When a Nonartist Goes to an Art Gallery

At the Waterfront in the Boston Harbor area, a gallery devoted to contemporary art–aptly named the Institute of Contemporary Art–perches like an ugly gray pigeon on an empty and broken parking lot right on the water. If that sentence doesn’t give you an idea of what I felt about that place, the rest of the story will.

Before I write further, I need to add a disclosure. I am not an artist.  I have no visual creativity and can barely draw a line on college-ruled paper. I have no historical knowledge, and I find art titled “untitled” to be about as bad as naming the child you spent nine months developing and 18 hours in labor for “no name.” Also, my boyfriend really wanted to go, and as a BU student, I got in free. Now on to the story.

Swoon 400 lb Sculpture

The building was extraordinarily ordinary. It was built by architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro who wanted the design to converge the interior and exterior space, which would create shifting perspectives of the waterfront throughout the museum’s galleries and back deck. No characteristic separated it from the gray loading docs except a bold white sign with hooker lipstick red lettering that said “ICA.” However, when we walked inside, I was first struck by the great use of windows. Most of them were very tall and wide and allowed ample sunlight to brighten the gray-white walls. I could definitely see from the first steps inside what the architects were going for.

The first exhibit to hit viewers’ eyes is the one called “Swoon: Anthropocene Extinction,” an art piece commenting on the effects of human industry and its future demise that included a 400 lb bamboo sculpture at its center. I enjoyed the amount of thought that went into this piece, so many little details all cohesively coming together to the centerpiece–illustrating the amount of little extras we “need” in our lives from expensive cakes at weddings to accessories on our bodies, in our houses, for our cars, and the list goes on. I liked it.

And the liking ended there. As my boyfriend and I climbed up the stairs, the building became bleaker and meaner until we reached the final floor. The cracked, gray concrete floor met gray-white walls, which were carefully covered with various gray pieces of artwork. Sour-faced young curators dressed in all black leaned against the walls in each room, monitoring our every steps and probably contemplating their superiority over ours, at least that’s how they looked. The floor and walls absorbed our footsteps, stifling their sounds so that I felt very insignificant in the rooms. Overall, the whole place–from the room to the artwork to the curators–felt very sad and even angry that I didn’t share in its sadness. I ended up skimming the rest of the artwork as I B-lined it toward the exit hallway.

Waterfront View

The exit hallway did have a long bench against a wall that faced yet another huge set of windows opening to the harbor. The sky was gray, but at least it looked alive. People were walking on the sidewalks, driving their boats along the water, and gulls were flying through the air. This was a view I could understand: life. Yes, it was gray and would soon rain, but it was movement, action, each moment a small reverence for life. What stood behind me was a constant reflection of death and sadness. While I understand that we need to see those two as part of life, they are only sides to the whole, not simply the whole itself as those exhibits portrayed (admittedly not all, but the theme).

My boyfriend did enjoy the place, though, and before long, we got to leave. As we walked away looking for a restaurant, I looked behind me to glance at the institute. It was still an ugly gray pigeon, but just like most pigeons, it did suit the gray city landscape around it. Everything has its place, and I can choose which of those places to see.


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