The first time I was taken to a museum, as a very small boy, was to marvel at the bones of a huge Apatosaurus, a spiky Stegosaurus, and other huge, scary prehistoric beasts. "Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals," on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perelman Building, does something I never thought possible. It makes dinosaurs dull.
An entire floor of the Fabric Workshop's Arch Street building is filled with pieces of dinosaur bones mounted on transparent acrylic lecterns. The idea is that the bones are shown in roughly the same position as they would have been in the living animal, though there is no attempt to evoke the entire creature. The kind of information that might let the bones make sense to us is withheld. Rather, the broken bones are poised at lecterns to address us directly.
Since this is not a natural history museum, we do not expect the dinosaur fossils to speak to us of paleontology. This is an art exhibition, where what you see is paramount. What these bones said to me is, "What are we doing on these ugly stands?" The so-called lecterns are stunning in their awkwardness. They marry arbitrary form with an element of danger: If you're not careful you might bump into or trip over their transparent plastic fins and doglegs. Fabric Workshop calls the installation "a fractured reading of natural history," but the bones and fractures it evokes could be your own.
This installation is but one element of a multipart show that spans two museums. As the title, "Intervals," suggests, the underlying theme of all its parts is time and the relationships between different moments and eons. Thus a four-billion-year-old pebble hangs from the ceiling of a large room, and several times a day, singers whistle and blow and make it swing back and forth. Elsewhere, we ponder limitless time, our own extinction, and the small eternity of getting to the end of several unremarkable videos.
As Timothy Rub, the Art Museum's director, noted at a press event, relating different times to each other and our own is a large part of what museums do. Moreover, there is value in questioning what objects are collected, how they are shown, and how audiences are conditioned to react to them. Allora & Calzadilla do that, but they usually fall short of producing anything you would want to go to the museum - in this case two museums - to see.
Allora & Calzadilla is a pretty big name in contemporary art. It represented the United States at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and its work has been shown in top museums and galleries all over the world. At its heart is a partnership between Philadelphia-born Jennifer Allora and Havana-born Guillermo Calzadilla, who live and work in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nearly all projects enlist the talents of musicians, composers, writers, and other artists. These collaborators' contributions are usually what make the project worthwhile.
For example, the high point of "Intervals" is a work called In the Midst of Things, a reworking by the Los Angeles-based composer Christopher Rountree of fragments from Haydn's oratorio The Creation, sung by the extraordinary Philadelphia choral group the Crossing, in the tall, narrow skylit atrium of the Perelman building. The work animates, I would almost say consecrates, an architectural space that can easily be seen as nothing but a large corridor. Dressed in street clothes, members of the Crossing mill around and sweep through the space, creating sounds at once intimate and majestic. (Remaining performances are on Jan. 24, Feb. 21, and March 21.)
The Great Silence, a three-screen video installation at Fabric Workshop, features a text by Ted Chiang, speaking in the voice of endangered parrots who live immediately around a radio telescope in Puerto Rico that is seeking intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. "Their desire to make a connection is so strong, they've created an ear for listening across the universe," the text says on one screen. "We're a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren't we exactly what humans are looking for?" On the other screens are videos of parrots and the telescope. Viewers of the installation concentrate on reading the engaging text, and glance occasionally at the videos. That's understandable because the text is memorable, and the pictures aren't.
Similarly, a video at the Perelman, showing the Venus of Lespugue, a prehistoric figurine, seems to be a mere placeholder for its cello score, composed by David Lang and performed by Maya Beiser. Lang is supposed to have based the score on the proportions of the figurine, something that is not perceptible. What I wished for was a chance to actually look at the Venus, not this dull video of it.
I think the importance of Allora & Calzadilla may be as Uber-artists. The team has introduced into art what has become known, misleadingly, as the sharing economy. Like such entities as Uber, Airbnb, and the Huffington Post, they have absorbed the labor and talents of others into a brand that glorifies and enriches its founders. Allora & Calzadilla says its art questions the idea of authorship, a convenient stance for entrepreneurial artists of limited visual talent.
"The exhibition bears witness to incomplete presences and resonant remainders," says a statement by Allora & Calzadilla. "It finds in music a measure and a reckoning with these elusive forces and the abyss that lies between."
That sounds to me like pretentious blather. Still, I kept feeling that this statement, and the exhibition as a whole, reminded me of another, more successful work that treated similar themes. It is the 2011 movie The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick. It relates a story set in 1950s Texas to the history of the universe from the Big Bang onward. It makes good use of classical and contemporary music, and above all, it is visually ravishing.
It even has good dinosaurs.
Through April 5. The Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St.
Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon–5 p.m. Free.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $20; 65 and over $18; students $14; 13–18 $14; 12 and under, free.EndText