LOU'S VIEWS: Tara Donovan at the IMA and thoughts on 'spoilers'

April 10, 2010

This week, thoughts on spoilers … and on two visits to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Tara Donovan show.

When it comes to discussion of arts and entertainment journalism, “spoilers” are a hot topic.

On the one hand, it’s easy for an arts writer to spoil your experience by discussing specifics. Extreme example: Telling someone going into a theater in 1941 that Rosebud is a sled. Or, 39 years later, that Vader is Luke’s dad.

More than once, I’ve been furious about too much being revealed in a review, interview or clip. As a rule, I don’t even want to be told that a story is going to have a twist ending. Such knowledge focuses my attention too much on anticipating that twist.

Sure, book jackets, theater marketing materials, and—the worst—movie trailers often give away more than you might want to know. But just because Hollywood and Madison Avenue don’t care about my—and your—experience doesn’t make it OK for journalists to be callous.

On the other side of it, though, it’s usually difficult to write intelligently about a play, book or film without giving away at least some key details. It would be difficult—and perhaps worthless—to discuss the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “Becky’s New Car” without noting that a.) it’s about a woman tempted by the possibility of infidelity and b.) that its main character often breaks the fourth wall to communicate directly with the audience.

And do you want to read commentary that is nothing but empty superlatives or negative adjectives without specifics? At some point, the critic/reviewer/previewer has to discuss something concrete.

Some have drawn a distinction between reviews and criticism. Reviews, so goes this argument, should give away very little, since they largely function as consumer assistance and are usually read before an event. Criticism, though, should be open to discussing anything in the work, since the assumption is that the reader wants something deeper and more holistic.

I don’t find that distinction terribly helpful as a reader. And I find it a little insulting as a writer.

I think a lot about spoilers when writing reviews in this column—and previews in IBJ’s A&E e-mail blast. A red flag goes up whenever I even consider mentioning something that happens past the first few minutes of whatever I’m writing about. I try to put myself in the place of the reader who has yet to see a particular work. I then proceed with caution, sometimes tacking on a Spoiler Alert if I think I might be crossing a line.

If you ever think I’ve crossed it, drop me a line at lharry@ibj.com.

I hadn’t thought about how spoilers might affect an art exhibition, until I experienced—and re-experienced—“Tara Donovan: Untitled” (at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through Aug. 1).

A&E Indianapolis Museum of Art’s remarkable “Tara Donovan: Untitled” exhibition features sculptures made out of everyday objects. (Photo Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art/Tara Donovan)

But experiencing it for the first time with little knowledge of its specifics and its organization—and going through it again knowing what to expect—I think that perhaps I should apply spoiler warnings to some visual art shows as well.

Consider yourself alerted.

Much of the work here is untitled—and little explanation is given on the walls as to the artist’s intent. But there is a definite narrative to this remarkable show. And experiencing it for the first time was dramatically different for me from going through again, two days later, with others in tow.

I made an effort not to spoil the show for them—to tell them nothing else except that the artist uses everyday objects in extraordinary ways. What I didn’t say is that while this cliché applies to many contemporary artists, Donovan’s work transcends because it has such a strong sense of place and texture.

And sincerity. There isn’t a hint of consumer culture commentary that one might assume sculptures made out of these familiar materials might carry. And that avoidance of the obvious is refreshing.

The show delays gratification a bit, offering initially, framed prints and drawings that, out of context, might seem like the notebook doodles of a bored student. In hindsight, though, these one-step-removed works not only provide context for what’s to come, but also help set up the surprise and kick of seeing her sculptures.

Here, one kind of landscape, both alien and familiar, is created from upright, unsharped miniature pencils. The sharp innards of electrical cable make a crop-circle-like remnant of an ancient civilization. At the other time extreme, stacks of tar paper evoke post-apocalyptic desolation but also reveal rich textural variation.

And then there are the cups, millions (I believe) of them, losing their individuality as they blend into massive waves. Like most of the pieces, the cup sculpture seems to be in the process of growing organically, and appeared subtly different on my second visit.

On that second trip, Donovan’s material choices and her methodology seemed even more deliberate, but her configurations seemed more haphazard. But while I’m not convinced that whim wasn’t a big part of some of the arrangements, I’ll take creative whim over obviousness any day.

Hope I didn’t spoil anything for you.

(Note: While admission to IMA is free, there is a charge for this special exhibition. My apologies for not making this clear in my previews of the show.)•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming A&E events to lharry@ibj.com.


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