Gregory Vershbow’s photographs make us wonder what makes objects museum-worthy
Published: August 7, 2013
In the photo, she’s boxed in. She stands with her arms above her head, tending to her hair. She’s a marble nude statue, and she’s being crated. Plywood runs on either side of her, above her head, and under her feet. Two additional planks stabilize her, one around the middle of her ribcage, another just below the hips. As captured by photographer Gregory Vershbow’s camera in the Site Unseen exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, the image becomes a visual curiosity. For this series, Vershbow gained access to the Walters and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and some public statuary around the country and world, and shot the work as it was in the process of being packed up to be moved, as it was stored behind the scenes in conversation laboratories, or protected during construction projects. And in this case, the marble nude appears to be packed to be moved, the plywood crating becoming a magician’s zigzag box, hence the title Vershbow bestows upon the image: “The Magician’s Assistant.” It’s one of the 12 photos Vershbow includes in the exhibition that offers an opportunity to see a few items in a museum collection in a different context—in other words, a chance to “re-see” art.
In the lower left foreground of the shot, however, a pair of plastic boxes sits just inside the crate. They appear to contain pieces of stone, perhaps fragments broken off the larger sculpture. It’s a detail that’s familiar to anybody who has ever had to pack up and move: the protection of the things you love, the gathering of the broken bits to glue back together once you get there. Unseen shows a museum collection as beloved possessions, and thinking about the show in such a way offers an invitation to a much more interesting discussion. Yes, the museum is the place where we go to look. But why do we look in the first place? What is it about these objects that we’ve decided they belong in this place? Instead of recontextualizing the practice of museum display, Vershbow’s photos provide a more probing opportunity: They invite us to wonder why we care about these objects in the first place.
Full disclosure—this writer recently moved apartments, so living with life’s stuff in boxes is fresh on the brain. But recall Dave Hickey’s 2002 essay in Daedalus, “Buying the World,” in which he cites a 1566 letter by Renaissance sculptor Francesco da Sangallo. He describes a trip to Rome when a Laocoon sculpture was found in a vineyard that da Sangallo’s father says he was referred to by Pliny the Elder—meaning about 1,500 years previous. In the letter, da Sangallo notes that as soon as the statue was excavated, everybody started drawing it, immediately making it an object worthy of copying and studying. In that anecdote, Hickey teases out an idea of quality, that a work of art could derive its “authority from a constituency of beholders who have actually experienced its power, agreed upon its loveliness, and, in word and deed, publicly confirmed its value.”
Museums are full of such agreed-upon loveliness, and by going to them, we passively drink from this fountain of consensual loveliness, as if we need to be told what lovely looks like. Vershbow’s photos quietly upend that passive consumption. By shooting these objects under draped sheets of plastic (“Staircase,” “Egyptian Statue #2,” “Cameo”), surrounded by scaffolding (“Statue at Odeonsplatz,” “D.C. #1 (Peace Monument)”), or swaddled in padding (“Twins”), the photographer reminds us not that museums’ displays influence how we look at whatever-the-hell people are talking about in exhibition design theory and how to improve audience engagement; he reminds us that somebody cared about this thing in the first place. When moving, do you not consider the accumulation of stuff in your life and wonder what you can toss, recycle, and donate? When sorting the material possessions of your life, do you not look at something and ask, “Do I love it?”
Unseen invites you to question again and again the things we’re supposed to appreciate when we go to the museum. By showing them as delicate objects in need of upkeep and protection, Vershbow reminds that in the museum things fall apart. Colors fade. Stone cracks. Statues break. Metal scratches. While we may sometimes assume museums contain timeless artifacts, Vershbow’s candid shots remind us how fragile those items can be. They live on because we put energy into making sure they do.
And that reminder sent this pair of eyes on a journey. Vershbow’s “Judith” is an oblique shot of a painting leaning against a chain-link fence of some sort. Given the series’ subject matter, the canvas is presumably in a conversation lab. The photo’s title card says it came from Vershbow’s shooting at the Walters, and the title suggests the painting’s subject matter. It shows a man’s head in the painting’s foreground and three women in the background. But the painting doesn’t appear to be Elisabetta Sirani’s “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” which is part of the Walters’ permanent collection. And it certainly doesn’t appear to be Triophime Bigot’s “Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes.” It’s located in the third-floor galleries of the Walters’ Charles Street pavilion, which is a quick stroll down one flight of stairs from the Vershbow show. And there’s a bench where one, if so inclined, can sit down and stare at the Bigot for a good half-hour.
If you did, you may first notice the surprised horror in Holofernes’ eyes, the blade of Judith’s sword almost completely through his neck. You may grin a bit at the all-business stoicism of the woman holding down Holofernes’ legs and left arm. You may note the height Judith has to raise her right elbow to get enough leverage to push the blade through spine. And you may allow yourself a bit of awe at the matter-of-fact expression Bigot paints on Judith’s face, a calm that makes you think that day’s list of things this widow had to see to was: tend to oxen and sheep, behead that asshole trying to take over my people. Do I love it? Oh good heavens, yes.
Site Unseen: Gregory Vershbow At the Walters Art Museum through Sept. 8.
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