The Weather (and other Intriguing Art)

We’ve been trying to encourage family to lean into “experience” gifts for our kids. The pandemic has made this challenging, but we’re finding creative options. This year, my mom and Gary got us tickets to the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit in DC and rented a house near the zoo for all of us to stay in on my birthday weekend. JC ended up not being able to come because of some work nonsense so he stayed home, but the rest of us had a good time.

Four people attempting a photo where they simultaneously jump, with the Capitol building in the background.

The real gift of the whole thing was honestly that I didn’t have to plan anything. I am usually the person who plans All The Things, and just having to show up at a particular address with sufficient clothing and a few games was amazing.

We stayed in a gorgeous townhouse in Adams Morgan, just three blocks from the zoo. It had some fascinating art…Including this pair of paintings, which I couldn’t stop contemplating.

What…does that all mean? I’m trying to get better at writing accessibility text for images, but I can’t even begin to describe these. Guys? doing… weight lifting? in diapers? with …. a confused frog and an implacable sheep and some angry crows? Also they are levitating halos of marbles? And maybe the guys have telepathic communication through their hats?

Close up of a diaper with a target on it, which someone has punched. The impact was clearly on the groin, and the painting has a resultant tear over the thigh.
Some weary traveler was as perturbed as I was–and expressed this by punching the right-hand guy squarely in the nuts.

I digress.

The first day, which was approximately 11 degrees and windy, we went to the “Futures” exhibit at the Smithsonian Castle. I appreciated how hopeful it was, in a time when hope is hard to come by. The curators seemed to think we might have a future.

I loved all the quotations they had on the walls, different people’s ideas about the future. Silas posed with one from Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem.

Silas standing in front of a wall that has a quotation on it: "The new dawn blooms as we free it / For there is always light, / If only we're brave enough to see it / If only we're brave enough to be it. -- Amanda Gorman"

We went next door to see “The Weather,” by Laurie Anderson, at the Hirschhorn. That was an experience. It was one of those art things that is hard to describe, but felt powerful and weird and intriguing all at once. My favorite part was a room that felt, as one of my friends said, “Like being inside her journal.” There were also projections, video, music, all kinds of sensory experiences. It felt…kind of like the weather, in that it’s all around you and shapes how you feel, but it’s hard to capture or contain or define.

Had to stop to climb a huge magnolia on the way—I somehow never noticed before how many magnolias there are in DC!

And then…we went to the Immersive Van Gogh experience. In order to be truly immersed, I wore my new “Starry Night” shirt (thanks, Santa!). It was an interesting experience. The first few rooms were background on Van Gogh’s life and work, with some projections of paintings melting into other paintings (all the vase paintings, for example). I enjoyed seeing the paintings transformed and juxtaposed in this way. There was also a sort of model of the bedroom that felt like one could walk into it, and a deconstruction of one of his Japanese-style images. The main event was in a huge room, maybe the size of a high school gymnasium, with projections on all the walls and the floor. There was music and the images just kind of washed into each other. It felt like a meditative experience. After that, there was a room where people were coloring Van Gogh images, and then a virtual reality experience, where you walked through the French countryside and the VR world in certain spots blurred into Van Gogh paintings of those places.

The whole thing was very neat, I thought. The kids weren’t as into it, but I think it’s just because they don’t have as much of a background on Van Gogh. I’ve been fascinated with his work for years, ever since I had a massive print of “Starry Night” on my wall in high school. One of my most viral items when I was working at Upworthy was about that specific painting. His sunflowers and riverside trees move me to tears. My kids knew who Van Gogh was, but frankly didn’t care that much.

One thing that was missing, as it would have to be for a virtual exhibit, is the tactile nature of his work. When you see a Van Gogh in person, you can see him thinking on the canvas; you can track the layers he’s building over time. That’s lost in the projection. Still, it was very cool.

On my birthday, we walked down to the zoo. It was cold, so many of the animals chose not to be out where folks could see them. Most of the indoor spaces (like the reptile house) were closed because of COVID—it’s not possible to socially distance in a lot of them. But we still had a good time, meeting tigers, elephants, orangutans, gorillas, seals, sea lions, otters, and prairie dogs.

So I kicked off my 40th solar circumnavigation with a visit to the zoo (and my mom gave me a cool sticker book!). Turns out, my brother was right: You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.

Aili grinning with a piece of leftover birthday cake.
This was a pretty great birthday cake, too!


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