So ladies and gentlemen, let's start with the notion of a festive celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of a museum known for rich collections and smart, edgy exhibitions. The celebration of such an anniversary, obviously, calls for a particularly well-chosen exhibition and requires meticulous preparation. Then, imagine --just a few days before hundreds of guests were scheduled to arrive for the big opening, disaster hit and chaos ensued.
No, I am not making it up. This is the actual story of what recently happened at The Fowler Museum at UCLA, just a few days before the scheduled opening of the exhibition (November 2, 2014) by Pascale Marthine Tayou, high profile Cameroon artist who currently lives and works in Belgium.
The artist travelled to Los Angeles a week before the opening to supervise the complex installation process. To their collective horror, the artist and the museum crew found out that the container, coming from Belgium and holding all of Tayou's works, was held up in the record-breaking congestion of the Port of LA. Port officials told the museum that they could not guarantee that the shipment would arrive in time for the exhibition opening.
Just imagine your dismay if, God forbid, anything like that happened to you. Tantrum? Nervous breakdown? In any case, you would have plenty of excuse to throw in the towel. But surprisingly, it didn't happen this time. Neither the artist nor the museum took no for an answer. And that's where, according the famous saying, the "men are separated from the boys." Boys complain, but men go to battle.
Last week, I heard this amazing story of creative resilience from the Fowler's director, Marla Berns, and exhibition curator, Gemma Rodrigues, who gave me a tour of the exhibition. "To avert disaster, Tayou... created an entirely new body of work at the Fowler over four days... working with museum staff." Off they went to local haunts to buy the most humble of materials -¬-miles of wire, hundreds of plastic bags, reams and reams of colored paper, and careful now, you can look but don't touch, thousands of razor blades. All that and more was installed in the most amazing and engaging way, which turned the museum galleries into a theater stage.
Waves of wire hang overhead, twisting and twirling throughout the whole exhibition. Thousands of crumpled pieces of colored paper pile into a small pyramid-shaped mountain. Hundreds of empty plastic bottles assembled into a meandering line bearing reference to one of the world's dirtiest rivers. Dozens of empty carton boxes almost crush the single bicycle upon which they sit.
And voila! At the very last minute, Gods and Angels smiled on the artist and the container holding Tayou's works arrived. The resulting exhibition is a happy blend of his figurative and abstract sculpture with last minute improvisations, all of the above rife with eloquent and poetic references to African history, culture, and politics.
So let's congratulate both the museum and the artist on winning over disaster. And yes, happy birthday to you, brave Fowler...
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.