Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, Lenka Clayton, 2017.  Made in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Workshop documentation photography by Michelle Cade.

Lenka Clayton: Expanding Constructs

by Marea Haslett

Rummaging through the archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art studying individual treasures, a bit of a mystery unfolds from a long-forgotten letter. A question left unanswered in 1978 is about to renew its journey nearly 40 years later during Lenka Clayton’s stint as artist in residence at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, PA.

Lenka Clayton, a British born/Pittsburgh based interdisciplinary artist challenges the preconceived notions of the everyday. She compiled a two-part exhibition with The Fabric Workshop and Museum inspired by a letter concerning a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi and a similar sculpture by an unknown artist. What transpires is a journey winding through definitions of art, an exploration of context through Brancusi’s title Sculpture for the Blind, and an open dialog between curators, critics, art historians, artists, and the public.

The compilation of responses titled Unanswered Letter, which includes Brian Morgan’s original letter, were one part of her solo show, Object Temporarily Removed, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, PA from March 17, 2017 through July 9, 2017.

Unanswered Letter

While in his twenties, Brian Morgan wrote a thoughtful letter in the winter of 1978 to the curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne D'Harnoncourt, comparing a marble egg sculpture by Constantin Brancusi to a work by his great- grandfather, Peter Finck. Both artists were Romanian born and lived merely 175 kilometers apart. Finck sculpted his around 1898 while Brancusi’s was completed in 1916. Morgan asks if it was possible that the two crossed paths between 1898 and 1904 before Brancusi left for Paris and alludes to a possible inspiration for his famous work Sculpture for the Blind. Morgan goes further to ask why Brancusi’s work is suitable for a museum collection but not the work of his great-grandfather. This question of what makes one work museum-worthy and not another, which has been pondered by others, was left unanswered and open until Lenka Clayton’s discovery of the letter.

Original letter from a member of the public to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator.

Written in 1978. Found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Archives. 

The next phase of the journey begins with Clayton’s opening this communication by sending a copy of Morgan’s letter to 1000 museum curators, critics, artists, art journalists, and art historians. 179 replied and renewed a dialog unpacking the constructs of the art world and allowing space for examination, not necessarily to arrive at a judgement, but to gain an understanding of the bigger picture. It opens the blinds on the windows of the museum to reveal its role in continuing the conversations about contemporary issues through visual means.

There was a wide range of answers to Morgan’s questions, each thoughtfully and carefully written. The responses humanize the often mystified world of curating and the choices behind what reaches any given collection.

Installation view. The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Carlos Avendano

Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind

Inspired by the letter, Clayton visited Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind. Its beautifully smooth surface ironically sits within a vitrine of glass, untouchable and removed from the context of its title. Wondering how to reunite the sculpture’s intention with the blind, Clayton developed workshops for people who identify as blind or visually impaired to sculpt their version of Brancusi’s sculpture, working from Clayton’s precise description of the original. She recalls one artist listening intently to the description while forming an imagined sculpture with her hands in the air. With the description fresh in their minds, 17 people choose a block of cured plaster and began working the surface with chisels, rasps and sand paper. The end result is a collection of Sculptures for the Blind, by the Blind.

Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind - Workshop Documentation. 2017. Made in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Photography by Michelle Cade  Lenka Clayton

Installation view. The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Carlos Avendano

What intrigues me about Clayton’s work is her process. Yes, I love the mystery of finding a long-lost letter and greatly appreciate reading the answers to Morgan’s question. The human connection from the responses carries through in her work with the blind. However, it’s the process that truly grabs my attention. By opening a conversation about museum acquisitions, Clayton gives the public a chance to peek behind the curtain, dismantling preconceived notions of how museum works are collected. I see growth from the idea of a relatively black and white question about what is accepted art and what is not (assuming that museum collections = art) to very grey processes of acquisition. The responses to Morgan’s letter expose the complicated, messy, and sometimes vulnerable role museums play in developing a public’s relationship to art. It is not black and white. There are no clear-cut definitions of what is acceptable. And in this case, the artwork is not the letters themselves, but the process of engaging in this complicated conversation. It is the engagement of the conversation, which Lenka Clayton documents beautifully, that is the work of art worthy of museum walls. The thread continues through the Sculpture for the Blind by the Blind deconstructing Brancusi’s title away from the cold vitrine to the warm hands of artists.

Clayton explains, “This examination is not about looking for an answer but shakes up the constructs and unpacks the art world.” For me, the sheer act of this recreation goes beyond the workshop itself and changes the meaning of Brancusi’s original. I will never look at any of Brancusi’s sculptures again without imagining the tactile experience of running my hands across the surface.

Object Temporarily Removed allows this investigation to travel full circle. From the closure found in answering an age-old question to allowing the context of a title to open the door for the visually impaired to sculpt, Lenka Clayton’s exhibition finds a way to deconstruct the traps of defining art within the walls of a museum while opening the door for a broader perspective within our culture.

 

...circle through New York

image courtesy of the artists

In addition to her show with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Clayton embarked on an ambitious collaboration with Jon Rubin commissioned by the Guggenheim Social Practice Initiative. ...circle through New York traces an imaginary circle inviting the public through Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan's Upper East Side. Six locations, each with a specific identity, rotate an experience through their locations sharing their individual interpretations with the public. A talking parrot from Pet Resources in the South Bronx, Harlem's St. Philip's Church congregation, a high school drama class at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a Punjabi TV show from Jus Broadcasting, the oldest song in the world from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, and an artwork from the Guggenheim Museum all rotate an experience around the circle with one connection per month from March to August, 2017.

image courtesy of the artists

Exhibition guide and way-finder, available for free at any of the six project venues. Designed by Brett Yasko

For instance, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World sent an interpretation of the oldest song in the world from about the 13th century BCE around the circle. Hurrian Hymn No. 6 was learned and performed by the choir of St. Philip's Church, high school students, the staff members of the Guggenheim, a pet-store parrot trainer/DJ, African drumming group and a gospel choir.

Exhibition guide and way-finder, available for free at any of the six project venues. Designed by Brett Yasko

The oldest song in the world (the “Hurrian Hymn” from ancient Ugarit (contemporary Ras Shamra, Syria) is sung by staff members at the Guggenheim Museum as part of “Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin: ...circle through New York.” Photo courtesy of the artists.

For instance, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World sent an interpretation of the oldest song in the world from about the 13th century BCE around the circle. Hurrian Hymn No. 6 was learned and performed by the choir of St. Philip's Church, high school students, the staff members of the Guggenheim, a pet-store parrot trainer/DJ, African drumming group and a gospel choir.

The rotation continues as Pinkie, the parrot, visits the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens to be drawn by visual arts students and offer inspiration for interpretive dance. The Guggenheim installs Untitled (Public Opinion) by Felix Gonzales Torres at the Punjabi TV studio at Jus Broadcasting and films two shows with Guggenheim curator Nat Trotman.

A talking parrot from Pet Resources in the Bronx is drawn by students at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens, as part of “Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin: ...circle through New York.” Photo by Giacomo Francia, courtesy of the artists.

The rotation continues as Pinkie, the parrot, visits the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens to be drawn by visual arts students and offer inspiration for interpretive dance. The Guggenheim installs Untitled (Public Opinion) by Felix Gonzales Torres at the Punjabi TV studio at Jus Broadcasting and films two shows with Guggenheim curator Nat Trotman.

What Clayton and Rubin accomplished with this project is a cross fertilization of ideas and experiences that broadens each participant's connections. So often, we are affected only by the things within a relatively small radius around us. Again, the process developed here challenges how we define a work by its context. By altering the environment of a work, the potential for a broadened definition occurs. This engagement by participants deepens understanding. Visitors are able see one part with or without realizing they are part of a larger whole.

Through all of her projects, Lenka Clayton embeds a human connection.  She categorizes and documents her experience while traveling on her path. All the while, she invites participants to broaden their view and reexamine how they define their own world.

Information about her work can be found at http://www.lenkaclayton.com/

Marea Haslett is an artist and an educator in Atlanta, Georgia.