A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jun 8, 2011
For Better or Worse
Lately, it seems like not a week goes by without a conversation about how technology is impacting daily life.
Whether it’s how social media is affecting personal relationships or workplace productivity, the need to have the latest gadgets, debates over new transportation systems, or when, where and how often it’s appropriate to check emails on our smartphones, technology is perpetually changing how we live—and we’re constantly trying to figure out how we feel about it.
Such uncertainties and ambivalent feelings are at the core of two new exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Featuring works from the museum’s permanent collection, Picturing Technology: Land and Machine and The Industrial Modern explore the effects of industry and technology.
Picturing Technology focuses on technology in rural environments. Imagery ranges from covered wagons to a John Deere tractor adorned with an American flag, a car cruising down a rolling country road to airplanes in the sky. In one work, a family lights off a rocket in a hayfield; in another, two women bottle-feed calved on their farm.
Some works address technology’s impact on the land. In Fred Essler’s watercolor Winter, a gray sky hovers above snowy land and blue water. But factory-like buildings can be seen in the distance and heavy, dark boats with machinery sit on top the water. Do these signs of industry mar the scene or is the landscape simply changed?
In two gelatin silver prints by O. Winston Link, trains are shown at night. The sleek forms seem quiet and efficient, one heading from a station labeled “Rural Retreat” (shown above) and the other by a sign marking a place called “Solitude.” Perhaps the trains connect city dwellers to more peaceful locales, or maybe they’re breaking that solitude.
An intriguing work is Alyson Shotz’s Forced Bloom 4 (shown at left). A detailed web of chains, foliage, lily pads, beads and other materials spreads in all directions, tangling along the way. It’s a beautiful image, yet there’s a sense that the material been modified, enhanced and perhaps is mushrooming beyond human control.
But just when you start to regard advancement as generally dangerous, you have a not-so-fast moment. Patrick Caulfield’s Fern Pot screenprint, for instance, reminds how useful a simple object like a clay pot is for holding or storing objects. And then there’s Cargador, La Paz by Danny Lyon. In this photograph, a man is bent over carrying a heavy load on his back. Others walk by him with ease, slightly blurred, and you can’t help but think that this man would benefit from any technology that could make his commute easier.
In The Industrial Modern exhibition, artists from the mid-nineteenth century to contemporary times respond to industry and labor in urban settings. Several works show men working on skyscrapers. Men, machines and materials were all needed to build such incredible structures, but it’s interesting to ponder which the artwork celebrates most. Which is most powerful? Most glorious?
In Fernand Léger’s Composition aux deux Personnages (shown below, right), a lithograph from1920, they’re nearly one in the same. Human forms with the artist’s signature rounded, mechanized body parts appear to become part of a machine-like abstracted pattern.
Several other works depict cities at night. James Swann’s Night in Chicago from 1940 features bare trees, buildings, streetlights, slick roads and rain or sleet coming down diagonally. The artist doesn’t hide the urban details; the scene is beautiful because of them.
Beauty pervades an unattractive, utilitarian location in Warehouses, Slaithe-Waite, Yorkshire, England, a 1984 photograph by Michael Kenna. Diffused light shines through two silhouetted buildings, offering a quiet, pretty moment in an unlikely place.
In contrast, Harry Sternberg’s Blast Furnace at Night, a 1947 lithograph, is explosively full of energy. Men toil away at an industrial site, with machinery looming several stories high, and heat, fire and energy being emitted. It’s a powerful display of industry; the viewer might not know whether to be frightened or impressed.
Another interesting piece is Käthe Kollwitz’s etching, Weberzug. A master at rendering emotion, the artist shows rebelling weavers. The workers are downtrodden, tired, gaunt and angry, but all march forward.
Presented together, the pair of exhibitions offer an incredible opportunity to examine different takes on—and consider the myriad questions posed by—the topic of technology. You might leave the shows with the conclusion that technology is progress, or perhaps the opposite will ring more true. Or maybe you won’t have any answers. But when it comes to technology and its impact, asking the questions seems like a crucial step.
Picturing Technology: Land and Machine runs through August 21 and The Industrial Modern is open through September 4. For more information, visit mmoca.org.
Photos courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.