Yesterday I got some bad news, which I will not go into right here and now. Let’s put the bad news on par with the discovery that a painting with significant sentimental (and some monetary) value has been stolen from you.
I had a good cry and did some New-Agey breathing, but then I had to leave and go to work. (I hate how jobs usually make it so you have to leave the house, even if you REALLY don’t want to.) I decided I wouldn't put on makeup (or clothes — I stayed in my workout tights and an ex-boyfriend’s San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt), and ate three stale Oreo cookies when I got to the office.
Earlier in the day, before the bad news, I’d decided that I was going to go to the museum in the afternoon. I am a student at the Art Institute of Chicago — a school I chose because the museum is one of my favorite places on earth, and I knew I'd get free* admission for two years. It is my last semester, and I had gone through the museum for leisure exactly zero times. Today, I’d decided, that was going to change.
Of course, when you get bad news, it is impossible to do anything that is good for you. You can’t work out or eat kale; sometimes you can’t even call your friend Hannah because you’re too grumpy. But when my alarm went off and told me to go to the museum, incredibly, I willed myself to go.
Inside, I stared at the wall by the grand staircase that tells you which rooms the famous paintings are in. I didn’t know where to walk. Quite suddenly, a jolly man in a three-piece suit who smelled like soap and lemons strolled up to me and asked me where I was trying to get to. He was a docent, of course, but he seemed more like Museum Santa Claus. I kind of gawked at him and stammered.
“No, I’m not going to write your paper for you!” Museum Santa Claus said, and then laughed a little too much. I was holding a gray notebook because you can’t bring your backpack into the museum anymore, so I understood how he could have made the mistake.
“Oh, I’m not writing a paper. I’m just… I came to think."
“You don’t seem sad!” This was a confusing thing for Museum Santa Claus to say because (1) coming somewhere to think is not usually synonymous with being sad, and (2) I did seem sad. I said nothing, so he went on: “Well, what do you want to see while you think? Do you want the famous stuff? Do you want an exhibit? What?"
“I guess… I don’t know. I’m just walking. I was just going to walk and see what I saw."
“Well if you want to see something unuuuuusual” — he gently nudged my shoulder and eased me toward the side hall while he stretched out the “u” — “this is the year of the rooster.” He found a red pamphlet in the sea of pamphlets lining a hallway and handed it to me. Mini Tour: Chinese Lunar New Year, it said. There was a poppy-colored rooster emblem at the top, and then several full-color photographs of the kind of art I’d never intentionally see: brass pots and ceramic dishes and parchment scrolls. I nodded at Museum Santa Claus and he pointed down the hallway, shooing me away with the other hand. “It’s that way,” he said; “you’re gonna find it."
Considering that Museum Santa Claus told me I was gonna find it, the Year of the Rooster galleries were spectacularly well hidden. The seven items featured in the “Mini Tour” were sprinkled throughout Gallery 134 (except for the brass well, which was in Gallery 133), and Gallery 134 was a tiny square-shaped room where no one — not even a security person — was walking around. It was dark and cool and had that chemically museum smell that you only notice when you’re alone in an art space.
I had pictured a big sign that said “Year of the Rooster,” but you’d never know that the “Mini Tour” had been designed to take place here. It took me a full hour to find all seven of the items (this is saying something, because that room was small); there was no way, when you looked at the pictures in the guide, that you could have been able to tell how big the pieces would be, or in which cases.
This turned out to be an unspeakable gift.
It’s not that I’m not interested in non-European art. More, it’s that I don’t know how to look at it. This is the fault of the way we learn about art in America — of what turns up in pamphlets or in text books. With ancient art from non-European countries, we very rarely know the names of the artists. Usually, the art has been stolen without permission — sometimes from tombs or graves. None of this information is typically on the gallery wall. Instead, you go through room after room of cases filled with dishes or stone slabs, and there are so many rooms to go through, you don’t know where to stop or what to look at or what is supposed to impress you or why. It is like this with literature and with music, too. The greatest masterworks of the history of time are lost against the cultural ego of European America.
My favorite piece in the gallery was a scroll made by a pair of sisters — renowned poets and painters — named Chai Jingyi and Chai Zhengyi, painted in the 17th century; Qing Dynasty, reign of Kangxi. It is called “Flowers and Insects.” The artists’ inscription says it the artists “copied this together, in the Frozen Fragrance Chamber,” but scholars don’t know what it might be a copy of. The sisters had incredibly distinct painting styles, but they nevertheless worked together. The bugs in the painting are huge — a cicada, a fat spider in a pin-thin pointed web. There are dayflowers and dog roses, which, the description says, “places this scene in autumn.” Butterflies especially symbolize the passage of the seasons.
I liked how big the insects were and how shivery and delicate the leaves on the pink plants seemed. I loved thinking about my own sister; how we are so different but that we find beauty, often, in the same things. My bad news felt very small in front of the wide scroll. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the sound of the sister artists in the Frozen Fragrance Chamber laughing at the silly size of the grasshoppers’ legs.
Gallery 134 was full of gods: all the animals and all the plants symbolized the deep, mysterious richness of nature. Man was smaller than art was smaller than nature was equal, in summation, to God.
There were plenty of roosters, too. The biggest was hanging at the back of the gallery, next to an ornate chair. “Three Roosters and Blossoming Apricots,” it was called, and the pamphlet said that it included a visual-verbal pun about how the first character for the Chinese for rooster is the same as the word for “duke,” and so the three roosters symbolized three generations of dukes during the Han dynasty. The Chinese also assign the rooster to five virtues: civil responsibility, marital fidelity, courage, kindness, and confidence.
In New Orleans, roosters woke me up every morning. I loved it: It made me feel like I was on a farm in the middle of a sprawling rural town named something like “Sunnyspring” or “Dale-and-pond.” In truth, I was sleeping in a shotgun house on a hot street with gashy splits in the concrete; Mr. Edmond would be sitting on the steps across the way drinking hot tea and reading the newspaper when the rooster crowed, and there’d be no space in front of the house to park.
According to Chinese legend, the rooster crowing in the morning chases away evil spirits. I didn’t know that until yesterday. And why not? It does sound like that.
The world is big. Humankind is big! Gallery 134 was a testament to a group of artists who looked outward; who saw peaches and bats together and knit meaning out of that, or who nestled their prayers in lotuses. I sometimes forget to look outward. I stay inside myself, and inside my circle, and I forget how big everything really is. I mean, I can’t truly understand it at all, can I?
It is the year of the Rooster. That can mean whatever you want it to mean. But let it mean something. Let it teach you that there is more to this life, always, than you think there is.