True art makes you rethink your assumptions about the world.
It makes you think about the world. It forces you to use your imagination and ask questions about what you know–and why you know–various things we call “truths.” In a nation governed by capitalist free market impulses that commodify everything, true art remains assertively non-commercial.
“It reminds us that change is real and the possible is possible,” Curtis White wrote in his 2003 book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves. “Art’s job is to give us objects that argue forcefully that there is a difference between feeling alive and feeling dead.”
For that reason, honestly appreciating art is difficult. Why bother marking up a jacket on your own like punks did a generation ago when Urban Outfitters will sell you one already manufactured to look that way for $375? It’s far easier for many people to just stroll through a commercial gallery, like those that cover most of Front Street in Lahaina, sip some wine, point to those paintings or sculptures that are “pretty” and then sip some more wine.
Those who classify artistic works merely by their aesthetic qualities may have a hard time with the new Taken By Wonder exhibition at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s Schaefer International Gallery. It’s a massive installation–radically different than anything the Schaefer has ever done before–and it offers an unprecedented and welcome opportunity for everyone on Maui to use their imaginations.
And it all comes courtesy from one guy: Wes Bruce, the Schaefer’s first ever “artist in residence.” Originally from California, Bruce (who is all of 28 years old) works in the not-often-seen medium of massive wooden structures.
“I think what he does is definitely unique,” said Amy T. Granite, who in October 2012 wrote about Bruce’s Structures Poetry Humans exhibition at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, California for San Diego City Beat. “What I really enjoy about him and his work is that he’s curious. It’s kind of fun to see that boyhood come out. He is a very nostalgic person, and that definitely comes out in his work.”
On the surface, his Taken By Wonder is a massive jungle gym of a puzzle. The work covers two-thirds of the Shaefer’s 4,000 square feet with a fort, of sorts–a giant house, built entirely of found lumber and other items, and containing numerous rooms, crawlspaces, a staircase, an attic reached via cargo net and at least one secret chamber.
“In July, he [Bruce] began gathering found and donated materials on Maui, such as 250 wooden palettes, 25 windows, lumber, fencing, maps, books, bottles and photographs,” Gallery Director Neida Bangerter wrote in the “About the Artist” pamphlet handed out to exhibition visitors. “Wes built his installation in the month of August with very little assistance. he does not use preliminary or computer programs to guide him. He lets process and material coexist to influence his ideas, intuitively navigating through each step.”
When I visited the exhibition last Thursday, Bangerter told me that though Bruce did virtually all of the construction of the fort himself, the gathering of materials was “community-based.”
“The old wooden doors are from the Paia General Store,” she said. “The wood on the front panels comes from the old Wainapanapa cabins.”
What’s more, after the show closes on Nov. 2 members of the public will have a chance to participate in the exhibition’s de-installation by taking home a piece of the fort. Of course, the gallery also includes a maker’s station of sorts next to the fort where visitors can build and paint some small structure of their own out of scrap wood and nails.
Bangerter told me that 3,000 people have visited the installation since it opened a month ago–900 of which were school kids. This was certainly evident the day I visited–I had to share the gallery with a few dozen seventh graders from Kamehameha Schools.
Ostensibly, the whole thing is a matter of investigation. The fort, if you will, is the product of what Bruce calls in his artist statement “26 different mythic ancestors.” “Though their identities are a mystery, much can be gathered from the spirit of their dwelling and the curious evidence left behind.”
Walking into the structure, and seeing the “evidence” that’s been “left behind,” is almost overwhelming. There is stuff everywhere–the walls, hanging from the ceiling, stacked on shelves. Old and rusty stuff, sometimes with words traced in the dust by a finger. As I was walking through, one man discovered an old Watchman pocket TV in a locker marked with the pictogram denoting B, while I found a yarn ball in the locker marked with an R pictogram.
Apparently, Bruce found a lot of skulls and bones while gathering materials for his exhibition, because there are a ton sprinkled throughout the structure. Ditto old copies of National Geographic, as well as a huge array of other books, maps, VHS tapes and poems.
Codes are everywhere, and everyone going through the exhibit gets a simple crypto-key that lets them decipher the strange messages printed (or sometimes hand-scrawled) on the walls and windows.
The urge to climb in and through the structure and discover who might “lived” in it is infectious–even if you don’t have a few dozen kids running through the narrow passages in delight. But be warned: proper investigation will take a good deal of time, and often, the deciphering of a code will just lead to more questions.
For instance, I found one glass wall separating two rooms. The glass was covered in the little pictograms that appear all over the building, so I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo. Back at the office, I pulled out the code key and deciphered the writing:
That’s one way of taking in the totality of the structure–figuring out about the identities of Bruce’s “entities.” But there’s another, more personal way to approach the mystery of the fort builders. It came to me when talking to Bangerter after I’d finally found my way out of the structure.
She told me about a man who had “tears in his eyes” after seeing the exhibit. “He said it reminded him of his grandmother’s house,” Bangerter told me.
That’s when I recalled the three or so feet of old National Geographics stacked up inside. My best friend in elementary school had at least that many issues lined up in his family’s house. Seeing them in the structure had taken me back to a time when I was about the age of the kids who were right then running through the fort. I had discovered the National Geographics because I had taken them inside, in the form of my old, seemingly forgotten memory.
Inside Bruce’s fort, we find what we’ve already taken in. Given what Granite, and others, have said about Bruce, this makes perfect sense.
“Everything that I’ve done in the past couple years has been nostalgic, and in that realm,” Granite quoted Bruce as saying in her City Beat story.
That means exploring why we see ourselves in Bruce’s installation. It means thinking about why we hold on to certain experiences–asking ourselves why we believe what we believe. But mostly, it means that at least in my case, Taken By Wonder achieved the highest ambition of all great art: asking me to exercise my imagination.