United Nations

When J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum this past weekend to see Tsherin Sherpa’s “Spirits,” we also walked through Gu Wenda’s “United Nations,” a monumental installation of flags crafted from human hair.

United Nations

When I first heard of Wenda’s exhibit, I didn’t know what to think. Weaving flags from hair sounded creepy: ghoulish at worst, and deeply unsettling at best. Even though a Museum FAQ explains that Wenda obtained his materials from barber shops, beauty salons, and willing volunteers, making art from human hair sounded weirdly invasive. Hair is literally a part of one’s person, so transforming it into art felt like a violation of privacy.

United Nations

What I didn’t expect, however, was for the installation to be both beautiful and strangely fascinating: something J and I spent a good while moving through and through again, circling back to see the flags from different angles and perspectives.

United Nations

It helped, I suppose, that we saw the installation on a sunny day. “United Nations” is displayed in a tall corridor, with natural light streaming from ample skylights. When lit from behind, the flags are dreamily diaphanous, as flimsy and insubstantial as a net or spiderweb. Instead of being solid symbols of national allegiance, Wenda’s flags seem like veils or panes of stained glass: things meant to be peered through.

United Nations

When the flags are backdropped by a wall or other solid object, however, they appear much more substantial, looking both furry and fibrous. Anyone who has cleared a shower drain knows how strong human hair is, prone to clumping and clogging. A whole hallway of flags–188 in total, one for each United Nations member state–is surprisingly impressive: an entire corridor of Rapunzels, each letting down her hair.

United Nations

United Nations

CLICK HERE for more images from “Gu Wenda: United Nations,” which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 5.

Skippers (Kneedeep)

Yesterday J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see Spirits, an exhibit of Tsherin Sherpa’s contemporary Buddhist art displayed alongside pencil drawings by Robert Beer.

Spiritual Warrior

Tsherin Sherpa’s playful and irreverent take on traditional Tibetan iconography was a visual delight. I was charmed and amused by deities chewing bubble gum, flashing peace signs, and dreaming halos filled with corporate logos and pop culture icons: the usual junk that passes as distraction.

Oh My God-ness!

We’re so used to sorting the world into the predictable piles of sacred and profane, it sparks something in our brain to see the two juxtaposed: deities, for example, channeling John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or Lady Gaga at the MTV music awards. Why should art respect the arbitrary boundary between sacred and profane when the spirit knows no such limit?

8 Spirits

Butterflies are a ubiquitous image in Sherpa’s work–the path to the exhibit, in fact, was marked with butterflies on the otherwise bare hallway walls–and butterflies flutter like restless spirits over fields, backyards, and factories alike. The sun shines equally on sinner and saint, and the Present Moment makes no distinctions.

3 Wise Men

Tsherin Sherpa’s work reminds us that we all are spirits in the material world: spirits who practice ancient meditative arts, perhaps, right alongside our otherwise ordinary work, leisure, and social lives. As spirits, we know no limit or hindrance.

Fly High


CLICK HERE for more images from “Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer”, which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through May 29. Enjoy!


After last week’s rain and sloppy snow, today was brisk and bright. J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see an exhibit of early photography in China, and after we’d had our fill of looking, we ordered lunch and ate in the museum’s sun-drenched atrium: the closest thing to al fresco dining you can get in January in New England.


Even though it’s been a mild winter in terms of temperature and snow accumulation, the days are still despairingly short. In winter, I am heliotropic, my inner sunflower turning toward the sun or any reasonable facsimile offering light, warmth, and color.

After we’d finished our lunch, J and I briefly browsed in the museum gift shop, admiring a display of Mova globes like the one J gave me for Christmas, each a beautiful ball that spontaneously spins through a combination of magnetism, solar power, and magic. My Mova globe sits on a shelf in my bathroom, away from electromagnetic interference from electronic devices and near a window where sunlight suffuses even on gloomy days. Every time I see it, my heart hearkens with recognition: keep turning toward the light, little world.


Today J and I drove to Salem, MA to visit the Peabody Essex Museum. Before we went inside, we took a detour around the block to see What the Birds Know, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty.


Dougherty is the same artist who created The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation I’d seen at Tower Hill Botanic Garden (and subsequently blogged) last October. Although the two pieces are crafted from the same materials and share a similar whimsical vision, their markedly different surrounding make for two distinctly different impressions.


The Wild Rumpus is located in the woodsy shade alongside a sunny field: the “middle of nowhere” if you’re a child walking with your parents. Inspired by the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Dougherty’s Tower Hill installation feels wild, or at least woodsy. Looking through its wicker-like windows, you half expect to see deer or other shy forest creatures staring back at you.


What the Birds Know, on the other hand, is at the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Salem. Tucked into a tiny yard next to a historic house, What the Birds Know is surrounded by neighboring buildings and receives lots of visitors. (J and I had driven past it last October, when Salem was thronged with Halloween tourists, and we didn’t even try to photograph it.)

Dougherty’s Salem installation doesn’t feel wild, but cozy: a cluster of neat little houses tucked right alongside human habitations. What the birds of downtown Salem presumably know is how to make a tame and tidy nest right alongside the comings and goings of preoccupied human beings.

Ansel Adams

On Saturday afternoon, A (not her real initial) and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts to see the current Ansel Adams exhibit, “At the Water’s Edge,” which was packed. It was, frankly, a miserable experience: my attention was so distracted by the crowd and my attempts not to bump into anyone as I navigating toward photographs I could see only over shoulders and between heads, I couldn’t really enjoy the art. I’m sure it was amazing, but there simply wasn’t enough room in the galleries to appreciate it.


There was, however, one piece I particularly liked. “Grass, Water and Sun, Alaska 1948” is a crisply detailed shot of tall grass awash in water, creating a complex tangle of fur-like lines that didn’t attract the same mobbing throngs that surged around Adams’ more well-known landscapes. “Grass, Water and Sun” reminded me of Linda Behar’s intricately embroidered images of salt marshes, which A and I had seen years ago at the Fuller Craft Museum. Behar’s small, embroidered canvases feature intricately stitched renditions of detailed landscapes, many from right here in Massachusetts, with each nuance of tone and texture being represented by different-colored threads. Adams’ “Grass, Water and Sun” offered a similar kind of intimacy, with each blade of swirling grass etched with razor-sharp clarity.


“Grass, Water and Sun” was small in scope: not a full landscape, but a detail within the landscape. It’s no accident, I think, that another photograph in the Ansel Adams exhibit that grabbed my attention, “Barnacles, Cape Cod, 1938,” was also not a landscape but a close-up detail of barnacles on weathered wood: a photo featuring tightly focused detail rather than expansive geography. “Barnacles” resonated with me because it was the kind of photo I might have taken: not an entire landscape, but a tiny detail within that scene. Surrounded by throngs of people, it was somehow comforting to focus on a single, small thing: the universe shrunk to manageable size.

Mr. Nobody by Michael Lin

But the true crowd-pleasers—and oh, were there crowds at the PEM to be pleased—were not intimate shots of grass or barnacles but Adams’ grandly picturesque natural landscapes, all of them somehow focused on water: crashing waves, spewing geysers, cloud-reflecting lakes. Oddly, these more expansive, awe-inspiring, conventionally impressive pieces—the quintessentially monumental landscape images we automatically associate with Adams—somehow failed to impress me. This was, in part, because of the crowds; it’s difficult to appreciate an image you barely have time to scan before being jostled by the surging masses to the next piece. But, in another way, the maddening crowd at the PEM was a symptom of the problem I have with Ansel Adams-type landscape photography, not the cause.

Spiral staircase

Ansel Adams’ landscape photos (and photos shot by subsequent photographers mimicking Adams’ style) are popular in large part because they depict nature how we’ve come to believe nature should be seen: that is, as a place pristine and apart. Ansel Adams landscapes typically depict a solitary moment experienced by a photographer who seems to be the only living human in that scene…and as such, the scenes in Adams’ photographs can never be entirely reenacted. The iconic national park settings of Adams’ Yosemite and Yellowstone landscapes, for instance, have become so popular because of those images, they now are as thronged with visitors as the PEM on an autumn weekend.


I’ve seen Old Faithful in person, and I’ve seen Adams’ photos of Old Faithful, and the two don’t seem to be the same place: in person, Old Faithful is surrounded by boardwalks, signs, and patient queues of camera-toting tourists belched from buses and cars. Ansel Adams’ landscapes aren’t overtly erotic—you won’t see Mother Earth figured as a voluptuous nude with breast-like hills and seductively inviting valleys—but they are, nevertheless, depictions of desire. Viewing “Reflections at Mono Lake, California, 1948” in the middle of a packed gallery, for instance, you wish you were somewhere that tranquil, that timeless, that untouchable: a place, in other words, that is Somewhere Not Here. Ansel Adams captures nature as we wish it were, not how it actually is: not nature here and now, but nature there and then. Like pornography, Ansel Adams-style landscape photography presents an idealized subject that is even better than the real thing: the beauties of nature without the need for hiking, sweating, or insect-slapping, and the beauty of nature without any other nature-goers.

Quiet seat

How different was the impression I got from Barbara Bosworth’s “Natural Histories,” which is also currently on exhibit at the PEM. Bosworth’s photographs focus on her family and their home in Novelty, Ohio, a markedly more intimate and domestic subject than Adams’ monumental scenes. Bosworth’s photographs are as crisply detailed as Adams’: paired images of her parents’ hands showed as many wrinkles as any of Adams’ mountain topographies, for instance, and one window-sized image of the trees outside the Bosworth family’s living room was as sharply lifelike as any of Adams’ landscapes. Bosworth’s childhood backyard is far less well-known than Old Faithful or the Yosemite valley, but I found Bosworth’s three-part image of her family enjoying that backyard, “Picking Wild Roses and Blackberries in the Backyard, Novelty, 1992,” to be far more inviting than any of the scenes Adams portrayed. An Ansel Adams photograph depicts an untouched nature we wish we could visit whereas Bosworth’s images capture a landscape people actually live in. I’ll never (outside of my dreams) step into an Ansel Adams photograph, but I’ve walked the same earth that Bosworth and her family inhabit.

Photography above; artifacts below

It’s entirely possible I preferred Barbara Bosworth’s “Natural Histories” over Ansel Adams’ “At the Water’s Edge” because I could calmly view the former without having to fight the crowds flocking to the latter. If you’re looking for a place that is pristine and apart, you can dream about the decades-old landscapes captured in now-iconic images, or you can step away from the crowd and find in your own backyard an overlooked corner that everyone else seems determined to ignore.

Goose Pond

Yesterday morning: quiet dogwalk at Goose Pond here in Keene.

Midday: Mount Monadnock as seen from Rt. 101 in Dublin, NH, one of the snowy sights on the drive between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Mount Monadnock

Afternoon: a pink cling-film replica of the Taj Mahal in the lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. We went to see teapots, but photography is prohibited in special exhibitions.

Taj Mahal

Evening: very tasty margaritas at Cilantro Mexican restaurant in Salem, MA. (This is the first of two rounds, before the world started looking fuzzy…)

Tasty margaritas!

Nightcap: three candles (for 30-something) on a peanut butter pie, delivered, lit, and wished upon in a Salem parking garage (don’t ask: it made sense at the time).

Three candles for thirty-something

Yes, I made a wish; no, I’m not telling you. The book in the background is the church ladies’ cookbook where the pie recipe came from (again, it’s best you didn’t ask: it makes sense to the ladies involved).

Thanks again to Leslee and A (not her real initial) for birthday rich with artful teapots, tasty beverages, and much laughter: priceless.