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The Wonder of it All

Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman's "1.8."

Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman’s “1.8.”

Sometimes one look is not enough.

I returned to the Renwick this week to see if the crowds had diminished at “Wonder,” the first show since the museum’s reopening last fall following a two-year renovation.

The first time I tried to see the show the place was so thronged that you could hardly take in the scope of the art, much less enjoy it. It was like trying to stand hip-deep in a rushing river. It can be done, but it’s distracting.

It was quieter this time. Perhaps the flashy tulips blooming in front of the White House had encouraged the tourists to stay outside. For whatever reason, I was grateful to get a chance to experience the show at a more contemplative pace. The Renwick I remember from the 1970’s, when it was saved from demolition by the efforts of Jackie Kennedy, was already something outside the usual in the District. Back then it was the first national museum to showcase the studio craft movement.

In the current exhibition nine visionary artists were each given a whole room in which to present a work on the theme of “Wonder.” The results are thought-provoking, surprising, and strangely enchanting. I enjoyed Maya Lin’s luminous glass marble “unfolded map” of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I was mesmerized by the magical harp of light playing across Gabriel Dawe’s miles of embroidery thread. And of course, Jennifer Angus’s Day of the Dead-ish bugs on the wall. Who could resist?

But for me the siren’s song is Janet Echelman‘s stunning “1.8.” The first time I wandered through this, the largest room in the show, I was unable to take it all in. The constantly shifting light above, the people sitting around on the carpet in the semi-darkness — the ambience reminded me of a crowd waiting for a rock concert. I failed to read the explanatory note on the wall.

This time I read the note, and learned that Echelman’s work reflects a map of the energy released by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “The event was so powerful it shifted the earth on its axis and shortened the day, March 11, 2011, by 1.8 millionths of a second.”

In these fractious modern times doomsayers enjoy speculating on how it will all end, and who, or what, may survive to tell the tale. Yet doesn’t it seem altogether possible that, in spite of, or who knows, maybe because of, all our apocalyptic posturing, we won’t see it coming?

At the Renwick I sat on the carpet with a friend and watched the light shift above while we lost track of time and talked of the past and futures possible. Great art has the power to release us from self-absorbed dithering and wasteful anxiety. We have problems in this world. If we can’t work together to solve them we could be washed up in no time at all. Say, 1.8 millionths of a second.

Think about it.

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