A new microsite helped younger audiences connect with works of art.
Objects in the Art Bridges collection have a life of their own, outside of a single institution or gallery. No two presentations are the same, allowing viewers to experience familiar works in new and creative ways. Take, for example, Native Son (Circus) by Terry Adkins during its display at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in 2018-2019.
First opened in 1916, in Memphis, Tennessee, the Brooks was founded by Bessie Vance Brooks in memory of her husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks. More than 10,000 works make up the Brooks’s encyclopedic permanent collection, which highlights Italian Renaissance and Baroque works of art, as well as British art, French Impressionism, American art, and 20th- and 21st-century artists.
Native Son (Circus) was on display at the Brooks Museum for a year beginning in September 2018, as part of a three-part exhibition project titled Renditions I-III. By installing Native Son (Circus) in three distinct galleries over that time, Renditions created a surprising interplay of connections between works in the Brooks’ permanent collection and opened the potential for new interpretations.
The concept for Renditions – which can be defined as a performance or interpretation, a visual representation or reproduction, a translation or transliteration – derived from the kind of multidisciplinary installations and performances that Terry Adkins made during his lifetime. Native Son (Circus) was originally conceived in 2006. The artist took inspiration from a tortoise shell in his house, as well as the origin story of jazz musician and composer Charlie Parker.
The story goes that as a teenager, Charlie Parker played one night with legendary jazz drummer Jo Jones. Unfortunately, Parker performed horribly, and Jones threw a cymbal at him to stop his playing. Parker, humiliated, dedicated himself to intense practice and eventually became a celebrated musician.
Adkins took the form of a tortoise shell and the materiality of the cymbals and created a work that is both aesthetically engaging and lyrical. The cymbals, activated by an electric pulse, are designed to sound softly at varying intervals. Unfortunately, Adkins never saw Native Son (Circus) fabricated because of his untimely death in 2014.
Fortunately, he left behind drawings and blueprints which allowed his estate to create the work posthumously to his specifications. The resulting sound sculpture is a lasting tribute to not only a tortoise shell and Charlie Parker, but also the artist himself.
Renditions I examined how Memphis-born photojournalist Ernest Withers (1922-2007) and Adkins each represented African American history and culture using photography and abstract portraiture, respectively.
Renditions II focused on Adkins alone and included two videos. This installation explored how he used storytelling and music to structure his conceptual works.
Renditions III was in the museum’s original Beaux-Arts galleries, built in 1916, which have traditionally housed the museum’s Kress Collection of European Renaissance and Baroque paintings, many of which focus on religious themes. Situating Native Son (Circus) within this context highlighted the latent symbolism – visual and auditory – in Adkins’ choice of cymbals as media, adding nuance to how religious iconography may be interpreted.
The museum’s experimental Renditions I-III exhibitions allowed guests to experience how a contemporary sculpture changed and responded to the works around it. This created, individually and collectively, a dialogue between a variety of time periods, media, and artists.
The project is further providing inspiration for future cross-disciplinary installations at the Brooks, offering models for juxtaposing seemingly unrelated works of art to see what each brings out in the other.
In addition to relocating Native Son (Circus) throughout the museum, the Brooks also found innovative ways to transform the visitor experience once they were in the galleries. Project funding from Art Bridges enabled the Brooks to present two original performances inspired by Native Son (Circus).
Artist Ron C. Heard II, known as R2C2H2 Tha Artivist, coordinated two evening performances inspired by the sculpture and the Renditions installations. The events, titled “A Homecoming for a Native Son,” took place in the galleries around the sculpture and featured performances by local musicians, dancers, poets, and more.
The performances brought new artists and new audiences to the museum for a lively, eclectic event based on a work of original sculpture. They were exactly the kind of surprising, experimental events the Brooks hopes to host more often in the future.