State of the Art: Art isn’t art if it’s safe and my favorite exhibits prove that

Catherine Yang | Daily Trojan

One particular quote from an article by art critic Lauren Elkin, assigned in my art history class last week, really struck me: “It is not the work of art to make us feel safe; if it does, it probably isn’t art at all.”

This semester, my column has revolved around artworks that are not only unsafe but often also outright outrageous. Marcel Duchamp changed the very definition of what can be considered art; the Guerrilla Girls incited political protests and exhibited blatant contempt for social rules; Dred Scott posed such a perceived threat to the sanctity of American patriotism that he inspired congressional action. Art is not meant to be polite, genteel or tame. It’s meant to be loud, unapologetic and dangerous. The artworks that have left the deepest impressions have always been the ones that startle me, amaze me, terrify me and leave me in a pensive purgatory for hours or days afterward.

I would be remiss if I let “State of the Art” peter to an end without writing about the most staggering artists and exhibits I have ever encountered, and their long-standing impacts on me. So, in no particular order and in all their exorbitant glory, here they are.

The Rain Room is a permanent display at LACMA and one of its most popular exhibits. Photo from Yelp.

Random International, “Rain Room” at LACMA

I was brought to this exhibit by a guy on our first (and last) date during one of my first weeks in Los Angeles. While we never hung out again, I dreamt of the Rain Room for weeks afterward and am reminded of it each time it rains. There’s something inexplicably surreal and powerful about walking through a vast sheet of falling water droplets, only to emerge out the other side completely dry and untouched. The effect was achieved through 3-D tracking cameras that triggered a column of dry air when they sensed a body entering the field. A theatrical spotlight illuminating the otherwise-darkened room from the side gave the rain a glittering silver sheen, creating a dazzling display of Mother Nature at her most soothing. To me, the exhibit was a feat of modern engineering that rewrote the norms of nature and physical consciousness. I have always awed at the sheer beauty and magnitude of torrential downpours like the one replicated in the room — rain is one of the main things I miss about my home in Maryland — but being able to bend the elements with my very presence was an entirely unprecedented and unreal experience. Being there was like being in a dream.

Takashi Murakami, “Learning the Magic of Painting” at Galerie Perrotin

I stumbled upon this exhibit quite by accident while lost in the maze of Paris’ Marais district. Within the unsuspecting, ivy-ridden walls of the Galerie Perrotin, I found a sanctuary of abstraction and oddities. Murakami’s favorite motifs include encrusted skulls, platinum-leafed chrysanthemums, cartoon characters, Buddhist symbols and hypnotic visions of outer space. The experience was a walk deeper and deeper into the dark, ludicrous and most extraordinary mind of a mad genius. I imagine his vibrant prints, intricate diptychs and 100-meter long, full-room paintings to be physical expressions of an intense psychedelic trip. The centerpiece in the final room was a grotesque, hyperrealistic, mechanical sculpture of a Japanese monk with his arms aloft in a spiritual pose, face split open vertically into layered folds and four eyes rolling uncontrollably as he emitted a droning prayer. As shaken as I was by the sight, I was entranced by its simultaneous ugliness and exquisiteness. There has hardly been another artist with a style as distinct or demeanor as bold as Murakami’s and I will always remember seeing his magic in person.

Xavier Le Roy, “Temporary Title” at Le Centre Pompidou

I visited this exhibit with a close friend on a whim, after dubiously answering yes to the question, “Do you want to see nude performance art?” Hardly knowing what to expect, we walked into a sparingly lit, carpeted room littered with nude men and women strewn across the floor. They crawled like jungle cats; they formed patterns and shapes with their bodies; they intermittently collapsed into sleeping heaps; they approached audience members sitting on the sidelines and, in their smoldering nakedness, engaged them in conversation about the nature of love. The entire experience was utterly bizarre, combining animalistic choreography with philosophical posturing, and left me with a lingering sense of something very familiar, yet strangely off-kilter. However, fresh from the aftermath of my first real breakup at the time, I was deeply touched by the wisdom offered by the nude woman who spoke to me: Love gets better as you age and he wasn’t the best I’d ever have. In the end, Le Roy created a remarkable performance that wasn’t so much about stark nudity as it was about the aesthetic of audience interaction and the importance of forging human connections. Those elements, and those lessons on love, have stayed with me to this day.

It’s difficult to fathom how different my life would be without art, but I do know one thing: Art has never made me feel safer, but it has made me better. I wouldn’t have had an excuse to skip high school to Metro to the Smithsonian and wander, blissfully and aimlessly, through the National Portrait Gallery for hours. I wouldn’t have wallowed away a perfect, sun-kissed Saturday afternoon lounging in the grass outside the Museumplein in Amsterdam. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Brussels or Chicago or Los Angeles as swiftly as I did. Above all, I wouldn’t have pushed myself out of my comfort zone to learn and explore and absorb the entire world with an insatiable appetite.

Art — thank you for continually jarring me out of complacency, forcing me to mature and making me who I am.

Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” ran every other Wednesday.