersections, by Anila Quayyum Agha, at the Rice University Art Gallery. The piece is a six-and-a-half-foot cube of laser-cut wooden cube, suspended, with a bright bulb inside, so that the pattern cut out of the cube is projected onto ceiling, floor and walls. That pattern is a complex tessellating geometric design, and a short and very worthwhile video explains that Anila Quayyum Agha was inspired by the Alhambra. As a Muslim woman in Pakistan, she was not allowed into mosques (men only) and had few experiences with their interiors, but was struck by the extraordinary beauty and creative power in the Alhambra (which she was permitted to enter as a tourist.) She also spoke of the construction of this beauty by Muslims, Christians and Jews working together, and called it a “gem” of both artistry and unity between peoples. This was the inspiration for Intersections, whose tessellations echo the tile designs at the Alhambra.

Intersections, Anila Quayyum Agha (with Karen, Susan and Bob)

Intersections, by Anila Quayyum Agha. (With Karen, Susan and Bob). Click to enlarge.

It is a work of light and shadow, geometry and projection. The images on the ceiling and floor (closer to the cube) are crisper than those on the walls (which are further away), so the effect is variable. The cube itself is a work of art (although watch out for that ~600-watt bulb within), and the shadow/light-show another layer of it. People entering the room participate, because the shadows are cast on them (us) too. It was striking and meditative, and free at the University. Good stuff.

Next, after lunch, we went to the Menil campus, and walked first over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel to see The Infinity Machine, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. This was an excellent counterpoint to Intersections: another room-sized installation playing with light and, in this case, reflection. Many mirrors are suspended on wires and rotate – around as one large constellation, and also in some cases individually. The room is very dark; a docent escorted us in with a flashlight to seat us on a bench until our eyes adjusted. A few lights lit the solar system of mirrors, and we suspect those lights dimmed and brightened or shut off completely or changed colors. It is hard to say, because the effect is disorienting. I had the odd feeling that different mirrors were present upon each rotation: clearly this is not the case, but the view was ever-changing and, I felt, never repeating. It was kind of intense. A soundtrack played, of NASA recordings of solar wind. Perhaps because we had just lunched at the Hobbit Cafe (always a treat), I said it sounded like the Eye of Sauron. I also thought of calling it “dark noise”: like white noise, but darker, spooky. At one point I thought Sauron was coming to get us on a train, with that characteristic clack-clack and growing whoosh. Where Intersections was light, crisp, patterned, and explicitly called for unity, The Infinity Machine was a little foreboding, even threatening – although I was very happy to experience it, and don’t mean that as a criticism. It was fascinating.

We finished with the Menil Collection building, about which I was most ambivalent, but there was a Dalí exhibit! I was enchanted by some of the artifacts in the Arctic Art collection, including a tiny statue of a bust (of a man?) with toddler on its shoulders; it was less than the height of one of my (cut-short) fingernails, and a fraction the width. I quickly browsed the “frottages and rubbings” exhibit. And then surrealism: lots of Victor Brauner and Max Ernest, several Joseph Cornell boxes (an exhibit of whose work first took me to the Menil, in high school), a few Picassos, and oh, Rene Magritte. I love him – although I didn’t feel he fit perfectly in this collection. His images are so crisp and hyper-real, even if they do float in the wrong places. Dalí’s Eggs on a Plate Without the Plate centered this exhibit, which was entitled “The Secret of the Hanging Egg.” But my favorite piece was The Hunted Sky by Yves Tanguy, which transfixed me. I wish I had a full-size print of that in my home to continue to consider, because I feel like I need more time. (You can look it up online but those images do no justice.)

Still, overall and by comparison, I moved through the Menil Collection quickly; I think the room-sized installations are more generally my speed than rooms filled with paintings. But this was a remarkable experience all around. I normally make it into an art museum every year or so, or less often, and generally at my mother’s side (I try to be good-natured about it, she doesn’t drag me). Today’s visit was at least as rewarding as any I can recall. If you find yourself in the neighborhood of either of these big installations, definitely check them out. Everything we saw was free, too (great job, Houston!), so take advantage!

Rating: 9 reflected or projected tones of light.

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