A Peek into Alchemy of the Soul and the sugar refineries of Cuba

Day 1

No fooling, today I start my 1,000-day journey! I have a busy weekend ahead of me, so this morning on my way to work I started reading Alchemy of the Soul. It's the accompanying book to the exhibit of the same name at the Peabody Essex Museum, and the exhibit (which closes this weekend! Go see it while you have the chance!) is an original installation by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. I bought it in book form, but it is also online.

This book of essays by PEM staff and affiliates, lush with photos of Campos-Pons's work, is rich with information and ideas. The art installation is made almost entirely of glass, and its forms are graceful but deliberately industrial, imitating the landscape of mostly defunct sugar refineries that Campos-Pons grew up with in Cuba. It full of stillness and also of movement, with liquids pouring from one piece of sculpture to another. Its soundscape is thoughtfully crafted, although, having visited a month ago, I confess I don't remember much about the sounds, just the emotions they stirred in me. I felt hushed, contemplative, and yet eager to explore. 

Image of six transparent vessels of different shapes, each at different heights, feeding foaming dark liquid into one another by a series of tubes.
Artwork by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, photograph by Peter Vanderwarker. www.pem.org

Most of the book is in parallel text, with English on one side of the page and Spanish on the other side. It's lovely for me as someone who has been dipping my toes into learning Spanish, and I'm sure it's equally nice for Spanish speakers learning English. I was disappointed, however, that this only true of the main essays, and not the introduction, or the about page on the website. In those instances, it feels like the Spanish in the rest of the book is only decorative, even though it's full of meaning.

Both the exhibition and the book raise lots of questions for me. I have only just begun the book, but I don't think it will answer them -- nor should it -- but help me explore them more deeply. What does it mean for someone in coastal New England, an area that was once wealthy because of its investment in Afro-Caribbean sugar and rum production, to look at this exhibit? The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem was certainly aware of this connection when commissioning the installation. What can I, a White American who visits the town where I was born several times a year, learn from the artist, a Cuban of mostly Yoruba ancestry who lives in the United States and was in exile without visiting her family for over a decade? How can I, a lover of learning by reading, engage with the history of another country by having spent some time in an art gallery, and by reading essays written by people other than the artist?

I'll write more of a review once I've finished the book. For now, I encourage you to see the exhibit this weekend, before it closes!


  1. This reminds me a little of an exhibit at the Station Museum (the soundscape is from the sounds of an oil field) -- http://www.stationmuseum.com/index.php/exhibitions/140-andrei-molodkin-crude

    1. What a fascinating exhibit (and museum!) Thanks for passing this along. I agree, there are a lot of parallels, in the use of machine forms, recognizable liquids, and artistic techniques as well as a soundscape. This is the kind of contemporary art I can get into.


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