Another side benefit of making the endless drive from Rochester, NY to Princeton, NJ, made even longer these days by the beginning of road construction/ traffic tie-up season, is being able to go to the Princeton University Art Museum. It’s a wonderful jewel-box of a collection, with new exhibitions opening regularly in addition to a wide-ranging assemblage of permanent works always on display, and the best part is that admission is completely free. Two weekends ago, we stopped in for a couple of hours on a warm Saturday afternoon, and we saw a collection of ancient Greek pottery, pieces that are close to two thousand years old, and almost all of them intact, vibrantly hued, with depictions of athletes, gods, or even daily scenes. Many of these urns, or kraters, were given as prizes in competitions, filled with olive oil or wine. And many were simply used as household supply storage the way we use plastic containers today. But it is absolutely clear that our devotion to plastic will insure our throw-away containers will not be dug up two thousand years from now and exhibited in a museum. Certainly we have lost the idea that these utilitarian objects should be artistic and beautiful too the way these ancient vessels are. I wonder what life would be like if we did surround ourselves with crafted things instead of manufactured things. Perhaps we would not appreciate these objects as much when we view them in museums, or perhaps we would not even need museums to remind us of what beautiful things can look like.
The next exhibit, Revealing Pictures, was a group of photographs from photographers around the world. All these photos were of people, and the images both revealed and hid the figures they expressed. The most haunting were by the South African artist, Pieter Hugo, who has been especially concerned with the plight of children exploited by inequalities of race, and the stark contrasts between rich and poor. He is also greatly concerned with the impact of technology on the developing world, and the disproportionate burden of waste and environmental degradation that Africans must shoulder all in service to the technologies of the West. This point was not lost on me at all as I took my own photos on an iPhone, and while I write this on a laptop, both of which will contribute at some time to this burden of obsolescence that will directly affect children in the developing world.
This first image was the most haunting and yet also offered the possibility of hope. Here are two sisters who are blind and live in an orphanage in Johannesburg. They face away from each other while one still reaches back to touch her sister’s dress. This to me seems to communicate the powerful need for connection, the need for human touch, and the need we all have to reach someone near as we navigate through a dark and dangerous world.
The next image that absolutely staggered me is of a young man staring directly out of the frame in a look of barely suppressed rage or indignation, a coil of wires from discarded electronics piled on top of his head and a tire slung around his shoulder. It is almost an allusion to the stock image of an African with a basket balanced on his or her head. But here, this image shows us the truth of our Western wastefulness, the toxic components that burn in garbage dump fires, sickening children and polluting the air, the thrown-away detritus of our device-obsessed life. This is the result of global consumerism, and Hugo’s photograph so starkly shows how people are living and dying as a result of the dominance of technological obsolescence.
The final photograph also hit me hard. This is another graphic expression of what is so far below our consciousness as Westerners–what happens to the clothing we discard, and what it means to have something that isn’t yours but represents the complexity of global relations together with the inequities between rich and poor. The little boy is wearing a brown jacket– the “Members Only” brand–that completely contains him because it is adult-size and way too large. Here is the description from the exhibit: “This article of adult clothing was most likely donated from Europe, calling attention to the fact that while Rwanda is undergoing a period of renewal, echoes of colonialism still infiltrates the present.” And it is also about how children are thrust into this adult world of global power that represses individual worth.
This is a staggering exhibit. I don’t think I have ever seen photographs this powerful and affecting, and the fact that this Ivy League university museum has made the choice to display images of such depth and resonance has to count for something, if only as a collective expiation of Western guilt. However, this is still a haunting reminder that our lives here are privileged beyond comprehension–something we often take utterly for granted–and this must make us think so much more carefully about our individual impact on the world, the footprints we leave behind.