Art in a Nutshe … um …Tortoise Shell

Oh my, how we baby boomers have seen the definitions of art expand in our lifetimes. We thought we had seen it all when a music venue near Washington, DC, sent a ballet troupe to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave to be videotaped dancing under large balloons in a cavern 150 feet beneath the surface. That was weird enough … but, here’s a story that tops that … BoomerCafé’s Greg Dobbs writes of visiting an art gallery at Aspen, Colorado, to see the African tortoises with iPads.

Since I was in Aspen anyway, I thought, Well, might as well go see the tortoises. I’ve been in Colorado’s richest boom town many times but, to be sure, this was the first time that the words “tortoises” and “Aspen” have popped up in the same moment in my mind.

The tortoises I’m talking about, of course, are the three African tortoises on display at the new and newly controversial Aspen Art Museum. Note that I say the tortoises are “on display” rather than “in an art exhibit.” That’s because, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t fit them into any established definition of art.

Visitors take photos with iPhones of African tortoises with iPads on their backs.  (photo credit: Aspen Times)

Visitors take photos with iPhones of African tortoises with iPads on their backs.
(photo credit: Aspen Times)

Let’s start with the title of the display: Moving Ghost Town. That’s because the exhibit consists of these three tortoises moving around their enclosure — of course you have to stand there quite a while to actually see them move but that’s a different issue — with two iPads balanced like sandwich boards atop small wooden platforms on each tortoise’s back. Each iPad apparently displays video images of Colorado’s ghost town heritage.

Greg Dobbs

Greg Dobbs

Note, once again, that I say that each iPad “apparently” displays these pictures. That’s because the enclosure is up on the rooftop level of the museum, and since the tortoises were out in the glaring sun, I couldn’t see a thing on the screens of the iPads. I have an iPad myself, and have long known that in bright sunlight, you can’t see anything on the screen, save perhaps the reflection of the sun. Having raised roughly $70-million to build this new museum, couldn’t someone have popped for an experimental iPad before commissioning the exhibit to see if it would even work?

Then there’s the small paper plaque describing the exhibit itself. Usually in a museum if materials are described, it’ll say something like “Oils,” “Charcoal,” “Acrylics,” “Watercolors,” “Paper Maché,” something to give us some background we might not otherwise recognize. But for Moving Ghost Town, the words are, and I kid you not, “Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.” Sorry, but that was something I already could see for myself … even if I couldn’t actually see the video I was supposed to see on the iPads (which according to the alleged artist, was taken by the tortoises themselves, which might explain why I wasn’t all that disappointed to miss it).

Note, one more time, my choice of words: “alleged artist.” That’s because I haven’t yet figured out how Tortoises, iPads, and Grass fit into any definition of art. I was in the area because I’d just moderated a symposium at the Anderson Ranch art center in Snowmass entitled “Making the Change They Want To See.” It was about artists as activists, artists using their art to effect change in society. In my book that’s a good use of any artistic medium, as opposed to producing art strictly for profit, or for a creative outlet, or personal satisfaction, or simply for impact. Someone at the symposium described art as “anything that makes us see the world in a whole new way.” Fair enough. But I’m not sure the Aspen exhibit even does that.


The last piece of controversy about the tortoises is thanks to the radical group PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Frankly, when I see them inveigh about an issue with animals, and I don’t have to tell you that they consider anything that puts iPads on the backs of tortoises totally inhumane — or should the word actually be “intortane?” — I rush to join the other side. Look, my family and I once toured a turtle farm in the Caribbean, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that two of them were mating in a pool as we walked in and when we walked out 90 minutes later, they were still… um… going at it. Although I never did find out which one’s on top, I’m convinced that these guys can take the weight of two iPads.

I’m also convinced, if Aspen could raise $70-million for its new museum, it could do better things with the money than Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.

(Editor’s note: Since Greg wrote this story, the tortoises were moved to a secret location … The museum said it was to protect them from the cold weather. Right!!! Yeah, sure.)

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  1. Thanks for the post, have to admit it started my day off on a lighter note. That said, In my opinion, we have been witnessing the prostitution of art for quite some time. I do not have to like or even understand what I see or hear for it to be considered art, but as you said, “I haven’t yet figured out how Tortoises, iPads, and Grass fit into any definition of art.”

  2. Personally, I don’t get the message of the show you describe so well. Is it ‘technology moves too slow for the artist’? Or, if the tortoise is art, then technology means nothing to it? I get lost easily in ‘art for art’s sake’. I appreciate your sentiment about this exhibit, though. Perhaps the decision-makers had had a wee bit too much wine the day they signed the contract?

  3. I love this kind of thing and I’m sure I would have enjoyed viewing this Slow moving, Living Art. But it did make me think of a a school field trip I went on with my at that time 10-year-old son. When our group got to the tortoise enclosure, two of the turtles were noisily “making whoopie!” If you’ve never seen two large tortoises going at it — well you’ve certainly missed out on something. I’m just hoping that the Aspen turtles aren’t prevented from enjoying this particular pass time by the IPADS on their backs.

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