Mining the creative mind at the MIA

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519, Italian), <i>Codex Leicester</i>, c.1506-10 (detail). Ink on paper.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519, Italian), Codex Leicester, c.1506-10 (detail). Ink on paper.

The best thing about the new Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts isn’t actually seeing work by Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, the real treat is a video and sound installation Bill Viola, called The Raft. Curated by Alex Bortolot, the exhibition, titled “Leonardo da Vinci, the Codex Leicester & the Creative Mind,” takes the concept of da Vinci’s creative genius and supplements that idea with other contemporary artists/thinkers/designers who are using curiosity and innovation in their work, giving insight into their processes. 

You’d think that seeing da Vinci’s most famous notebook, dedicated mostly to the study of water, would be a bit more powerful than it is. But there’s something about the dark lighting, the metal detector that you have to go through to see it, and the heavy glass cases covering single pages, keeping them temperature and humidity controlled, that is all a little off-putting.

Plus, it’s written in Italian with da Vinci’s mirror-image writing. The drawings are cool, and there are plenty of explanatory notes that help people understand what they’re reading, but the presentation feels very clinical.

The Codex Leicester is owned by billionaire Bill Gates, who bought it at a Christie’s auction about 20 years ago for $30,802,500. It makes you wonder what other important archives of humanity are swooped away from the public sphere of museums by wealthy people who want to own them for themselves. The good thing is that Gates puts the Codex on view to the public once a year. But visiting these documents with all the ominous security feels like you’re trespassing on someone else’s prized possession.

The other creative minds featured in the exhibit are interesting, though none really live up to the promise of discovering the secrets of creativity. Sketches from Don E. Harley & Associates exploring car safety, for example, feel somewhat arbitrary. Car seats are important, certainly, but why are these particular designs chosen for the exhibit?

For Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Crotchet Coral Reef, they employ a technique, called “hyperbolic geometry,” that uses mathematical principles found in nature, and is a little more impressive. Scott Olson’s design work is intriguing as well.

Bill Viola, <i>The Raft</i>, 2004. Color high-definition video projection on wall.

Bill Viola, The Raft, 2004. Color high-definition video projection on wall.


However, Bill Viola’s The Raft, is the best part of the show. Shot in 35mm high-speed film which is slowed down, the short definitely offers a dramatic experience. At the beginning, there are a group of people standing on a set of sorts, without any indicators of where they are. Shot in slow motion, their blank expressions suggest they are on a subway or in some other public space. Next, still in slow motion, they are blasted with water, and the whole scene transforms into a thriller/action movie where they fight for survival. The characters, which were at first banal and without interest, transform into heroes and heroines, people fighting not only for themselves but for each other. It’s a masterful work, and definitely worth seeing.