Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History‘s executive director, Nina Simon, in just a handful of years, has re-engineered that space into a major cultural and economic anchor in downtown Santa Cruz by ejecting that which wasn’t working and substituting energy, creativity, noise, color, touching, music, ideas, kids and crowds.
And that was all on full pageant last Friday for the opening of the Planet Ord art exhibition guest curated by Enid Baxter Ryce [my wife] and supported by War Comes Home, a Cal Humanities initiative. The show is a multiple faceted kind of tone poem/diorama/portrait to the memory of Fort Ord as a military installation, as a city, as a changing place and as a landscape that exists only in vivid memories and faded artifacts. It’s also real-world embodiment of the Planet Ord/FortOrding website, which has connected a growing community of former Fort Ord residents. Any question as to what a contemporary art exhibit about Fort Ord was doing in Santa Cruz became moot the moment people walked into the doors and were confronted with crowds in the lobby. There, a Polynesian dancing festival was in full swing, capitalizing on and collecting First Friday’s already unloosed crowds.
Those crowds, in that one place, were privy to not only the Planet Ord exhibition, but also to a permanent exhibition of Santa Cruz history, to Pacific Northwest DIY indie scene denizen Nikki McClure’s 17-year retrospective (along with headphones to listen to Sleater-Kinney and Fugazi), a playful shadow puppet theater with a sofa for theater seats, and the rooftop sculpture garden.
So there were a lot of forces to bring people in, which made for an auspicious debut of the Planet Ord exhibit. Actually, the first peek that most people had of the show was in dual artist talks by McClure and Ryce, a standing-room only affair that was attended by notable Monterey County residents, CSUMB faculty and alumni, and former Fort Ord soldiers, including John Lindquist (veteran) and, in dress blues, active duty Army Colonel Andy Junknellis.
The talk gave backstory to the exhibit, but it didn’t spoil the surprises of a chain-link fence entrance (much of the former Fort Ord buildings are enclosed within chain-link fences) decorated with ribbons upon which visitors wrote their own memories of places they’ve “lost.” Or before and after videos, one showing vigorous training by buzz-headed Army recruits, the other the abandoned and dilapidated buildings that survive as remnants of that time. Or a series of paintings tracing the evolution of Fort Ord by the wars and conflicts that, in the past, gave it meaning. Or the video of John Lindquist and his Charlie Manchu Company on guard duty in Panama City during the almost forgotten 1989 Panama Invasion, next to another video in which he’s talking about it some 20 years later, and it’s still an emotionally painful memory to conjure up.
The exhibition proved a many-sided and angled quartz, reflecting in different people pain, wistfulness, excitement, puzzlement, curiosity. Opening night generated a strange juxtaposition in the raucous and merry Polynesian music welling up from the lobby below and saturating the entire building. But the Planet Ord exhibition is already, by itself, an impressionistic portrait. The subject is so big (it’s estimated that 1.5 million people came through and lived on Fort Ord), the history so deep, that perhaps no one (not even my wife) could reasonably expect to capture its entirety in one room.
The room, by the way, was painted a twilight blue by a resourceful museum installation staff who also constructed dummy walls and put up multiple projectors with Ryce’s disparate film images and music, narration and sound. CSUMB professor Steven Levinson also contributed artifacts from his collection. It all colludes to envelope the visitor in some of the air and memories of Fort Ord. And the museum will augment those impressions with supporting events, including this Friday’s screening of the film Extraordinary Ord and further discussion 6:30pm April 11; CSUMB student films about Fort Ord ecology and history 6:30pm Friday, May 9; and a Memorial Day Remembrance address by Ryce at 11am May 26. The exhibit stays up until July 20.
The opening night was a fun frenzy. But especially for those who know Fort Ord, it will really reward time and contemplation. Like one artist and arts writer said, “I’ll be back to take it in more quietly. It deserves it.”