Dilation of sense
There is a museum dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov in Moscow. Residents of the block in which his apartment was situated set his former flat up as a museum in order to prevent further loitering.
Loitering is being in a place for no obvious reason. There are a series of large paintings, much bigger than one person could carry without them tipping unmanageably, and three are wedged into the space between the floor and the ceiling of the art museum that occupies a repurposed municipal building. It has no collection, so, works coming and going, stability is found in relation to permanent architectural features and volumes.
When encountered in a museum space, these paintings are interruptions to what would normally be expected. It is like walking onto the physical remnants of a dreamed task. One of those that somebody finds themself engaged with without being privy to how it started, or even being aware of that earlier phase. If it ever existed. The task is to work with the conditions and carry out an imperative.
Things seem wrong, but they are workable due to an odd optimism. Motivation is not questioned, and seems to have a blessed momentum, even if the nerves are a little alarmed at the tight timeframe and the lack of assistance. Time stretches and yet is also astonishingly compressed, but none of this is obvious at the time.
There are patterns that form in the way that museums, as a subset of thresholds, appear in the imagination. In novels, the museum tends to figure as a place of non-thought where the play of the aesthetic unconscious allows a derangement or disassembly of the day.
Desires and attraction are not necessarily explicitly articulated in thought, one sense of volition possibly concealing a more subtle wash of affect and action. For example, a visitor might seek simple respite, but she may also be experiencing something in proximity to the museum’s project of grouping and ordering. The fixity of language would have us believe that classification is possible, but its shadow is a fundamental impossibility. In the presence of this we can sense something of our true state, a blessed discontinuity that is not for the faint-hearted.
Genres depend inseparably on non-genres and conversely, non-law on law, and between the segments of order, desire flows. Painting, here, is not separate from floors, furnishing fabric, patchwork, flags, or determined within its own subgenres—landscape, abstraction, realism, colourfield, etc.
In any case, the visit takes place, and it is often for different reasons than the museum itself might have anticipated.
I am thinking of a song from my adolescence, ‘The Queen is Dead’ by The Smiths, that goes “We can go to a place where it’s quiet and dry and talk about precious things.” I had thought that it also talked about arches, which made me think architecturally when I heard it, but the line actually goes “hemmed like a boar between archers.”
(Talk of columns and I hear Philippe Starck, who is now of course fashionable again, intone, “Behind columns people hide, they fall in love, they kiss… Behind columns people spy, they kill, a quote is born…”)
I think museum visitation is often on that level. Some sort of folie-à-deux in which at least one partner is idle.
The only thing I thought was interesting in a museum studies text I read recently was an account of how an immigrant Parisian taxi-driver, suspended from work because of an illness, would go to the Pompidou Centre just to be among people.
Vinyl or cork tiles used to be the standard surfaces for institutions and areas that need mopping. They created diagonals reminiscent of board games and seem to present a series of possible logical choices for movement on a single plane. There is great comfort in this abstraction.
Fabric, conversely, resists the plane. It is there to be cut and recomposed to fit an object in the round. Maybe a moving one, or one on which a moving object will rest.
A chequered flag is raised by yachtsmen to spell out the letter N, or to reply ‘No’. A flag with diagonal stripes denotes the letter Y, and potentially asks ‘Why?’ It also means ‘I am dragging my anchor.’
Once a signal flag is raised, waiting ensues. In this space, engaging with the field of the possible, there is much comfort.
Perhaps meditation is a dilation of sense, and museums offer a deferral of thought.
Maybe people go to museums to, becalmed, answer questions too big to formulate.