I spoke last night at the Diekeou Collection in Denver, the venue for a talk on cultural policy cosponsored by WESTAF and Arts for Colorado. My subject was “Getting Our Hopes Up: Envisioning Art at The Center,” an exploration of the fear of disappointment and how it has shrunken our vision of art’s public purpose, followed by some thoughts about how to fix it.
This photo was taken during a mic check before the gig.
The pair of giant pink bunnies is entitled “Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable,” and was created by Momoyo Torimitsu in 2000. They are kept aloft by powerful ventilators which make a lot of noise, so they had to be turned off before I began speaking. When the ventilators stopped, a loud silence filled the room as the bunnies began to deflate. Their heads bowed, their ears were gently tucked under, and they subsided into pink puddles, one on each side of the dais.
The act of deflation seemed deeply sad. The bunnies’ heads dropping as they deflated reminded me of subjects forced by a tyrant to bow down. I felt I was witnessing the humbling of great beasts, and as I spoke, I fended off thoughts of the mighty brought low, the same associations I might have had if I’d been flanked by the pelts of lions or tigers made into rugs.
After my talk, the ventilators were turned back on, and the bunnies popped right up again, looking just as perky and menacing as if nothing had happened.
Afterwards, I mentioned this to Rachel Cole Dalamangas, director of the idiosyncratic collection, which has been installed in a rambling series of former office spaces in a downtown building owned by the family of artist Devon Dikeou, who assembled the collection. Rachel said that everyone experiences the bunnies differently: some people see them as kneeling in prayer; some see the entire cycle as an enactment of death and resurrection.
The bunnies exemplify a particular trend in contemporary art, which I might characterize as the monumentally uncanny. Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen may have started it with their enormous lipsticks, clothespins, and shuttlecocks, but as the impluse has evolved, it has become more unsettling. The bunnies simultaneously dominate and are oppressed by the space they occupy; their childish and cartoonlike natures rub up against their scale, generating the unease reflected in the work’s title.
I was very tired when I got back to my hotel last night, but I couldn’t resist posting the bunny picture to my Facebook page, where it garnered quite a few excited comments. I engaged with friends in a whole riff about the bunnies as guardians (of myself, the Bunny Goddess, of course) and possessors of spiritual superpowers. I sent the photo to a few friends too, and now here I am, blogging about it. When something evokes so much sensation, triggers so many thoughts, creates such an opportunity for the mindblown delight of sacred play—well, I’ll just ask how many illustrations we need to know that art has power that logic cannot explain away?
In my talk, I focused on the shift that is now taking place, where this power is beginning to be given its true value:
When a new reality emerges, it takes time to filter up and trickle down. Today, many leaders don’t yet understand the centrality of human creativity—especially artistic creativity—to life as it is now lived and to a sustainable future. They are still so strongly attached to an old mechanistic model of value that they simply cannot perceive what is otherwise evident everywhere.
For those leaders, I prescribe a visit with the bunnies, complete with resurrection.
This is from a remarkably strange and interesting Canadian singer of new blues who goes by the name “Cold Specks.” Here is “Lay Me Down.”
Hi Arlene- I am sure you have driven down Highway 80 toward Berkeley and seen the inflated gorilla on top of the carpet showroom. These advertising inflatables are everywhere and are a contemporary disposable version of the concrete and chicken wire Paul Bunyan and Babe the Ox type icons from yesteryear. Obviously they lack the commitment because once the electricity from the blower is denied they deflate and can be rolled up and put away. Jeff Koons has worked this into his solid chrome monumental ballon, rabbit, teddy bear, etc pieces. They make a big first impression and then usually fade. Kind of weird however to have them in a meeting/lecture room.
Hi, Pete, from Greeley, Colorado, where I’m visiting for another speaking engagement. You’re right about the inflatables. I think the difference for me is in the framing as art, and in the scale of the bunnies to the room. They look so much more poignant with their ears touching the ceiling than if they were floating around outside a tire store, if you know what I mean. But it’s subtle, isn’t it?
Yes sort of like the Magritte Apple in the room painting meets a crazy easter dream.