Anticipation was encased in excitement: the rediscovery of lost treasures is always good news. It is like the archetypal story of the pirate’s hoard, but this cache has been found; and gold was involved too. There was no map, just altruistic good intentions that secretly placed the precious priceless items securely in a vault for twenty-five years. Sadly, the disappointment came with the first item on display: the grand Corinthian capital.
AFGHANISTAN HIDDEN TREASURES
FROM THE NATIONAL MUSEUM KABUL
5 September 2013 - 27 January 2014
Placed on a column just over two metres high, this marvellous piece of boldly carved rock was illuminated from above and below in a manner that gave its crisp cutting no clarity. The mass was left in a haze of soft, unusually red-purple light that not only fuzzed the shading that might have emphasised the depth of the carving, as the lighting of the photograph in the catalogue did, but also concealed the actual colour of the stone. It was frustrating trying to peer through this bleary presence in order to see the strength and certainty of the capital that would have stood proud and assured, honest, in the blaze of clear Afghan light.
Yet again, the technical problems of properly lighting exhibits seem to have been ignored in favour of what looks like expediency. Rather than being driven by any commitment to an object and its identity, it looks as though near enough has been considered good enough: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/a-mere-shadow-of-quilt.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html Why is this problem allowed to go ignored? There was a sense of futility in the air. This is Queensland, home to one of the harshest of all penal colonies in Australia. Does some sense of this past place, its arrogant brutality, linger with us today? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/conviction.html
The other architectural pieces were impressive too. The stone waterspout was a real gem! Alas, frequently these pieces were displayed for their decorative identity rather than for information. The collection of stylised palm antefixes was beautiful, but how did they get fixed to the edge of the roof? One had to crank one’s neck and stand on tiptoes to try to see the backs of these pieces to see how they were mounted - by fixings through the terracotta shafts at their bases. The sundials were stunning, but why was it not explained that the ‘seat’ dial was a reconstruction? The catalogue was quite open about this fact. The gold dazzled the eye and changed the mood. There really is something mystical in this material, its firm and confident presence, its commanding solidity that can be sustained in its most frail of shapings and beatings. It is indeed the symbol of the sun in every aspect. It embodies power and authority. Little wonder that it has mesmerised man throughout the ages.
Alas, it was not the only thing that reflected and glowed. As one leaned over the glassy display tables or faced the gloss of the exhibition cabinets, one confronted one’s blurred reflection amongst the mirrored blaze of high downlights. In order to overcome this dazzling nuisance, one had to manoeuvre around into a location that would avoid the glare, using one’s own reflective shading to create a field for comfortable viewing. At times one had to lean over so far as to feel extremely awkward, choosing a less than favourable or comfortable viewpoint in order to just observe the pieces as best as one might in the circumstances. Why, oh why does this have to be so? It is not as though the science of lighting and display is unknown. Will we ever learn? Will we ever be bothered? Is it just carelessness? Budgets? It was not as though it was a ‘cheap’ exhibition to enter: $21.00 per adult. One really did not mind, just as long as the majority of profits were going back to Afghanistan. Were they?
Still the gold grabs the attention - delicate, detailed, firm and flimsy gold; deliciously chunky too: exquisite in every way, complete with engraving both in gold and coloured stone mounts that left one suspended in disbelief, such was its superb fineness and finesse. Memories of Macedonia came to mind, of that exhibition seen perhaps twenty-five years ago. Here gold was manipulated with such flair that the memories linger to this day: grand floral golden diadems. But this should be no surprise: the Corinthian column - there was a Greek connection. Yes, Macedonian craftsmen could have been involved in this remarkable making of fluttering gold fragments and filaments.
The pieces were so intelligently fine that a magnifying glass was sought in order to properly see the detailed form and decoration, and the construction and assembly of each piece. Interestingly, the gallery staff provided one. Someone must have anticipated the need. Why were magnifying glasses not a part of the displays for all to enjoy? Some pieces of gold were so extremely tiny that one would be unable to draw them full-size without the line thickness messing matters up; and some fine images had been engraved into stone too! What with? The glass revealed that even when small, faces had specific expressions and features, and that the gold decoration was never schematic either. It was precise in every detail. The tiny yellow shapes that were sewn onto clothing were remarkable. The mystery of how they might be connected to the fabric was solved once one noticed the miniature rods shaped in gold melded to the rear of the profiled sheet, pierced for the threads. Just why at least one of these pieces could not have been turned around to make this more obvious was a concern. At least the catalogue photographed one reversed to confirm the partial observation. Was the neatness of the display the primary matter, its patterned symmetries and alignments? It is a sad day when presentation becomes more important than the easy comprehension of fact.
Appearances seemed to be more important than information. Every piece had a formal presentation, a façade, in spite of references in the explanatory texts that told of decoration and other matters to do with the ‘reverse’ side that could never be seen. Why? It is not a difficult matter to overcome. There was a description in one text that told of an inscription on the side of a bowl that could not be seen. Identical bracelets were displayed identically as a matching twin pair when one item might have been placed differently so as to allow different parts to be seen in different ways. None of these possibilities appeared to have been considered in any display, let alone explored as an idea. When it was so significant that it could not be ignored, as in the aquarium bowl that had clever weights below that moved ‘fins’ in the water for entertainment, the lower mirror used to reflect this detail displayed only a dark mass that was just not immediately obvious. Folk were still bending down low to peer at the leaden baubles described in the wording, oblivious to the fact that the mirror might have displayed them more clearly and without less stress had the display been lighted appropriately. Gosh, it wouldn’t take much to install a small LED light that could be switched on when required by a push button, so as to fully reveal the cunning workings of this intriguing bowl. Sadly, even this matter was ignored, with the mirror being left with a darkly shaded reflection. Was this not noticed?
Clarity didn’t appear to have any importance. There were blocks of copy mounted on large panels that had notations identified by what looked like catalogue reference numbers, e.g. K.001.3296. Alas, no matching coding could be seen on or near the items on display, leaving one at the mercy of what might be described as common sense to work things out. None of this uncertainty is needed or should be seen to be acceptable in well-designed displays. Where is the interest in the items? Where is the creativity? Where is the enthusiasm for good display? This achievement can be as infectious when well done as it can be dispiriting when poorly carried out. Surely if an item is considered important enough to be put on display, it must be significant enough to have the very best presentation possible so that all of its qualities can be sensibly and explicitly enhanced? Mirrors; lights; mounts; turning tables; and the like can all play an important role in displaying the wholeness and wonder of each object. Of course, one must avoid the problem of the Jewish Museum in Berlin where the clever gadgetry and smart ideas for the displays have taken control of the whole experience of both the exhibition and the extraordinary building.
Yet still the Afghan exhibition remained mesmerising. Imagine what it could have been? Perhaps it might have been just too overwhelming without these distracting annoyances that kept one just too aware of practical matters? It was obvious that these were skilled, sophisticated folk with a refined and sensitive culture. The exhibition made us look like the ‘huns and heathens’ - the barbarians! The technology and thought, skill and patience involved in the making of these items was astonishing. Our cliché reference to the crudity of all other times when compared to ours – identified as our ‘progress’ - became an obvious falsehood, a blind, boastful and ignorant, even foolish conceit. We need to recall this more frequently. Browsing through the explanatory descriptions, one name hit home and identified the core issue: ‘Nike, God of war.’ All we think of today, especially in this time of summer tennis, is ‘Nike, God of shoes and sporting clothes’! The difference in sensitivity and meaning is enormous. What might we know of or care for any god or symbolism other than its use as a commercial, promotional farce?
But there was more to consider and praise. The published catalogue is one of the best seen for any exhibition. It did not merely reproduce everything in the exhibition in an expensive and heavy book. It expanded ideas and information with drawings, photographs, stories and studies to truly ‘add value’ to the whole experience, all at a remarkably reasonable price too: $14.95. It is a shame that the display could not have been equally inventive and similarly interested in the subject being considered. Yet there were some niggles. Why was the drawing of the bone platter different to the platter itself? Why were small items illustrated as full-page photographs? One can understand the desire to clearly identify every detail. Indeed, I used a magnifying glass; but a catalogue should also present the objects as they might be experienced and maintain their real sense of scale. In the exhibition it was their smallness that was remarkable. Presenting them as larger images disguises this simple observation and fashions another false perception about these stunning pieces - their false grandeur. There was modesty here.
Still, one is left wondering if these ‘blockbusters’ are really all about dollars. Is the business plan to keep them cheap to maximise the profits? Some time ago the Sydney Powerhouse published its intentions to have a major display on the works of Le Corbusier. The ambitious plan was to reconstruct Corbusier’s cabanon at Cap Martin on the Côte d’Azur and one apartment from the Unité d’Habitation residential tower block at Marseilles at the Powerhouse for this exhibition. There was something to look forward to here. Both the cabanon and the Marseilles apartment are on nearly every architect’s wish list to visit. They are both icons, architectural legends. Now they were coming to Australia!
But as the time approached, nothing seemed to be getting finalised. When visiting the Powerhouse just prior to the planned opening of this show, I asked about it: why was there no activity? The response was vague. No one seemed sure or wanted to say anything much about it. So I wrote to the Director and did eventually get a response. It turned out that the proposal was just too expensive. The catalogue had been published, but still the exhibition was cancelled. Apparently the Powerhouse was more interested in paying to have the entrance space redeveloped, bringing the café up to this location from the more remote lower courtyard. Would this make it a better money-spinner with all visitors having to pass by rather than choose to detour to the lower level? Sadly there has been no more talk of the Corbusier show. Money matters.
Le Corbusier's Unité d’Habitation residential tower block at Marseilles
And so it also seems to be when looking at the Afghanistan exhibition. There are many simple things that could have been done to improve the displays. It only appears to need the raw interest and intrigue; simple honest, personal care, concern, and commitment, so that all aspects and qualities of each individual piece can be enhanced to their fullest. Why else exhibit any work of art? Style has little to do with anything but blurb and appearances. Exhibitions engage information; they tell about others and other times and places. They are not curious entertainments for easy pleasures and distracting interests.
The real surprise is that this exhibition seems to survive all of its issues and remain memorable, such is the amazing quality of the work - those lost wonders of Afghanistan that the country realises are so important for its culture. These precious items come from a time that we need to know more about. Drooling over sketchy promotional hype and broad summaries and glosses is only a beginning. The danger with the short-comings of the display is that these special items will be too easily left in the category of ‘interesting’ artefacts, old things to be assessed superficially with our clever understandings of beauty rather than with any complete feeling for place, people, time and culture: their integral expression with their own singular meaning and context. Placing things prettily rather than displaying them to reveal the full richness that they can offer us only isolates, decorates. It limits perceptions and highlights our own self-seeking importance, yet again.
One has to comment on the marvellously useful digital graphics in this exhibition: short, concise and accessible like the video clips that outlined the story of the discovery. One could spend the few minutes needed for viewing these presentations without feeling any disruption to the flow of being there, looking, understanding and learning - feeling. Unusually these presentations enhanced the experience by establishing a specific, more complete identity for some of the items behind the glass. One found oneself moving backwards and forwards to assemble the pieces, to get a better understanding of their milieu.
The structure of the display and the people management were equally impressive. The spatial division with translucent screens was simple, but extremely effective, allowing a large, anonymous open space to enclose smaller zones comfortably, with an easy ambiguity. Each zone presented the pieces discovered at the same location. The museum never felt crowded until one exited the Afghan display area and moved into the main public spaces of the building. Most exhibits were easily accessible without having to crowd around and wait for a viewing space to become available; some exhibits could be seen from two positions. Even though it was school holidays, the children were all well behaved. Maybe they were ‘gob smacked’ by the exhibits? They did not need smacking or any reprimand for misbehaviour. There were only a few places that suffered from the ‘corner’ problem – the situation where, when one is viewing one item, the adjacent display is made inaccessible. It is a shame that the attention given to some aspects of this exhibition did not flow through to all, for these works deserved it.