I had never visited the Renwick Gallery before. I would hear briefly about its exhibits or about the beauty and baffling originality of the artists’ works, but as a student I hadn’t found the chance to stop in for myself. I’ve lived in Maryland my whole life; when it comes to other museums in D.C., I’m a veteran–but I had yet to see anything quite like the Renwick Gallery to date, and the experience of the gallery was entirely unique in itself.
The exhibition was titled”Wonder,” appropriately named, and the sheer size of its artworks stunned me. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, because not only did each piece span much of the volume of the room, but I could walk about the three-dimensional structures to gain completely new perspectives as I went. The first work I experienced was a rainbow captured in vibrantly colored strings. The hues alone were striking, not to mention the artist’s patience, creativity, and precision that must have gone into arranging the strings in the first place! Framed by two pairs of classical columns, the work was both dynamic in hue and geometric in composition. I struggled for some to capture the vibrancy on camera and to avoid the inclusion of other visitors in the shot. The slightest shift in lighting would cause the image to fade and lose its energy. While the fumbling with my phone and weaving between fellow spectators did distract me from the exhibit’s essence, I do find that the capturing of such artwork on camera is a wonderful and effective tool in some respects. For instance, with larger-than-life three-dimensional exhibits, to capture a photograph helps to summarize the piece and establish a constant and uninterrupted view.
For some rooms, photography remained a fantastic tool. When walking through a hall of organic burrows, I found I could put my surroundings into better perspective through photography. The movement of the piece, the cavernous structures of interwoven straw-like wood, and the way the light hit and cast shadows against the forms could be wonderfully summarized within photography. Photography also came in handy for one of the smaller features of the Wonder exhibit: a suspended tree-like form that looked something like a cellular branch, or a root, or a section of coral. Here, photography gave the sculpture a frame and put it into context. While the strings suspending the sculpture were more noticeable in person, in the photographs it appears to be hovering in midair.
Where photography failed me was within the realm of a reddish room with walls decorated by insects. Arranged in geometrically floral designs and skulls that reminiscent of the Latin American Day of the Dead were what must have been thousands of dead insects. At the center of this morbid beauty stood what I believe to have been a hornet’s nest on display. Part of me was unsettled by the presentation of the dead bugs, but part of me was in awe: outside of this exhibit, I’d find the bugs disgusting rather than beautiful, but now that these fascinating creatures were arranged in such an appealing way I could see them as lovely. At first I didn’t even think the creatures were real–but then I looked closer and noticed the differences between the bodies and the delicate features of their exoskeletons. (Yep, I thought, those are real bugs.) There would be no way to effectively photograph this realization, or adequately sum up the scene. I think the lighting of the insect room took away from photo quality (the red flushed the image), and since the walls themselves were the exhibit, trying to capture the essence of the artwork was next to impossible for me whether close-up or from a distance.
Another attraction: a grand hall with a suspended, vibrantly red and warm colored netting overhead. This was a tricky space to successfully photograph, as the netting was see-through and so to peer up at it with a camera lens meant that in photographs, its bold color would be lost. It took a few tries. Finally I captured a fiery image with what looked like flowing fabric. As an anatomy student, I actually found similarity between the impression of the netting and living, rippling tissues or membranes of the human body. Since the action was overhead, I didn’t have to worry too much about finding the “perfect moment” to snap a picture–there were no people standing in the way. Many spectators had sprawled out on the floor to observe the netting as if stargazing.
Overall, I can say that my first visit to the Renwick Gallery was an incredible experience, and that despite the traffic of fellow visitors and the difficulties I may have had with capturing the artworks on camera, the visual spectacles definitely made an impression on me. The pulsating, almost musical quality to the pieces, the juxtaposition of elements previously unrelated, and the ingenuity of the artists themselves produced a magnificent, memorable visit, and I hope that sometime soon I’ll have the chance to return.