I don't often descend from the mountain and hand down stone tablets. But this week I'm making an exception. It's for your own good. You will go to the Fullerton Museum Center and see "Material World." And you will blab about it all week to anyone who will listen—and even those who won't. And you might even lay down $35 of your hard-earned bread for the coffee-table book. Of course, then you'll just have even more stuff than you already possess, and clutter is definitely "out" this season.
"Material World" is packed with large-scale photos, drowning in reds and greens, portraying 30 families in 30 nations with whom photographers spent a week in the early '90s. Each is "statistically average," and different sections of the exhibit show commonalities: how they sleep, mealtimes, transportation. But the culmination of each week was a group photo outside their respective homes, with all their possessions piled high. It is a mightily political exhibit, and it's not subtle. Whether your children have blankets and shoes depends on where you live. But the photographers stop short of actually advocating wealth redistribution, at least out loud. That's why you have me.
There is a sense, seeing families stand before their houses, that they have enough. Even when their belongings amount to only a few metal bowls for water offerings and silk cloths for altar coverings, one is still struck by the beauty of the things and the power they must hold. The Namgay family of Bhutan stands before a large, dilapidated house at the top of the world. Below them, all is green and incredibly peaceful. They have ceremonial clarinets; they have cows and tools. It wouldn't be such a bad thing, being a statistically average family in Bhutan.
It's not until later in the exhibit that you see the inside of the house, and everything isn't pretty and fertile anymore. People sleep stacked together on the grimy wood floor of the dingy space, without a single item that might bring comfort. It's little wonder Buddhist monks go in for asceticism; asceticism is probably a step up.
It would be easy enough to build you a laundry list of who in which country has what. The exhibit is ostensibly about things, after all, and how they're distributed. The exhibit designers hammer that home, in fact: each group photo comes with a key detailing exactly what possessions you're looking at, and I took marvelous notes. But those of us in the MTV generation especially don't have the attention span to slog through each list, especially once we start entering the First World. And trust me: you don't want me to put you through the information overload that would entail. I don't want that. Nobody wants that.
But the lists of possessions are a red herring. Aside from the absolute coma I could induce by reciting for you the lists of items, it would also obscure the main, beautiful, hippy-dippy point. And that point? Believe it or not: you can't buy happiness.
I know: we're just a few hundred words short of Jonathan Livingston Seagull here. But though it may sound floopy, it's not the fault of the exhibit, which never stoops to sappiness or fraudulent sentimentality. Instead, what you have is a clear, concise documentary, though without the dryness we often associate with the genre.
Simply, the Ukita family in Japan, with their neatly stacked tons of electronics, are no happier than the Vietnamese Nguyens, who pretty much have a ceiling fan, a thermos and a beautiful carved sideboard. Each family has a sullen little girl frowning at the camera, but the Ukitas also have a sullen mom and a dad who raises his brows ironically, while the Nguyen mom smiles exuberantly and the dad stands proud.
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And the extended family of Chinese Wus? They've pretty much got it made, sitting in a fishing boat in the river before their large house, surrounded by fields and bougainvillea. It has the feeling of an old California rancho. There are guitars and dolls and bicycles and a television. These are things seemingly every family in the world has—at least all the statistically average ones. And that's pretty much all one seems to need—unless, of course, your children are dying of diphtheria or you live in Bhutan and don't have any blankets. It gets cold at the top of the world.
The typical Kuwaiti family, meanwhile, has to spread their things out in the sandy lot across the street, and their couches and rugs and Mercedes-Benzes take up a city block. The photographer shoots the family from so far away they aren't even in their portrait. Nor does mealtime at their home show anyone looking at ease; they all seem to have indigestion, and it leads one to wonder whether the photographer in fact couldn't stand them. It's certainly not a flattering depiction—although at least they're not eating with the TV on, like people do throughout most of the world.
The exhibit goes on and on but never gets dull or repeats itself. In places like Mali, grinning children swim in the river with large beasts of burden. In places like Iceland, kids play in the snow in their bathing suits. And in places like Bosnia, households consist of bombed-out trucks, bombed-out buildings, chamber pots, and young U.N. soldiers posing in the background. There is no playing to be done.
MATERIAL WORLD: A GLOBAL FAMILY PORTRAIT AT FULLERTON MUSEUM CENTER, 301 N. POMONA AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 738-6545. THROUGH AUG. 13.