New semester, new Rose Art Museum

February 28, 2020

The Thursday before break, Feb. 13, was a big day for the Rose Art Museum. The building opened its doors to the public for the first time this semester for a catered opening celebration.The Rose is typically a quiet, empty place, but this was not the case on opening night. Huge crowds of visitors began to fill the galleries shortly after 6 p.m., enticed by the promise of a night of free gallery viewing and refreshments.

As usual, the gallery pieces have received an overhaul since last semester. Most of the previous art on display has been rotated out for different works from the museum’s vast collection, and the large hall in the back has been given over to a brand new exhibition. This semester’s exhibition, Dora Garcia’s “Love with Obstacles,” introduces a radical and vibrant new medium of expression to the museum’s usually static collection: performance! Wednesdays through Fridays from noon to two (noon to three on weekends), paid performers from the Brandeis student body and faculty will be occupying positions in the exhibition hall.

While Garcia’s showcase forms the heart of this semester’s Rose experience, attendees will likely be drawn to another piece first, Dominic McGill’s “Project for a New American Century.” The work is hard to ignore: suspended by wires across from the museum’s main doors, “Project” is comprised of a single sheet of looped paper covered in graphite drawings and slogans. The subject matter becomes readily apparent even before visitors see the piece’s title. Images of atomic mushroom clouds, iconography of the fall of British Empire and the grandly stenciled “DEATH STRUGGLE BETWEEN FREEDOM & COMMUNISM” strongly indicate its purpose. The piece is a violent ode to the recently deceased 20th century. The work presents a palimpsestic vision of the sweeping failures of the decade. Like the history itself, the manuscript is impossible to take in all at once, and attempting to read the whole thing is a recipe for nausea. The sweeping scroll is taped together at both ends and loops in on itself, creating a shaded alcove that visitors are encouraged to enter. Despite being located within the open space of a lit gallery floor, the space manages to create a high degree of solitude. Within is a darkly rendered forest wreathed in mists, spirits and a large mother spider clutching an egg sack. The display is an unforgettable and unnerving experience the likes of which is rarely seen in any art museum, let alone the Rose.

I am shocked that the piece has survived beyond opening day. A gallery attendant I spoke to indicated that a good deal of her energy was spent making sure visitors did not bump into the installation. Folks entering the alcove are asked to remove all bulky coats, hats and scarves to reduce the chance of destructive collision. Given that “Project” is literally a pencil drawing on paper tied to the ceiling, this caution is warranted. 

Visitors exploring the Rose are required to be more cognizant of how they move through the gallery spaces in general this semester. Upon entering the main exhibition hall, one notices immediately two white painted rings on the floor, as well as a large floor sign warning against stepping on or within them. During performance hours, these circles act as stages for the three “Love and Obstacles” performers on duty. Two performers occupy the larger ring, and are instructed by Dora Garcia and an alluring trainer (sources tell me his name is Michelangelo) to maintain eye contact for the duration of shift. One of the actresses, Marissa Small ’21, described the experience as “a constant renegotiation of two bodies in space” and “very meditative.”

“I got to a place by around 45 minutes where it felt like every atom in my body was being pulled towards Michelangelo. I kind of lost time itself—not just track of time, but the concept of time,” Small says in her notes about the performance. For most people, even momentary eye contact can be intense. It is not difficult to see why performers in a piece that requires hours of maintained eye contact might be greatly moved by the experience.

To a voyeur, the experience is not exactly the same. I found it sort of creepy, at least at first. In a busy exhibition space packed with bodies, it can be difficult to tell the actors apart from the crowd, and this is undoubtedly an intentional effect. The performers orbit without ever being allowed to transcend the barrier of their ring. There is no embrace. In the smaller ring, a lone performer paces, sits, or stands while reading from a book of Russian feminist poetry. I am curious how the mood would play out on an empty day when the voice of the reader could carry throughout the hall. Lining the walls surrounding the performance piece are documents and media relating to feminism and revolution handpicked by Garcia from the museum’s own archives. There is also a makeshift theater walled off to one side of the hall playing a film by Garcia about the Russian author and feminist Alexandra Kollontai. The parts I saw didn’t have much dialogue, so visitors should be prepared for a drawn out experience. The Lois Foster Gallery is not exactly the most comfortable place to be watching an art film, and in a way, that makes it perfect.

This article only covers a handful of the new experiences that inhabit the latest iteration of the Rose. The current displays are some of the most dynamic pieces the museum has offered in recent memory. It is not often that modern art museums offer such intimacy. You can really get up close to these pieces, and some of them include living, breathing people! If you have never bothered to visit, I highly encourage you to try and make it out at least once before graduation. The free food and drinks might be all used up, but now is still the best time to go.

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