What Makes a “Keeper”? New Museum Curator Natalie Bell on Collecting as Art

Original article published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art

The New Museum’s current show The Keeper, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, pushes the boundaries of the definition of art by exploring practices of collecting and preserving objects as the subject of a museum exhibition.

The Keeper features expansive collections of items compiled by artists, scholars, collectors and hoarders over the past century which provide viewers with opportunities to muse on how the things that people amass and safeguard speak to their identities. How does what we decide to keep reflect upon who we are? Themes of memory, struggle, loss, the need for comfort, and the passing of time also pervade the four-story exhibition.

keeper2Installation view of The Keeper, featuring a sculptural installation by Carol Bove and Carlo Scarpa, and paintings by Hilma af Klint

Included are works like Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendele’sPartners “The Teddy Bear Project” (2002), which comprises more than 3,000 antique portraits of people and their teddy bears, Shinro Ohtake’s manic collaged scrapbooks (1979-2016), and Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie” (2007-2008), an audio work sounding the voices of the speakers of twenty-five extinct or dying languages.

While many of the collections of items included in the show are impressive and thought provoking, it’s not difficult, as a viewer, to wonder: Is simply compiling a quantity of something enough to call it art? Jose Falconi, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, critiques:

“Some of the pieces, most notably Ydessa Hendeles’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” are pieces which do not have much more merit than the mere act of collecting itself. An act that is, as we all know, one of the most basic tricks in the artist book: any object starts acquiring new meaning when they are collected — just as any object starts acquiring a new meaning when they are rendered in a different scale (very big, very small). In that way, The Keeper does very little to show that there is anything beyond putting into motion such a trick and conflating many different possible readings of the works gathered in it. What is, for example, the critical difference between hoarding and collecting? Is one simply the result of an impulse gone astray?

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 Installation view of Ydessa Hendele’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002)

Supposedly the show is about showing that behind such repetitious acts there is something else lurking around, but I didn’t see it; the exhibition almost presents as mere celebration of collecting without any criticality. In other words: it suffers from what it is trying not to show.”

The answer to the question of the validity of collecting or amassing objects as art may certainly be up for debate, but one idea that seems to be paramount in understanding the value of a show like this, according to Writer and former New Museum Technician Matthew Blair, could be considering curating as the art form itself:

The Keeper either raises the status of curating to a form of art-making, or blurs the lines between collecting and creating; between curating and art-making. The curators at The New Museum have always had an interest in mounting shows that tend to [utilize] more than just content and juxtaposition. They organize shows that put more of the onus on the curators — changing the role of curating to being the dominant mode of exhibiting.”

Therefore, in part, it could be said that it is The New Museum’s commitment to allowing for experimental curatorial practices that is one of the elements most on display in The Keeper, more so than any individual work.

keeper4Shinro Ohtake, “Scrapbooks” (1979-2016)

keeper5Reproduction of drawing from “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz” (original drawing included in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), (ca. 1943) 

In the following interview, New Museum Assistant Curator Natalie Bell, who collaborated on The Keeper with Mr. Gioni provides further insight on collecting, identity, and explorations of preserving and protecting as art.

Artifactoid: From your perspective, what do you think are some of the most important things that The Keeper reveals in regards to how collecting objects relates to our identity? Are there any works that you think make some of the biggest statements? Which ones and why?

Natalie Bell: Well, almost by definition, any collection is going to reflect its collector, whether it’s merely a matter of taste or representative of a unique philosophy or set of beliefs.  In this show, of course we were interested in collections that tell a story about someone’s beliefs, or an unlikely faith that certain objects and images could prove or validate an otherwise irrational or obscure idea, which is not true of everything in the exhibition, but is a significant recurring feature of many of its “keepers.” The first that comes to mind is Roger Caillois, a French theorist who collected rare stones because he believed they could reveal a shared cosmic history — which is not such a far-fetched thought if you think about the cosmic scope of geological formations. Or Wilson Bentley, who pioneered microphotography and amassed over five thousand negatives of snowflakes to prove his hypothesis that no two snowflakes are alike. But these are instances in which collecting relates to identity, if identity is understood as one’s beliefs, which is not always how we think about identity.

keeper6Oil on canvas paintings by Hilma af Klint (1914-1915)

Which works make the biggest statements? An important footnote to Hilma af Klint’s luminous abstract paintings from 1914-15 is that she had stipulated, at the time of her death, that they be withheld from the public, or basically kept secret until twenty years after her death. So essentially she believed that her work, which was not so well received in her lifetime, would only be truly appreciated in the future. But maybe the most powerful work for me is one that combines a belief in a future discovery and an enormous moral imperative to bear witness, which are the drawings from an author known by the initials “MM,” which were found hidden in a bottle in the barracks near the gas chambers at Auschwitz and are among very few images made in Auschwitz that actually depict the atrocities of abuse, torture, and mass extermination. Clearly, the artist who made these knew the severity of punishment he would encounter if he was caught making these images, and he took enormous risk to document what was so impossibly horrific and was otherwise being assiduously hidden by the Nazis.

Artifactoid: In what ways is the idea of collecting and quantity important in art? When we call a collection of things art, what, in your opinion, are the effects or significances of that?

NB: Personally I don’t think quantity or collecting are virtues in themselves, but one way to think about how collecting or quantity have importance in art is that a dedicated accumulation of anything reflects someone’s passion, and maybe at times, their obsession — and alongside that, we tend to regard an artist’s zealousness or compulsiveness as a creative virtue. In a sense, this exhibition is maybe guilty of exploiting the legacy of romanticism, but the effect is perhaps visitors come away from the show with a new way of thinking about what it means to be creative. But it wasn’t a particular agenda of ours to anoint these bodies of work or collections as “art,” but rather to reflect on what is essential and universal about our emotional attachment to things, and how forming bonds with things helps us cope with our mortality.

keeper762 consecutive annual studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, collected by photography collector Tong Bingxue, (1901-1963)

Artifactoid: When considering the compiling of objects as art (which I was speaking about with Jose Falconi about), are there some important distinctions in your opinion about the practice of collecting versus hoarding?

NB: There are important distinctions, some of them arguable, but first of all I think you could call collecting a practice in the sense that it’s intentional and a collector might have to make decisions about what to acquire and what not to acquire, what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping. Hoarding, on the other hand, is regarded as a pathological condition, and people who hoard have a compulsion to keep everything and suffer enormous anxiety about parting with anything. In other words, it comes down to being judicious about what you surround yourself with and having a capacity to refine one’s collection, rather than just keeping everything.

But in the framework of our thinking about the show, maybe the matter of preserving and protecting opens up something more contentious — which is that people who hoard often believe that they’re preserving the things that they keep for some future opportunity, and that their guardianship is essential. And there’s also maybe a shared psychological impulse in which amassing things can be a way of coping. But the arguable difference in my mind is that if you hoard, you’re constantly compromising your capacity to actually take good care of the things you have. That, and the fact that no one wants to become a hoarder. It’s considered a condition for good reason!

Artifactoid: There was a connection of several of the works to World War II and the Holocaust. Who decided to include multiple of those works, and why do you think that the idea of “collecting” is important related to that period in history?

NB: There are a few works that may stand out because of their relationship to the Holocaust, but I don’t think the idea of “collecting” is more related to that period in history than to others. Of course, it’s interesting generally to think about people’s relationship to material culture vis-a-vis larger historical events. It can manifest as a pragmatic approach, like how many Americans who came of age during the depression and remember the rationing of WWII have a tendency to reuse and salvage things that we might otherwise consider disposable. But this is more a trauma of poverty or scarcity that spurs collecting as a preventative measure. In other words, is my grandpa’s drawer full of golf pencils the product of his emotional attachment to these objects? Not really, considering that he has the same attitude toward saving ketchup packets from fast food restaurants.

keeper8Detail from Henrik Olesen’s “Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870″ (2007)

keeper9The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser (1993-2008)

But, that said, in this exhibition we weren’t so interested in the idea of collecting in a broad sense, but in something quite specific, which is a desire to preserve and protect and care for certain objects and images, so rather looking for instances where there’s a certain desire or love that’s motivating someone to action. This is a very different sort of mandate — and one that’s as subjective as it is emotional. But to return to the parts of the show that touch on the Holocaust, I think that there are potentially a lot of connections to collecting. Obviously, collecting as a form of bearing witness takes on a real urgency when there is a genocide that attempted to leave no evidence of mass exterminations, but on an emotional and psychological level, forging emotional attachments to objects is a common way of coping with the trauma, so it should be no surprise that WWII and the Holocaust stand out as something of a focal point in a show whose historical scope includes the last century.

Floors 1-3 of The Keeper will be on view at The New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002) through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. The fourth floor of the exhibit will be open through Sunday September 25th.

Wynne Greenwood Spent Seven Years as All Three Band Members of the Activist Punk Rock Trio, “Tracy and the Plastics”

Many of you might have seen Jim Shaw’s recent multi-floor show, “The End is Near” at the New Museum, but what I’m hoping you had the chance to check out was queer feminist artist Wynne Greenwood’s smaller exhibit, “Kelly” which was open simultaneously on the fifth floor. Greenwood is an inspiring and unique creative talent who works with performance, video, object-making and music to practice what she calls “culture-healing.” From what I gathered at the exhibition, the idea of “culture healing” has to do with disrupting/debunking harmful, commonly held cultural beliefs that divide or misrepresent people, with the goal of healing relationships between different types of people.

Specifically, “Kelly” (which was also a 6 month artist residency for Greenwood at the New Museum) comprised Greenwood’s works from 1999 to 2015, during which time she concepted and acted out a variety of distinct characters for live performances and video recordings. To execute this, Greenwood would create partially improvised/partially scripted dialogues for these characters, generating profound conversations that questioned common beliefs and behaviors related to identity, gender and sexuality, and were frequently set to original music.

Greenwood’s main three works included in “Kelly” were Tracy and the Plastics (1999-2006), Strap-On TVs (2010), and her most recent project, More Heads, which she is still working on. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to shine the spotlight on the fascinating Tracy and the Plastics.

Tracy and the Plastics  is a three-member punk girl band, created by Greenwood in her basement in 1999 in Olympia, Washington (birthplace of the Riot Grrrl movement). The Tracy and the Plastics project was presented at the New Museum in the form of a series of music videos displayed across about 20 individual TV screens.  In terms of the band members, Greenwood would play all three of them herself (she would pre-record two of the band members and display them to either side of her on television screens – or project them onto the walls next to her – during performances). You can check out some official Tracy and the Plastics videos here and below to get a real idea of some of the interesting themes Greenwood brings up in the project and see it in action.

To note, Tracy and the Plastics went on tour in 2000, was featured at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and joined forces with other bands and artists including Le Tigre, Bangs, and Fawn Krieger for a variety of shows, before it later “broke up” in 2006.

One of my personal favorite things about Tracy and the Plastics is that Greenwood developed complex relationships between each of the band members, Tracy (vocals), Nikki (keyboard), and Cola (drums), which resulted in potent conversations brought about in often subtle and unexpected ways regarding identity, perception, sexuality, and more. In addition, the dynamic between Tracy, Nikki, and Cola was never boring: like any rock band, the three members often had disagreements or misunderstandings, and would sometimes hurt each other’s feelings. For example, per written materials authored by New Museum curators Johanna Burton, Stephanie Snyder and Sara O’Keefe:

…while setting up for a show, Cola spray-paints the name of the band on a wall and then asks, “Hey Tracy, does that look straight?” When Tracy confirms that it does, Cola, concerned rather than reassured, spray-paints two women’s symbols beside it, in an attempt to make it look “less straight” after all.

In 2013, seven years after Tracy and the Plastics’ 2006 dissolution, Greenwood realized that she’d wished she’d documented all of their performances, so both privately and over the course of an artist residency, she completed recreating and documenting the majority of all of the Tracy and the Plastics performances so that they could be shown as they are in exhibits like “Kelly.”

A final point that I found interesting was that at the New Museum, “Kelly” was situated within the context of a larger exhibit called “Histories of Sexuality.” This was an interesting and enriching curatorial choice because the museum placed Greenwood’s work among that of other artists in the past who had worked with similar ideas about sexuality and gender, ultimately providing viewers with the possibility of a more full-circle experience of Greenwood’s work.

The two former New Museum programs that “Histories of Sexuality” focused on included: “Homo Video: Where Are We Now” (1986-87) curated by William Olander, and New Museum Founder Marcia Tucker’s “Bad Girls” exhibition (1994) curated by Cheryl Dunye. According to the New Museum’s archives, these programs:

…attempted to redress the reductive representation of homosexuality and gendered subjects that their curators perceived in art as well as in culture at large. Both were characterized by works concerned with the texture of individual subjects and communities rather than celebrating some uniform, idealized fantasy of either gay or female liberation.

In other words, with works like those featured in “Kelly,” Greenwood carries on the conversation about these critical ideas that Olander, Tucker and Dunye focused on in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Greenwood’s additions amplify and electrify the full conversation when compiled in one unified exhibit with the other artists’ works.

For more information about Greenwood, I encourage you to check out her official website. For more information about current exhibitions at the New Museum, click here.

What Type of Art Can a Volcano Create? Just Ask Eduardo Navarro

Volcanoes have long been the subjects of art around the world. According to The Guardian, in the 19th century volcanoes inspired artists such as John Ruskin and Francis Danby, while at the turn of the 20th century, Etna, Vesuvius, Stromboli, Cotopaxi, and Hekla captivated the attention of Icelandic painters. More recently, Andy Warhol adopted the volcano as his muse for the 1985 Vesuvius series of paintings and prints.

The ability of volcanoes to inspire art comes as no surprise: these commanding natural forces can severely and capriciously endanger their surrounding communities while simultaneously acting as the providers of vibrant life and breathtaking beauty. They have been painted, sculpted, drawn, photographed, video recorded, written about, and more. But, who has ever given the volcano agency to create art itself? Who has taken the volcano out of the subject role and transformed it into an actor with agency in the artistic process? The answer is revered Argentinian Contemporary Artist Eduardo Navarro.

Recently at Americas Society, Navarro’s 2014 project originally created for the 12th Bienal de Cuenca and titled Poema Volcánico was the focus of an enthralling panel discussion between the artist (Navarro) and curator Sarah Demeuse. While the official description of Poema Volcánico can be accessed on page 10 of this PDF, during the panel Navarro shared his behind-the-scenes account of the conception and creation of Poema Volcánico, summarized below.

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Eduardo Navarro lived in Ecuador between the ages of eight and twelve. During that time, Navarro would eat breakfast and dinner daily in front of a volcano, pondering it. The artist noted that as an adult, it meant a lot to him to return to the country to create a work of art that was both sentimental and a personal artistic challenge.

Leading up to the 12th Bienal de Cuenca, Navarro got the idea for his volcano-related artistic endeavor. He thought, “How can I work with the geography, landscape, and energy of the volcano? Instead of documenting a volcano (since we live in a world overly saturated with on-demand digital imagery), he wanted to create a project that would allow the volcano to express itself, and to do this, decided that he would have to enter it.

Navarro then got in contact with renowned Ecuadorian volcanologist Silvana Hidalgo of the Instituto Geofísico in Quito to confirm for certain which volcano it would be possible for him to enter without assuming the actual risk that it would erupt while he was inside. Through his extensive research and conversations with Silvana, Navarro decided to work with the Guagua Pichincha volcano.

Guagua Pichincha was known as one of the safer active volcanoes to trek into in Ecuador. To provide a comparison, Cotopaxi was another option, but Navarro explained that one had to be on the level of a professional mountain climber to enter its crater. Guagua Pichincha, on the other hand, was known in Ecuador as the “training mountain” that one would tackle before becoming a professional climber.

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Once Navarro decided upon the Guagua Pichincha, he had to figure out what his process would be leading up to the climb and artistic execution. After spending the required monthlong period adjusting to the proper oxygen level for the climb, Navarro decided to enter the crater twice, with two different guides (including record-setting climber Karl Egloff). His first trip would be to see what the crater was like, test expectations, and become familiar with the experience of going inside it. His second trip would be geared toward executing the artistic portion of the project.

On the first trip, Navarro realized first-hand how difficult it was to trek down into the crater and come back up, regardless of the intense physical prep work he made sure to do in advance. Also on the first trip, Navarro identified fumaroles (the cracks where smoke escapes from the volcano’s center) as the feature of the volcano he wanted to pursue working with artistically.

In regard to how he was going to work with fumaroles, one of Navarro’s first ideas was to get a woven basket, lower it down into the crater, and then try to pull it back up and see what would come out. Navarro thought that this could be an interesting idea, not only because baskets are accessible and would allow gases and sulfur to move freely through them, but because choosing woven baskets would give him the opportunity to work with an object that was native to Ecuador.

Navarro then had only a ten-day period between his two descents to figure out the details of both the device he was going to provide the volcano with so that it could express something, and the protective suit he was going to wear during the trek (most volcanologists wear fire protection and oxygen masks when entering craters). He went to the local fire department and asked if he could borrow a fireproof suit, and while the personnel there couldn’t provide him with one, they directed him to where he could get the materials so that he could make one of his own.

There is no question that Navarro’s descent into the crater was a high-risk undertaking. Navarro noted:

It is a sad thing when you pass the guards in the front (entrance) at Guagua Pichincha. A few weeks prior, three geologists went in. One almost died and two had to be rescued with a helicopter, so this was much more dangerous than going for a hike, having a picnic, taking a photograph, and climbing out.

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Returning to the execution of his artistic endeavor, Navarro revisited the Instituto Geofísico to speak further with Silvana, who was crucial in the process. When Navarro raised the question, “How can I make the volcano draw?,”  Silvana suggested the possibility of using litmus paper to react to the sulfur. Navarro immediately loved this idea, and started working with using litmus paper to create a machine that would allow the volcano’s energy to leave a trail. The result was a hand-made frame that acted as a rack for the sheets of litmus paper, which fit inside a custom woven basket that he worked closely with local artisans to create. Navarro wore the basket like a backpack during his trek, and eventually lowered it into the fumarole. He then left it down there for one hour, providing the volcano with a chance to leave its mark and express itself as if typing on a PH-reactive typewriter (example of result featured below – top right).

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Ultimately Navarro titled this work Poema Volcánico because of the act of “handing the typewriter” over to the volcano. In other words, Navarro gave the volcano the power to express something that was not his interpretation of it.

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To expand, it can be argued that Navarro gave true authorship to the volcano because he wasn’t attempting to control the project’s result. In fact, throughout the entire process, there was always the chance that the volcano and litmus paper wouldn’t have any real reaction at all. Even after months of preparation and two rigorous climbs, Navarro admitted that he was willing to accept any outcome. For Navarro, “it would have been fine if the volcano didn’t have anything to say.”

Setting himself apart from the many other talented artists who have been inspired by volcanoes throughout the centuries, Navarro’s intention was to transform the volcano from subject into artistic collaborator. Navarro does not claim that the volcano is necessarily the author of this work, nor that he himself is the author of this work. To Navarro, Poema Volcánico is about how well he and the volcano know each other.

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Eduardo Navarro’s work has recently been featured at MALBA (Buenos Aires), The New Museum Triennial (New York), and e-Flux (New York). While in New York for this Americas Society panel, Navarro was a guest scholar at the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Visiting Artists and Critics program with Hunter College. For more on Poema Volcánico, click here to read Navarro’s published diary entry that details his first descent into the crater.

Sarah Charlesworth, The New Museum

At the New Museum installation, “Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld,” I came upon Charlesworth‘s emotionally gripping 1980 photograph series, “Stills.” It was the type of exhibit where the moment I walked into the room and realized what I was looking at, something inside my core sank.

For “Stills,” Charlesworth collected newspaper clippings of photos depicting various individuals falling or jumping off of tall structures, presumably to their deaths.* Charlesworth re-photographed and enlarged the clipped images to measure 6’6” in height. The result is that viewers experience the visuals at a size larger than their own physical bodies.

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In the descriptions of each piece, the individuals depicted are identified with varying degrees of anonymity, depending upon the information that was available. They range in detail from completely unknown, i.e., “Unidentified man, Unidentified location,” to full name and location, i.e., “Patricia Crawlings, Los Angeles,” leaving viewers with infinite unanswered questions about each one.

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For me, it was incredibly humbling to walk into a room surrounded by photographed portraits, larger than my physical body, which captured the last seconds of fourteen strangers’ lives. Their last breaths and the thoughts that were going through their minds during their final few seconds in the air live eternally inside these images.

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It’s important to reiterate that Charlesworth didn’t take the original photographs herself. Her “photographing photos” technique for “Stills” wasn’t straightforward, and calls into question the definitions of “photographer” and “photography.” Upon looking into this further, I found out via a recent New York Times article that Charlesworth is known to be a part of the 1980s artist group dubbed, “The Pictures Generation.”** Per the article, “The Pictures Generation” is a loose title referring to a group of photo-based artists who gathered the imagery they worked with from the media. For reference, this group also includes other well-known artists Barbara Kruger, Jack Goldstein, Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons.

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Notes:

*For the entirety of this post, I assume that the falls/jumps depicted in “Stills” resulted in death.

**Charlesworth’s connection to “The Pictures Generation” is also mentioned at the New Museum.

Albert Oehlen, The New Museum

I was inspired to think about technology and art at the New Museum’s current exhibition, “Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden.”

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Albert Oehlen’s black and white computer paintings captured my attention once I noticed they were created in 1992. I think it’s interesting to see artwork with computer-generated imagery from nearly two and a half decades ago. While galleries and art fairs today are saturated with computer-generated imagery in various forms, Oehlen’s work inspires me to think about who preceded him in mixing digital art with “analog” art, who were some of his contemporaries in creating computer-generated art in the ‘90s, and which artists working with computer-generated art today consider Oehlen to be one of their important influences.

Here is an interesting New Yorker article, stating that this series that “deploys hectic designs created with primitive drawing software on a Texas Instruments computer made [Oehlen] the first significant artist to exploit, and incidentally to burlesque, the emergent lingua franca of computer graphics.”

Joel Holmberg, The New Museum

As a part of the exhibition titled “The Great Ephemeral,” co-curated by the Taipei Contemporary Art Center’s Meiya Cheng, The New Museum presented “Changing My Password,” a work by artist Joel Holmberg.

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This was the first time I’d seen an artist label a telephone conversation with a customer service representative as art, and it was refreshing. The theme of the piece, cybersecurity, is a pressing global problem that touches nearly everyone in some capacity. Massive data breaches make headlines frequently, and some experts say that at this point, the question is no longer “if” you will become a victim, but rather, “when.”

It’s great to see an artist take notice of an emerging topical challenge that the population at large deals with, and, in order to expose something about it in a new way, is willing to push the boundaries of what “art” comprises.

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I almost walked right by this unassumingly presented piece, but upon giving the plaque a read and listening to the work, I at once became grateful that I took a moment to take a chance on a piece of art that I normally wouldn’t have paid any attention to. I think this is one of the most remarkable works at the New Museum’s “The Great Ephemeral.”