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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Repurposed peanuts

Last week, while still getting over my cold, I decided, on a whim, to go into the Baltimore Museum of Art when I walked past it on my way home. It's sort of criminal that I don't go more often, since it's only a ten minute walk away, and it's free (it has always been free with my JHU ID card, but since October it and another museum downtown, the Walters, have been free to everyone, which is a great thing).

The BMA is a pretty good museum, one of those kitchen sink collections that has some of practically everything (an approach that Alex finds unsatisfying, and I do see what he means). There's prehistoric art, American art, a fine collection of Impressionists, and even an entire room of "English Sporting Art" (in other words: a variety of depictions of dignified gentlemen on horses chasing foxes).

In the contemporary art area, I found a temporary installation that I think is hilarious (in a good way). It's by a DC artist named Dan Steinhilber. It consists of a room with mounds of packing peanuts, as well as some carpet blowers, shop vac blowers, and Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners. This very crappy picture from my cell phone might help you visualize it:

There's another large mound of packing peanuts and some blowers out of the frame to the right. The hanging shop vac blowers are on a track that can move them around.

Every half hour, the room does its 10 minute or so routine. First the floor blowers make the peanut pile in one corner go up into a huge plume. Then a couple of Roombas are released, which proceed to roam the area randomly, pushing paths in the scattered peanuts and burrowing into the piles, temporarily disappearing. Eventually, the hanging blowers cycle on for brief intervals, flaying all over the place and blowing the peanuts around. They also move around their track. The whole thing is quite a spectacle.

I definitely experienced this first and foremost on a geeky, "that's awesome!" level. But I guess I can appreciate it as art, too, in that very flexible way that a lot of contemporary art seems meant to be absorbed. It's interesting to see everyday materials used to make art (that's Steinhilber's thing, apparently), and the abstract patterns and interactions it creates can lead to meandering thoughts on any number of subjects -- consumerism, human relations, serendipity, etc., etc.

Anyway, after I go to the museum, I'm always glad I did. Having it be free is ideal, because I seldom want to commit to the few hours I'd want to take if I were paying, but an hour or so in the museum is the perfect respite. My sincere thanks to the city and donor grants that let the BMA and Walters go free!

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