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Current time:0:00Total duration:2:39

Video transcript

[background music] We're in the Museum of Modern Art and we're looking at Constantin Brancusi's "Bird in Space" from 1928. Brancusi was a Romanian who worked for almost his entire career in Paris. He worked in lots of media and often pushed the materials to really new expressions. This is bronze. It's bronze. It's been highly polished. So it looks like gold... But it's not just bronze, because for Brancusi the pedestal was part of the sculpture. And it's got a stone pedestal. It's got limestone below that and very often you'd see a wooden pedestal even below that creating a hierarchy of materials what he considered the most primitive to the most industrial. It's kind of a Neoplatonic idea of ascending from the material up to the immaterial. I think that's exactly right. The reflectivity of the bronze drives that point home. It is really about light and movement, right? This is not a sculpture that is in any way a literal depiction of a bird, it's a depiction of this gentle organic arching of this soaring figure. It's not a bird in so much as a representation of the thing that birds to that we love. As one moves around it and looks at it, the light that reflects on it shifts and changes and flickers, so it does have a sense of something almost kinetic. As if it were moving and soaring, but it's not a propulsion that seems mechanical, even though it's metal and we see it as an industrial material. There's a great story about this sculpture. This was included in a famous 1936 exhibition at MoMA called "Cubism and Abstract Art" and when this came over from France, the customs agents kept it and wouldn't let it out. Why? Because MoMA was claiming it is a work of art and they didn't believe it. This is 1936 and they thought it had some industrial use and therefore could be taxed and MoMA said "No, it's a work of art, it should not be taxed" and it was actually held in. There was a court case about it. But what purpose could this possibly serve? If I remember correctly the papers suggested it may be a propeller or a piece of a propeller. It does really speak to the radicality - which I think we forget - of just how abstract this is. It doesn't really in some ways look so abstract. It does suggest flight and upward movement and we're used to things suggesting things like that. [background music]