A Taste of Curation: Neuroaesthetics at HAM

 

The Harvard Art Museums, affectionately referred to as “HAM”, places students at the forefront. From affording them research and work opportunities, to hosting lectures of all subjects in the museum, to allowing us to use the Art Study Center to sit alone with original works of art, HAM truly operates with students at the helm.

As a member of HAM’s Student Board, I have had the great fortune of hearing from different museum faculty about their work within the museum and how, often times, students can get involved. During one particular meeting last Spring, Laura Muir (Research Curator for Academic and Public Programs) spoke to us about the University Teaching Gallery: a space for Harvard courses to select objects from the museum to accompany their syllabus and encourage students to apply what they’re learning in class to objects that they encounter outside the classroom. In concluding this discussion, Laura mentioned she was in the process of selecting the courses to participate in this gallery for the Fall semester.

Since I’ve always been curious about how exhibitions are put together (everything from the narrative arc to the politics of acquiring desired pieces), I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. I immediately thought of working with my Neuroaesthetics Professor, Dr. Nancy Etcoff, to propose objects that would add a visual element to her already robust course design.

So, with the guidance from collaborating with Dr. Etcoff and the help of Laura in synthesizing our ideas, Harvard’s first ever class focused exhibit on Neuroaesthetics was unveiled in this Fall of 2018. Here’s a bit about what you’ll see if you visit, and how this opportunity has changed the way I experience museums for the better:

In looking at the course syllabus and teasing out the topics that would benefit most from visual counterparts, we structured the 9 objects in the exhibit to follow the themes of The Face / Gaze, What is Beauty / Art, Synesthesia / The Sublime, Longing / Melancholy, and The Uncanny.

The Face / Gaze

Paul Citroen “Self Portrait.” & Zhang Xiaogang “Portrait.” (Images from HAM Website)

For this portion, we were inspired by studies we’d read in the course that discussed how people perceive others’ affects based on how we interpret their gaze. In one particular study, it was explained that a portrait of a man was perceived as affable when told the man was looking at a scene of a family, but his look instantly became lecherous when told he was gazing at a swimsuit model. With this disparity, we want viewers to wonder about the affect of these sitters, and, how (if at all) that changes when positioned looking at I’m With Stupid (info below) in the gallery space.


What is Beauty / Art?

Unknown Artist, “Katar Dagger.” & Unknown Artist, “Priming Flask in the Form of a Fish.” (Images from HAM Website)

The course opens with a discussion about what is art and what is beauty. Can tools be aesthetic objects? And, if so, why? These two objects meld functionality and ornamentation. The left dagger doubling as protective, yet decorative, arm wear, and the right flask being designed to emulate the body of a fish. The latter example even ties in with the current special exhibition on view in the museum, Animal Shaped Vessels!

Synesthesia / The Sublime

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “Harmony in Blue and Silver: Beaching the Boat, Étretat.” & Albert Bierstadt, “In the Sierras.” (Images from HAM Website)

When people hear of “neuroaesthetics” the topic of synesthesia often comes to mind as it’s neurological cross-wiring has had well documented impact on the arts. Think Kandinsky and his desire to visualize music. While, there wasn’t a perfect example of Kandinsky to pull for the exhibition, we turned to Whistler and his similar motivation to combine music and visual art. Similar to the awe-inspiring underpinnings of synesthesia, the concept of the sublime comes into neuroaesthetics as being an extreme example of sensory overload. Here, we chose a classic, sublime landscape example by Bierstadt.

Longing / Memory

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Girl I.” & Johannes Wierix After Albrecht Dürer, “Melancholia.” (Images from HAM Website)

Depictions of sad affects are often the most easily recognizable for viewers, as the somber tone quickly resonates with past emotional experiences. For this phenomenon, we chose two depictions of melancholy and positioned them to be looking at one another. The left figure leaning more towards the realm of longing, and the right figure being a personification of melancholy herself.

The Uncanny

Rachel Harrison, “I'm With Stupid.” (Image from HAM Website)

harrison.jpeg

My favorite inclusion in the exhibit has to be I’m With Stupid, as it challenges viewers to think about almost all of the above categories. Is it art? Or just a mishmash of cacophonous objects? What are the faces telling you? Can you even see them, or are they even human faces? Does it tantalize your senses? How so? And, ultimately, who is the ‘stupid’ that the title refers to? One of the two figures, or you?

For a museum who prioritizes student engagement and involvement, co-curating this exhibit had to be one of my favorite experiences here and best manifestations of the museum’s mission. I even talk a little bit about the experience in an article about another great museum moment: The Student Late Night.

Moral of the story: if you’re curious about something, go after it. Especially here at Harvard, a playground I’m fortunate to have access to, the resources are what you make of them.

Xx, Maia


 

Saturdays are for Day Trips to The Portland Museum of Art

 

Going to school in Cambridge, MA means I'm extremely close to Portland, ME - a quaint area known for a burgeoning art scene and the ease of weekend trip-ability. This past Saturday, courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums Student Board & Student Guide program, my friends and I took a bus to check out all the fuss for ourselves. 

Given that the semester is coming to a close and that senior spring nostalgia is hitting (despite the fact that I'm a junior and fully have another school year ahead of me), escaping campus provided unexpected relief from some self-imposed woes. It took exploring the Portland Museum of Art to make me feel at home, in a city I had never visited before. And to catalyze that comfort, I have Joan Miró to thank. 

After scoping out the Biennial Show in which I found photographs by John Harlow who spliced his imagery with his wife's journal entries, Anne Buckwater's innovative mounting method for her paper works, and Becca Albee's intriguing commentary on feminist literature by condensing her annotations per chapter on one page, I peeled away from my peers and travelled upstairs. 

John Harlow,  Garish Sunlight , 2016

John Harlow, Garish Sunlight, 2016

Anne Buckwalter,  The Republic of Hysteria,  2017

Anne Buckwalter, The Republic of Hysteria, 2017

Becca Albee,  RADICAL FEMINIST THERAPY: Working in the Context of Violence,  2016

Becca Albee, RADICAL FEMINIST THERAPY: Working in the Context of Violence, 2016

Seeking fresh air and a moment of silence, I found myself face to face with a time machine. No, not actually. But I stumbled upon a Miró I had never seen before. But the gestural and jovial marks familiar to this artist transported me to my grandmother's apartment circa 2003. I'm sitting in her kitchenette eating turkey and butter sandwiches on challah rolls, and laughing at something my sister said that my grandmother must not have found as amusing. While I'm no longer 6 years old nor in my grandmother's Miami Beach apartment, standing in front of this Miró provided me a momentary glimpse into my past. 

Joan Miró,  Untitled,  circa 1981

Joan Miró, Untitled, circa 1981

This is what I love about art: it's ability to transport and to resonate. Art has a way of making you feel something, and allowing you to see in abstraction what you're looking for. And what I was looking for, in that moment, was comfort. And comfort I found in this untitled "chickadee" looking work. 

(left) Joan Miró,  The First Spark of Day III , 1966   (right) Adolph Gottlieb,  Green Ground , 1968

(left) Joan Miró, The First Spark of Day III, 1966 

(right) Adolph Gottlieb, Green Ground, 1968

In another room on a different floor, I encountered a corner that instantly made me smile. Perhaps it was the brighter colors to contrast my somber mood, but I also found it shocking that the painting that most moved me was another Miró. This one, entitled The First Spark of Day III simply made me happy. And having it juxtaposed with Adolph Gottlieb's Green Ground created an instant happy place (or corner, at that) for me in the museum. 

Other works in the museum were less heart striking, but I still enjoyed encountering new artists and new mediums. Like this Porch Mattress by Duncan Hewitt - it's made entirely of painted wood! Or this René Magritte painting that had me doing a double take at first, before I noticed the slight of hand ;) 

Duncan Hewitt,  Porch Mattress,  2000

Duncan Hewitt, Porch Mattress, 2000

René Magritte,  The Tempest , circa 1944

René Magritte, The Tempest, circa 1944

So I'd say that the two hour bus ride to Portland was well worth it, given that it brought me instantly closer to home - and that trip is usually a 3 hour flight. 

The Harvard Art Museums Student Board & Student Guide Program, 2018. Courtesy of @harvardarthappens. 

The Harvard Art Museums Student Board & Student Guide Program, 2018. Courtesy of @harvardarthappens. 

Xx, Maia