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      PEMcast | December 31, 2019

      PEMcast 14: Be here now

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      In this episode of the PEMcast, we bring you into the gallery to discover a work created by our visitors.

      Kimsooja: Archive of Mind asks you to do something very simple: Choose a lump of clay from three earthy colors, roll the clay into a ball and push it toward the center of the table. This immersive experience has been calming frayed nerves since it opened in June. But why is this experience so relaxing?

      PEM Curator Trevor Smith and artist Kimsooja in the installation. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
      PEM Curator Trevor Smith and PEMcast producer Dinah Cardin chat in Archive of Mind. Photo by Jelivet Perez/PEM.

      Join me and my PEMcast co-host Chip Van Dyke as we chat with Kimsooja, the Korean artist behind this meditative work, as well as gallery guides who have welcomed about 40,000 visitors to the installation, so far.

      We also talk with PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith, and our resident neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher to discover why something so simple can slow us down and prepare us for a better overall museum visit.

      PEM Curator Trevor Smith and PEMcast producer Dinah Cardin chat in Archive of Mind. Photo by Jelivet Perez/PEM.

      Gallery guide Jelivet Perez chats with a visitor. Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      Asher shared some findings on how long the average person looks at a work of art. It’s a matter of seconds. We as a society are flying through museums.

      This idea that you’re at the table and you will be here for a few minutes, it creates opportunities for close looking that I think might prime you for that kind of behavior down the road."
      — Dr. Tedi Asher

      If you haven’t experienced this North American premiere at PEM, you have until January 20 to calm your spirit and get centered. Come see for yourself how these individual gestures add up to a collective archive of our intentions and wishes.

      Wondering what happens to this massive clay pile next year? It will be recycled and donated to nearby Montserrat College of Art and to high school art programs in Haverhill and Lawrence.

      Resident neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher in the installation. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

      Resident neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher in the installation. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
      Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      Photo by Ken Sawyer/PEM.

      To see how visitors are responding and contributing to the exhibition, search #ArchiveofMind on social media.

      On deck in the Jeffrey P. Beale Gallery, PEM’s new space dedicated to immersive experiences, is artist Carlos Garaicoa. His immersive installation Partitura weaves together street musician performances into a single composition that will envelop and surprise you. It opens in March.

      If you missed our last episode, which explores our strategic planning process for moving forward with new director Brian Kennedy, listen to Episode 13: #newPEM. If you have a story idea or comment to share, write to us at

      Find all of the PEMcast episodes on Soundcloud, your podcast app or here on PEM's website.

      PEMcast 14: Archive of Mind

      [background conversations]

      Dinah Cardin: I'm in PEM's Jeffrey Beale Gallery. It's a new space dedicated to the installation of immersive experiences. In the center of the room is a 25-foot oblong table. It almost fills the cavernous gallery end to end. The table is covered with thousands of balls of clay. This exhibition is created by the visitor, or, more precisely, by tens of thousands of visitors.

      Trevor Smith: You have this lump of clay in your hand. The clay feels very cold at the start.

      Dinah: That's Trevor Smith, PEM's curator of the Present Tense.

      Trevor: As it gradually smooths out in your hand, you can sense the clay warming up. You can feel your energy going into the clay.

      Dinah: Everyone around us is seated at the table and doing the same thing, shaping clay balls and placing them on the table in front of them.

      Trevor: I think these moments of collective activity, where you're alone together, are becoming increasingly precious.

      Dinah: Each contribution of a single hand-shaped ball will eventually fill the table over time.

      Trevor: It's a beautiful thing to me.

      Dinah: The installation is called "Archive of Mind." It's the work of Korean artist Kimsooja. Here she is, from her visit, during the opening of the show.

      Kimsooja: When you create a sphere, we put our two hands together, balancing the opposite forces, negative and positive, or yin and yang. I find it's an important archive. It could be imagined as an imaginable archive of mind.

      [background music]

      Chip Van Dyke: Welcome to the "PEMcast," conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I'm Chip Van Dyke.

      Dinah: I'm Dinah Cardin. The North American premiere of Kimsooja, Archive of Mind, has been a huge success here at PEM.

      Chip: An estimated 40,000 visitors to the museum have contributed, as of this taping.

      Dinah: The response from our audience is clear. People crave what this artwork has to offer, silence and a sense of calm.

      Chip: The show's curator, Trevor Smith, was pretty confident that Archive of Mind would resonate for today's museum visitor.

      Trevor: In our age that is so technologically mediated, we're always carrying around these devices, to just sit silently with a lump of clay and just have this quiet moment...

      Dinah: Trevor first encountered Kimsooja's work, a video installation called "Needle Woman," more than 20 years ago.

      Trevor: Each video is a single shot in a different city. She is standing with her back to the camera, a long braid hanging down her back. You really feel the different energy of the city through its contrast to the stillness of her body and the way that the crowds are weaving in and out and around her.

      Dinah: We'd love to share at least some of the audio with you from one of these artworks, but unfortunately, and maybe not surprisingly, they are silent.

      Chip: It also comes as no surprise that an artist known for making silent commentaries on busy city streets would make a work about sitting down and being quiet.

      Anne Principe: I feel like this exhibition is giving the public a significantly new experience.

      Chip: This is Anne Principe, an exhibition interpreter.

      Dinah: She's one of the people on hand to help answer participant questions and to guide them through the process.

      Anne: It tends to be a visceral experience because immediately our mind goes back to, "When was the last time I felt this?" "Well, the last time I played with clay, it was in elementary school, and that was a long time ago," but then, after that initial tactile experience, their hands get busy.

      Visitor 1: It just reminds you of rolling dough.

      Visitor 2: I said meatballs.


      Visitor 1: It's exciting because it's something new.

      Visitor 2: Actually, it's made my day.


      Tedi Asher: It provides a focus for our attention, and we can really only focus on one thing at a time.

      Chip: This is Tedi Asher, PEM's very own neuroscientist. Yes, PEM has a neuroscientist. She helps us understand how to enhance the impact of our museum experiences on a neurological level.

      Dinah: Something Tedi has been working on recently is how to help visitors get a better experience out of their visit to PEM.

      Tedi: By focusing on this simple, repetitive act, we're leaving behind all those other chaotic thoughts that were bouncing around in our heads when we walked through the door.

      Chip: Tedi shared with us some findings on how long the average person looks at a work of art. It's a matter of seconds. We, as a society, are flying through museums.

      Tedi: This idea that you're at the table, you're going to be here for a few minutes, this is a longer process than a flyby, it creates opportunities for close-looking.

      Dinah: Close-looking is something all museums are striving for because it creates a more meaningful experience. It's funny to think that something as simple as rolling a ball from clay might help us get there.

      Chip: Not everyone is going to approach the experience in the exact same way, as Kimsooja explains.

      Kimsooja: There's one phenomenon I discovered through the years. The biggest clay balls that was made on the table was always middle-aged men.


      Hannah Tyser: Or small children, like, "I want to make the biggest one."

      Chip: This is Hannah Tyser, another interpreter for the gallery. All kinds of people walk into this installation. Something tells me that...

      Hannah: Not everyone makes a ball.

      Chip: What if I made an ashtray?

      Hannah: [laughs]

      Chip: There's one over there. That looks like a spear.

      Hannah: I see that.

      Chip: What is that? That's all I can focus on right now.


      Hannah: ...that's all you see is that one different one popping out.

      Chip: You have to take that off the table?

      Hannah: Yeah.

      Chip: I suppose you wait for that person to leave.

      Hannah: Yes, definitely.

      Jelivet Perez: The phrase we say is that, "If someone were to make other things, it becomes a domino effect."


      Chip: Jelivet Perez, another interpreter.

      Jelivet: Then it becomes something other than the intent of this piece.

      Chip: It becomes a challenge.

      Jelivet: Right, and now it becomes a creative clay studio, which isn't necessarily the point.

      Dinah: The research on this phenomenon, the limitation of choice, reflects what Kimsooja may have already known, that an abundance of choices is not helpful to calming the mind.

      Tedi: Rolling this ball right now, I'm finding that it provides a little bit of a respite. It's an instruction to not worry about anything, to focus on this very simple task, almost what might be considered an irrelevant task to the larger picture of what you have to do, what you have to get done. It makes it important in this moment. That would be my interpretation. [laughs]

      Dinah: It's like a me moment?

      Tedi: Yeah, I think so.

      [background music]

      Trevor: How somebody chooses to roll the clay, how much care they choose to do it with, what size, what color, you end up with this field of spheres, which are gestures, and each gesture is somehow subtly unique, even though they're all spheres.

      Chip: By the close of the exhibition in January, Archive of Mind may have collected as many as 100,000 clay balls. Some are as petite and smooth as a bird's egg, and others as large and lumpy as a snowball. Each reflects the efforts and mindset of its maker.

      Kimsooja: I've been always questioning the condition of humanity in this troubled era. That is why I wish to share this precious moment together. I hope that everybody find a certain peace in their mind. Thank you.

      [background music]

      Chip: Come experience Archive of Mind before January 20th to see how visitors are responding and contributing to this exhibition. Search the ArchiveOfMind hashtag on social media.

      Dinah: What's next for PEM's Jeffrey Beale Gallery? Get ready for artist Carlos Garaicoa. His work, called "Partitura," weaves together Spanish street musician performances into a single composition that will envelop and surprise you.

      Chip: If you have any story ideas or comments to share, please write to us at Music for this episode by Forrest James. You can find his latest album, "Gamma," on Spotify, Bandcamp, and wherever else you find great music.


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      Past Exhibition

      Kimsooja: Archive of Mind

      June 22, 2019 to January 20, 2020