To create Odyssey, the monumental drawing that covers the walls of the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Cai Guo-Qiang chose gunpowder as his primary medium — an ancient material with distinctively Chinese roots.
Now, the museum has completed the gallery's history-laden installation of Cai's work and a dozen Chinese objects by utilizing wholly contemporary technology: Interactive touch screens.
The new feature offers an inside view on the gallery via an interview with Cai along with the short video, A Shared Vision, featuring interviews with the late museum director Peter Marzio and MFAH Asian art curator Christine Starkman.
Museum visitors now have a fountain of information literally at their fingertips, from detailed descriptions of the dozen objects on view to encyclopedic entries on such pertinent themes as Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, calligraphy and the scholarly tradition. The 40-inch screen projection contextualizes the artworks on a global map and historical timeline. Indeed, it's a technological curatorial dream come true.
"It all started with the idea of documenting Cai," Starkman tells CultureMap. "From there, we realized that because the gunpowder drawing lines the wall, our usual practice of posting didactic information about objects wasn't possible. On a practical level, we needed to think of a way to be able to give information about the objects."
Working with the Houston web development company Mouth Watering Media, the museum developed the touchscreen platform that puts forth an unprecedented amount of insight. Explains Starkman,
On the wall, there is a limit of 150 words. But on digital form, you can include enhanced text, video — there are infinite layers. We've done interactive screens before, but this is the first time it's appeared in a permanent gallery. We're at the forefront of research and developing a new way of engaging the museum visitor in a way that was not possible even a couple of years ago."
More than an innovative format for disseminating information, the touchscreen represents the fulfillment of Marzio's vision for the Arts of China gallery. "All of this was set in motion by Peter," says Starkman. "All I'm doing is completing the task." The interview displayed on the screen represents the public's first witnessing of the former director since his private battle with cancer ended in December 2010.
Cai's Odyssey is part of the Portals Project, an initiative spearheaded by Marzio in which contemporary Asian artists create artwork to be displayed in conjunction with historic pieces from respective geographic areas. Indian artist Anish Kapoor is in conversation with the museum about an installation and Do-Ho Suh's commission for a laser-cut clear acrylic resin gate is set to open in the Arts of Korea Gallery in late 2011.
The next venture is an installation by Tatsuo Miyajima. Starkman says the Japanese artist will inset LED displays that flash the numbers 1 through 10 into the Arts of Japan Gallery's black granite floor.
"It's about the passage of time," says the curator. "When the artist came last year to speak with Peter, Peter liked the idea of a blanket of time. You'll become more aware of the passage of time as you are surrounded by Miyajima's counting numbers and the works of art on display that date from 10,000 B.C.E.
"It's continuing the same idea of placing Cai's work next to ancient Chinese pieces in the Arts of China Gallery," says Starkman. "It's about past, present and future occurring within the same moment."
She anticipates that the Arts of Japan Gallery will also capitalize on touchscreen technology in order to free up wall space for works that define the gallery's four thematic sections.
The Arts of Japan Gallery opens on Feb. 17, 2012 with a temporary exhibition of objects on loan from the Tokyo National Museum. Among the 25 works to be displayed, eight are classified by Japan as national treasures or "important cultural property," and will only reside at the MFAH for eight weeks.
"Next year is like the 'Year of Japan,'" Starkman says. In June 2012, 46 discrete objects from a private collection will populate the expansive 25,000-square-feet Upper Brown Pavilion. Says the curator, "It's the best Japanese art in the country — perhaps the best in the world."
To learn more about Cai's Odyssey, read CultureMap's previous coverage here.