The best way I know of dealing with the scale and scope of the Metropolitan Museum is to walk through and let the objects find you. Art critic Michael Kimmelman did his own version of the “evocation stroll” in the company of numerous artists (experiences he wrote about in Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere), and artist Altoon Sultan often shares her Met connects on her popular blog, Studio and Garden.
I can feel the difference when I shift the construct from “finding” to “being found.” When you turn that around, the unexpected appears.
During my recent visit to the Met, I was “found” by an unexpected array of objects: A Van Gogh landscape, the entire Koran handwritten on a scroll, 15th century Florentine storage chests (cassoni) with painted fronts, and the exhibit, Book for Architects, by Wolfgang Tillmans (written about here.)
But the most haunting evocation happened in the exhibition, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. Hanging in its own dark sepulcher built at the heart of the exhibit, the Ghost Dance dress pulled me in.
From Thomas Powers‘ review in the New York Review of Books:
The dress is made of hide colored brick red with rubbed-in pigment. The sleeve ends, side seams, and skirt are decorated with abundant fine green fringes. A bottom border is blue with many four-pointed stars. The body of the dress is decorated with drawings front and back including a left hand in yellow, a turtle, thunderbirds, a magpie, a buffalo, a large four-pointed star, and other symbols and images with powerful traditional meanings. Was this dress ever worn by a ghost dancer? Without a solid provenance it is impossible to say, but the images on the dress are eloquent evidence of the whole-souled yearning that was expressed in the ghost dance movement of 1890.
It appears that this object found Powers very much as it found me. “The Southern Arapaho ghost dance dress expresses the impossible dream of a people who have lost everything but memory.” Loaded with evocative power.
Can an object carry collective memory for a culture? I’m not sure how this works. I do know that I have looked at this image of the ghost dance dress every day since I first saw it. It has showed up in my dreams and while I am working in the studio. In the spirit of letting yourself be found, I’m signed up to go where it takes me.
Some background on the Ghost Dance:
The Ghost Dance became a religious movement centered around a visionary Indian named Wovoka, a Northern Paiute living in Nevada. The belief was that dancing in a particular way, singing sacred songs and wearing special clothing would bring back the old way of life on the Plains before the Europeans arrived. Some tribes, particularly the Lakota, believed that the ghost dance clothing was a form of protection, and that wearing it in battle would protect them from gunshot and death.
Through contact with Wovoka, the ghost dance spread from tribe to tribe. Not surprisingly the whites were frightened by this indigenous sense of power and destiny. That overreaction led to devastating consequences at Wounded Knee.
Clothing, especially in battle, was not part of the Plains Indian tradition. Some historians believe the concept of attire that possesses magical powers came from contact with early Mormon settlers. (Mormons wear undergarments, garnered with symbols, that are believed to protect the body.)