douglasmartini asked: IT WAS INCREDIBLE. Did you go?
Answering an old Douglas Martin question; the it in question is the Kurt Cobain exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum that closed last month.
I did go, and I cautiously approved. Music is a tough thing to historicize, because the subject of the history is either the sounds themselves — which you don’t need to go to a publicly-funded institution to hear — or people’s responses to the sounds. The latter is a better approach for a museum or an art exhibition to take (I’m calling the exhibition a history because though the history may be a creative one, it’s still an historical exercise), but it’s difficult nonetheless; people have a lot of personal and conflicting responses to music, and it’s difficult to curate a collection of something so personal and idiosyncratic without being banal or trivial.
Compounding the problem with Kurt Cobain is the way he has become such an iconic, bluntly drawn figure in pop culture since his death. His suicide has overwhelmed so many of the nuances and imperfections he had in life, when he was creating the material that was the reason for which the SAM held an exhibition. And an artistic response to Kurt can’t ignore that image of Cobain; it must either respond to it or embrace it, a dicey proposition either way. How do you choose between fetishizing the misery that led to his death, or celebrating who he was and ignoring why he isn’t still around being that man today?
So there were pieces in the exhibition that treated Kurt Cobain as an icon, and these felt impersonal, and had nothing to say about Cobain nor anything about how people feel about him and his music. But there were also works that captured something more intangible and exciting; the excitement, the way Cobain became absorbed into pop culture and seemed everywhere, but as a creative presence, not an obituary. I don’t mean to say that Kurt’s death isn’t a part of his story, and part of the exhibition did approach that aspect of it. But parts of it also captured some of his humor and irreverence, which was important. There could have been a larger proportion devoted to these more idiosyncratic elements of the Kurt Cobain story, and the exhibition would have been stronger if there had been. But it had enough complexity to offer a better rounded overview of Kurt Cobain than the conception of him that endures in the popular consciousness.
What I liked a lot were the audio installations, particularly one piece that overlaid simultaneously-played recordings of Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young, played on repeat, each synching in different ways and creating a fresh, Zaireeka-like cacophony each time. It seemed right, as I discussed with one of the guards who asked me what I thought of it, that an exhibition inspired by Kurt Cobain should be noisy.
In this vein, I wonder how the newly announced Nirvana exhibition at EMP will turn out. (News of the announcement was above the fold on the front page of the Seattle Times today, if anyone is wondering what the city thought of it.) I’m not a huge fan of the EMP; I spent some time wandering around it when the EMP Pop Conference was held earlier this year, and though it has some neat stuff, it’s too dominated by rock’n’roll artifacts: ephemeral flotsam linked with well known figures in music history that actually has nothing to do with what made their music so necessary and exciting. My favorite part of EMP is actually the interactive bit upstairs, and the most fun I had in the museum was the ten minutes I spent in a sound proof booth playing one of their guitars. That, to me, said more about pop music than old lyric sheets or archival photographs.