Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Limits of Pedagogy and the Specter of the Dysfunctional Museum

Herzog & de Meuron at MoMA: The Limits of Pedagogy and the Specter of the Dysfunctional Museum
Artist's Choice: Perception Restrained
Museum of Modern Art, New York
June 21 through September 25, 2006

(This text was commissioned by Paletten Art Magazine, based in Gothenburg, Sweden. It will appear in issue #266, January 2007, focusing on art and pedagogy. www.paletten.tk )

Museums certainly have a lot of explaining to do these days. Rare is the exhibition that arrives without a tremendous baggage of pedagogical tools in tow, designed to inform, cajole and manufacture consent. Aside from the catalog, a panoply of aids attempt to channel the viewer’s perception of the art on display. These include wall texts, published brochures placed in Plexiglas sconces, audio tours with the voice of the curator or artist, and roaming bands of docents speaking in the various tongues of the civilized art world. The art object is rarely allowed to signify on its own terms.



In this new blockbuster model, the packaging of the show, its marketing to a mass audience, seems to receive equal if not greater weight than the art itself. This might reflect certain institutional imperatives surrounding the growing expense of mounting and traveling an exhibition. Nothing can be left to chance. Free interpretation must be sacrificed to consensus building and marketing, and to creating the proper attitude of reverence and respect, in order to guarantee the greatest attendance. In American museums, marketing is also geared to increasing the revenues from admission fees and purchases at the museum’s gift shops, bookstores, restaurants and cafes.

It is an over-engineered conception of what is necessary and sufficient for an art exhibition. It is also an outgrowth of the vast proliferation of arts professionals, particularly those with a concentration in management and marketing. They have prerogatives of power to establish, maintain and expand upon. This burgeoning professional class unavoidably ushers in an increase in the attendant trappings of the art exhibition. It is a self-fulfilling mandate: new administrators create new jurisdictions for themselves to administrate.

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, the standard of exhibition seemed more pristine and silent. It was enough for a curator to be involved with the art, to simply place the works and allow them to interact, wordlessly, as the audience engaged in unalloyed appreciation and contemplation. Perhaps this idealized temple of art never really existed except as a model. Perhaps it was essentially an elitist formulation, geared to an audience of connoisseurs who did not require any instruction. And perhaps it ignored one of the essential missions of the museum -- to educate its audience.

The pedagogical tools listed above should have a democratizing influence, allowing more people to appreciate the art on exhibit. Still, there is a nagging concern that many of accouterments of the contemporary art exhibition revolve around two equally unattractive polarities. Either they pander to a lowest common denominator of expression and presentation in order to grab the largest number of tourist dollars, or they surround the art with a supposedly helpful but ultimately alienating series of barriers that heighten the distance an audience needs to travel to comprehend the work on display.

Rather than being truly helpful and welcoming, some pedagogical aids only reinforce the gulf between the world of the arts professional and that of the audience at large. They allow the audience in, but only on terms fully legislated and controlled by the professional class. The instructional material is not necessarily geared to a general public, but rather for the delectation and approval of other arts professionals, and can be viewed as just so much more elitist preening. It is a subtle form of intimidation, of institutional arrogance and inaccessibility perpetuated through the use of jargon, hints of personal connections, intimations of a special, abstruse knowledge, and through the departmentalized bureaucracy of the institution. The museum is posited as a fortress, a bulwark only to be entered by the worthy.

Architects, especially those in the business of museum building, are very sensitive to these concerns. How space functions in the museum, how power is reified through space, how information signifies within the parameters of display, how culture is packaged and presented in the postmodern institution – these are their bread and butter. And they are inclined to discuss these issues publicly, since the very nature of their work makes them inured to the necessities of a client relationship. Even firms with a Pritzker in their portfolio constantly need to sell their proposals to government committees, corporate presidents and zoning boards. They must be ready to defend and explicate, to offer up a persona and a rationale for public consumption. Moreover, architects are particularly able to recognize and critique a pedagogical intent in others, because they so often need to assume a similar mantle themselves.





Which brings us to the central focus of this piece, the celebrated Swiss architecture team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and the Artist’s Choice exhibition they recently mounted in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Archly entitled Perception Restrained, it perversely crammed art work from MoMA’s permanent collection into walled off sepulchers, where they were essentially hidden from view, visible only through thin, beveled slits carved into the wall. In designing such a dysfunctional means of display, Herzog & de Meuron created a visual metaphor to address the problem of institutional arrogance and inaccessibility, the dangers of grim professionalism and academic compartmentalization, and the physical or visual alienation experienced by some audiences within the arts institution.

Perception Restrained (or PR -- a common abbreviation for “public relations”) displayed world class art which was entombed within the very structure of the institution. A trenchant critique drawn in very broad strokes, PR was a form of intellectual slapstick, a dryly humorous object lesson on the current state of museum exhibition, using the
art collection of the most famous museum in the world as its resource. If it exaggerated the inherent dislocation and the barriers experienced in viewing the art, this was in order to more broadly critique the institution.

PR was also colored and given further significance by the particular relationship that the architects maintain with MoMA. H&dM designed the Tate Modern in London, the extension to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Schaulager exhibition/storage hybrid space in their hometown of Basel. They are working on the expansion of the Parrish Museum in Southampton, Long Island. They were recently named winners of the competition to build the new Miami Art Museum. They have designed various sports arenas (in Germany, Switzerland and Beijing – the last in progress for the 2008 Olympic Games), plus private residences, factories, schools and apartment buildings, including a condominium/townhouse complex currently under construction in New York’s NoHo neighborhood. They are star architects. But the one commission that eluded them, the prize just out of reach, was the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Their proposal made it into the final three, but ultimately lost out to the design of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.

To indicate they are still held in high esteem, MoMA invited H&dM back to curate an Artist’s Choice exhibition. They were the first architects so chosen. It was meant as their consolation prize, and was only the eighth AC exhibition since the inception of the series.

The AC platform is deemed a singular honor, generally conferred on celebrity artists who are asked to choose work from MoMA’s permanent collection in order to illustrate a thesis or to reinterpret the collection in the context of their own work. It started in 1989, when Kirk Varnedoe invited Scott Burton, the maker of benches and plinths, who responded with an exhibition of Brancusi’s bases as sculpture in their own right. The series has continued with exhibitions organized by Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, and Stephen Sondheim, among others.

In asking H&dM to return as curators, the museum engaged in a bit of supremely self-conscious theater reeking of noblesse oblige. Seemingly patting themselves on the back while admiring themselves in the mirror, the mandarins at MoMA graciously extended the olive branch, beckoning the architects back to the house they were not allowed to build. So if H&dM responded with an archly conceived exercise in petulance, an elaborately intellectualized expression of sour grapes - well, what else might MoMA have expected? H&dM proceeded to bite the hand that didn’t feed them with cunningly deadpan subversion and piss elegant politesse. This rarefied pas de deux, between all powerful patron and aggressively intelligent servant, set in the higher precincts of the cultural elite, has hardly been demonstrated to better advantage. And, as H&dM are hardly unaware of the critical backlash against Taniguchi’s design, it is certainly a propitious moment for them to engage in institutional critique: right inside the lost commission, the ostensible “scene of the crime”.

Still, H&dM do fulfill the AC mandate, using art from the collection to illustrate a particular thesis. As might be expected from architects, it is the manner of display rather than the actual art on display that was found to be most instructive and essential.

There was an accompanying exhibition brochure that, in MoMA’s best pedagogical style, contained diagrams of the show, a list of works, and an artist’s statement. In it, H&dM made clear their choice of objects did not reflect a personal aesthetic preference. “Everyone knows that the holdings of MoMA are unparalleled in quantity, quality and density. How could we possibly pick out the gems when we only have gems to choose from?”

So while art was the ostensible subject, the actual selections were almost incidental. The art served merely as a prop for the real issues: museum space energized for display, the spectacle and the paradoxical failure of exhibition, the alienation of the viewer within the museum. H&dM have never actually engaged in a direct critique of the new Taniguchi galleries, nor of the management at MoMA. This could seem ungracious. They instead chose to launch their critique indirectly, locating the problem with the viewer. As stated in the brochure: “The problem facing the Museum is not a lack of first-rate art but rather a lack of perceptive attention on the part of museum visitors, despite the spectacular galleries in the new extension. The art is there, spread out in a panorama, professionally illuminated, impossible to overlook – but it is not seen.”

Were they being disingenuous in blaming the unfortunate visitor who just would not concentrate? Well, certainly. The viewer is hardly to blame for his inattention. It is the failure of the architecture to adequately engage the viewer. H&dM employ an old strategy, that of the aesthete embracing the low in order to attack the middlebrow. And what is their solution to the “lack of perceptive attention”? Something particularly perverse and counter intuitive. Make the work even less accessible. Make viewing it a challenge, through simple spatial dislocation and interference. Again from the brochure: “Our project is an attempt to offer a spatial alternative to the existing galleries for a limited period of time and in a limited space, a site of heightened concentration and density that functions like a kind of perception machine. By obstructing and putting pressure on perception, the installation intensifies the viewing experience and makes it more enduring, more selective, and more individual.” In other words, hide the art in order to foreground the very act of viewing it . Make it a bit of an ordeal, because only then, with the consciousness of surmounting a barrier, can the audience become truly aware of the work on display.

The main space of PR was a dark room filled with rows of long benches. Fifteen video screens were mounted on the ceiling, with loops (ranging from 37 seconds to 14 minutes) excerpted from various Hollywood blockbusters and a limited avant-garde repertory, all part of MoMA’s permanent collection from the Department of Film and Media. Included were three ultra violent, kinetic scenes from Martin Scorsese’s Italian-American urban crime melodramas -- Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and Mean Streets. The Robert Duvall intoned “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” air cavalry attack from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The bullet ridden finale of Bonnie and Clyde. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Woyzeck (both starring Klaus Kinski). A trinity of Andy Warhol films from his Paul Morrissey period: Trash, Flesh and Heat. Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious films, both Yellow and Blue.

In order to view the clips, one either had to crane one’s head upward, lie flat on the bench, or use thoughtfully provided hand mirrors to reflect the images above. Of course, using the mirrors – perhaps the preferred means of accessing the video screens – would both reverse the direction of the images and sometimes render them upside down – further distancing the viewer from the original presentation of the film.

H&dM indicated that the choice of films did not reflect their artistic taste (although the selections do veer towards a popular/art house meld, and seem a fond relic from their student days), but “simply confirms an undeniable shift in imagery that has taken place in recent years. The moving image with explicit reference to violence, drama, and sex has received growing attention while traditional artistic mediums require special exhibitions with blockbuster potential in order to be perceived at all.”



But film was just the appetizer of PR. Off to the sides of the central viewing room was the main course, the meat, potato and veggie: three sequestered chambers, viewed through horizontally slotted windows or apertures reminiscent of castle crenelations. Objects were stuffed into these semi accessible vaults in super salon style, cheek by jowl, with the haphazard density of a dragon’s treasure trove, and were segregated according to the logic of MoMA’s own curatorial departments. One bunker contained examples from Architecture and Design (45 objects), the second had Photography (36), and the third had Painting and Sculpture (29). The history of modern art in 110 easy pieces, courtesy of MoMA and H&dM.

In the design vault were chairs by Alvar Aalto and Charles Eames, an Ettore Sottsass portable typewriter, a TV from Philippe Starck, a wheelbarrow from Gerrit Rietveld, and, in a nod to themselves, a maquette in folded copper of one of H&dM’s early commissions, a railroad signal depot in Basel. The photography bunker contained expected names, including Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Cindy Sherman. In the rarefied Painting and Sculpture vault, only the strong survived, including a Cézanne self-portrait, Picasso’s paper maquette for his sheet metal Guitar sculpture. Matisse. Mondrian. Giacometti. Dali. Calder. Louise Bourgeois. Joseph Beuys. Pollock. de Kooning. Jasper Johns. Donald Judd. Warhol. Nauman. Ending with Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, Charles Ray and Matthew Barney.

The list of displayed works is exhaustive (and exhausting) but not particularly revelatory, because the choices were drawn from artists and designers well known within the canon. The objects were already spoken for. They had a place in art history and an appreciable, collectible value. Could this be the very point? The Swiss are bankers to the world. Perhaps it was no accident that H&dM felt most comfortable placing the work where it will be safe, in protected, inaccessible bunkers. It was their prudent response as good citizens of Mittel Europa.

Let us take them at their word and view their entombment of the art object as paradoxically liberating, even a bit subversive, because it makes us see the work from a new perspective. Let us also accept their critique of spectacle, and of the packaging of culture in our image saturated society: that in order to compete with film, other art forms must establish a new density, or be incorporated into a new blockbuster format, in order to signify to the mass audience.

This thesis would hopefully be illustrated by the physical parameters of PR. But the placement of paintings in the bunkers and film clips above our heads equally challenged our efforts to view them properly, and together seemed a bit reductive, sort of a one liner, and not exactly the liberation of the art object. In this context, at least, their theoretical musings on perception seemed to outstrip their actual praxis.

But in their institutional critique, H&dM are right on target. Like the universe at large, the museum has a cosmology, with periods of expansion and contraction. In its shiny, new Taniguchi shell, MoMA might seem poised on the cusp of a new era of exploration: to boldly go where no institution has gone before. But space is a funny thing. While the newly expanded museum has stunning interior vistas, atria, and stairways to heaven, as well as a plethora of cafes, restaurants and bookshops, its actual utility leaves something to be desired -- as measured in ease of crowd flow, navigability from gallery to gallery, and the ability to air its permanent collection while also mounting special exhibitions.

In sucking the air out of Perception Restrained, H&dM are sounding a cautionary note: that claustrophobia might soon be the order of the day throughout the museum, the cumulative result of its huge collections, its expanding public, and its archaic, departmentalized organization. The new MoMA might already be outmoded, ill equipped to survive an uncertain future. This is one of the dangers MoMA’s professional managers risked when they decided to build a fortress: while you might chill the yahoos, you could also entomb yourself in a sarcophagus of your own ambition.

Had H&dM been given the commission, would MoMA’s future be more assured, its design more accommodating and flexible? Perhaps. But as insider/outsiders in the ongoing debate on the functions and usages of the contemporary museum, Herzog and de Meuron have managed to advance several valuable lessons on the tendency of even the most venerable arts institution to ossify, to fall victim to professional hubris, to alienate the audience, and - paradoxically - to restrain perception.

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Biography

Recently named an “Extraterrestrial” in The Art Universe star map published in the December 2006 Vanity Fair, Steven Kaplan has in fact been living on Planet Art for some time. He writes about art and film, both in print and online, has curated exhibitions, edited magazines, served as a juror on film festivals, and was the creative director of an art fair in New York. He once moderated an online calendar of New York cultural events, and worked both coasts of Florida as a shrimp fisherman. He maintains several blogs, to which he sporadically adds text. Based in New York, Mr. Kaplan also has a residence in Miami.

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