T and I visited some family in DC this past weekend and had the chance to see the new Peacock Room Remix exhibit at the Sackler gallery. If you are anywhere near DC before the end of the year - you should go see it.
For those that aren't familiar, the Peacock Room was originally the dining room of a wealthy British shipowner. It's famous for its Asian and Peacock theme, designed by the artist, James McNeill Whistler. The entire room is now a permanent exhibition at the Freer Gallery, an Asian art museum which is part of the Smithsonian.
One of Whistler's paintings hangs at one end of the Peacock Room, depicting a young European woman in a Japanese kimono. Asian pottery decorates the walls on gilded shelves. There's a fascinating story behind the Peacock Room (which is worth reading), but to summarize very briefly: Whistler and the owner had a fight about the extent of the decor and particularly the cost. The owner refused to pay, but here’s the weird thing, he allowed Whistler to finish the work anyway. Whistler added a few extra touches, including sprays of gold paint to "ruin" the room in an act of artistic vandalism. There's also a mural of two fighting peacocks, one of whom is standing on a pile of coins...
I usually pop into this room whenever I'm at the Freer to enjoy the cloistered ambiance and design.
But my favorite Smithsonian museum is actually the Sackler. The Freer sometimes seems like an exercise in anthropology. The Sackler, while also an Asian art gallery, is where to go when you want to be surprised.
So you can imagine how surprised I was when, like Alice through the looking glass, I walked into this alternate version of the Peacock Room, entitled Filthy Lucre.
The installation is by the artist, Darren Waterston, who paintstakingly recreated a version of the Peacock room, but one that is in total ruins. The familiarity and darkness jolts and disturbs. It's clear a terrible fight has taken place and someone has gone around and smashed everything they see. Red light glows behind the window shutters, suggesting something even more evil that lays beyond. It's a very effective illusion. When you step inside, you are suddenly isolated within someone else's hate filled world.
And when you consider the Peacock Room's story, it makes perfect sense. The original, beautiful room coexists with a backstory of anger, greed, and vandalism. Waterston makes this context real, not so subtly pointing out our tendency to value some very dirty and dark things. Think of the name too, Filthy Lucre, or "dirty money."
If you are in DC, first go to the Freer and see the original Peacock Room . There's not much time to do that because the Freer is closing for renovations (January 2016-Summer 2017). So hurry.
Then, walk through the underground passage that connects the Freer and Sackler (see, it's always been a conversation between these two museums), and find Filthy Lucre. You will be deliciously disoriented. Even if you miss the Peacock Room, Filthy Lucre will continue showing until November 29, 2016. Go see it, trust me.
More pictures here.