museums: portrait of the artist as a young lion

Before its 1981 renovation, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had an indoor Japanese garden as part of its Far Eastern galleries. Grey sand raked in patterns. The slurp and purr of a stream over rocks. A stone shrine meticulously placed under the evergreen branches. The Worcester Art Museum is currently displaying a tray of sand raked in patterns, but its purpose is more practical. It serves four live felines who are “in residence” as part of the museum’s summer show, inhabiting a galleryscape of miniature cargo containers, Pompidou pipes, scratching posts and pedestals. The museum texts treat both the artists who designed the equipment and the cats themselves as creative producers.


On our visit, an Ed Sheeran-colored tabby affably performed pleasure in exchange for affection. A mottled tortie and what I will call a greyscale simulated slumber in cubbyholes, tolerating touch but not seeking it in a moving demonstration of passive emotional labor. A fourth cat remained unseen, in retreat from the demands of public practice.

All are seeking permanent positions. The gallery is staffed by curators from a local animal shelter. “When we’re not there, we play NPR for the dogs because it’s human conversation,” one of them says in my hearing. Dogs apparently really like NPR.

The remark raised the point that one element this otherwise imaginative assemblage missed out was sound; a record of birdsong, paw-activated app, or piano keyboard might have produced some interesting work. Nor are there plans for gallery talks or structured “in conversation with” events. Perhaps thankfully, smell was also an unused channel in this tame collaboration with the not entirely tamed.


The installation is part of the Meow! exhibition which also includes feline-themed artwork by Piranesi, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Will Barnet (but not Alex Katz, with whom I often confuse him) and others, and a scavenger trail of cats to find in the permanent exhibitions. Through September 4.  You can’t get there from here but there is a webcam.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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