At the Peabody Essex, exhibition dares museumgoers to trade iPhones for balls of clay
SALEM — “Archive of Mind,” the hands-on participatory installation at the Peabody Essex Museum, tries your patience. I mean that in the best possible way. It requires both hands — no photo-snapping, Insta-captioning or friend-texting if you want to play — and a decelerating mind. It lures your attention without demanding it. Its appeal is gentle, simple but compelling. It dares you to focus your mind and body as one.
If that seems like a lot to expect of a cool lump of clay — there are three here, actually, in darkening hues of earthy ocher and gray; take your pick — I’d just say don’t knock it till you try it. The piece, conceived by the South Korean artist Kimsooja, draws on the gentle performance-based conceptualism of the 1960s (think Fluxus, and Yoko Ono before anyone). But its moment is surely now. The artist asks of you something radical: Stop. Take time. Let the work of your hands clear your mind.
The instructions are simple: Help yourself to whatever serving of clay suits you, and roll it into a sphere. When you’re done, find a space for it on the broad table in front of you, where hundreds of others — all little balls of focus, left by those that came before — await. It’s a crowd scene of simple form, silent and at peace.
Other shapes — cones, tubes, a makeshift Godzilla — are gently discouraged; Kimsooja wants to invoke meditative space conjured by repetitive action, singular focus from rhythmic motion. This is no small thing. With rapid-fire newsfeeds from a widening slate of social media pinging in your pocket, or the torrent of texts matching it note for note, your hands are by now trained more to do the work of distraction than attention. Give it a moment, though, and you might learn something, and less about the piece than yourself.
I rolled my clay first into a stubby torpedo shape, then something that looked vaguely like a dreidel (it’s harder than you think). Its demands on my attention made me antsy; I didn’t realize how unaccustomed I’d become to tuning my mind to a single task. I was impatient — how long do I have to do this to get it right? — then frustrated — seriously, I’ll never get this right! — and finally, aware of it all. I had been forced to slow down and become aware of my own inability to do so; finally, my mind rung with clarity as to why.
There are those who might shrug off “Archive of Mind” as new-age hokum, but to me, that’s an addict’s defense. Asked to give up our information mainline, withdrawal might be reasonably expected (I didn’t get the shakes, but I wasn’t far off). There’s a reason, I think, that mindfulness practices fully transitioned in recent years from being seen as a neo-hippie bromide to a relied-upon psychological tool. Being present in the moment, as they say, has never been harder. When living in a world in which every possible mechanism is designed to tug your attention away from where you actually are, countermeasures are needed.
“Archive of Mind” made me think of Ono’s recent exhibition, “The Riverbed,” where the artist filled a gallery with three installations: a splay of smooth river stones, snaking like a creek bed; an empty space with hammers, nails, and twine; and a table piled with shards of smashed pottery. Each was an invitation to whomever came to see them: To rearrange stones into tributaries, towers, or makeshift sculptures. To make holes in the walls and create a web of string (where I saw it, it was too dense within a month to do much more than crawl on the floor). To rebuild, however imperfectly, something new from something broken.
It was a touchy-feely free-for-all, with but one request from the artist: No photos, please. Like Kimsooja, the ask was radical simplicity: Do the thing only to do the thing, not for Instagram likes or Facebook shares.
How did doing something just for the inherent pleasure of doing it become so exotic and precious that we need museums to host opportunities to do so? The glum-minded might see it as a preservation effort, sequestering an all-but-extinct practice into sealed space, the better to keep it alive.
Let’s hope not. “Archive of Mind” made me anxious, but ultimately delivered awareness and temporary peace. Eventually, I split my clay — by now looking eggplant-shaped — into two chunks, one large, one small. I rolled, slowly, shifting the material between my palms to apply equal pressure from every angle. I finished the small one first and set it aside, rolling the bigger chunk in my hands and on the table, smoothing and evening, ironing out cracks. Finished, I posed them together, as far into the cluster of spheres as I could reach — two among many, together becoming one.
I stood and rubbed my forefingers against my thumbs, aware of the residue left behind. The clay had felt dank and solid in my hand; its weight meant something, somehow. I took a wipe (provided by the gallery) and dusted off the last of it before surveying the space, with its dense scattering of balls lit warmly in the dark room. I couldn’t stop myself. I took a photo. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
KIMSOOJA: ARCHIVE OF MIND At the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through Jan. 19, 2020. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org