The Getty, Google Arts, & Banana Craze Create Three Online Shows Worth a Visit

Barbara Merkley

In my search for online exhibitions with compelling presentations and content, I have recently become apprised of three shows that take advantage of the digital medium to display words and images (only one show contains sounds in these examples) in ways that I wouldn’t quite be able to experience IRL. They do all share a basic approach: to use visual and historical examinations of an object or objects to discuss how it has come to be and how the forces that acted upon it might resonate in our own current moment.

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The Getty (a wide institutional umbrella that includes a research institute, foundation, museum, a trust, and a program arm) recently launched on the getty.edu site, Mesopotamia, which looks closely and deeply at selected pieces from an exhibition formerly at the Getty Villa. Once I land on the page, I’m given the show’s title like the grand introduction of a Metro Goldwyn Mayer film. Then the action becomes more cinematic as I follow the directions to scroll down. The first image is an extreme closeup of “Panel with a Striding Lion” (605–562 BCE) made of glazed ceramic. As I continue to scroll, the camera seemingly pulls back to reveal the entire panel and I see the open-mouthed cat striding forward, the tawny color of his mane still visible. Popup text windows tell me, for example:

Screenshot of “Panel with a Striding Lion” (605–562 BCE) in the exhibition Mesopotamia via the Getty

This glazed brick panel of a striding lion was one of more than a hundred that lined each side of Babylon’s most significant street, the Processional Way. This road passed through the Ishtar Gate and linked the palaces and main temples of the city.

Screenshot of alternate view of “Panel with a Striding Lion” (605–562 BCE) in the exhibition Mesopotamia via the Getty

As I keep scrolling, the camera swoops and dives at an angle toward the panel so I can see its topography, and then it turns it completely on its side so my gaze runs over it like a helicopter scouting its peaks and valleys. Then a map appears telling me where this object was originally located. However, I find myself objecting to the next visual transition, which is a fade-in to the panel serenely hung on a wall surrounded by other objects (many in vitrines) from ancient Mesopotamia in a gallery in the Getty Villa, with nary a word about how they got there. (It’s as if the Getty has chosen to ignore the passionate and trenchant conversation happening right now about antiquity that has been looted or not ethically sourced.) Then there’s a fanciful dissolve from the gallery scene into a “Cult Vessel” (2420 BCE) made of silver and bronze, which can be brought closer to my eyes than I would likely ever get in making a physical visit. I can discern the hieroglyphics and the iconography that are also supplemented by cogent textual explanations.

Screenshot of closeup of a “Cult Vessel” (ca. 2420 BCE) silver and bronze in the exhibition Mesopotamia via the Getty

The whole journey is seamlessly smooth, enabled by the objects being captured using photogrammetry, in some cases 3D laser scanning, and what the Getty calls “structured light scanning.” These techniques give the viewer extreme detailed looking. According to Todd Swanson, head of Getty Digital Imaging, “We are able to achieve 1/10 of a millimeter point accuracy of the geometry of the object, so sub-millimeter accuracy.” This level of acuity is particularly useful for viewing objects which have been eroded and sanded down by the passage of time. As I continue to scroll, the camera dollies around about six more objects, just enough to not exhaust me while giving me a potent sampling of the abundant historical wealth of knowledge assembled around and through this exhibtion.

Screenshot of an installation view of the exhibition Mesopotamia via the Getty

The exhibition La fiebre del banano (Banana Craze) takes a similar approach in terms of historical inquiry, but in a much deeper way, focusing only on the banana as an object by which one can come to understand the interrelations between the ecological, economic, cultural, and artistic systems through which this fruit travels. It is a massive research project, which is said to be ongoing. This exhibition, which has both Spanish and English versions, is curated by Juanita Solano Roa, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Art History at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, and Blanca Serrano Ortiz de Solórzano, who is a project director at the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA). They also acknowledge an entire team of research assistants and translators. Their aim, as they state it, is to:

… allow a greater understanding of how the mass cultivation of bananas contributed to the growth of social inequality in Latin America, changing traditional ways of life and transforming the landscape and environment of the region. Not to mention how the banana trade contributed to the formation of xenophobic, racist, and sexist stereotypes of local inhabitants.

The landing page starts the experience off by giving me images of the work of “almost 100” (it would require some careful calculation to determine exactly how many there are) contemporary Latin American artists who feature the banana. The images only last about half a second. I want them to last a little longer, but understand that this visual teaser pulls me further into the interior of the show. Scrolling down takes me to the major themes or galleries of the show: Violences, Ecosystems, and Identities (which seem to me to be inescapable ideas by which to understand our current time). Scrolling down further I get to a timeline with clickable elements that take me from the earliest artwork in the show, a 1960 photograph by Raúl Corrales of a set of rebels on horseback who belong to the 26th of July Movement celebrating the expropriation of a plantation owned by the United Fruit Company. The last one is from 2021, an oil painting on stainless steel by Sair García depicting banana trees on the banks of the Magdalena River in Colombia. Among these are wonderful pieces by, for example, Jean-François Boclé whose “Tears of Bananaman” (2009–2012) uses bananas to outline the body of a man lying face down on a low plinth. The bananas have phrases such as “Tropic Trauma,” “Monsanto Utopia,” and “Yellow Death” written on them. The documentary photographs show the bananas going black and liquefying over time, until the body is just a husk. It’s a brutal and terrifying work. In a different vein, the work “Plátano Pride” (2006) by Miguel Luciano consists of a platinum-plated green banana being modeled on a thick chain around the neck of a young Latin American male, who gazes at the viewer with his head tilted at an angle as if in challenge or defiance or simply his version of pride.

Screenshot of Jean-François Boclé, “Tears of Bananaman” (2009–2012) in the exhibition La fiebre del banano (Banana Craze)

If instead of scrolling, I click on the “Read More” tab, I’m taken to another page where the scholarly study is sturdy, replete with footnoted text. I learn that bananas didn’t even originate in the Americas, though now Latin America and the Caribbean form the second largest banana-producing region in the world after Asia, and this is significant because bananas are the most consumed fruit in the world.

Screenshot of Miguel Luciano, “Plátano Pride” (2006) in the exhibition La fiebre del banano (Banana Craze)

The whole show is a rabbit hole and I could go down and be lost for days, because there is a variety of presentation styles and ways to gather information that keep me intrigued.

Lastly, I visited Google Arts and Culture’s exhibition Klimt vs. Klimt — The Man of Contradictions, which offers a seemingly endless series of avenues of exploration of the life and work of what the site describes as “the enigmatic Austrian behind one of the world’s most recognizable paintings.” His backstory is fascinating: born into poverty, won a scholarship to art school at 14, started his career as an interior decorator, became famous for his use of gold leaf and his depictions of nude women, and had some of his work declared “pornographic.”

Gustav Klimt, “The Bride (1917–18) (image courtesy Klimt Foundation, on Google Arts & Culture)

Scrolling down the landing page, I encounter several subchapters: His artwork; His muses; His technique; His reputation. Each of these leads into a thicket of more images and information presented in enticing formats: mosaics, scrolls, portals that lead to 3D and augmented reality views. When I enter the specially designed virtual exhibition, I am in a “room” with several of Klimt’s most famous works, but then am surprised to hear a male voice telling me a story about Klimt’s life and then directing my gaze to a digitized version of the “Beethoven Frieze” constructed in 1902 for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, which was organized as an homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. The voice tells me that the frieze follows a description of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony published by the composer Richard Wagner, and then I hear it: the theme from the fourth movement, one of the most wonderful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. This was a high point of delight for me.

View of Klimt vs Klimt 3D Pocket gallery (image courtesy Google Arts and Culture)

As I continue to scroll, I encounter several rhetorical antipodes that complicate the story of Klimt’s life and art: Early Feminist vs. Womaniser; Penniless Painter vs. Affluent Artist; Loose Strokes vs. Sharp Lines; Commercial vs. Controversial; Social Butterfly vs. Recluse. These segments all open into further technical, aesthetic, sociocultural, and historical examinations that are all more or less intriguing.

I fall into an investigation of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”’ (1908–1909) ostensibly to answer the question of who the real life referents were for the figures in the painting. The excursion begins on the landing page, which has a banner length image of a close-up of the top third of the painting. As I continue to scroll horizontally, the screen hones in on certain parts of the work, with pop-up windows that offer visual diegesis that is fairly obvious and uncritically sentimental, for example:

Klimt creates the image of a perfect union between man and woman with both merging together. Here, man and woman connect with the earth and the cosmos, guided by the power holding everything together: love.

I then am moved through turn of the century photographs of Gustav Klimt and his lifelong romantic partner Emilie Flöge, with several images of her in various voguish outfits that provide visual evidence affirming the description of her as a “modern woman who ran a successful fashion salon.” Other images of Klimt and Flöge together follow before the conclusion that it’s unclear but doubtful that Klimt put himself or his partner in any of his work is reached. Ultimately, I come away from the exhibition exhilarated by all the possibilities of experiencing Klimt’s paintings again when I encounter them in real life.

Gustav Klimt at his studio (1911) (photo by Moriz Nähr, in the Austrian National Library, courtesy Google Arts & Culture)

What unites all these projects is a clear sense that they exist in a world unto itself: the digitized space. Here, the potential for reading, hearing, and understanding occur differently than they do in corporeal reality and given that human culture will likely not be able to return this genie to the bottle, it makes the most sense that we make the best use of the wishes we have been given.

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