When I went to visit Soto: The Houston Penetrable at the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, I took six kids along to counterbalance my jaded adult art-critic cynicism. Two of them had to be dragged. Not another museum! Only Larkin, 7, had seen the piece before, so I let her sell it to the others: “it’s a big stringy thing,” she told them. “It’s cool.”
I had expected a short visit—for me, a couple passes through the Soto cloud would have been plenty, but The Houston Penetrable is like a thousand-armed babysitter. After killing time with the guard (who was also happy straightening tangles and admonishing people not to pull too hard) and reading the wall text, I had to dive back in and pull the kids out when it was time to go home.
Soto’s piece inverted the typical attention-span gap: this was art I was ready to leave long before the kids were. I waded through the piece several times, but the kids invented activities, like wiggling and twisting the plastic tentacles to make them corkscrew upwards, joining hands to make a clearing in the plastic forest, inching along on their backs to look up at the ceiling lights, braiding, shaking, twisting, gathering, and of course, tag. When they began dragging one another across the MFAH’s cool terrazzo floor, I intervened. After all, it’s a museum, not a play structure.
Soto, like Calder, is one of those kinetic artists of the lie-in-wait school: where impatient constructivists might have installed motors, Soto’s pieces rely on the viewer to supply the action. The kids loved it, I loved it, everybody loves it. It’s effect art, and it sure is effective. Atmospheric. It’s like being in a heavy rainstorm, or underwater.
“It feels like it’s falling down”
“We all have different ways to walk through it without getting smashed”
“Kind of claustrophobic. Strangely ominous.”
“It looked like a fog cloud, but with plastic.”
“It reminds me of an animal from the sea.”
“It made me feel like everything else in the world went away”
“Like another dimension.”
“I want one over my bed.”
The kids said about all there is to say about Soto. The piece’s populism, fine for a city park, seems like pandering in a space usually reserved for (hopefully) deeper stuff. Its misplaced illusionism (the yellow portions of the strands form a floating oval cloud that looks good in photographs, but adds not a whit to the experience of the piece on the ground) is a pathetic leftover from Soto’s past life as an op artist, before his studio went into the playscape business.
But the Houston Penetrable is a play structure, and can be properly judged as such. Like the beach, or a new snowfall, it’s a total environment whose unique possibilities need exploring. New sensations to experience, new games to devise, new toys to invent.
With man-made attractions, economy of means is one kind of beauty. Soto’s bang-for-the-buck is middling. It’s easily more fun than James Turrell’s Light Inside tunnel in the MFAH’s basement, but less fun than forthrightly fun-seeking pieces like Discovery Green Park’s Gateway Fountain, an art-like field of surprise water jets. Like Miracoco, an inflatable environment that visited Houston in 2014, Soto’s Penetrable is a big-budget spectacle that suffers from being slightly overproduced. One of my kid critics picked up on it: “That was a lot of plastic tubes,” he said, adding, “Why would anyone go to the trouble to buy 24,000 plastic tubes, fill them half full with yellow dye, and string them to the ceiling?” When a bubble machine might have done the trick.
On the upside, Soto’s Houston Penetrable scores high on convenience. No need for a swimsuit, or nice weather. You don’t need to wait, or wear special socks, as with last year’s James Turrell show, or special glasses, as with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3D.
You can dive into Soto: The Houston Penetrable for FREE during The Museum Experience—Zone 3, the Museum District’s walkable summer block party on Saturday, July 26, 2014. The piece will remain on display at the MFAH through September 1, 2014.
Thanks to my kid critics from Wilson Montessori Elementary and Lanier Middle School: Larkin, age 7; Oscar 10; Lydia, 11; Phineas, 12; Hannah, 13; and Aidan, 13.