Yesterday, 25 Lower East Side children known as Josh Ditzion’s 4th Grade Class at PS 110, had what may be the least boring field trip of their young lives.
As they approached the 77th Street entrance of the American Museum of Natural History, they were met by Jarred Alterman, the director of a new one-of-a-kind documentary film called Convento, and his protagonist, internationally renowned Dutch artist Christiaan Zwanikken.
To celebrate Convento’s inclusion in the Museum’s Margaret Mead Festival, the longest running international film festival in the United States, the Museum’s powers green lit the first ever “pop up exhibit” within its hallowed walls—installed in the lobby, right near the iconic 33 foot canoe carved from a single large cedar tree that Holden Caulfield so greatly admires in Catcher in the Rye.
As a small child, Christiaan moved from Amsterdam with his brother and Prima Ballerina mother to a deserted Portuguese monastery with plenty of hot sun to preserve the many remains of native animals, especially birds of prey and snakes.
This exquisitely cinematic location now serves as an art studio where he marries animal skulls and bones and recycled electronics, and brings his animal creations to life via inspired kinetic sculptures. Thus PS 110’s upper grade science teacher Dr. Samantha Levine was also in tow, as the children are currently studying the concept of adaptation in science.
(Full disclosure – my daughter Violet is in the class, and since I knew Jarred from the documentary festival circuit, I was fortunate enough to tag along as a class parent.)
The children looked wary despite assurances from Jarred that this was going to be GOOD. They had previously been to the museum in earlier grades for dozy lectures on vertebrates, and mammals, with the old fashioned method of presentation. Getting talked at, being required to remember in an essay back in class.
And now, what was there to see? A bunch of metal devices with animals skulls behind a cordoned off rope.
Jarred, hip, early 30s, a fidgety, funny, and gifted documentary maker who hated traditional teaching methods as a child, wasted no time on such boring matter.
After upbeat hellos worthy of a Nickelodeon award show, he asked, “Are you ready to get into some kinetic art?”
With Convento’s Producer Evan Meszaros as his teaching aide, the two flipped some switches and previously dead animals moved their arms and legs for a stretch, then began to cheep and caw. Two moving goat heads thudded against each other.
The children squealed with delight. Dazzled unsuspecting onlookers going past the canoe stopped and stared:
Fancy catching chattering peafowl robots on your way to the restroom!
It was hard to not think of every creature in the pop up exhibit as truly resurrected.
The gobsmacked children had more and more questions.
Christiaan, the artist/genius who the festival flew in for the Manhattan premiere, seemed tickled to see curiosity piqued and the possible flowering of genius before him.
“What is that sculpture?” aliens and baseball lover Oliver asked.
“It started out as palms. I imagined them alive.”
“I thought they were aliens!” Oliver cut in.
“They are aliens,” Christiaan asserted. “They are not of this world, I assure you!”
The children were allowed to run from animal to animal and grab either Jarred or Christiaan and ask away. Some of the animals were attached to headphones, which made it easier to hear how Christiaan imagined them sounding. I slipped on a pair, and the “soundtrack” transported me to an unknown landscape.
Helen, a girl at nine determined to be a veterinarian, offered that she had her hamster taxidermied, which led to a spirited private discussion with the artist, and she seemed delighted to be talked to as an equal.
And then, the children were asked to draw their animal robotic ideas, to pitch Christiaan a possible collaboration, or to simply draw whatever the event inspired.
All manner of illustrated beasties were examined, and Christiaan and Jarred stood in obvious awe of the unbridled imagination of children.
Natalia drew an elaborate bird robotic hybrid that left the filmmaker breathless. Sebastian – who my daughter long ago decided is most likely to be an inventor – decided on a sketch study of one of Christiaan’s birds of prey sculptures, with a few suggestions for another variation with more punch to it. Violet, currently enamored of anime and her cat Cindy, drew a robotic cat named Cindy chasing a robotic mouse. Sophie, the class bookworm, also set on being a vet, created a television you watch through animal jaws. Jeremy, who was a master builder even in kindergarten, gave Christiaan very specific details on what steps he would have to take if he wanted to bring his unrecognizable robotic creations to life. I asked Jeremy a little later if he could repeat the steps to me, and he warned, “You’ll need at least ten minutes— .” Which we didn’t have, as it was time to leave for lunch.
The children then let loose in the perfect autumn day with Central Park as their cafeteria, chasing after squirrels and jumping on autumn leaves, blissfully unaware that they were surrounded by an artificial utopia that sprang from the minds of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.
The Pop Up exhibit of Christiaan Zwanikken will be up all weekend at The American Museum of Natural History – in the 77th Street Lobby. The film will be screening 11/11 at 8pm and it has just been moved to a bigger theater, to accommodate growing interest. Grab the remaining tickets now.
You can find more information and a trailer here.
Buy tickets for tonight’s screening here.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is a Lower East Side documentary filmmaker, novelist, and mother.