Time. It can be both friend and foe. It eludes us, slips through our fingers and yet also seemingly extends ad infinitum. The fourth dimension in all of its frustratingly enigmatic glory serves as spellbinding subject matter for the Broad Museum’s current group showcase, A Journey That Wasn’t. Rather than focus on a particular artist, movement, or epoch, co-curators Ed Schad and Sarah Loyer instead chose to delve into this abstract, multifaceted concept. Comprised of 55 rarely seen works, all from the Broad’s vast collection, this sweeping exhibition acts as a philosophical treatise on the passage of time, memory, and decay.
Meaning “remember death,” the macabre genre known as memento mori, has provided poignant reminders of time’s unyielding cruelty since its Renaissance heyday. Famously espoused by Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer, this morbid theme and its gruesome depictions of skulls and rotting sustenance serve as inspiration for many of the twenty contemporary artists featured in this exhibition. Featuring the painting, sculpture, film, photography, and installation work of Pierre Huyghe, Andreas Gursky, Ragnar Kjartansson, Ron Mueck, Sherrie Levine, Sharon Lockhart, Ed Ruscha, and others, A Journey That Wasn’t finds the beauty and meaning in the aging body and the hurried, exhausting pace of modern life.
Two of celebrated American pop artist Ed Ruscha’s monumental, 28-foot-long acrylic panels titled Azteca and Azteca In Decline (both from 2007) greet guests as they enter the exhibit. Inspired by a multicolored mural the artist discovered in Mexico City, the first piece directly resembles the composition Ruscha saw while the second panel is a peek into the mural’s future. Now cracked, peeling, and somewhat melting, this disintegrating artwork calls the viewer’s attention to themes of civilization and destruction. With its title referencing the ravaged Aztec society and its remaining ruins, this haunting yet hopeful diptych urges the visitor to consider our current culture, its future downfall, and the universe’s perpetual cycle of creation and destruction.
The natural world and questions of reproduction are also present in Sherrie Levine’s 2016 giclee prints, After Russell Lee 1-60. As a photographer and conceptual artist renowned for duplicating the signature works of male artists in order to investigate issues of gender inequality in the art world and creative ownership, here Levine builds on these themes and tackles issues of time through repetition. Rephotographing 60 of Depression-era photographer Russell Lee’s snapshots depicting agrarian communities in the United States, the artist reveals that the people and places may have changed with the decades, but the country’s heart and hardship remain the same.
Similarly anthropological, Massachusetts-born photographer and filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s 2005 portrait series, Pine Flats Portrait Studio, captures the innocence of youth through depictions of several young children living in a rural Northern California town. Completed over a three year period, these candid chromogenic prints allow the viewer to pick up on small differences in appearance as these youths grow up. This heartfelt collection asserts that while it may seem like childhood lasts forever, especially from the perspective of the child, it is a precious, transitory period.
Largely recognized for his work making puppets for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Australian hyper-realistic sculptor Ron Mueck also explores this motif of aging, but this time from the perspective of the elderly in his beloved sculpture, Seated Woman (1999-2000). Measuring in at just over two feet tall, this incredibly popular and eerily lifelike piece depicts a mature woman. Bent forward with her hands folded in quiet contemplation, the viewer cannot help but speculate as to what she is thinking. While we may never know for sure, notions of regret and fatigue instantly come to mind.
Meanwhile, Pierre Huyghe’s 2006 film and exhibition title namesake, A Journey That Wasn’t, underscores the mind is unreliability in matters relating to memory. This highly suspect project revolves around an expedition Huyghe claims he took to the Antarctic in search of a rare albino penguin. Shot in the style of a scientific documentary, A Journey That Wasn’t also includes dramatic flourishes, cinematic icescapes, and cuts to a theatrical restaging of this excursion in Central Park’s Wollman Rink. While only Huyghe knows for sure if this adventure ever truly took place, the footage presents a thrilling odyssey which is a joy to watch. However, delving deeper into the meaning of this film, Huyghe here presents a stirring metaphor for the way the human brain embellishes and invents storylines while ignoring facts and timelines.
Finally, as one of the centerpieces of this exhibition, Icelandic filmmaker Ragnar Kjartansson grandiose nine channel projection, The Visitors (2012) also flirts with ideas of repetition and reality. For this hour-long film project, the artist invited nine musicians to stay for a week at Rokeby farm, a two-hundred-year-old estate in upstate New York. Simultaneously charming and dilapidated, the stately home provides the perfect backdrop for Kjartansson’s vision. The film itself focuses on the musicians each playing the same tender ballad in different rooms of the mansion. We even see the artist himself strumming the guitar in the bathtub. Each musician is seen and heard through individual screens and speakers. Just like with Sharon Lockhart’s portraits, the viewer begins to notice slight differences in each performer’s playing and singing. The film heightens and tricks the senses as one can hear and see the individual parts and whole at the same time. Kjartansson taps into something sublime as the music swells and composition somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts. At the end of the film, the group continues singing this poignant melody as they explore a misty, picturesque field next to the house. While the camera is static, the group slowly moves farther and farther away and their angelic voices fade. The film leaves a lump in the throat as the viewer wants nothing more than to join the group and for this serene moment to linger just a little while longer.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors (excerpted)
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.