Edgy art exhibitions can be problematic, says Jeff Lambson, curator of contemporary art at Brigham Young University Museum of Art. While he wants exhibits to inspire people to think and question their beliefs, at BYU those impulses can lead to controversy.
The museum's "The Matter of Words," a three-artist exhibit that has been attracting and challenging visitors since it opened last month, is a case in point.
"I saw people come in and their jaws dropped and their eyes popped open," Lambson says. "Two kids popped into the gallery and got this expression of wonderment. They left and got their mother, each kid pulling her by a hand into the gallery 'You've got to see this!' It was really great."
The eye-popping, jaw-dropping sculpture is Adam Bateman's "The Fourth Thousand Years," some 100,000 books formed into a towering monolith. Lambson and Bateman believe a contemporary art exhibition centering on words and books is welcoming even to viewers with little experience with conceptual art or museums.
"People have a strong affinity for books," Bateman says. "Books are associated with good experiences. Books are symbolic of knowledge and culture and stories. People are predisposed to like books."
The exhibit also features works by John Fraser and Harrell Fletcher.
Lambson admits "The Matter of Words," the first major show he has curated, has benefited from the long lines drawn to an exhibit of the religious paintings of Carl Bloch at the museum. "Coming out of a 19th-century salon figurative art exhibition into ["The Matter of Words"] can be a shock to the system," he jokes.
But the jolt mostly has been a good one, Lambson says, though the exhibit has triggered one minor controversy.
In installing the 41-ton Bateman sculpture, a base had to be built to protect the museum's floor. A number of copies of The Book of Mormon, one of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' sacred texts, were cut to make a façade to hide the base.
About 70 percent to 80 percent of the 100,000 books in the sculpture are Mormon-related, including church publications, teaching manuals, writings of church leaders, and scriptures, including Bibles and copies of the Book of Mormon, says Bateman, a Weber State University art instructor and a BYU graduate. The books were donated by the Provo nonprofit Worldwide Book Drive, which will get them back when the sculpture is dismantled.
Bateman, who didn't do the book cutting, says a museum staff member was upset by what she saw as a desecration. "One person had a hard time that there were Books of Mormon involved. The rest of staff was OK with it," he says.
Though none of the titles of the books are visible, the title of the exhibit itself, "The Fourth Thousand Years," is taken from one of the sculpture's books, written by W. Cleon Skousen. The former BYU professor's arch-conservative writings are controversial within the Mormon community and beyond. Conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck regularly proclaims Skousen's work as personally inspiring.
Bateman declines to explain his artwork, other than to say he hopes it provokes many questions. "I don't feel like I am making a specific comment on the [Mormon and American] culture. I am aware that I might raise questions about it."
Skousen's books center on his theory that the Earth isn't much more than 5,000 years old. Bateman's monolith hints at geological strata, which scientists claim proves the Earth to be considerably older than that. "I juxtaposed those two things, which I'm not sure has a subversive commentary," he says. "Maybe the question is there to be asked."
Lambson points out that Bateman has hidden the books' titles. "He wants you to guess and bring your own connotations."
So far, no one has formally complained about the sculpture, Lambson says. And BYUMOA has tripled its marketing budget for "The Matter of Books," which will be on exhibit through Nov. 26. The museum will begin sending out postcards of Bateman's sculpture with the message: "Summertime at the Museum of Art."
"The Matter of Words" runs through Nov. 26 at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo.
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Info • moa.byu.edu; 801-422-8287