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By Peabody Essex Museum
| September 19, 2019
It began with a logbook. Actually, it began with several thousand. When internationally-renowned artist Charles Sandison was invited to create a site-specific artwork at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), he wanted to get to the heart of the matter: to dig into the museum’s DNA.
On the cusp of opening a new wing, today PEM is known as one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing museums. But it also has the distinction of being the oldest continuous museum in the country, founded in 1799 by ship captains and supercargoes who sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Their logbooks, along with a ‘cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities’ from around the globe, became the first items to enter the museum’s collection.
This was just the kind of source material Sandison was looking for. Working with museum curators and librarians, he pored over these evocative, leatherbound books whose margins were filled with whale stamps and sketches. Pages upon pages of observations written on the high seas were scanned and fed into a custom computer algorithm.
Sandison has lived and worked in Finland for more than 20 years, where he has focused on creating immersive digital installations made from complex computer algorithms. He reflects: “When I discovered the joys of writing computer code, I could stand in a hallway with computers and projectors, and as quickly as I could think, I could pull in data, information, and streams of knowledge. I tried to push the artwork so far out onto the edges that you don’t know where it starts or where it ends. It’s still a room but then again it might even be a figment of your imagination.”
Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0 is being installed in PEM’s founding structure, East India Marine Hall, and it revises the original 2010 project with responsive algorithmic code. Inspired by patterns observed in nature—the movements of ants or bodies passing through water—the computer code combines the movements of museumgoers with historical data and real-time location feeds of global ship traffic and weather patterns to create an ever-changing, lyrical tapestry of past and present.
Elsewhere in the museum, Savannah-based artist Vanessa Platacis uses stencils and spray paint to reimagine some of PEM’s most beloved objects for a project called Taking Place. Following research into the museum’s vast and varied holdings—including American Decorative Arts, Asian Export Art, Oceanic Art and Culture, Native American, Maritime, Fashion and Textiles, and Korean Art—Platacis created a 2,700-square-foot wall painting installation which celebrates unexpected connections across time, cultures, and materials.
“It was an experience of a lifetime working with the dynamic curatorial team, studying the objects up close, walking through the historic homes and exploring many works in the collections,” Platacis reflects.
Back in her studio, she got to work making 210 custom canvas stencils of the collection objects—all drawn and cut by hand with X-Acto blades.
With the help of assistants, Platacis returned to PEM this summer to install the work using a variety of spray-paint and graffiti techniques, including drop shadows, high contrast, and layering, to apply color to the walls and give dimensionality and life to her forms.
Stencils and spray paint are often associated with street art, production, and craft but for Taking Place the medium and techniques are pushed to the limit. Platacis is excited by the potential of it all, noting, “during the installation process I’m able to create large-scale paintings quickly. It’s painting at the speed of air!”
Through the design and installation process, organic forms and curvilinear lines emerged as unifying design motifs that speak to the natural world. Walk into the gallery and you’ll discover oversized wedding dresses, chairs, deer, flowers on the wall—all at once looking like graffiti but also delicate and ethereal and finely rendered. As you move deeper into the galleries, floral forms give way to enchanting fauna and larger-than-life presentations of familiar and unexpected objects. Cross-cultural relationships and compelling visual connections were discovered, leading to a composition that spans across the collections.
Experience Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0 and Vanessa Platacis: Taking Place for yourself when PEM opens its new wing to the public on September 28.
PEM’s new wing and renovated galleries offer a distinctive experience that is designed to heighten feelings of surprise, wonder, delight, and reflection. Fresh installations celebrate the museum’s vast and storied collection in ways that address eternal themes as well as the urgent questions of our time. Visitors will find never-before-seen, rarely-exhibited and recently-acquired artworks on view in addition to newly commissioned artworks by contemporary artists.
“PEM is committed to creating museum experiences that are deeply meaningful and have a lasting impact on people’s lives,” says Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes deputy director and chief curator. “Our teams of curatorial, interpretation, exhibition design, and integrated media staff have worked hand-in-hand to develop installations that offer the unexpected and maximize engagement by capturing visitors’ attention, heightening their emotional experience, and creating enduring memories.”
A new PEM is launching this September—a new wing, new installations, and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew your membership here to ensure you don’t miss out.
Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.
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