The first installation I saw when I stepped through the doors of the Freer|Sackler to start my summer internship was Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The piece is both daunting and intriguing, drawing visitors in for a closer look.
As someone who loves stories, I was fascinated by the idea behind the artwork. The sculpture is based on a Chinese folktale of monkeys who try to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from the branch of a tree to the moon, only to discover that it is a shimmering reflection on the surface of a pool beneath them.
At first the sculpture appears to be a chain of black lines and shapes, but there is more than originally meets the eye. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is an installation of word shapes. Twenty-one laminated wood pieces represent the word “monkey” in a dozen languages and writing systems, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Braille.
The words themselves also resemble monkeys, stretched at beginning and end to form long tails and arms. They link together in a large chain that extends down three levels. Perhaps this is why I like the piece so much: wherever you are in the Sackler, you’re never far from the sculpture. It serves as a constant reminder of the way in which art can be displayed effectively in an unusual space.
I got to know the piece in an even more personal way when I helped create an Instagram story that revolved around Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. This involved planning out a storyboard to decide what text and images would be shown, getting our ideas approved, and then going out into the museum to shoot the sculpture. Getting up close meant I really got to look at the sculpture, picking out the different languages I knew and reading about those that I didn’t.
The installation will be on permanent display once the Freer|Sackler reopens this fall. Join us on reopening weekend, which kicks off at 5 pm on Saturday, October 14, to visit Monkeys and marvel at its spellbinding design.