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Experiencing art

The following reflection by Lee ann Thomas is part of a series of blog posts written by THINK Global School faculty members to showcase their thoughts and experiences from a recent weXplore trip to Washington, D.C. To view the entire conversation, visit us on Spot.

Increasingly over the last few years I have been able to see firsthand many artworks I have long admired and studied. There’s a certain kind of magic to walking into a gallery and seeing familiar, old friends in the artwork in front of you. The discussions, research, thought, analysis and opinions on a certain piece of work are reinforced, enhanced or even altered by encountering the physicality of an image or concept.

This is particularly true when it comes to installation pieces. Hearing the Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen’s Investigation (2009-11) surrounded by the floor-to-ceiling lists of names and overlooked by the backpacks of Snake Ceiling (2009) in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum was an emotionally charged experience, so much more so than encountering the piece through photography and video. Surrounded and engulfed by the work it was impossible to ignore the allusion to a school roll call or the enormity of the loss of so many young lives. Seeing works like this in person reinforces the importance of scale and space in an artist’s manipulation of the viewer’s experience.

Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009) functions very effectively as a backdrop to his Coca-Cola Vase (2007) and Colored Vases (2007-10); the three pieces work together to highlight the contradictory and interrelated elements of destruction, preservation and transformation. These pieces sparked much discussion and strong reactions among TGS students and staff.

It is these discussions and explorations of the intended meaning of and interaction with artworks that are the reason we study art and why it is so important to experience the work firsthand whenever possible. In an interview for the exhibition catalogue Ai Weiwei sums it up perfectly: “Art is an action that transforms our thoughts. It is a process that turns nothing into something.”

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