Monday, July 29, 2013

The accidental docent

One summer in the mid-1990s I found myself interning at a local art museum and helping to install an exhibit of a Japanese sculptor named Satoshi Yabuuchi. It was his American debut and it was an important event for this smallish institution. His works were spectacular and based on traditional tales of Japanese folklore: superstitions and fairy tales and spirits and demons, weather gods and nature elements and Eastern mysticism. We installed the works with care but had only as much information as the Japanese gallery provided about the stories behind the works. They were unlike anything I'd ever seen.

His Japanese gallery had sent exhibition and promotional materials in Japanese and a few summarized translations in English, from which we extracted and research just enough content with which to write exhibition labels. The works were majestic and that impression was only intensified by how little we understood them compared with a more traditional exhibit installation.

Still, in the week leading up to the exhibit opening we anchored sculpture to walls, carefully unfurled chain link spider webs, dangled metal figures from those webs, positioned hopping rabbits just so. We dusted and leveled and stepped back and dusted some more. That Friday, Yabuuchi himself was there as we readied for the evening's event. I had taken just one semester of Japanese, and his English was tentative at best, but somehow we found ourselves in conversation. And even more improbably, as I straightened labels clockwise around the three galleries of the museum, he walked with me and told me the folktale behind each of his pieces.

When the exhibit opened that night, I had changed into the kind of skinny long black dress that a girl who worked in an art museum pretty much had to wear to an opening. My parents came to see the show and I walked them around, telling them the stories behind the pieces just as Yabuuchi had relayed them to me. A few pieces in, a few other adults were listening, too. And by the time I finished my tour of the exhibit, those adults wanted to hear the stories they'd missed from the beginning. So it went, around and around and around, and for three hours I circled the gallery in an endless storytelling loop. The director accepted dozens of compliments at the end of the evening on the docent-led tours; she just nodded, because she hadn't organized any docent-led tours. Yabuuchi whispered in her ear and pointed to me.

At the end of the night he gifted me one of each of his coffee table books his agent had sent for US sale. I can't read them, of course, and I've forgotten many of the details of his stories, but I've never forgotten the lesson of the power of person-to-person storytelling. You might say it's why, a decade and change later, I began a blog.

This post was inspired by The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver. Join From Left to Write on July 30 as we discuss The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Two parts of this novel inspired tonight's post: first, that one of the main characters worked in an art museum. "When I watched her wander from the American painters to the costumes every so often, she would stop and lock eyes with a subject as if they were sharing a secret....I could never understand the secret she shared with the Degas ballerinas on loan from the Louvre or the Rubenesque women staring at mirrors." Second, this line: "Language stays with us longer than even our crimes themselves." Especially written language, yes?

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