One of the perks of being a procrastinator is that by the time you finally do what you've been meaning to do, chances are you're ready for it.
Last week, feeling a hint of autumn in the air, and contemplating the onset of yet another season of art exhibitions, I finally caught up with some things I meant to do months ago. I went to the Penn Museum to see "Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq," and then drove up Kelly Drive to take a close look at Martin Puryear's sculpture Big Bling. Both have been around since spring, and both will remain until November.
But if I had caught up with them sooner, their impact might have been different. We seem to be in an iconoclastic moment, a time when it sometimes seems the only way to deal with our often violent and oppressive past is to smash it. Looking at this show and at this sculpture won't tell us how to mend the fraying fabric of our society, but it might nudge your thoughts in an unfamiliar and useful direction.
"Cultures in the Crossfire" is about a human catastrophe as well as a threat to what humans have made over thousands of years. Big Bling is mysterious and provocative, perhaps a late entry into our ongoing sculptural civil war.
The first thing you see when you walk into the Penn Museum's show is a video of a man with a sledgehammer banging to rubble what appears to be an ancient wall with sculptural reliefs. The wall has probably been there since Roman times, but he works assiduously, as though he knows what needs to be done.
Tearing down a 2,000 year-old wall seems a barbaric act, but it pales in the context of hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions displaced, both within their own countries and as refugees. The museum's show consists mostly of displays of antiquities and descriptions of efforts by Penn and others to safeguard important sites. But in order to evoke the tragic human consequences of the conflicts, the museum invited Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj to "intervene" with new works.
The first of these, Strikes, is near the entrance of the show. It is a video in which lit matches are endlessly thrown on top of others. It is an evocation of the constant airstrikes in Syria — some by the United States. These seem to be a low-risk way of intervening in the war without sending in actual troops. Yet a bomb is more destructive than a sledgehammer.
This is a very unusual show for the Penn Museum, passionate rather than academic and dusty. It is intentionally something of a mishmash. Objects from different eras, different religious traditions, and ethnic groups are shown together. This is done both to suggest the diversity of the region that current culture wars seek to suppress, and also to evoke the universality of human needs and expressions over time.
The show includes some works that were meant to be artistic, including one portrait relief of an obviously upper-class woman from what was until recently the well-preserved city of Palmyra.
But time gives power to even the humblest items. I was most moved by a terra-cotta baby's rattle in the form of a chicken, made more than 3,500 years ago. It's a robust abstract form, shaped for the hand of a baby. Did its maker see beauty in it as we do now? And how could this breakable object, made as a child's plaything, have lasted so long?
Kourbaj's strongest piece here is also about children. He made it last year after visiting the Greek island of Lesbos, where many Syrian refugees have landed. The work consists of the clothing of dead children, which he flattened, dipped in plaster, and inscribed in Arabic and Greek. A typical one reads "Unknown boy, 17 months old, checked shirt," along with a burial date. These small whitened garments are appropriately ghostly; they are made to haunt. But they are also monuments that admonish us not to forget.
The temporary home of Big Bling is along Kelly Drive, not far from the magnificent equestrian statue of Ulysses S. Grant by Daniel Chester French (who did the Grant figure) and Edward C. Potter (who sculpted the horse.) Puryear's 40-foot-high, 38-foot-long construction, mostly of plywood and chain-link fence, appears to be a giant creature, not quite a horse, not quite an elephant, not quite a bull, and not quite a sphinx. It could be a monster imagined by ancient Mesopotamians, except for the mostly humble contemporary materials from which it is made.
Though Puryear is probably the most celebrated African American sculptor of our time, racial themes rarely dominate his work. Still, in this case, the possible symbolism is hard to ignore in the huge gold-leaf-covered fiberglass shackle that pierces the head of this mysterious creature and serves as its eyes. This shackle is the big bling, the reason the sculpture exists.
A shackle immediately raises thoughts of slavery, and very likely of today's mass incarceration. It suggests the sculpture is not a celebration, as large public sculptures usually are, but a warning. The sculpture's covering in chain link catches the light, and makes it appear solid or ethereal, depending on the light. But chain link is still an instrument of social control.
Some have referred to the sculpture as a Trojan horse, as it is ambiguous, and a bit sinister. I am more inclined to think of it in terms of the golden idol the Israelites made after they had escaped from slavery in Egypt. No sooner had they found freedom than they seemed eager to trade it for a shiny new object, and another kind of slavery.
The word bling is associated with the ostentatious lifestyle and luxury-branded lyrics of hip-hop artists, especially during the 1990s. But rappers are not the only ones who have bullied their audiences with shiny objects and lavish personal display. Indeed, some of the rappers may have been satirical, but we all know people who believe deeply in the glitz.
Are there other ways of thinking about Big Bling? Of course there are. Mercifully, Puryear hasn't told us what to think. Of more value, he has created a work you'll want to figure out for yourself.
Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Through Nov. 26 at Penn Museum, 3260 South St. On Sept. 17, artist Issam Kourbaj will hold a drop-in workshop at the museum from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in which members of the public will make 2,379 works of art with him, to be used in a performance beginning at 5 p.m.
Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. Wednesday. Closed Mondays.
Tickets: $10 (free for children under 6).
Information: 215 898-4000 or www.pennmuseum.
Big Bling by Martin Puryear,
Through November on Kelly Drive, north of the Girard Avenue Bridge.