“I hate theme shows. I hate shows that bunch a whole lot of works together that should be seen alone.” This — or words to this effect — is what an artist friend said when I was telling him about a show of Chinese paintings at the Met I had reviewed. It hit home because, in this show more than others, I had focused on the works individually, less interested in the art historical trends that their collective might bring out than in the way each asked to be experienced. The former is, of course, easier to write about: a curator might build a thesis from a study of artworks but, ultimately, the thesis itself is best expressed in words. As is the evaluation of how a show presents the thesis. When it comes to works themselves and the experience of them, well, now, that is tougher. All our experiences are personal — so one question it raises for me is whether I can presume to present my own reaction to a work as a guide to others.
Since many of the works in question were hand scrolls, this also raised the question of how and whether technology could emulate that experience. So I did an experiment — I videoed one of the hand scrolls on display at the met, walking alongside it as a way of capturing the movement of how we would unfurl the work. It is a 16th-century painting that depicts poets gathering in a grove. I was later rather validated to notice that this is how a premier scholar of Chinese painting, James Cahill, shows scrolls on his website.
But, while this captures the movie-like unfolding of the scroll, is it really how we experience this art form? When we unfurl a scroll, we do this by exposing it in segments of about an arm’s length. So while our eye might indeed travel right to left through the composition, it also takes in each segment as a whole. Would it then not be more accurate to present it as a series of stills? Let’s see. I took the rather poor quality video of the scroll and grabbed screenschots of consecutive segments. I hope its less than stellar quality doesn’t interfere with this slideshow’s ability to test out the idea.