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Perhaps it’s petty. But. Last night I attended an Edward Burtynsky opening at the Nicholas Metivier gallery. Following a trajectory of exploring the relationship between oil as a natural resource and its extraction as a capitalized good, Burtynsky’s newest photographs were taken during May 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. As aestheticized documents of disaster, it’s hard to process the weight and significance of the images. However, their grandiosity, both in the size of the photographs and the scope of each image (taken from above, sea ships as minor characters in a ocean turned black), really do make it clear that the oil spill is not on a human scale. And yet, it is the result of the human hand, through our technologies and unquenchable thirst for oil and its by-products, that is directly to blame.

And so, the gallery was serving wine (free!) in plastic glasses. Plastic glasses, made from oil. And I couldn’t get over it.

There are a million caveats to my reaction. I sometimes take my coffee to go and the lid is made from plastic. The soles of my shoes, made from plastic. My toothbrush, plastic! And yet, it would have been such a simple gesture for the gallery to have chosen to not use the plastic glasses, and to make the connection between our good time at the opening and the art on the walls.

This small grievance stems from a curiosity about the potential for an experience of art to resonate in the individual. In this case, I wanted the gallery to be changed, to make the small investment of reuseable glasses. The more useful question though is how looking at those images will materialize in the choices I make. And here, humility. I could invest in a porcelain coffee cup, but that feels so, well, pathetic. And yet.

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4 thoughts on “

  1. Juliann Wilding says:

    while I agree that the use of plastic cups is gauche, either within the context of art related to the Gulf spill or really within any context, my questions are thus:

    -if it enraged you such that you could not get over it, were you moved to action?
    did you inquire of anyone working at the gallery as to why this decision was made, or even simply bring it to their attention? this would be more useful to read if that conversation had taken place.

    -why is it okay for you to have contradictions that you can write off so easily, but not for the gallery to have the same? when you say “I could invest in a porcelain coffee cup, but that feels so, well, pathetic” i find it difficult to take your grievance seriously.

    there are also other factors to consider: often the person buying the cups for an opening is not the same person who curated the show. and while your desire for the cups to be curated along with the work being displayed is valid, there is the very real possibility that this was not practical, for a number of reasons. there is also the possibility that the gallery has thousands of those cups that they need to use up.

    although i think that plastic cups are gauche, i have a number of plastic cups that i use at my space b/c somebody else brought them, months and months ago, during the set-up for a show. i use them occasionally because though I have a set of glass cups for shows, drunk people are careless and even rowdy and break things. however I actually do wash and re-use the plastic cups as much as possible. this is why they’ve hung around so long.

    of course there is the very real possibility that nobody at the gallery thought about the fact that the cups were plastic. perhaps someone bringing it to their attention could have brought about positive change, or at least resulted in a conversation.

  2. In drawing a connection between the plastic wine glasses and to-go coffee cups, I mean to highlight the way that small changes can matter. It might feel pathetic but there is a living coincidence between the scales of the very large and the very small.

    There is no way to be free of contradiction in our lives [personal or commercial], but it is possible to affect small changes, to make different decisions based on the learning of being alive. It’s not “okay” or “not okay” for the gallery or my own life to be full of contradiction. This conflict between values and choices is simply part of what it means to exist. However, I am curious how we choose which are the important parts, or which ideas have priority in the plethora of simple decisions we make on a daily basis.

    How do you prioritize your values in the choices you make? Do you think it is possible to get outside of contradiction? How do you reconcile your hypocrisies?

    Which I think boils down to question of how my own necessary hypocrisy plays against the recognition of the same in others. And I’m not sure I’ve got a pat answer. This is one beginning of the conversation. This is how I have chosen to attempt to work through my thoughts about my reaction at the gallery.

    I had not considered that they were using up plastic glasses, or any such situation like that. But you are right to point out that our choices are not always simple ones, and in fact we are often blind to so many mitigating factors.

    More questions for you: When it is at its best, what does/should art do?

    Another question is: did you look at the images on the gallery site? What do you think?

  3. Juliann Wilding says:

    i do believe that small changes matter – i don’t think that is pathetic, i think it is obvious ? .

    re: contradiction – of course we all live with contradiction; that tension is very real and can be beautiful and fascinating. what i meant above is that i find it frustrating that in this application your own contradictions are on your terms, but you lack the necessary information to completely understand the gallery’s contradictions, and you didn’t ask for that information, so your judgments about the cups/the gallery’s contradictions are also on your terms, and that is not balanced. So, if you are curious as to how we choose the important parts, how we prioritize our values, why didn’t you ask?

    “How do you prioritize your values in the choices you make? Do you think it is possible to get outside of contradiction? How do you reconcile your hypocrisies?”

    the answers to these questions, for me personally, are completely contextual. i prioritize my values in a case-by-case scenario, in an almost second-to-second application of some combination of instinct and intelligence/information, as each moment requires a different balance and ratio of what is more/less important/necessary in that context. different factors can arise based on infinite and unpredictable shifts that would cause re-assessment of even one’s seemingly most resolute convictions.
    I think it is possible to get outside of contradiction in certain contexts, possibly not in others.
    Similarly, I reconcile my hypocrisies case-by-case; I do not have a formula. For example, I will never throw away or waste edible food, but I prefer halogen lightbulbs in certain rooms. These are just two of the threads in a complicated web of my own ideals and actualities. I see the act of reconciliation of personal hypocrisies as striking a tenuous balance, a balance which is constantly in flux. So, some things are okay in some contexts, and not in others. i think it is, for me, largely subjective.

    When you say “This is one beginning of the conversation. This is how I have chosen to attempt to work through my thoughts about my reaction at the gallery” – I find this problematic. Certainly, this is your website, so yes of course obviously it is your prerogative to work through your thoughts of anything in however a manner you like. But it is also public, and to me, as a reader, this does not read as a true conversation – without the knowledge of why the choice was made by whomever made it at the gallery, your reaction takes place in a bubble. It reads as you creating the conversation that you *want* to have based on your limited information, and that is frustrating to read. This is just my opinion.

    We do not have to be blind to mitigating factors. Each situation is open to myriad possibilities to be contemplated and considered.

    for me personally, put as simply as possible, the role of art is to create new experiences, the role of philosophy is to create concepts, and the role of science is to test a set of theories/hypotheses in a set of circumstances. i think these three realms bleed in and out of one another and can even be experienced separately, but together these form a sacred triangle in my mind, both as the audience member and when i work on art myself.

    i think that you and i, as does everyone, experience art completely differently from each other, and that is fine. yes i looked at the images on the site. they are beautiful and arresting. i think that for myself personally, if i were standing in front of them in person at their full size, i would simply not be paying attention to anything that i was holding in my hand. so i think that just speaks to a difference in the way you and i each experience art, and how we *want* to experience it. it seems you want an experience at the behest of the gallery that extends from the work to the cup; i want to get lost in the work and do not think about the cup. it seems like a perverse luxury to be able to drink around artworks anyway so type of cup? i mean, if i am captivated by a work, i do not care about the cup that i am consuming wine in or even the gallery itself or the social experience of having a good time. the wine wasn’t made or chosen by the artist either, so . . . it is neither here nor there for me. similarly the artist was not thinking about the cup when he made the work, his work does not extend to the cup, and I aim to let his efforts resonate in my experience.

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