Here’s looking at you, Southern England.
Since acquiring its very first marble sculpture 500 years ago, the Vatican museums have grown to become one of the largest museums in the world with over 70,000 works attracting some 28 billion visitors a year.*
Behold the Laocöon sculpture, the Raphael rooms, the Transfiguration, St. Jerome in Wilderness and the ticket line longer than the 3.2 kilometre Vatican state perimeter!
See the Sistine Chapel with its ceiling and Last Supper by Michelangelo and its silence continuously broken by guards shouting Silenzio!
See the crowds, see the back of the person in front of you, get a contraband selfie stick poked in your ear.
So I recently visited the Vatican Museums for the first time in ten years. Not much have changed since my last time. I still love the place. I still tried to beat the crowds. I still failed spectacularly.
* number based on a rough guesstimate.
Giddy tourists petting stone genitalia. Families collecting pokemonkeys. Terrified small children whose fathers, inspired by the sculptures, try to juggle them. Yup. It’s the Vigeland sculpture park.
These are views both plain and magnificent of alleys and courtyards, city streets and suburban wasteland, mountains and oceans and nothing in particular, hidden behind what I call curtains and you call drapes.
We spent a month on US roads, driving 7.000 kilometres through 18 states. Before leaving Norway back in June, I was adamant that I would produce one series of photographs, besides all the other pictures I took along the way, that would span the entire journey, while at the same time adhering to a set of limitations. Having never before been to the States, I still had this almost romantic fascination for motels of the cheaper variety. For a long time I thought about doing a series of motel exteriors. But we weren’t staying in cheap motels exclusively, some hotels were, well, not exactly fancy, but they wouldn’t lend themselves to such a series very well. And one of my self-imposed limitations – decided upon before even deciding the subject matter – was that I would be photographing all instances of whatever I finally chose, i.e. the façade of every place where we spent the night, in case I went for that idea. So I didn’t.
Instead I started thinking about doing it the other way around, photographing from the inside and out, shooting out the windows of whichever place we were staying at. But shooting through the windows didn’t work consistently either, for a variety of reasons. And going outside to photograph basically the same view meant losing the window frame as a frame of reference. Not to mention the trouble I’d have when the room was on the eighth floor. So I elected to stay inside. And closed the curtains.
Throughout the journey I would thus shoot the curtain of every room we stayed the night in, from shitty Super8 motels and cheap Howard Johnsons to upmarket hotels in Chicago and charming B & Bs in Louisiana. So much did I obsess with the damn curtains that we at one point accidentally tried to check into a curtain store in Boone, NC.
Well, here are the curtains. What’s outside is pretty much left to your imagination.
Suggested soundtrack: Low – The Curtain Hits The Cast. And remember: a curtain is just a superhero cape that has yet to fulfill its potential.
This is the tenth and final chapter of the American blog posts. Links to the other installments below.
America part nine: DC, Then Dave
America part eight: There Died A Myriad
America part seven point five: Beach And Moan
America part seven: Mountains (woo-hoo!)
America part six: The Place Where They Cried*
America part five: The Heroes of Gator-Aid
America part four: Some People. And Chicago
America part three: A Tale Of Three Cities
America part two: Viva Las Canada
America part one: New York Fact Sheet
I go to formal openings for the same reason I go to zoos: to watch the people.
Then a few days or weeks later, I return to actually see the exhibition. But opening day is all about the crowd. Yesterday was the reopening of The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The KODE Art Museums of Bergen. One of the largest collections of Edvard Munch paintings in the world was among the works on display. Some 700 people visited the museum during the day, and looking at the queue a few minutes before the doors opened, most of them thought it a good idea to come at the exact same time. I guess quite a few actually was interested in hearing the director’s speech, but I suspect that for some it was of equal importance to be seen themselves.
I was in that queue, but seeing that I wouldn’t get in with the first (and keenest and thus most photogenic) wave of visitors, I left and had a few coffees elsewhere. Returning a couple of hours later, the speech was over and the crowd had thinned out quite a bit (possibly to go and observe World Naked Gardening Day). At this time it was possible to actually see the Munch paintings, but considering what I had really hoped to capture – the ladies of the arts clutching their glasses of faux Champagne and investing in their cultural capital by mere attendance – it was also a bit of a downer.
Watching the watchers
Incidentally (or maybe not) two of my favourite photographers have also worked a lot with the theme of museums and their visitors – in two very different manners. Thomas Struth, a German photographer associated with the so-called Düsseldorf school of photography (including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff) makes extremely rigid, sober and straight-on pictures with large format cameras – and usually presents his works in gigantic prints often measuring two by two meters. In his museum series, he would set up his 13×18 camera in front of certain works of art and wait long hours or even days before feeling that the crowds in front of him fell into the right formation. I especially remember seeing a large exhibition of his in the Whitechapel Gallery in East London a few years ago. If I remember correctly, one of his pictures from the Art Institute of Chicago – printed so large that the people in the picture was almost life-size – was the very first thing you saw when you came in through the doors. And that meta feeling of me, an actual gallery-goer, looking at a huge photographs of other gallery-goers looking at paintings – that is really, really engaging.
The other museum watching favourite is Elliot Erwitt, a Magnum photographer and the grand master of ironic and absurd photography. He actually has a book called Museum Watching, consisting of pictures from 40 years of attending museums in his spare time in between assignments. Compared to Thomas Struth, Elliot represents the opposite end of documentary photography. Working with small Leica cameras, his work is spontaneous and affectionate and more often than not very witty. His Museum Watching book is in no way one of his best, but at times it is absolutely superb. I honestly think that his 1995 picture from Museo del Prado in Madrid is one of the funniest photographs ever made (Erwitt has several contenders for this prize).
Looking through Erwitts and Struths work today, there is one thing that strikes me: no one in the pictures are taking their own pictures of the art. Since then of course, the camera phone arrived. Yesterday at the The Rasmus Meyer Collection, as good as everyone was snapping away. A few were seemingly trying to capture the mood of the opening, but most were taking pics of the paintings, and I guess a fair share of those pics were going straight on Instagram and the like – showing that yes, we were there.
According to Thomas Struth: “[…] when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces. When a work of art becomes fetishized, it dies.” I’m not so cynical myself. Munch’s work is obviously fetishized, but I have a feeling that it’s still able to evoke some feelings independently of the fact that they are Munch paintings. But it’s difficult, of course. The Scream, for example, is so much a part of our common cultural heritage that I find it impossible to separate the picture itself and my emotional response to it from its role as an artefact in popular culture. The only Scream on display at The Rasmus Meyer Collection is a tiny pen and ink version. I don’t think that will be able to elicit any new emotions. But maybe some of the other works will. I’ll have to return another day to find that out. And leave my camera at home.