Of all the Smithsonian museums on the Mall in Washington, DC, the Hirshhorn is probably the least known and perhaps the least understood. Maybe that’s why I like it so much—(also maybe because it’s shaped like a doughnut?)
Patrons of the Hirshhorn are a self-selecting lot, for contemporary conceptual art is not everybody’s cup of tea. Normally, whenever I observe tourists leaving the Hirshhorn Gallery, I notice their faces drawn into deeply contemplative stares or reddened with total exasperation.
Speaking of contemplative exasperation, I have spent the past week in four different countries—four countries over the span of six days: Canada, Mexico, the United States and Panama (in that order). As I rushed from one geographic reality to the next, I stopped for approximately forty-five minutes in the Hirshhorn Gallery, where I had the privilege to speak about their special summer exhibition, Fragments in Time and Space.
“Fragments in Time and Space” is an apt description of my job and life, not to mention the physical realities of social media, the internet and the way we travel today. I’m guessing that is why the Smithsonian asked for my opinion on the matter, because otherwise, admittedly, I am rather under-qualified in the matters of art history.
The Hirshhorn exhibit relates the work of 16 very different artists across the concept of time and space, specifically how the two intersect and how they are viewed, used, and changed. While that might seem rather heady and conceptual, the frank truth is that passing time versus changing space equals travel, pure and simple.
Indeed, intentional or no, this art exhibit is really an inquiry into travel. In fact, I found it remarkably relevant to what I spend my time doing, namely traveling while “connected” through media and real-time technology.
Among the show’s pieces is a giant, wall-sized, continuous video feed by German artist Wolfgang Staehle, which shows Niagara Falls tumbling over with such a mighty force that the roaring sound of water echoes throughout the museum. Standing in this dark room, watching Niagara Falls, I thought of how a month earlier I had stood at the actual falls on the Niagara River, in Ontario—and that now, after a month had passed and I had traveled home, I was having a nearly identical “travel” experience inside the museum. I also couldn’t help but notice how the museum-goers at the Hirshhorn stood and watched the video of Niagara Falls for about as short a time as the visitors at the real falls stayed and watched the real falls—perhaps 60 to 90 seconds max; never more than two minutes.
On my recent trip to Ontario, I shared my own vision of Niagara Falls with a handful of iPhone pics, and in a matter of minutes, those images—my experience—had traveled across the world, jumping from phone to computer screen to devices everywhere. My own experience—an individual interaction with nature—was traveling at split-second speed, reminding hundreds of thousands of humans about Niagara Falls and the power of water.
That travel in and of itself can be art is a pleasant idea, one that I would love to explore, but like everything these days, it’s been done before. Back in 1973, artist Hamish Fulton walked the length of Great Britain—1,022 miles in 47 days—from John O’Groats to Land’s End, in Cornwall. In retrospect, he viewed this journey as a dedicated work of art and forswore himself to only creating art from his walks. Hamish Fulton became a “walking artist”—an artist whose creation lay in the walk itself. His lifetime of travel—specifically, walking—was more important than creating mere objects that could later be identified as “Art”. Eschewing objects in favor of journeys, Hamish Fulton’s art is made from his own individual walks all over the world, some of them short—a day or less—and some of them immense—lasting for longer than a month.
That a man makes journeys and calls it art is one thing, but then how does he share it with us? In Fulton’s case, he creates paintings, photographs, books, as well as a website that announces each of these journeys. One of these was on display at the Hirshhorn’s exhibit, entitled: “Moonrise Kent England, 30 September 1985“.
The painting is an intense wall of black and in the middle, a saucer-sized white moon, underneath which is spelled out the place (Kent, England), the date (30 September 1985), and the inscription, “All the paces between moonrise and moonset.”
I will leave the deep analysis to the art critics, but from my world, I can’t help but see this particular piece as a giant, 1980’s version of Twitter—a short message and image describing a prolonged experience, sent out to the world for reflection and consideration. I also see it as a giant, wall-sized postcard from Hamish Fulton, saying (in a way): “Wishing you were here.”
The artist’s experience—seeing the moon over England, walking through the night, covering a specific distance on foot between the hour when the moon rose to the hour when the moon set—all of this is captioned in a painting, much like we use Twitter or our Facebook status to caption an event or moment in our lives. Perhaps we overlook the opportunity to make art from such quotidian media, but there is no reason why it can’t be.
That travel is changing is no secret, specifically the way we travel and what travel means.
What’s more, the way we share travel has also changed. Remember when you used to all sit down in front of someone’s slide projector as they trolled through Technicolor frames from their latest vacation? And then VCR and fuzzy videotapes? Nowadays, it seems everyone is armed with a device on which they can either consume or project their own realities of time and space.
Whenever an airplane lands, everyone grabs their phones and suddenly some two hundred-or-more texts, phone calls or status updates go out into the world, all announcing the owner’s newest location. I doubt any view this event as art because it seems so standard, this relocation of the self. But according to Hamish Fulton—the physical journeys of life and the passing of time and space are the essentials of art—far more important than the objects created for the sake of art.
Come to think of it, the metaphysics of travel are precisely what encourages us to buy bad souvenirs—to shop on boardwalks and wear T-shirts that proclaim where we’ve been (Hard Rock Café is a perfect example). Like Hamish Fulton’s physical art that follows each of his journeys, we memorialize our own travels—and their deeper meaning—by finding some symbolic object that can convince us of what we’ve just done. This might be a snow globe from Prague or a porcelain dragon from Hong Kong. The objects themselves are meaningless, but they provide us with a vague key to open the door to our own memories of what we lived through in those places.
The art in the Hirshhorn exhibit is much more sophisticated, but these are, for the most part, a sort of odd collection of travel souvenirs. In 1966, pop artist Edward Ruscha photographed every building while traveling along Sunset Boulevard and published it as a continuous picture—again, an act of travel turned to physical memoir. Likewise, Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, whose series “The Shortest Day of 1970 Photographed in My House Every 6 Minutes” is just that, capturing the changing light and time of day by taking repeated shots in the same location.
I think my favorite installation of the entire Hirshhorn exhibit is that of Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese artist whose work comprises thirteen silvery, black-and-white photographs hung horizontally, shining dimly in a row in the dark, curved hallway of the Hirshhorn’s second floor.
At first glance, the photos look similar—even identical. Visitors feel the urge to pass through quickly—they get it—the black and white and the similarity. But wait a minute and notice the subtle differences of each photograph—each one portrays a horizon: water and sky. Some are darker and others lighter, some shine with sun, others are clouded with intense fog. Staring at these thirteen watery horizons, I recognized one in particular—“Lake Superior,” I whispered, catching the attention of one of the guards.
And it was—Out of thirteen nearly identical photographs, I had recognized Lake Superior. How? The fog—the picture had that same kind of fog that I just experienced a week or so ago on Lake Superior. All thirteen photographs were taken at disparate locations around the globe. They were all so similar and yet they were also all subtly different.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The problem of placelessness is one that plagues geographers and all humanity. That any place on the globe now looks and feels more and more similar to other places on the globe indicates that we are becoming less special, we are grinding down our differences, and our cultures are washing into one. Sugimoto’s work almost seems to celebrate this placelessness by showing the uniformity of nature and highlighting our inability to quickly discern one travel experience from the next. However, with some time and focus, our nuanced minds pick out the nuanced differences and we can identify one horizon from the other—even apply our own experience to the varied expressions of the artist’s experience.
As I stared across these many horizons, I thought back on the horizons that I have seen and captured so far this year: Australia’s Tasman Sea, the Pacific Ocean from California, both sides of the South Atlantic, and Hudson Bay. Each is so far from the other, and each has its own shade of blue, but they are still so similar. In each place and moment, I took a snap of the horizon and posted it to Twitter. Readers and viewers understood each place because I labeled them, issued them hashtags and ideas, but what if I were to wash all the horizons together, just as this artist has done? What then of the meaning of each experience? And the memory of each, as well?
The memory of travel is merely a “fragment of time and space”, as the Hirshhorn so aptly explored in the curating of this exhibit. In my own way, fragments in time and space are all that I have to offer—broken puzzle pieces of a journey shot out to the world via social media. Everyone who travels faces this same conundrum—the emotional reality of an individual journey and the ill-fitting symbols that we attribute to our experience in order to store up that meaning for later use or for the memory thereof.
As travelers in the digital age, our optimism should reside in the wonder of real-time exchange that new media allows us, for this is the kind of travel that is happening today. We are able to share our wealth of time and place in real-time, as we experience each. We can even quantify the “impressions” that we have caused by our own actions of travel. The distance of space has remained the same and the clocks are not moving any faster, but our capacity to share fragments of time and space has exploded exponentially.
Artists like Hamish Fulton remind me that art is not static—it moves and is borne by the motion of journeys. My attempts to travel on Twitter and using other connected technologies are not far from Fulton’s own ideas about the art of travel. Like Fulton, I am always looking for the meaning of the time and place in which I find myself, as well as the broader journey, be it across an ocean or simply down the block.
This weekend, I spent forty-five minutes at the Hirshhorn. After I was finished there, I jumped in a cab and rode to the airport, then boarded a plane and flew to another country. For a small fragment of time and space, I was surrounded by art in a museum in Washington, DC. Moments later, I was up in the air, looking down on the art of an agricultural landscape planted in squares and rectangles and remembering it. In fact, no matter where I go—no matter the time or the place—I always feel surrounded by art.
I just needed the art museum to remind me of that.