Sunday, June 17, 2012

This Is What A Masterpiece Looks Like

Though readers of my blog will agree that I tend to be effusive about work I like, even so, I'm not cavalier with the "M" word. In fact, I have never previously used the word in this forum; however, on my most recent trip to the Renwick Gallery I looked at Kim Schmahmann's Bureau of Bureaucracy closely for the first time and realized how special it is.
Bureau of Bureaucracy 
various hardwoods, veneers, marquetry, mother of pearl, gold leaf, and brass,
with french polish shellac finish
96" x 36" x 24" 
©Kim Schmahmann
I'm not sure why I skimmed over it so many times previously. Perhaps, because of its classical design and impeccable construction, it deceived me into thinking it was "just" another reproduction; or maybe I realized it was a masterpiece but was overwhelmed by the thought of analyzing it; or, maybe I was just overwhelmed by all the other great art in the space and was too distracted to spend the necessary time with any one piece (I sometimes wish curators would stop putting so much great art in museums); but on this visit Bureau had been moved to the center of a room, giving me a chance to see the back side for the first time and really forcing me to spend more time looking at it.
Bureau of Bureaucracy (rear view)
As I looked, I was fascinated by the symbolism that was obviously everywhere, but difficult to decipher. Luckily, immediately after spending time studying it, I walked into an adjoining room where the museum had a video running of artists talking about their work and, coincidentally, Kim was talking about this very piece, giving me a chance to finally learn about the conceptual aspect of the work.

Thoughtfully, Kim has developed a brochure that also discusses some of the features of Bureau, so it isn't necessary to just happen upon the video in order to understand what he has done (the link to it is here). As a result, I don't need to reiterate what he has already documented. If you look it over though, I guarantee you'll be impressed. You will also understand why it took six years to complete.

While looking at it, I was intrigued by the two small door panels (covered with paper collage) in the lower section next to the curly maple file draws. You can barely see them in the top photograph, and there was no way to read them in the museum (without getting thrown out or arrested), but I hoped that by taking digital images I could read them at home by blowing them up (I was about 75% successful).

Bureau of Bureaucracy
(top door panel on lower level)
It appears to be a series of documents associated with Kim's life in South Africa during the time of apartheid. It includes his Identity Document (in which he is classified as a white person in accordance with the Population Registration Act of 1950); some appropriately bureaucratic language about losing South African citizenship if you take the citizenship of another country; a couple of letters associated with his education, one of which, written "To Whom It May Concern" says that he is a part-time student taking Monday evening classes (dated in 1974), perhaps because there was a curfew and he would need to present the document to be out at night; and additional sections which are either too small or in Afrikaans.

Though it is mostly hidden and almost impossible to decipher, I think this panel is really the heart of, and the inspiration for, the entire piece. Only a series of traumatic and unfortunate encounters with a well organized but absurd and authoritarian government, such as one would have living in an apartheid South Africa, could cause someone to dedicate six years of their life to transforming the concept of bureaucracies into a work of art.  
 Bureau of Bureaucracy
(bottom door panel on lower level)
The panel on the lower door seems to be made from a collage of documents mostly associated with his time in the United States.  In the center are the rules for the ancient game, Snakes and Ladders, that Kim modified and incorporated into Bureau (image below); A letter of acceptance from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture regarding a presentation at a conference; a letter from the US Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service; a letter of acceptance for Kim's submission to the Taunton Press for their Design Book Six; a certificate from the Boston Architectural Center; and one additional document I can't make out at all.
 Bureau of Bureaucracy
marquetry Snakes and Ladders game board
(image taken from Kim Schmahmann's website)
One last image I'd like to include is a closeup of the top section. In it, you can see the fine symbolic marquetry (that is explained in the pamphlet) that Kim used to create the door on the left (which covers a series of symbolic drawers). On the right is a model of the reading room at the Library of Congress.
 Bureau of Bureaucracy (closeup)
Bureau is unequivocally a great piece, but I think it really goes above and beyond most other great art because, in addition to being both impeccable in design and astounding in execution, it is, most importantly, a deeply personal piece in which Kim obviously poured his heart and soul with absolute dedication. Thanks Kim!

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