31 December 2008

Beyond the Horizon

A New Year's modern surprise at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden (Updated)

... a triumphant display of works inspired by the Museum's own collection

What a great start to the New Year!

The Dutch artist Bierenbroodspot opened her new exhibition of paintings and sculpture, drawings and giant prints 4 x 5 metres (12' x 15') -- hanging like sunlit banners on the museum walls -- which I read as prose poems or like pages from a time-travel diary.

In this unique exhibition, we see how a modern artist re-interprets the past by viewing her work almost side-by-side with the original pieces that inspired her.
An offering which the pharaoh gives Sekhmet, the Great, Lady of Heaven that she may grant power in heaven, strength on earth and a good name for her beloved, the Overseer of Craftsmen and Chief of Goldsmiths, Gerti Bierenbroodspot.
For countless generations, artists have freely incorporated elements from distant cultures to create new visual forms. Archaeologists and art historians are always studying (and being stymied by) such 'influences' and artistic interdependence. Bierenbroodspot takes this ‘re-mix’ one step further: she uses a modern Museum’s archaeological treasures as the starting point for her art, creating from the ancient objects a highly personal vision of a modernity grand in theme as well as in manner. To create this ground-breaking show, Bierenbroodspot received the keys of the Museum, free to wander at will -- enter any vault, open any display, sit in the hidden hall of the mummies, rummage through the racks in the basements -- sketching whichever items struck her artist’s eye.

Follow her trajectory through the Museum. Click on the video (Warning: downloading is slow, so I suggest that you read on until it starts. Impatient readers may click via her website instead. The music is from cellist Ernst Reijseger's Requiem for a Dying Planet).

In the Ideal Museum

Bierenbroodspot went on a barefooted journey of discovery through the Museum (without footwear, she feels freer, her mind more open to improvisation). The barefoot artist -- smudged with paint, and laden with papyrus, rice paper, quills, brushes, inks and powders -- followed magic signs and golden lines through the galleries to reach a mythical abode, Beyond the Horizon.
The Muses do not wait; they decide over the Holy Fire, the Divine Inspiration, when and where they want to share it with the artist...
But it is not history that interests her: as she paints them, objects become re-newed, the transmutation of art giving them again the power of dreams.

When Bierenbroodspot saw the bronze horse bits from Luristan or inscribed clay tablets from Sumer, she stopped and had them out of their cases and in her hands. Re-used in her art, these things that are silent and past get a new vision, as in a magic theatre or divine rite. A polished bronze Corinthian-Greek hoplite helmet or the ornate gilded silver face-mask of a Roman knight become eerily like, in feel, twelve bronze helmets from the armoury of Atlantis that Bierenbroodspot cast for her record-breaking show, Atlantis Rising:

round and domed helmets encrusted with fiery green or turquoise patina, with pins, tubes and metal strips attached to vanished crests, worn by warriors in a dream-like world. These are the faces of an invisible army, with gabled brows and eye-holes sharply drawn out, and sun disks glittering with gold enamel. Helmets that have power, and that shock.

The phalanx of helmets stands in the hall of the Isis (Taffeh) temple. Where once stood imperial statues, there are two massive bronze heads, Bierenbroodspot’s Fallen Gods, guardians of a lost civilization; and, nearby, the Last King of Atlantis, lordly and full of pride, the fragment of a colossal statue cast in the here-and-now.

Finally, Bierenbroodspot descended into the mummy hall, a place closed to the public. Museums have an ethical dispute with mummies: are they fit objects for display or, as human remains, are they entitled to eternal rest? Bierenbroodspot, as an artist, treats them with sacred dignity.
Over this image that is sketched on a clean, unused sheet of papyrus with powder of emerald green glaze mixed with myrrh and water. Say, "I am an initiate, void of sins. There is nothing I do not know about Truth."
She thinks of the mural scene of the deathbed of Queen Nefertari, carved like a lion’s body, with the goddesses Isis and Nephtys to guard her mummy, as two hovering hawks. Hieroglyphs with birds and animals flutter around her protective tent, magic spells to help the dead as they make the dangerous journey Beyond the Horizon.

She painted the head of a mummy, blackened by age, now spending its afterlife as an unexpected artist’s model. She (a female head, according to Bierenbroodspot) grimaces at the painter, her upper lip drawn back to bare her teeth. "It’s a smile," says Bierenbroodspot. "I am bringing her back to life. That’s why the Pharaohs let me paint them."

Beyond the Horizon is antiquity re-emerging, and a limitless unique moment in space. 

** Visit Bierenbroodspot's Beyond the Horizon at the National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) until 22 February 2009. A catalogue is available. Click for a free e-card. If you can't get to Leiden in time, visit her website and click on 'Beyond the Horizon' in the menu.

Update: 14 January 2009

Due to the unprecedented number of visitors, the Museum announced yesterday that Beyond the Horizon, originally slated to run until 22 February, has been extended through 3 May 2009. So, anyone planning a trip to the tulip fields in the spring, can scoot over to nearby Leiden as well. Don't miss it!

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