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Reinventing Salem
Too much to see at the new Peabody Essex Museum
BY CHRISTOPHER MILLIS

In a culture where hyperbole reigns ó Frank Richís quip about media news coverage as " All Calamity All the Time " about sums it up ó itís hard to offer genuine praise, and harder still to be convincing about it. And a whole lot that sounds hyperbolic from the print and broadcast media has been directed in recent days at the new expansion of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Enjoying the combined efforts of an accomplished yet unprepossessing architect (Moshe Safdieís credits include the National Gallery of Canada and the Institute of Peace that will go up across from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington) and an equally accomplished and similarly self-effacing landscape designer (Michael Van Valkenburgh restored Harvard Yard; heís currently redoing Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House), the physical museum has in fact transformed from chrysalis to butterfly. Where a modest, homely structure once struggled to present a fraction of the Peabody Essexís holdings, a expansive, handsome building now houses an array of galleries that provide the kind of breathing room we associate with Paris and London and Beacon, New York (home of the new Dia Center).

I donít know whether it was part of Safdieís intention ó not a word to this effect appears in the voluminous press materials ó but upon entering the new and improved space, whose corridors and atrium seem narrow compared to the extraordinary height of the walls, I felt as if I were boarding an ocean liner. Which is appropriate for an institution whose original collection was based on the regionís maritime history. The glass ceiling arches like the prow of a ship, and on one side in the atrium a number of large, white sails (sunscreens, I imagine) look wind-blown. The effect is subtle, nothing nautical in sight, and yet thereís just enough suggestion of being aboard a massive boat ó the galleries that extend off coordinated staircases like various decks; the lights in the shape of portals ó to make you feel transported.

Engrossing as the architecture proves, four of the five exhibits I visited were even more so; I got the sense that the new Peabody Essex Museum has the power to recast Salem altogether. For the first time in centuries, the witches will have to take a back seat.

I had four hours last Saturday to give to viewing, and they fell smack in the middle of the museumís official reopening. It was crowded ó TV crews, dance troupes, passengers galore. But the shows I was able to take in held up as absorbing, inventive, and fiercely intelligent. When each set of gallery doors closed behind me, the surrounding clamor and confusion evaporated. This is museumgoing at its finest.

But first: what I didnít see. Among the permanent collections, I missed the Architecture & Design exhibit, American Decorative Art, and Maritime Art and History, as well as the spaces given over to the art of India, Africa, Korea, and Japan. I also missed the Yin Yu Tang House, a full-fledged Qing Dynasty merchantís house (circa 1800-1825), completely furnished, that the museum has added to its architectural holdings. Among the traveling exhibits, I missed both " Masterpieces of Nineteenth Century Asian Photography " (through September 28) and " Under the Imperial Gaze " (through May 2), which focuses on two huge (26 feet long) scrolls depicting the travels of an 18th-century Qianlong emperor. Iíll be back.

" Men Plow, Women Weave " is a modest yet gratifying collection of objects ó decorative, utilitarian, æsthetic ó centered on the themes of rice farming and silk production. The two motifs, fundamental aspects of Chinese culture for millennia, unite the showís constituents. The objects range from a Yongzheng porcelain vase (1723-1736) whose exquisite painting shows a woman working an outdoor loom to a rough but no less exquisitely woven 20th-century peasantís hat and raincoat made from palm fiber.

Whatís most exciting about " Men Plow, Women Weave, " however, is its success at making the distant past feel as immediate as tomorrow. The trick lies in the careful juxtaposing of ancient and contemporary. Along the same wall, for instance, as the Yongzheng vase you can see a late-19th-century photograph of a woman working an indoor loom. She who at first seemed emblematic on the porcelain now registers as an individual, even as the actual woman you see in the photograph takes on an ageless air. On a nearby adjacent wall appears a male version of the same time warp. A Kangxi-period (1662-1722) porcelain bowl depicts in its concavity a man steering a water buffalo with a rope harness as he plows a rice paddy. A few feet away thereís a 19th-century photograph of a man doing the same. The difference is dramatic. The muted pastels and dreamy lines of the antique bowl give that farmerís efforts a romantic feel; the photograph stands as a sharp corrective. You can see the peasantís bare feet on the dry broken earth, his sunburned face turned toward the camera. The work that at first looked as light as the sound of a flute becomes backbreaking.

The highlight of the exhibit for me was Luo Zhongliís 1980 oil painting Spring Silkworms. This massive work, about six by four feet, depicts an old woman ó her arms are as dark and creased as tree bark ó holding a green leaf in a bowl of white silkworms. Sheís shown from above, so that her scalp occupies the bulk of the frame; emanating from it, like filaments of living silk, is her incandescent twisting white hair. The worker and the work are one.

The Native American exhibit was the one big disappointment. Top-heavy and lop-sided, the show claims to be Native American when in fact it houses predominantly Plains Indiansí clothing (exactly whose weíre not informed). In fact, the coloration and wear on many of the artifacts ó were they distributed evenly over the exhibit space in an effort to minimize their ubiquity in the collection? ó suggest they hail not only from the same auction but from the same family. The moccasins, vest, jacket, and papoose hardly deserve separate cases; theyíre too much alike. It doesnít help that only two items originated east of the Mississippi, or that the two contemporary paintings dominating the room look like amateur cartoons.

On the other hand, the Oceania exhibit, with its emphasis on Hawaiian art, is one of the best of its kind Iíve seen. The range and quality of objects is wide without being skimpy, and under the curatorial guidance of Christina Hellmich, the show delivers continual surprises. Turn around and youíre suddenly standing in front of a towering Hawaiian temple figure lurking in a dark niche with its massive broad face snarling like a mastiff. Look up from examining a minuscule 19th-century figure carved from the bone of a sperm whale ó it suggests a man whose eyes bug out as heís about to cannonball into the surf ó and youíll discover an unsettling sculpture by a contemporary Hawaiian artist, Bernice A. Keolamauloa oínalani Akamineís Kaua, We, the two of us, which resembles a pair of huge metal-and-glass eyes. A small 19th-century wooden figurine from the Easter Islands of a bearded man and Almalene Kuíuio Gray-Parkerís 2001 woven sculpture of the life-size head of a bearded man are coupled to similar effect.

Iíd gone to the museum intending to focus on " Family Ties, " curator Trevor Fairbrotherís sensitive homage to the evolving concept of family in contemporary art. To get to that exhibit, however, I had to pass through " Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits, " a collection of more than 40 traditional portrait paintings relating to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. Cross a threshold and youíre standing in front of Zhang Huanís 2001 Family Tree, nine color photographs of the artistís own face that fill a gigantic wall. In the first, a few Chinese characters appear painted on his visage. By the middle, the characters have become so dense as to look like paint. By the last photo, Zhang Huan looks like somebody from Blue Man Group. Language has taken over his skin. For a moment I didnít know where I was. Had I left " Worshiping the Ancestors " or was this part of it? I had indeed entered " Family Ties, " but through a crossing so refined, the passage itself had nearly disappeared. Yet again, past and present merged. Iíll be back sooner than Iíd first imagined.


Issue Date: June 27 - July 3, 2003
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