Friday, 23 January 2015

To Mona or not to Mona - and the 'Exhib-iPad '

I've seen two exhibitions on Leonardo da Vinci - both taught me a great deal about the man. And both were thought-provoking, in different ways.

Exhibition Number One: Singapore's Art Science Museum 

(an amazing building in the shape of a hand) hosts the Da Vinci exhibition, described as:

'Presenting original masterpieces by da Vinci for the first time in Southeast Asia, the exhibition focuses on the Codex Atlanticus, da Vinci’s largest notebook.'
Some of these notebook pages are on view, in low lighting, at the end of the exhibition. Now here's a spoiler, so if necessary please look away - Leonardo wrote backwards in mirror writing, for the most part. I can read backwards handwriting in English, but in 16th century Italian? That's a challenge.

Never mind...  There are activities to test your science and engineering skills. And there are panels and models describing da Vinci's work in all areas, including music which I didn't know about. And three contemporary artists' work is on display, showing how they were inspired by the great man.  All well and good. I was better informed about da Vinci, his theories, his practice and his life, than I had been. Thank you, Art Science Museum. 

However, I was disappointed that there are only a handful of real paintings to gaze at, and these are from the School of da VinciIf you pay to enter a Museum exhibition, is it unreasonable to expect see an appreciable amount of the artist's or others' work? And to make up your own mind about his skill, with a little help from the curator? I was confused and frustrated by the notebook pages which are hard to read because of the low lighting and the mirror-writing, even though I could admire the sketches and pen-work.

So here's my suggestion: Maybe some of the pages could have been transcribed (typed) and translated? Some visitors may need help in understanding the theories behind the work, and enjoy the interactive displays which are fun and educational. But others are used to using our own powers of observation. We just want to see what's displayed - properly.

And so to Exhibition Number Two in the Arts House (the former Parliament Building, a gorgeous Palladian number) which hosts an exhibition entitled 'The Earlier Mona Lisa' described as: '650 square metre, tablet-led, interactive audiovisual exhibition'
Here's the story: there is evidence that Leonardo painted more than one portrait of 'La Gioconda'. An earlier version was known to exist and was 'rediscovered' in 1913 in Bath, England by art curator, Mr Blaker, and has been authenticated by many scholars. First you are shown the 'evidence' from Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and other witnesses, to build the case for the defence. Then you are taken through the painting's many homes and journeys after Mr Blaker unearths it. 

Next comes the technique, showing how Leonardo's artistic methods have been examined over the centuries, to add more evidence.
(Leonardo's advice on preparing a canvas - fascinating!)

Finally, you can see one piece of original artwork: the Earlier Mona Lisa itself. It is hung in the Parliament Chamber, in the spot where the Speaker would have presided.

(The stately Parliament Chamber - Prime Minister LKY sat on the left)

But here's the crunch: the way you have to experience this exhibition, which consists almost exclusively of wall panels, is through a tablet computer. This tells you everything you need to know about the history of 'the Earlier Mona' and how it's seen by today's academics.  The tablet gives you a commentary, from two to fourteen minutes per section, a total of over an hour I'd reckon. And it is not just an audio commentary, it's a documentary, and you need to watch the screen because the wall panels don't tell you very much at all.

I'm entering a new world here - the world of the iPad exhibition. The documentary film on the tablet was excellent, yes, really excellent. And I would have loved to have watched it in one fell swoop at home or in a cinema. But sitting on the floor of the Arts House because chairs are scarce? Hmmm.

At the end of the exhibition, you reach the Parliament Chamber where the real portrait is on display. I sat in former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's chair to gaze at it, and recapped the some sections of the documentary on the tablet  - how Mr Blaker came across the masterpiece; and how to evaluate Leonardo's techniques and magical use of geometry.

Again, I learned a fair bit about Da Vinci. And I enjoyed examining the real 'Earlier Mona' because it's so much easier on the eye than the Louvre version - she has a much more pleasant demeanour. 

But here are my suggestions: if you can't afford to transport any artefacts or artworks to mount your exhibition, why not make it truly interactive with actors and artists reenacting scenes and techniques, with replica scenes, blow-ups of newspaper evidence that we can read properly, fabrics and paints and canvases that we can touch and smell, areas where kids can get messy with crayons, crawl over canvases and play with Florentine costumes? I for one would love to try my hand at left-handed brush-strokes (he was left-handed), copying the embroidery on her dress, or exploring 'sfumato'.  

There were plenty of reenacted scenes in the documentary film from the Renaissance and from when Mr Blaker goes to Somerset to examine the masterpiece which a no-longer-so-wealthy family was anxious to sell. There was even footage of WW1 trenches to evoke the period during which the masterpiece was sent overseas to Boston for safekeeping. 

(There you are - I did take in a lot of information from the video!)  

These scenes must have cost a fair amount to stage. However, with a little more ingenuity, the curators could have taken up the challenge. They could have employed actors and artists to give kids and adults a real chance to experience Leonardo's skills. And this in turn would help some of the artists working in this city state, here and now. 

And finally, could someone invent a new word - an 'exhibiPad', perhaps - to encapsulate the experience of the tablet 'exhibition'?  Singaporeans are masters at making up words, so please find a term for this type of experience. Is it an exhibition when it doesn't have an appreciable number of exhibits? You can decide.

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