Sunday, March 25, 2012

Art I Wish I'd Made Myself: Entering the Memory of Michael C. McMillen

In pursuit of the magical museum, I write about other museums that have inspired, amazed, and astonished me. In this case, an exhibit from August 2011 at the wonderful Oakland Museum really pushed the boundaries of what I'd realized a museum installation could do - especially in a smaller collection. It's one thing for the Met to knock your socks off, but to see a local museum do it gave me this moment of "whoa! say, I could do that!" ...not without a hefty chunk of change, perhaps, but all of a sudden the idea of a mystical collection seemed that much more within my reach.

I have been meaning to write for some time now about seeing the Oakland Museum's lovely exhibit Michael C. McMillen: Train of Thought this past August, which produced a kind of revelation in me. McMillen is a man who works on both a grand and a minute scale - sometimes simultaneously, as with Red Trailer Motel (2003), an installation built like the doorstep to a ramshackle and decrepit motel of old boards, corrugated tin, and fading painted doors; old tires lie around, and there are grime-encrusted signs for gas and oil, but the state of decay seems (to me, at least) to be occurring in a slightly lunatic landscape, a shabby and weirdly mystical lunar plane not unlike that of George Herriman's Krazy Kat cartoons. It's a full-size installation, which is to say the doors are real doors, and you could park your jalopy in front of it quite naturally (if you could get it past the museum guards, anyway), but there's a wonderful and entirely separate dimension to it: peek into the tiny apertures on the doors, placed just where the suspicious spy-hole goes in ordinary doors, and you'll see inside of each a minute room of elegance and stereoscopic depth -- and movement, too. In one room a tiny ball circumnavigates a tiny pool table; another view of a shabby room with a bleak dark window in the back seems disappointingly lifeless unless you wait long enough to be rewarded by the sight of a fish - yes, a fish - suddenly swimming into view beyond the tiny pane.

(I had never seen scale so ingeniously combined, although I had imagined it for projects of my own: in the original conception of my thesis work, the room I built would be filled with exactly this kind of tiny window, though placed in the covers of books instead of doors, leading to all kinds of tiny and wondrous landscapes. I had neither the technical skill nor the time to make it so, however, and the installation, I think, suffered as a result -- it would have benefited from just such a dreamlike mechanism of entrancement.) Anyway. I was enjoying all the works that I encountered - the Museum, in an inspired act, had planted them throughout its many rooms of California art, so that you might stumble upon them unexpectedly, a technique that for me absolutely added to the sense of wonder and discovery they inspired anyway - and rambling around happily without much purpose when I found the Pavilion. It was in a room apart, a high-ceilinged one, and you had to go round through a long curved alleyway of corrugated steel to get to it, which lent the space a very particular sense of being by a dock, a quay, a place where dark swells would slap against the (unseen) pilings - although I'm not sure I could say why it felt that way, exactly. Have I ever actually been down a dock lined on either side with rusty metal walls far higher than my head? I don't think so. Nevertheless, what happened was a transformation of a room in a museum into a place, a piece of the world with its own identity, located elsewhere - already, before I even got to the installation itself.

As I came around the corner I saw the name of the piece for the first time: The Pavilion of Rain, said the placard, which is a name I might have chosen myself under other circumstances for an artwork of my own design, so resonant a phrase it is to me. Pavilion conjures up images of silk tents and Zen temples; rain, that most mystical and moody of weathers, is especially dear to my heart, and the conjunction of the two pleased me enormously: it put me immediately in mind of a place of prayer and meditation, a dignified and quiet spot in which to appreciate the winds and fogs.

What I had wandered into was a large room, mostly taken up by a flat shallow pool, perhaps roughly 18 feet square. It may have been larger or smaller. The room was filled with a blue crepuscular light, and I use the word crepuscular both for its actual meaning (pertaining to twilight) and for the sound of it, which is to me slightly weird, faintly creepy, and oddly suggestive of vines and slithering things. Twilight can be a time of pure clear azure, but this was a swampy light, as if the shack existed deep in a place where the sun tended to shy away from appearances and low wispy fogs made it their business to rise from the waters.

It did not, I'm now realizing, feel anything like what you might call postapocalyptic, despite the ramshackle and rusty nature of it and its strange, melancholy sense of isolation; visually it could be aligned with, say, The City of Lost Children (I could only find a really awful still to illustrate, but the green water and the decrepit sort-of-steampunk architecture of the pier might give some sense, at least, of the visual parallel - and anyway, everyone should see that film) but it didn't feel like that at all, any more than The Red Trailer Motel -- a relic from a weird and lonely landscape, yes, but one made of an internal melancholy rather than external devastation. I walked down the little rope-edged walkway into the shack and sat down on one of the small benches within. I didn't feel taken aback at seeing this in place of a tidy temple of some sort, as it happens - perhaps because the place itself was so profoundly and utterly complete. Let me explain. What usually irks me about installation art - my own included - is the clarity of the act of installation - even very interesting and thoughtful works still usually have some sense of the place in which they've been put bleeding out around the edges, interfering with my ability to grow totally immersed.The gallery never really vanishes. Such pieces have a tendency to suggest an experience rather than genuinely create one: they give you the tools to imagine or understand another place or time or happening or shade of meaning, but you're still in some part conscious of yourself standing there in the room looking.

Outside the shack, looking at it, that was still there to some extent, though it was pretty muted by the insistence weirdness of the light, the great metal walls curving around, the emphatically life-size scale of the shack. Inside, however, I felt clearly and powerfully that I was sitting not in someone's else's piece of art but inside their memory. And this sensation deepened to a point of absolutely wild intensity when all of a sudden it began to rain.

The Pavilion of Rain (1987-2011) - Michael C. McMillen (photo taken by me!)

The interior of the shack was so weirdly personal that it was hard to cling to the sense of abstraction necessary to remember logically that you are viewing art. I don't mean that there was anything especially cryptic about it, some suggestion of a history that we as viewers couldn't get at, which would have had the opposite effect; I mean that the placement of the windows, the strange light coming through them, the picture hanging by the door, felt to me intensely specific, as if they could only possibly have come out of a very strong and vivid memory, not just of the look of a place but of its feel, its emotional timbre and its resonances of meaning. It felt absolutely like being put into a moment I had never lived through. And the rain -- it had not been raining when I walked in, but all of a sudden there was a faint rattle on the roof, which quickly grew into a downpour. And what absolutely broke open my brain was the fact that the rain was real. It was not the suggestion of rain, not the sound of it, but the actual living joyous dolorous drumming and leaking and pattering of it; it smeared the windows and dripped from the eaves and caught the light and left its peculiar pale shadows on the walls, and I sat there in the wet twilight in that tiny room with its dingy mirror and tried to keep my heart from beating its way out of my chest.

After a while the rain stopped, and gave way slowly to the croaking of frogs, or maybe cicadas. And I sat there in a state of strange suspension, feeling myself dropped body and soul into a moment of someone else's existence - its loneliness and its sense of wonder, its smells and sounds and emptiness. I have yet to experience another work like it, so haunting and alive, so absolute. I have never encountered a work of art that put me so wholly into another world, another sphere of existence totally unknown to me. To take a memory and let others live through it as if it were their own -- that seems to me to be a kind of masterpiece. Let me just say that I was awed. (I am still too humbled by it to be entirely inspired to create something like it of my own, but one day - one day! - I would like to...) More than anything, the realization that I am allowed, if I like, to make it rain in a museum came as a kind of epiphany. Previously I had always thought pretty much only of ways to represent that kind of experience, because, well, that's what artists do. Sitting in the Pavilion was my first inkling that there might honestly be a way to stop symbolizing what I mean and instead somehow really make it! Perhaps that sounds obvious -- but it doesn't feel that way. McMillan, in The Pavilion of Rain, is the first artist of my experience who has skipped merrily past signs and signifiers straight to the signified. Now there, I think, is a worthy ambition.

You can find out more about Michael C. McMillen through the Oakland Museum's press release on the exhibit.

1 comment:

  1. I love this piece & was fortunate enough to experience it @ the Oakland Museum around 1987 (been awhile, not totally specific on dates for this one). Completely shifted my idea of what's possible w/art & touched my soul. Changed. Liked it.


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