In the weekend before the beginning of school, I’ve found myself with a couple days of leisure.
I can’t get my university card until next week, so I can’t go exploring the libraries and college grounds yet. I’ve got most of my household items set up, with others on their way. I don’t have any classwork. It is inexplicably quite cold in Oxford, so walking along the river or lounging in parks seems unappealing. I don’t yet know many of my fellow students, so things are quiet on the social front.
So, what’s a hopeless blogger to do? Easy. Find the coolest artsy place to explore.
Wandering around Pembroke Street, I happened upon Modern Art Oxford (MAO). This museum is actually famous around this city for its just-so location, its underground vibe, and its active support of the joyously bourgeois Oxford counterculture.
I was drawn around past the Royal Blenheim and onto St Ebbes Street by the sound of drums. I peeked into a space that had clearly started out just as a loading dock, but now had become something altogether more remarkable.
It was a pop up café by The Missing Bean, hanging off the front door of MAO, bright with massive plywood walls and linear ceiling lighting that shone over an exhibit of hanging museum posters. I munched on an excellent veggie sandwich with delightfully crusty bread, while watching the people around me. The beat I had heard came from a solo drummer from the Young Women’s Music Project, rocking through her first show. In front of my table was a drop-in figure art drawing class. A posed model had his knee up on a chair, fist under his chin, while amateur artists sketched rapidly. Their instructions: draw the model using only circles.
The museum itself is free and full of delights. Moreover, this is the perfect time to visit. It is MAO’s 50th anniversary, and they’re hosting an exhibition, KALEIDOSCOPE, that serves as a best-of tour.
My favorite pieces up at the moment are by renowned Irish artist Dorothy Cross. Cross’s installations often involve contrasting visceral elements, clashing something raw and animalistic with another more recognizably civilized object.
Take Buoy, pictured here. That is indeed an actual blue shark skin, casually hanging off an artist’s easel. You can walk right up to it, look in the shark’s mouth, and see all the way through its body.
Or consider Scales, which first seems like a colorful installation of old-timey weighing scales. But then you realize that the items being weighed are shimmering fragments of meteorite. And then you realize that the bowls doing the weighing are carved from a human skull.
MAO is a welcoming place, often inviting you to participate with its art and with its community. In one large room, an enormous 2D labyrinth has been meticulously painted on the floor.
No need to just traverse it with your eyes: you’re welcome to walk around right on top of it and find your own path. In another, there’s Yoko Ono poetry tacked up on the wall. Do you like it? No problem! Rip off a copy and take it home.
So why should you care? You’re a business student! This stuff is too flighty and abstract, right?
You should care for a number of reasons, not least of which is that art and expression are indelible parts of the Oxford experience. There are messages to be found in everything at Oxford. They’re in the splendor of the stone architecture, in the heritage of humanistic thought, and in the roar of color in the botanic gardens. If you fail to encounter art and beauty while you’re in such a saturated place, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Everyone has a different relationship to places of art. Personally, I seek out nature, museums, and other places of beauty to be provoked. Being provoked leads me to ask questions I otherwise might not. And those questions allow me to be more innovative. Why did Cross put a barrister’s wig on a pillar of marble, encase it all in a tall glass dome, and call it Distil? Was it a comment on the power of a uniform? On the way in which we put certain positions in our society on a pedestal? On the fact that the legal tradition feels separated from the human experience, untouchable?
I have no idea! But I certainly feel invigorated by considering those questions. And Cross’s art, and the enormous commitment it took for her to get the installation just right, helps me combine unalike notions. And when that happens, I can make a new connection. A connection that reminds me of a potentially solvable problem in society or of an experience worth sharing.
And what is any business, but a juxtaposition of two or more previously unconsidered ideas and the commitment to see them through? MAO, like many places of intentionally curated beauty, lets you marvel at both. And eventually, the accumulation of all those new perspectives will make you a more thoughtful businessperson.
Looking for a good time to visit? How about this Thursday? There’s a talk by Jeremy Millar that is the fourth in a series of overview lectures about MAO’s history. It’s a perfect entry point, and I’m planning on going.
So go visit Modern Art Oxford. It’s not just a good way to spend an afternoon; it’s a good opportunity to become a better human.Back to top of article