Our last weekend in California, my friend and I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Our colleagues had recommended SFMOMA so much that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We were both glad we didn’t.
Since we’d been to the city a couple of times already, we found our destination without too much delay or confusion. We arrived at the museum at around 10 am and went straight to the top floor. When I stepped into the museum I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t read about it before or given much thought to it. All I knew was the location and that friends I cherish cherished going there. I went with an open mind and an ignorant innocence.
The top floor—Soundtracks—had all kinds of acoustic exhibits that played with our auditory emotions. The first thing I saw was a collection of wooden instrumental mechanics. There were wheels and copper strings, wheeling about, creating music while they did. One tiny electric motor powered the entire exhibit. As the main wheel spun, copper strips made contact with each other transmitting and emitting sound waves. I can’t work science to save my life, but even I knew it was pretty cool. I stood there watching the tiny mechanism move on its own, mesmerised at what I saw.
It was only the beginning.
As I moved on to other exhibits, I noticed that most of them were common household items. There was a large pond, for instance, filled with ceramic bowls. The bowls floated on their own, clinking with each other making metallic music as they did so. It wasn’t new—we’ve all seen and heard ceramic vessels knock against each other. But it’s amazing how seldom we notice its musicality.
Another interesting piece of art was glasses stuck to the wall. Visitors (myself included) assumed that the glasses exude sound and tried putting their ears to it. It took the museum supervisor to explain to us that it’s just art and not a sound machine. Even then, I felt a faint echo coming from the glasses. The exhibits on the floor testified that anything and everything could be music that we expected the glasses would be, too. It was as if the exhibit had created an auditory illusion.
I then heard mild singing from one corner of the floor. Following the sound, I walked into a dark room. The first thing I saw on my left was a video of a pianist engrossed in his music. He played his part, and then without a warning, another instrument from elsewhere joined in. And more voices and instruments began to play along. That’s when I looked around. The room consisted of about six or seven walls, and each wall had a video playing on it. All videos illustrated a person or persons wielding a musical instrument. In tandem they played a song, their voices and notes complementing each other. It was one giant performance, scattered amongst ten to twelve people all in different parts of the world. From the basement in Berlin, a studio in London, a bathtub in California—artists from all over came together for music. When I left, something within me radiated with joy. It was a sensation I could neither capture in camera nor can in words.
I spent over 45 minutes on that floor alone. And I felt unapologetic. I knew I had six other floors to visit, but after what I’d experienced already, I was in no hurry. I knew spending the entire day in the museum would be well worth my time.
Every other floor I stopped at had a mix of paintings, sculptures, and photographs. The museum hosts works of artists from the world over, and there are some sections on each floor separated by the nationalities of the artists. German painters had brought to life the Berlin Wall, the massacre of war, and even the aftermath of a shell shock. British sculptors had executed stunning constructions just from sticks and stones. Although I know nothing about contemporary art and the nuances of the industry, I still could appreciate the beauty of everyday objects surrounding us. It wasn’t until I saw the world through these artists’ work that I realised that every thing is art—if you know how to look at it.
I had to look closer to notice the meticulous work. There were life-size paintings drawn only by replicating a single shaded square. One tiny brush stroke or a single perfect shape had morphed into something much larger than life. There were minimal works of art that, at first, were just basic lines. The longer I looked at them, however, the more I gleaned from them. Simple boxes with extra-dark borders represented art. Basic math interpretations and crayon doodles were art.
At a glance, they all seemed too trivial to be art. But true modern art makes you look again. And again. It makes you question what you see, it makes you question your sanity. And when you’ve been questioning long enough, it shows you something that had been there all along—something you’d wish you’d noticed sooner.
On another floor hung what looked like a wind chime. As I approached it, though, I recognised it was one giant assembly of tiles, balancing from a single string of metal. In another corner, a large wall projected a giant plant. It was The Living Wall, an enormous living collection of 37 plant species, a preserved reminder of the natural beauty that we don’t notice outdoors.
We spent a good four hours in the museum. We walked round and round, almost exhausting ourselves at the exhaustive collection of art. After a while I couldn’t take any more pictures because it seemed useless to even try to capture such art. Some things in life are so fluid that you have to be there to feel it. My experience at the SFMOMA was like that. It was a day of self-reflection. How ironical that we have to visit a museum to observe nature or to discover natural sounds we hear and fail to observe in our lives.