'A Walk in the Wild,' John Muir, review
Saturday, August 6, 2011
"Muir Glacier, Alaska," oil on canvas by Thomas Hill, is among the few paintings in the exhibition "A Walk in the Wild" at the Oakland Museum of California.
Well before the aviation age, John Muir saw more of the world than most of us will.
We learn this from a large floor map tracing his life's travels - on foot whenever possible - at the heart of "A Walk in the Wild: Continuing John Muir's Journey," which opens today at the Oakland Museum of California.
"A Walk in the Wild" includes only a handful of artworks - or more, depending on the status we accord to Muir's many illustrations of his field notes. But the project serves mainly as a test case of the museum's new cross-disciplinary exhibition practice, which renders porous the implicit boundaries between museum departments devoted to the arts and to the social and natural history of California.
Perhaps the clearest precedent for it was the three connected shows that composed the museum's ambitious 1998 "Gold Rush! California's Untold Stories."
But the technology of display and visitor engagement has come a long way in the past decade.
Lines will inevitably form at the computer terminals that use Google Earth imagery to let visitors retrace some of Muir's mountain treks, including dated way points tagged with snippets from the adventurer's journals.
Muir (1838-1914) may need little introduction to the Bay Area museum public, where so many people already "continue his journey" by hiking in the national parks that he helped institute or by belonging to the Sierra Club, which he co-founded.
"A Walk in the Wild" unusually concludes with interactive displays offering visitors information about and ways to connect with conservation organizations.
Imagine such a tacit advocacy of activism appended to, say, an exhibition of antiwar posters. Count this feature an index of how noncontroversial concern for the future of nature has become, although climate change deniers and shale oil advocates would probably pounce on it were the show presented in today's Washington.
A series of panoramic photographs of landscapes dear to Muir introduces "A Walk in the Wild." Each display has push buttons that deliver sounds and even fragrances of the landscapes pictured, plus a brief reading of a descriptive passage from Muir's writings.
We are also invited to touch or see through a lens various tokens of the wilderness - stone, bear fur, a butterfly - all of which ironically make the real thing seem more remote than ever.
Taxidermy and cross-sectional dioramas later in the show take the illusionary immediacy up a notch. But all the exhibition apparatus may merely make visitors number themselves among the "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, civilized people ... beginning to find out ... that wilderness is a necessity," of whom Muir wrote.
The most important theme of "A Walk in the Wild" gets restated in various ways, yet does not stay in focus: Muir as an exemplary observer of the real.
Perhaps he owed the intensity of his interest in nature's details to the accident in 1867 that left him blind for a month. In any case, his writings radiate a holistic spirit to which countless people today feel attuned, whether inspired by their own absorption in nature or by NASA photographs of Earth from the moon. We feel immediate recognition upon reading a remark of Muir's such as "when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."
Never mind the ungainliness of its stagecraft, if "A Walk in the Wild" causes its visitors to care more about looking at reality, it will have fulfilled its purpose.
A Walk in the Wild: Continuing John Muir's Journey: Video, photographs, nature specimens and interactive displays. Through Jan. 22. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. (510) 238-2200. www.omca.org.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/08/05/DD5H1KJ0H2.DTL#ixzz1UGcHnWL2