Letter: Museum is a display of ‘because we can’ art

When we entered the renowned (see article in the current New Yorker) and controversial Aspen Provocateurs’ Museum on the day it opened, I was immediately struck by a powerful sense of nostalgia — I was in New York, the motherland!

Since my husband and I met at Columbia University and lived many years in New York City bonding with the place in a way that never disappears, it was a strange but warm and pleasant feeling. From the upper floors, one can look through the basket-weave exterior down onto the street below, where the scurrying inhabitants appear ant-like, creating a slight sense of vertigo. If you are of the view that Aspen should look like Aspen and New York should stay in New York, I hate to tell you, but this is a trend.

The staff is friendly, welcoming, very happy to be employed there and amazingly patient and receptive in the face of criticism.

We were anxious to see the third-floor restaurant. We anticipated recovering one of our favorite old views of Aspen Mountain as it used to appear behind the one-story Wienerstubbe restaurant with its appealing summer balcony full of tables and the usual variety of dogs waiting for their owners on the sidewalk. It is hard to tell how the new restaurant will turn out.

At the moment, the focal point of the entire museum is the turtle pen. There is a large dirt pen enclosed with wooden walls housing four or five large desert tortoises. These are perfect tortoises, their shells devoid of the slightest imperfection except for two large iPads in the shape of an A-frame attached to each one’s back. There is no water or food in the pen, and minimal shade is provided by a small wooden shed. The tortoises huddled rather despairingly in the corners of the pen and the shed. Since the pen walls are not very tall, it is possible to get as close a look at the tortoises as one might like.

A member of the staff explained that these tortoises do not drink water but rather absorb moisture through the skin. Vets and tortoise conservationists were consulted on all aspects of the display. We were told that the tortoises are spritzed regularly each day and do not need shade as they are desert tortoises. The large iPads are said to be attached not by screws, as they appear, but rather by special glue approved for attaching study instruments such as cameras or tracking devices to wildlife for scientific observation. There is no information about the tortoises on the pen and there is a constant buzz of distressed questions muttered by the visitors to one another or to themselves. The particular irony here is that these are surprisingly beautiful and interesting live tortoises that require no “amusing,” artsy, put-down attachments to be of interest. One of the best things about Aspen is that the town is an animal lover’s paradise. But then, this is a museum of provocateurs.

We were looking forward to the “fireworks” display in celebration of the opening. We were surprised at the clever innovation. There were several impressively loud booms, like bombs going off, followed by clouds of black smoke. This was clearly a celebration of death, destruction and war in the current context of several particularly ferocious international conflicts. It brought that morning’s New York Times’ reporting on the day’s death and destruction of civilians and animals very much to life. It was reported that a dog was injured leaping from a roof cafe in fear at the sound. Unusual celebration. Affecting. Understandable only if you realize that this is a museum run by provocateurs.

Those behind the museum’s vision are either implausibly culturally insensitive, which is doubtful, or they are provocateurs engaged in “in your face,” “finger in the eye,” “because we can” behavior with sometimes interesting results.

To add further interest to the museum (lest it be insufficiently eye-catching), huge new colorful letters are being installed on the outside walls spelling out sayings such as “social justice.” Aside from the sign-law violations, to be fully in keeping with the spirit of the museum the new letters should spell out “Money talks and bull—- walks” and “Might is right and don’t we know it.” For anyone interested in expensive and professionally produced provocation, art in the Dada tradition and the new American values, this experience is not to be missed.

Camilla Auger