A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the best of times…” Part Two

Have you ever had one of those days when amazing things unexpectedly happen and make you remember why you go to work every day?  Tuesday was one of those days for me.  I had two very different, very magical experiences in two very different museums.

#2) Charles Sandison, Figurehead
Peabody Essex Museum

After tearing ourselves away from the de Cordova and Halsey Burgund’s Scapes mobile app, and dropping Nancy Proctor off at the Peabody Essex Museum, Sandy Goldberg and I decided to take a quick spin around the museum. Our host suggested we check out their new Chinese exhibition and an interactive installation in the East India Marine Hall.  Sandy was interested in the Chinese stuff, and I’m a sucker for anything maritime, so we agreed to try both.  The Chinese exhibition was big and impressive, but what grabbed us both was the crazy light show we encountered in Charles Sandison’s hacking of the East India Marine Hall.

Peabody Essex has a history of mixing and matching contemporary art with their historical collections in interesting ways, so I didn’t know what to expect. East India Marine Hall is the oldest part of the museum complex, dating back to 1799 or so, and is an artifact in its own right. Think high ceilings, bright, light walls, a restrained orgy of Neoclassical ornament, dark oil paintings, nautical goodies, and cabinets of curiosities from foreign ports and you’ll have an idea of the room. Or at least an idea of what the hall looked like before Sandison set up Figurehead.

We made our way through the intervening galleries and as we approached I knew something was up.  The hall was dark, as in all the lights were out. Playing over every surface of the room were swirling dancing projections of words, helices of pixels, clouds of pixels, rivers of pixels.  We entered the nearly-empty room and were immersed in a storm of movement.  I’m probably dating myself but I had same feeling of stepping onto an empty dance floor while the disco ball filled the school cafeteria with lights.  Only Sandison used a lot of projectors and some serious computing power.

After our obligatory moment of completely gobsmacked, it quickly became obvious that the lights were not just a cycling projection, but that there was some kind of intelligence directing their movement. Even with a dozen projectors throwing images around, it was still quite dark, too dark to see any of the artifacts in the room. As we turned in circles trying to take in the enormity of the whole installation, it became clear to me the streams of pixels were running along the edge of wall, as if they were following the line of the ceiling. And as I expanded my focus, I could now see that there were emergent patterns in all the pixilated swirl.  Words in archaic handwriting would become pixels, pixels would turn into a helix that stretched into rivers moving in definite patterns.  Sometimes tributaries would cascade down the walls, carefully avoiding paintings like water running downhill.  It was fascinating to watch.

One of my favorite parts of the installation was watching the pixels flowing through the clusters of paintings on the walls. They’re hung according to a 19th century aesthetic, high up, and in neat rows. While I was watching the pixels flowing between the frames and trying to imagine the programming necessary to achieve the effect, something wonderful happened.  Pixels broke off from the stream and passed over one painting and stopped at the bottom of the image, like water filling a vessel. As we watched, the light slowly “filled up” one painting, revealing it for us. Then the pixels drained away and another object was highlighted, this time a figurehead on the next wall. The artist was directing our gaze from object to object, and I suspect was trying to suggest more, but I managed to neatly avoid the lone, dark label describing the piece, so I missed all the deeper connections I might have made. You can get an idea of what I missed by reading the description at the end of this.

So what made this experience work?

1) Immersion works.  Standing inside a 1,500 sq. ft. room full of moving images on every surface hooked me. It was clear we were “inside” something, not standing in a room looking at things.  Sandison obviously studied the room and used every inch of it.  The museum even set up a little row of chairs at one end so you could let the installation wash over you.  An older couple sat there silently the whole time we were in the room, just watching and taking in the spectacle.

2) Size does matter.  It was impossible to see the whole installation at one time, so I was constantly shifting my focus, looking at this detail and that. I don’t think I got to see everything, so I’ll have to go back and look some more.

3) Being willing to do the unthinkable is powerful. Turning off the lights in one of your signature galleries and rendering some of the oldest pieces of the collection unviewable was a pretty impressive sight. It clearly conveyed the impression that PEM’s commitment to showing new work was not a half-hearted one, but a serious institutional goal. It made me take the experience more seriously, because I could only imagine the initial meeting where the curator gets up and says, “OK, we’re gonna turn off all the lights in the room and projectors are going to be the only light source…”  Wow.

What didn’t work for me?

1) Words that mean nothing mean something.  I’ve looked at a lot of 17th-19th handwriting, so I could make out the words and snippets of sentences that played across the walls, but they were too low-res to read easily.  I am a word person by trade, so I might be biased, but when I see words, I expect to be able to read them. If they’re in another language, I expect a translation. If they’re hard to read, I expect a transcription. Words exist to convey meaning, and I often get lost or unhappy when artists use them as mere decorative elements. I don’t know whether Sandison intended them to be, but I couldn’t read them most of the time, so I felt like I was missing out on part of the fun.

2) An insufficient introduction is worse than no introduction. The only label I could find was about 8 x 10 inches and told me the name of the series this work belonged to and the artist’s name. I didn’t know the piece was called Figurehead until I looked on the web.  There, I learned lots of things that would’ve enriched my experience of the piece.

Quibbles aside, it was a great experience. Unfortunately, it was also that photographs badly, being dark and constantly moving. Here’s one photo, courtesy of Sandy’s phone, to give you a sense of the space.

I’ll be going back.

[POSTSCRIPT – Jim Forrest from PEM thoughtfully sent a link to a video feature they’ve made on the making of the exhibit. It includes video that does justice to the artwork.  Check it out.]

Description of the project, cribbed from the Peabody Essex Museum site.

Charles Sandison, Figurehead

Internationally renowned for his animated digital projections, artist Charles Sandison installs a site-specific artwork created for PEM’s East India Marine Hall. Sandison will activate the words of 18th-century ship captains’ logs to create an immersive environment drawing upon the trade routes, politics, competition and voices that led to the founding of the museum and the origins of PEM’s remarkable collection. Working at the intersection of visual art and computer programming, he uses his own customized software to map trajectories around the room; the projected images respond to algorithms that guide their behavior. In Figurehead, Sandison’s algorithms draw on real-time weather data from the internet, making the installation organic and ever-evolving.

Organized by PEM’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Trevor Smith, this installation marks the first in a series of contemporary art interventions in PEM’s FreePort initiative.


  1. Thanks, Jim!

    I’m so glad you suggested we visit Figurehead! It was an unexpected delight! Your Chinese calligraphy interactive was great, too. It was funny how different it felt to use a brush on a touchscreen than a finger. Very satisfying. Bravo!


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