Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

I generally wouldn't consider myself an 'arty' person, being unable to sketch out any figure even vaguely resembling any object that belongs in the physical realm of reality. And I am most definitely incapable of distinguishing a Raphael from a Picasso, much less a Dali from a Magritte. So imagine my consternation when I learned that I had to visit an art exhibit at LACMA with my class, attendance absolutely compulsory.

I proceeded to take everything that happened on Thursday as a sign from the gods that I should feign fatal illness--even sudden death and swift resurrection, if need be--in order to avoid that dreaded trip. A broken nail, a wrong order of coffee at Trojan Grounds, our ride that refused to shift into reverse gear... believe me, I tried.

But I ended up at LACMA with my classmates anyway, along with throngs of other college students. (LACMA held a College Night on February 8, which offered free entrance to all college students from 8-10 pm along with a reception in their central court. Free food!) Large motifs of pipes and a man in a bowler hat greeted us everywhere, and before I knew it, I was slapped with a "See it at LACMA!" sticker and ushered into a room.

I'd been curious to find out what, if anything, lay behind that ubiquitous pipe and its enigmatic tagline, "This is not a pipe." What could it possibly mean? That the picture of a pipe, which clearly appeared to be a regular tobacco pipe, was not representative of a pipe? That it was a tobacco pipe, but not a plumber's pipe? That it wasn't a pipe, just because the artist labeled it so? Was it making a statement about meaning, labeling, impression, visualization... what was it about?

As it turned out, the answer surprised--no, delighted--me, and sent tingly sensations down my spine! Who'd have thought that I, the biggest art-moron on earth, would have found something of such intense interest in an art museum? The picture of a pipe is not a pipe, precisely because it is a picture of a pipe. It is nothing more than a visual representation of the object itself.

And... ...? So where's the punchline in that, I hear you asking. But that's exactly what Plato said about art, that it's an imitation of reality! And Aristotle! And Kant! And there was even an exhibit of Foucault's paper on Magritte's pipe! Do you sense how excited the philosophy-geek in me is! Viewing an art exhibit could actually be an intellectual experience for me, instead of the stumbling-about-in-the-dark-like-an-ignoramus that I'd anticipated!

For the rest of you who're interested in the very art of it, however, here's a brief overview. The exhibition features not only Magritte's works, but those of other modern artists that have been influenced by, or referenced his works. The layout is pretty cool as well, as the works by other artists (such as Martin Kippenberger, Andy Warhol, Vija Celmins, etc.) are interspersed among Magritte's, so you can visualize their similarities with the pieces placed side-by-side.

The exhibition also follows Magritte through his various changes in artistic style and content, ranging from his Surrealist works, which saw him juxtaposing random and often contradictory elements that defied the conventions of reality, to his later method of meshing together less-random objects in an attempt to highlight the relationship between them. He also explored the relationship between seemingly conflicting words and images, challenged traditional ideas of "good" painting during his vache period, and questioned social influences on the subject of individualism and identity.

No, it wasn't too bad after all, was it? In fact, it was even worth that half a minute of indignity when three of us had to hop out of the backseat to push the car out of the driveway of a parking structure, with the rest of the world watching and judging us for the stupid college kids that we were.

Lessons learnt:

  1. Don't fear the unknown! Plunge headlong into the unknown!

  2. Figure out how to drive stick before venturing out into the menacing streets of LA in your friend's car.

Caught the irony/contradiction? Good.

eighth blackbird played at the Leo S. Bing Theater on Jan 31. If you're interested in finding out how music can, too, be Surrealist, check it out at their website!)

Magritte and Contemporary Art
The Treachery of Images
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
November 19 - March 4