Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Magic of Poop

We’ve recently started giving school field trip tours of the new exhibition—Collecting Collections—that is now on view at MOCA. This is one of those big, sweeping shows that an art history prof could use to teach 20th Century art. One of my favorite paintings in this show to talk with children about is Chris Ofili’s Monkey Magic-Sex, Money and Drugs (image at left).

Now, from the title, you may not think this is appropriate subject matter for children. Yes, those words do appear on the painting, spelled out in map pins fixed to what looks like big rocks on the painting’s surface. However, I’ve been really (and pleasantly) surprised at how quickly kids get over the words and move on to everything else in the painting: the every-crayon-in-the-box colors, the tiny dots that make up the image, the glittery surface, and yes, those rock-like things.

Something beautiful happens when kids look at this painting. Formerly quiet ones become animated; enthusiastic ones become even more so; everyone has something to say. They construct elaborate narratives about the monkey as a princess, or a queen, or a wizard, or a god. The monkey is powerful, the monkey is several animals at once, the monkey is brewing a potion in its cup that will cast a spell on all of us. Children are enthralled by this painting.

Of course, I eventually break this spell by revealing the materials used to make the work—namely, elephant poop. Students have a visceral response to this revelation. They say “eeewwww!” and lean away with wrinkled noses, almost in perfect unison. But gradually, they begin to lean forward again. Despite their disgust, they are still interested. They want to keep looking, are repulsed and compelled at the same time.

When I wrap up my tours, I always ask kids to name their favorite artwork from the tour. Almost everyone says “Monkey Magic!” while trying to look as grossed out as possible. I know this painting stays with them, even after they leave the museum. So I guess the monkey wizard’s spell is pretty effective. I’m going to try it on some high school students tomorrow….we’ll see if the magic can overcome their cool.

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