I went to a museum yesterday.
Last year, I went to so many museums that I lost track, haunting special archival collections to ferret out information and photographs I could use to write a novel set in the late 19th century. It was wonderful, doing that research, but I never really appreciated museums the way I do now, after so many months away from them.
Yesterday’s visit was to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. I’ve been here a number of times, often for dance performances and special exhibits, and I’ve always loved this airy space on the water. The ICA feels like a completely different place now. The museum cafe was closed, and all of the exhibits were limited to the fourth floor. People entered for timed visits and everyone was careful to stay masked and at least six feet apart.
As I stood there marveling at a soundsuit by Nick Cave—a tapestry body suit with a headdress made mostly of ceramic birds on stiff wires, rising up like an upside-down chandelier—I heard the rustling of skirts on the women across the room and the swish of a handbag. In our masks, it seemed as if we were all wearing soundsuits and taking part in one of Cave’s surprising, joyful dance performances.
And it was joyful, being among museum goers, marveling at works by well-known artists like Cave and Sterling Ruby, and the slyly comic, powerfully feminist collages in riotous colors by talented newcomer Tschabalala Self.
My daughter went with me to the ICA. While we wandered through the rooms, I was struck once again by how subjective the relationship is between artist and viewer as we stood in front of one of Ruby’s pieces and discussed our reactions. This was a ceramic basin filled with odd bits of pottery, part of Ruby’s “Basin Theology” series.
My daughter made a face. “Those pieces in the boat look like body parts,” she said, pointing out what she saw as a liver and a heart.
“I thought of sea creatures,” I said, and pointed out a barnacle and the arm of a starfish, a pair of oars.
Neither of us was “right” in our interpretation of Ruby’s intent. In his series of large-scale ceramics, “Basin Theology,” his vision was to reuse broken remnants, fragments of failed works.
“I am smashing all of my previous attempts and futile, contemporary gestures, and placing them into a mortar, and grinding them down with a blunt pestle,” he said, according to the ICA placard.
How wonderful it is to take what’s broken and make something new. How absolutely necessary, too, I thought, wandering out of the exhibit to the windows overlooking Boston’s waterfront. Down below me, a few masked people were walking with their heads down against the blustery wind, and a solitary plane took off from Logan.
We are in a broken world, and we need museums to remind us that we are not only living through history, but making it. We must catalog this moment, so that we can remember what it was like to live through this day, this month, this year. We must remember what it took to survive, and to take the broken pieces of a world ravaged by the pandemic and divisive politics, and create something new.