Flesh and Metal
An exhbit's impact on its audience often depends as much on how it is curated as it depends on the actual art presented. When you walk into the Cantor's edition of SFMoMA's Flesh and Metal exhibit, it becomes clear that the setup guides the visitor's attention to the art, rather than its context. The monochromatic wall colors, the silence, and the spotlights on various pieces underlines that the exhibit is truly about the art and how it relates to the exhibit's title. The purpose is to examine the various artistic circumstances in which humans (flesh) interact with machinery and technology (metal), and ultimately what that relationship meant for the selected artists and what it means for us now.
I was awestruck by a piece called Ammonia Storage Tanks, a photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White in 1930. Although small in size and placed within a series of photos of large, looming factories, this one stood out to me because of the tanks' obvious and strikingly beautiful wear and tear, its balloon-like curvature in juxtaposition with the straight, clear-cut lines of other factory machinery. They stood out to me as more human, gently accepting the liquid pressure they withstood as if they could swell. However, what was most remarkable to me was the guest appearance of two works leaning over the railing in the top left corner. Not only do they give the ammonia tanks scale (now they are overwhelmingly and tangibly large rather than just figuratively large), the few seconds they have taken to chat and to look over the large expanse of the factory have been immortalized forever in this photograph, as if in this moment they acknowledge their insignificance among the machines they work with every day.
The second photograph, Pozharnaia lestnitsa by Alexander Rodchenko is a much starker example of the relationship between flesh and metal, examining the closeness of the relationship rather the sublimity of it. The man climbing the fire escape ladder is the only human element in the photo, climbing against straight lines and angles of buildings, windows, and ladder rungs. It's unclear whether the man was climbing up or down the ladder, but he has taken the time to pose for the picture with an outturned foot and a glance down to the earth. What makes this photograph special is the angle at which it was taken. Looking from underneath the man, you can see the lines of the ladder converge into a single point, and we see that the man either has a long way to go, or has come from a very far away place. The ladder appears to extend into the heavens, far beyond the human reach; it is a tool for humans, but it overshadows humans as well. The man, although large in the picture, is small in the larger scheme.
The relationship between flesh and metal is complex, as humans function both as the creators and the receivers of these larger, mechanic structures. The goal of the exhibit is merely to illustrate this relationship through many perspectives, mediums, and presentations, and to leave the viewer with the task of determining his own role in this relationship.