By Anika Khakoo
In the midst of a wholly digital world, where all one has to do to see a work of art is perform a simple Google search, what is the role of the art museum? This was certainly a question I pondered this fall. My name is Anika Khakoo, I’m a rising junior at Princeton University studying Art & Archaeology, and for the past four months, I’ve worked as The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s first remote Education and Exhibitions intern.
My journey to The Aldrich began when I met with Namulen Bayarsaihan, the Museum’s Director of Education, in the spring of 2020 to discuss the possibility of a summer internship. It was the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was widespread uncertainty about what the summer would look like. As April and May progressed and there was no sign of quarantine ending, we postponed the internship possibility, agreeing to reconnect in August. In the meantime, with my Princeton coursework being totally online for the 2020-21 academic year, I made the decision to take a gap year, not wanting to lose one of my beloved semesters roaming the university museum’s collections on campus. I decided I would spend the year immersing myself in the museum world, a field in which I’ve aspired to pursue a career for quite a while.
After touching base in August, Namulen took the time to put together a really comprehensive and wonderful remote internship program with The Aldrich’s Education and Exhibitions departments. I began my journey working virtually at The Aldrich shortly thereafter. At the start of my internship, the vast majority of my assignments were to conduct research for three fall exhibitions at the Museum– Genesis Belanger:Through the Eye of a Needle,Frank Stella’s Stars, A Survey, and my personal favorite, Twenty Twenty, a group exhibition in which seven artists were asked to respond to the 2020 Presidential election.
In the first few months, there were some difficulties to overcome associated with a fully virtual internship. For starters, I live in California, so the time difference occasionally meant some pretty early mornings! And of course, there was the occasional obligatory Zoom problem – internet cutting out, a family member walking into the room mid-call – the funny things that we’ve all become begrudgingly used to.
Beyond these logistical hurdles, however, the obstacle I was the most mystified by in the beginning was the fact that I had not, and still haven’t, seen any of the artworks which I was researching in person. How could I ever begin to experience Frank Stella’s Fat 12 Point Carbon Fiber Star, at 21 feet tall, through the screen of a computer? The spatial and experiential aspects of art — size, texture, shape, and physicality — make seeing it in person so different than seeing it virtually. Some might argue that there’s no difference between art and art in reproduction—a photograph of a painting versus the painting itself— but the indescribable pull that the aura of physical artwork can have on us says otherwise. The feeling of standing in front of a work of art can be absolutely electrifying, playing with our understandings of space, expectations, and senses in ways that can be occasionally ontologically overwhelming. Pondering my levels of separation from the art in The Aldrich’s galleries, I wondered: how could I reckon with my disjointed experience? Would my experiential and physical distance bar me from bearing any true understanding of this art? How could I bridge the gap?
Having now spent quite some time considering this question, what I’ve come to realize is that, in many ways, my physical distance from the Museum has made me reflect on the exhibitions on view at The Aldrich in uniquely nuanced ways. So much of our world right now is seen through the screen of a computer or smartphone, and this digital experience is definitely engrained in the fabric of The Aldrich’s fall 2020 exhibitions– specifically, in Twenty Twenty. Artist Judith Eisler, for example, depicts some of the defining women of this year, working from film stills she finds on the Internet. She sometimes incorporates a textured visage into her work, portraying the wavy lines we sometimes see on our computer screens. She purposely calls her viewer’s attention to the inherent physicality of those screens. Digital media has found its way into the most basic rituals of our lives, and I found great solace in viewing works on paper which capture a slice of this disorienting experience.
In many ways, looking at, learning about, and contemplating art that deals with the themes of 2020 has given me a way to reflect on my own realities. Through the ups and downs of being in a pandemic, working remotely, and reckoning with a globally traumatic year, seeing artists capture the essence of their experiences has been cathartic for me, despite my being thousands of miles away from the works themselves. Of course, I would love to visit The Aldrich in person when it is safe to do so. I hope to have the chance to shadow the installation of an exhibit there in spring or summer of 2021, to walk through the Sculpture Garden, to roam thelight-filled halls, to finally see Stella’s humongous stars. However, all in all, I wouldn’t trade this virtual experience for anything. Evocative contemporary art has the power to stick with us far after we leave the museum and return to the real world. And while I’ve never physically been to The Aldrich, I think that in the midst of this bizarre and disjointed year, my nontraditional experience at the Museum will make it all the more memorable.
 In his seminal 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” philosopher Walter Benjamin discusses the auratic qualities of the physical work of art. Written in the wake of the rising popularity of photography and cinema in post-World War I Germany, Benjamin’s essay posits the devaluing effects of automatic reproduction on the cult value, or uniqueness, of the physical work of art.