Tuesday, December 9, 2008

fun with art, soup and ads

I've been meaning to get to the Milwaukee Art Museum's Act/React exhibit since it opened, but with all that's been going on this fall have not had time. Since the holidays and my big trip are fast approaching this past weekend it was "now or never." I also had two passes to the Eisner Museum of Advertising & Design, which I've been to for events, but never to just browse, so I thought I'd roll the two together into an afternoon out.

Becky met me at my house a little before 1 o'clock on what was a totally desolate Wisconsin gray day. I should've brought my camera along, but I think if you can picture a vast expanse with no color to speak of and everything that should be colorful dyed gray, you can picture Sunday afternoon.

We walked the few blocks to the Art Museum (man, I do love my location!) and were happy to get inside quickly. As a MAM member I get two free passes to each main exhibition, so after having them look me up in the system (can anyone really ever find their cards?) we waltzed into the Baker/Rowland Galleries to experience "Act/React."

This is not your grandmother's art exhibit. The whole focus is on interaction with art and it features interactive installation pieces from six artists. The gallery guide is even interactive -- you collect six artist cards as you wind your way through. The cards give you direction on how to interact with the pieces AND provide a helpful reminder when you are reviewing the exhibit three days later.

Greeting exhibit entrants are two installations by Scott Snibbe. Becky and I first tackled, Boundary Functions, which created a moving line between us as we explored the mat on the floor. It looks like this could get pretty cool with a bunch of people on it, but Becky and I had fun making our one line move. I guess I didn't "feel" the art on this one and at no time felt isolated and alone on my side of the line.

Done with our line, we moved over to Snibbe's Deep Walls. Deep Walls captures the silhouettes of the last 16 people to interact with it and rotates your short shadow film throughout its 16 blocks until the next person(s) comes along. Becky and I had fun acting out our little scene, but it was sort of eerie knowing that the other shadows were people ahead of us in the gallery (and even possibly others no longer in the space). Deep Walls was the first of many in this exhibition that explored the imprint individuals leave behind. This piece in particular though flips on its head the idea of art leaving an imprint on the beholder -- the beholder (at least for 16 rounds) leaves an imprint on the art.

Next up was Liz Phillips' Echo Evolution. This was a dark room with neon pieces that lit up when you spoke to your companion. There were also various changing sounds in the room. Becky and I felt something was missing, or maybe even "out of order" with this exhibit. I think I may just be spoiled, as it reminded me a bit of the Mela Foundation Dream House (this INCREDIBLE installation piece I visited in New York City), but far less mind-blowing.

Onto my favorite piece from the exhibition, Snow Mirror by Daniel Rozin. With this piece you stand in front of a large screen of "snow" (or "ants" if you called them that on your TV with bad reception). Slowly the snow fills in your form, but if you move, it will all blow away. This piece obviously explores similar themes as Deep Walls, but I felt really emphasized the temporary nature of things and how your impact can so quickly fade. Not to say Becky and I took this so deeply at the time. We had a lot of fun making ourselves appear and reappear until some other people came into the exhibit and we thought two adults goofing off may not be appreciated. We moved over to Rozin's Peg Mirror, which forms your silhouette with mechanical pegs, but didn't have time to pose as the exhibit was getting quite crowded at this point.

Next up was Healing Pool by Brian Knep, another piece using interaction to explore impact. The green and red patterns on the floor piece reminded me of a cell project from high school biology. As you walk (or hop) across the floor you cannot move without creating a large swath across the environment. Even flicking my heavy scarf out in front of me disturbed the pattern. Too bad this piece probably costs hundreds of thousands of dollars because it would be a fantastic way to teach kids about their ecological footprint. Or, you know, enable them to "part the Red Sea," as I pretended to do when it was only Becky and I paying attention.

Janet Cardiff's To Touch easily gets the "giggle-inducer" award from the trip. As you "gently stroke" (seriously that's what the instructions say) the top of an old carpenter's table placed in the middle of a room covered in speakers you "arouse" different film noir-esque sound effects and voices out of the walls. This was definitely a little PG-13 as I had to keep stroking the table to prove to Becky that the piece whispered "put your hand on my breast."

The final artist in the exhibition is Camille Utterback whose trio of pieces Untitled 5, External Measures and Untitled 6 act as interactive canvasses that stand alone, but work together. After playing with each piece individually, I got the idea to quickly walk across the path of lights on the floor that served as triggers to each piece. My imprint (and soon Becky's as she joined me) left a trail throughout the finally gallery. We definitely impressed the other visitors with that trick!

After a quick stop at the exhibit giftshop, we swung through the Sensory Overload exhibit in the regular museum, as Becky had yet to experience it and it's a nice complement to the Act/React. My brother and I hit this up last summer. While Matrix XV and The Walk-In Infinity Chamber are ridiculously cool, be wary if you've consumed several pitchers of Miller Lite the night before. As the smaller gallery exhibits were switching out and we still had the Eisner to hit, we took a quick sit in the Chair Park and then headed back out into the winter.

Trekking over to the Third Ward we realized we were starving, so stopped at Bella Caffe en route to Water & Chicago. Neither of us had ever eaten there, but we would both recommend it now. The staff was friendly, the surroundings cozy and the Tomato & Fennel Soup with Mushroom Ravioli -- divine!

Satisified, we arrived at the Eisner to peruse. I feel to visit this museum, you need to have some understanding of advertising/marketing. Otherwise I think the point may be lost. They don't really explain the exhibits -- most is just visual. The current exhibits are a branding exploration of Fossil, a history of Cramer-Krasselt advertising and a history of Coca-Cola ads with an emphasis on Christmas. This space is fabulous for events, but I think they could work on adding more of an educational element to their exhibits (there are some older exhibits on VALS and on new media that have an educational component). I am very grateful that Milwaukee has such a unique attraction, but think there's always some room for improvement.

All-in-all, it was a perfect activity for a cold winter's day. I'm very glad that my city has opportunities to explore during all seasons. If it wasn't for world-class attractions like these (even if the rest of the world is still slow to discover them), I don't know how I would have made it 10 years.

*Act/React is only at MAM through January 11, 2009. Go now before you miss out on the chance to become the art!

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