Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is it OK to Smash That? The Complications of Living Art Museums

Every day for the past two months, a man has entered the largest gallery in my museum. He takes a crowbar out of a Swiss Army backpack. He smashes a sculpture of an animal.

This is not a crime.

The man is artist Rocky Lewycky, whose work is part of a group show of visual artists who have won a prestigious regional fellowship. His project, Is It Necessary?, blends sculpture, repetition, and ritual performance in a political statement about the genocide of animals in factory farms.

Sometimes, Rocky lets visitors join in on the smashing. It's a powerful experience for those who participate. It also complicates the question of what is acceptable in a museum. If an artist can come into a museum and smash stuff, what does that tell visitors? If visitors can smash stuff when anointed to do so by an artist, but not otherwise, how do they understand that action?

I thought about all of this when reading about the recent incident at the Perez Art Museum Miami, where artist Maximo Carminero smashed a vase by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei in an unauthorized act of visitor participation. The vase was itself an appropriated/ritually-vandalized object: a centuries-old vase that Wei Wei had dipped in commercial paint. One of Ai Wei Wei's most well-known pieces was a performance in which he dropped a Han Dynasty urn, smashing it to pieces.

While some in the art world are heralding Carminero's act as expanding the role of art to disrupt and make political statements, I feel that this is a pretty straightforward issue of a criminal act. It is not acceptable to walk into a museum and destroy another artist's work of art. Period.

But does the fact that Ai Wei Wei smashes work himself complicate the issue? Definitely. Do I worry that a visitor might see what's happening in Rocky Lewycky's project at my museum and be confused about our museum's approach to protecting artwork? Absolutely. Is all of this confusion worth it? Yes.

These performances and incidents are artifacts of a shift in art museums towards being "living" institutions. Art museums have often been criticized by some for being mausoleums for art, with conservators serving as unctuous morticians. A practice-based artist once colorfully described art museums to me as "places where art goes to die."

But art museums are coming back from the dead. They are hosting performances, exhibitions that morph over time, artists who work in practice-based media, who break the fourth wall with the audience, who invite participation, and who deliberately disrupt museum conventions.

All of these developments are exciting to me. But these shifts come with necessary questions about how to scaffold the visitor experience in a "living" space so people understand what the heck is happening, how they can participate, and what is out-of-bounds. Whether it's a "please touch" label or a gallery host who invites you in and sets the ground rules, the scaffolding is essential. I've seen participatory artworks that lay untouched by visitors because the invitation to participate is not explicit enough. I've seen other projects that are so hemmed in by fear of "what visitors will do" that they can't bloom.

Unfortunately, instead of clear scaffolding, what I often see are institutions shirking their responsibility, closing their eyes and letting visitors figure it out. It's unreasonable to imagine that visitors will intuitively understand which rules apply to which areas and artworks. The rules of museum-going are already opaque. Throw in a few participatory elements, and suddenly you have visitors trying to arbitrate amongst themselves. I've seen visitors yell at each other for participating in exhibitions in ways that the institution was actually trying to encourage. I've seen visitors watch each other participate with confusion, wondering if that other person was "getting away" with something they too would like to try.

All of this confusion is harmful and unnecessary. Scaffolding can both clarify new opportunities for engagement AND define the limits of that engagement. It doesn't have to be complicated or involve release forms. It just needs to be clear. I know I could do a better job of making sure we scaffold the more unorthodox projects at our museum. Some of my biggest mistakes have come when we didn't scaffold and contextualize enough. We keep thinking about what we can do to help people understand what is happening and what is possible with clarity and confidence.

In the best cases, art museums are able to "live" in ways that honor the diversity of creative expression and ways that artists engage with their artwork and their audiences. This requires acknowledging and engaging with the messiness of the work, anticipating the challenges, and communicating new opportunities. This kind of scaffolding won't eradicate destructive criminal acts. But it will open up the possibility for participation and experimental work with less fear.
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