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Downtown Portland: Michelangelo v. dinosaurs

"Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: the Exhibition" is currently on view in 28 cities around the globe, including Portland. What's the draw and rationale?

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Michelangelo Buonarroti, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512.

When I heard that a touring show of Sistine Chapel reproductions was coming to Portland this summer, I was curious about the exhibition’s potential viewership but the idea in and of itself didn’t offend. Michelangelo is as close as it gets to a household name for a 16th-century artist. Most people probably aren’t familiar with the frescoes beyond the Creation of Adam but that plus the name recognition is probably enough to get enough people in the door to make an exhibition reasonably financially successful. 

The premise of showing reproductions of these frescoes isn’t offensive. The exhibition’s website promises a “life-size, up-close, never-before-seen perspective” and surely large-scale, high-quality reproductions of the frescoes offer that to viewers. It’s hard to see the Sistine Chapel frescoes. They’re in Rome, on a vaulted ceiling 60 feet above the ground in a private chapel in the Vatican.  A regular visitor to the chapel will be ushered in with a crowd of neck-craned tourists and given about twenty minutes to gawk before being ushered out. Reproductions, locally accessible, at eye-level that can be examined at a leisurely pace are a good thing. 

Reproductions have always been part of the story of the Sistine Chapel. Strides in interpretation and understanding the complicated and thoughtful spiritual program of the paintings were made through reproductive engravings or photographs, not by ogling the originals. A reproduction can be taken with scaffolding, from angles inaccessible to the mere mortal viewer. Even the most immediately recognizable image from the chapel, the detail view of Adam and God the Father’s index fingers from the Creation of Adam panel, was birthed through a reproduction, included in a three-volume set of color plates of Italian Renaissance paintings published by Skira in 1951 (Leo Steinberg, “Who’s Who in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam: A Chronology of the Picture’s Reluctant Self-Revelation”).

“Hands of God and Adam Beach Towel” available at Fine Art America

Probably the most famous line of argument around the issue of reproductions of artworks was written in 1935 by the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. Benjamin argued that a “mechanical reproduction” could never retain the “aura” of the original because it lacked the original’s contextual value. 

There is a corollary argument, though, one that Benjamin wasn’t concerned with: in the case of  famous artworks like the Sistine Chapel, the religious contextual value has long been replaced by a cultural value that is alien to the original religious value. That cultural value has been created through reproduction. People value these works because they recognize them and they recognize them because they’ve seen reproductions. The designer for the promotional poster for the 1982 film, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” wasn’t thinking about the pope’s private chapel. This exhibition preys on that cultural value. 

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The problem with “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” isn’t that it is a show of reproductions. The problem is that it’s wildly overpriced ($24.20 per adult ticket) for what it offers: reproductions in an abandoned basement store space in Pioneer Place Mall. The fitting rooms and retail display built-ins are still there. The Last Judgment and fashion, together forever, and, of course, particularly ironic given that many of  the figures from the Sistine Chapel are nude. 

This exhibition, coordinated by SEE Global Entertainment, has been circulating for seven years. In the beginning (ha), the venues were more impressive. The promotional image for the show currently making the rounds on social media is the installation from Vienna, Austria, where the reproductions were handsomely queued in the Votiv Cathedral’s museum space, the former court oratory.  In 2017, Adam Gopnik reviewed the show for The New Yorker as it was installed in Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus in New York, a space that is part of a mall but regularly used for exhibitions. Photos accompanying Gopnik’s article show the reproductions dwarfed by the soaring white ribs of the space. In Montreal, the exhibition was mounted at the Palais des Congress. It is not clear how much tickets cost for any of these early venues. 

“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: the Exhibition” installed at Vienna’s Votive Cathedral

In Portland, the venue is Pioneer Place Mall (listed as 700 5th Ave., Suite 1200). Initially, the mall aspect didn’t faze me. I haven’t been to this particular mall in years but given the exodus of retail businesses from malls in general and downtown Portland specifically, I assumed that this exhibition would make use of the cavernous empty mall to showcase reproductions of the private Vatican chapel ceiling – unorthodox, sure, but potentially a good use of empty space. Given that the organizing producer is an entertainment company, I had visions of walking through Pioneer Place gazing up at reproductions and being randomly splattered in the face with plaster against a soundtrack of angry Catholic prelates. 

My dreams of quirky, Michelangelo-based entertainment were soon dashed. The show is in an abandoned basement store of Pioneer Place Mall. The reproductions are shoehorned in with the ceilings only a few inches higher than the canvases. The passageways are narrow, sad, rumpled red carpets. I was thankful that there were very few attendees on the day I visited. The “Covid safe” promise would have otherwise been a blatant lie. 

With the exception of the grouping of the Sibyls and Prophets, though, the logic of the arrangement of the scenes in the warrenlike space is a mystery. Another viewer said that they’d asked and been told that the arrangement was thematic but continuous scenes of the central narrative were separated. A more plausible explanation to me is that the scenes were placed dependent on anticipated viewing traffic. The famed Creation of Adam certainly had the most room for potential selfies.

Install view of “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: the Exhibition” in Portland

The labels for each painting were obviously photocopied onto cheap-looking tagboard. Each label had a couple of sentences of explanation, a QR code, and an electronic tag so that viewers could listen to an audio guide app on a personal device. The labels, either affixed to the wall or positioned on rickety stands, gave the whole affair the vibe of the aftermath of a photocopy expo at a Kinko’s. 

The part of the exhibition that struck me as most tawdry was the educational video and historical diorama install. The ticket attendant at the entrance suggestested that I watch the video for content before viewing the rest of the exhibition, and I dutifully complied. The video, a segment about the Sistine Chapel that is part of “Artrageous with Nate” series, is fine but available on YouTube. The screen was positioned right in front of the door to The  Gap’s former fitting room (the door with the words “Fitting Room” prominently visible). 

Install view of “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: the Exhibition” in Portland

Directly opposite this was the sepia-hued historical diorama of what was presumably supposed to be Michelangelo’s studio. It included a couple of easels with drawings reminiscent of Michelangelo’ style and then some paint-spattered tables with a palette arrayed in ahistorical rainbow hues.

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For 24 dollars, the best this global entertainment company can muster to accompany the reproductions is a YouTube video in front of a fitting room and a slipshod display of brown curtains and tables?

Eric Leong, the senior producer for “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition,” estimates that the shows’ venues are evenly split between former retail spaces and cultural event spaces. In an email, Leong said this proportion held true internationally as well. I’m curious if more recently the exhibition has been weighted more heavily toward retail spaces. Real estate companies managing empty retail spaces can request to host the exhibition, presumably a way to make some money off empty space. 

The exhibition venue in San Diego was an abandoned Macy’s department store. I spent time and energy considering all of the reasons I thought an abandoned Macy’s in San Diego was a better venue for the Sistine Chapel than what I’m pretty sure is an abandoned Gap in Portland. These reasons included: square footage allowing for a more coherent narrative progression, ceiling height, potential for viewing the frescos from multiple levels. In all my years of art historical training, this is not something I anticipated. 

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Only a block from Michelangelo’s Portland mall debut is another experiment with art in abandoned retail real estate, and this one is a joy rather than an embarrassment. Mike Bennett’s “Dinolandia” fills the former downtown Banana Republic location with handmade, plywood dinosaurs. The exhibit is brightly colored, entertaining, and educational. Bennett’s enthusiasm for the project and for creating an immersive space that delights the viewer is evident throughout. The fitting rooms are even purposefully incorporated into the show. An adult ticket to “Dinolandia” is $5 and children under 8 are free. 

Install view of “Dinolandia” with 15-foot tall albertosaurus. Image courtesy of Josh Chang/@pdxploration

“Dinolandia” makes the case that filling abandoned retail spaces with art exhibitions is a good idea, one that can inject energy into flagging downtown sectors. “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: the Exhibition” is a fine premise for an exhibition but is so overpriced for what it offers that it smacks of greed, as if nothing was learned from the excess that led to the empty retail space in the first place. 

If tickets for “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” were free or had a more nominal entrance fee, I’d say live and let live and I’d let this go. They’re nice reproductions and, as indicated, viewers do get to see details they wouldn’t otherwise. But pretending that seeing reproductions in a mall is worth $24 per person is ridiculous. This is not a grand event.

The Sistine Chapel has such long-standing, established cultural value that reproductions of the works are easy to find: Multnomah County Libraries have a bunch of books, the Vatican has an informative site, Wikipedia has an extensive web gallery, and coffee table books abound. The reproductions aren’t “life sized” but they are free. If you’re interested specifically in reproductions of religious ceiling painting, Church Bar on NE Sandy has you covered.

If you’re looking for an “art in former retail space” outing, the dinosaurs are a better bet.

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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