Denison Museum Object of the Week
by Marisa Zemesarajs ’15
When interpreting art, we open up worlds of meaning and experience for ourselves. There is no one way to look at art, just as there is no checklist that exists that can prove whether a work is great, horrible, significant, or neither. We very rarely can put into words the reason why we gravitate towards such-and-such sculpture or that painting. Or conversely, why we avoid certain areas of a gallery. Some pieces remind us of something familiar and we are all at once flooded with waves of personal experience all Slumdog Millionaire-like; every lasting memory shapes the way we answer certain questions and the way in which we look at what lies in front of us. When standing before a piece of art we don’t see the artist’s intentions bit-by-bit, perfectly framed in their own intimate narration, we just see a faint smudge. We can interpret the smudge however we choose; we can stamp our own creation myth onto a work of art; we can assume the mind of the artist.
This notion becomes especially handy when the history of a piece is unclear. Take for example, this African sculpture that is a part of the collection here at the museum. Very little is known about this piece aside from its place of origin. There is no impression of the artist, no date of creation, even its very function is ambiguous. This wood and metal sculpture could have served as a shrine piece or offering, but even that assumption is a murky one.
This piece struck me with familiarity. It immediately reminded me of an epic poem I once read in high school, The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh crafts a boat and travels up the River Euphrates in search for an enchanted plant that will provide him with eternal youth. Upon drawing this familiar connection I realized that it is unlikely that the artist assumed an association with an ancient Mesopotamian creation myth, but nonetheless my memory of the tale in contact with this foreign object entwined like kite strings, strewn with endless narrative possibilities. And who’s to say that I’m wrong? That’s the thing about interpreting a work of art, you can never really be wrong. Like the myth of Gilgamesh, the demi-god that undertakes a long journey in a futile quest for immortality, who finds that life is inextricably woven with the promise of death, a myth of woven personal experience can be applied to any work of art.