Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Martha Rosler

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

August 26, 2013

Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch you add in other places.

—John Ruskin

The work promotes a state of contemplation in a communal viewing space, rekindling the museum’s founding identity as a “temple of spirit”—Guggenheim Museum press release for James Turrell’s Aten Reign, on view through September 25, 2013.

For the past several weeks I’ve been trying to make sense of my profound underwhelm with James Turrell’s otherwise much-touted light extravaganza at the Guggenheim. I love the Guggenheim; the architecture makes any reason to go there a special event, and now one of my most-admired artists has filled the atrium with a giant hollow cone of light and color which, ovoid and tiered like a wedding cake, floats over a seating area like a flying saucer. Gently diffused by the cone’s scrim-like fabric, LED lights gradually shift from one gradated color to another, while muted natural light filters in through the skylight. What’s not to like?

It should be right up my alley. Turrell’s permanent installation at MoMA/PS1, Meeting (1986) is at the top of my ten best list. In addition, I’ve spent a good part of my professional life writing about Robert Irwinand Olafur Eliasson, who work with perception and light in similar ways. I also have a special affinity with Turrell because I, too, come from Quaker stock and have been a practicing Quaker. Meditation and contemplation are important parts of my life.

However, seated in the atrium at the press preview, instead of going into rapture, I began thinking about Eliasson’s circular 360°Room(s) for all Colors of similarly changing hues. There visitors are highlighted participants, lit like fashion models against a seamless background, where here they appeared to have little relationship with the piece that hovered above them.  I also thought about how, in those Eliasson pieces, you can walk right up to the “wall,” which seems to have no substance but that of color, and practically put your nose in it—while the entire experience Turrell has created at the Guggenheim is “up there.” Not significantly related to the scale of my body, it felt separate from me, which meant I didn’t have the desired heightened awareness of my place in it—I was not, to employ the overused phrase, “seeing myself seeing”—any more than I would at a fireworks display. In every work of art the “here” and “there” are important aspects; to be fully satisfying, I want even a painting to tell me something up close as well as from a distance. In an installation, it’s even more important, because if my situation as a visitor isn’t fully developed, I don’t feel a connection with whatever else is going on.

Olafur Eliasson. 360° room for all colours. 2002. Stainless steel, projection foil, fluorescent lights, wood, and control unit, 126 x 321 x 321" (320 x 815.3 x 815.3 cm). Private collection. Installation view at Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © 2008 Olafur Eliasson

The most important aspect, however, of “seeing ourselves seeing” is that our perception is challenged to the point that we no longer trust our normal visual clues. This produces a particular state of self-consciousness that merges with the work—and at this, Turrell has been a master. In his Skyscapes, like the one at PS1, the sky becomes a “thing” you feel you could almost touch, with the result that you find yourself simultaneously questioning it and yourself. And looking at one of his early, simple corner light projections, your brain processes it as a cube with actual mass, even though you know it isn’t.  Nothing like that happens at the Guggenheim; while it’s beautiful, even stunning, there’s no mystery. What you see is what you get—an indication that the line between art and lighting design (which has become extremely sophisticated through the influence of artists) is now very, very thin.

James Turrell, Meeting(1986) MoMA/PS1. Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011

“He’s an orchestrator of experience,” Chuck Close has said of Turrell—but what makes up that experience? Where does it start and stop? Does it begin when you hear about it from a friend, or read a review? Those are things the artist can’t control, but he can influence what happens from the minute you walk through the door.

And what’s that like? My friend, David, a hospital administrator who made the mistake of visiting the Guggenheim with his out-of-town family on a weekend, described it as…“Horrible. Like Disneyland. There were 4-5 lines squeezed into the walled-off lobby, and you’re trying to get in line and bumping into everyone…and once you get your ticket and come into the atrium you’re trying to look up but can’t because there are so many people. It was pretty, but hardly transcendent. The architecture was all covered up and you could have been anywhere. And then, still bumping into people, you walked up the walled-off ramp, which felt like a missed [artistic] opportunity, to stand in more lines. Not that we were looking to be entertained, but we were looking for $20 worth of something.”

Another friend said the guards were ordering people around, telling them to get off the floor if they tried to lay on it….”It’s not their fault,” he said, “They were only doing their job, but it could have been managed better.”

So how much of that has to do with Turrell? I think it all does.

Much to the annoyance of painting students when I refuse to overlook a warped stretcher (the perpetual question being, “Is this intentional?”), I have always contended that everything that falls into my experience is part of the piece—a view that has fueled my no-doubt tedious bloggy diatribes against artists’ statements, wall text, audio tours, black-out curtains, headphones, etc. 

I was irritated when, a few years ago, I found that entrance to a Turrell installation, required shedding my shoes and donning floppy Tyvek protective booties. While surely an over-reaction on the part of one who’s invested too much in her fashion statement, I interpreted this as a power play on the part of the artist (“Really? Part of your piece is to make me look ridiculous?”).

So yes, in my book, the queues, crowd control, and the need for crowd control are all part of it.  This is, after all, the same museum that, in 2010, featured relational aesthetics guru, Tino Seghal, whose piece involved engaging visitors in conversation. After that and many similar, such as Martha Rosler’s garage sale and Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present, both recently at MoMA, it would be arbitrary to insist that personal interactions are significant in one circumstance, but not in another.

Eliasson (who was largely inspired by Robert Irwin, also my biggest influence, and now both have shaped my thinking) was aware of this responsibility on the part of the artist back in 2003, when he configured his monumental weather project at the Tate Modern. Approaching the institution as a whole, part of his preparation involved talking to members of each of the museum’s departments to discuss how their roles would impact his project.

 Olafur Eliasson, weather project (2003), Tate Modern

Eliasson also configured something that could handle the crowds it brought—which raises a related question: what is the artist’s accountability to the social situation his work is creating and/or occupying? For defenders of Richard Serra’s threatening Tilted Arc, which after much controversy, was ultimately removed from a busy office plaza, the answer was “None.” But much has gone on since 1989, with artists now more aware of, and willing to embrace, the public nature of their work. If relational aesthetics has had a positive impact, it has been to highlight the artist’s role in configuring the entire art experience.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)

All of this casts doubt on the decision to turn Frank Lloyd Wright’s soaring masterpiece into a confined area that requires limited entrance—and attempt to create a relatively intimate space in a public institution whose most basic function is to accommodate large numbers of people. Another power play perhaps?

I like to think of “generosity” in terms of public sculpture/installation, as a measure of the number of ways a work may fulfill the artist’s intention to successfully affect his audience. For example, few works are more “generous” than Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Installed in 2006 and nicknamed “The Bean” for its shape, this giant organic structure of highly polished stainless steel is engaging day and night, from afar, up close, and even underneath, involves light, reflection, and movement, and is as affective in the presence of crowds as it would be in solitude.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), Chicago.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6), video: Carol Diehl (2012).

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2003-6) View from underneath. Video: Carol Diehl (2012).

This is not to say that art has to be popular or even pleasing, but that it fulfills its purpose on every level. Therefore, if the intention of a piece was about the frustration of not being able to see it, say, then the question of its success would be, was everyone sufficiently frustrated?

Frustration and contemplation, however, do not go together.

Meanwhile, the frustration at the Guggenheim continues even after one leaves the atrium and attempts to see Turrell’s earlier works by joining the crowds to ascend the museum’s curving ramps, now claustrophobic tunnels with “walls” of opaque white fabric that block any view of the atrium. As students know, one of the first questions one asks when evaluating any sculpture is, does it perform equally well from all sides, or does it have a “dead zone?” This is something sculptors like Mark de Suvero and Richard Serra have obviously given a lot of thought to—as did the ancient Greeks. And especially now that sculpture engages the scale and dynamics of architecture, just as with personal interactions, it seems arbitrary to insist that we shouldn’t take the outside of Turrell’s cone into consideration as an integral part of the piece—it was, as my friend, David, put it, a “missed opportunity.”

Unattributed, possibly a Roman copy from the Greek
Opaque white scrim along ramps, blocking views across the rotunda
Photo by

Jenny Holzer, 
JUNE 27–SEPT 1, 2013 Photo: Carol Diehl 2013

PART II Robert Irwin on "Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light (1977)" recently at the Whitney

Further reading:

Roberta Smith on Turrell "New Light Fixture for Famous Rotunda"  and Irwin "Ineffable Emptiness: From Dawn to Dusk"

Gabrielle Selz "Considering Perception: Robert Irwin and James Turrell": a look at their shared history.

Lee Rosenbaum: "Turrell's Skyspace Obscures the Sky"

Blake Gopnik: "Has the Sage Turrell Sold Out?"

December 15, 2012
The author, working up an appetite

I just can't get into the radical masquerade that the art world is.

That’s a Martha Rosler’s garage sale at MoMA. This week I’ll reinforce my curmudgeon status with a non-response to Ann Hamilton’s installation in the vast Parade Hall at the Park Avenue Armory. Like Rosler, Hamilton is somewhat sanctified, protected by an aura of profundity she has cultivated, or has been cultivated for her, over the years.

I won’t describe the installation – this is not a review – except to say that it concerns a long white curtain that bisects the space, wooden swings on chains that cause the curtain panels to move when visitors swing on them, live white doves incarcerated in wicker basket/cages stacked on a table where a man and a woman attired in feathered capes are reading something, and packages twee-ly wrapped with brown paper and twine scattered here and there, containing speakers that emit voices. The real star is the room.

Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Oh I know, I could have made more of an effort. I could have listened more closely to the readings and relayed voices (were they the same?). I could have spent more time on the swings. I could have tried to figure out how the newsprint broadsheet of fuzzy photographs contributes to the whole.

Or I could go to lunch.

No doubt I'll be roundly criticized for dismissing something I haven’t fully explored—except I believe it’s the artist’s responsibility to engage me, not the other way around. I have no compunction about putting down a book halfway through, and if, in the middle of a play or concert, I find myself doing eye exercises or worrying about my bills, I don’t blame myself. I don’t underestimate the power of really great art to sweep me away. I think about how I once had a massive migraine that miraculously disappeared during a performance of Taming of the Shrew in Central Park with Raul Julia and Meryl Streep. Or the time my boy friend and I had a colossal fight on the way to see an early Cirque du Soleil, and went home in love. I could go on and on…Christian Marclay’s The Clock (which I finally left after 2 ½ hours only because I had to pee), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s genius Pandemonium at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at the Tate Modern (in an even more humungous space)....concerts by Sigur Ros…yes, such experiences are few and far between, but why lower the bar? Why should I spend my time trying to figure out what an artist is trying to convey, when I could be eating a splendid lamb tagine at Café Mogador?

As my friend, Roberto, observed so accurately in the taxi on our way downtown: I’m fatigued by the expectation of the system that I’ll play along completely.

I also don’t think that birds should have to suffer for art, any more than I should.

December 7, 2012
From Martha Rosler's Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA

When is radical art not radical? When it’s a Meta-Monumental Garage Saleat MoMA. No one, including me, wants to get on Martha Rosler’s case, because her intentions are so good. She’s a feminist who’s against war and into exposing the falsities of the gallery/museum system—nothing I wouldn’t whole-heartedly agree with. Except, instead of satisfying an “enduring taste for subversion” (see the New Yorker article), Rosler’s MoMA venture (November 17-30) was just another case of bullshit masquerading as art. “Subversion” would be if I got a cart and attempted to sell used T-shirts on the sidewalk in front of MoMA or, God forbid, in the lobby—an event that would immediately reveal just how tolerant the museum really is of purveyors of second-hand shit on their premises. The only reason Rosler gets to sell stuff at MoMA and Joe Schmo doesn’t, is because she knows how to navigate the museum system—and by doing so blatantly exposes herself as a player in the exclusive milieu she’s made a career of railing against.

“The Garage Sale [says the MoMA press release]…implicates visitors in face-to-face transactions within a secondary, informal cash economy—just like [my italics] garage sales held outside a museum setting.” You gotta be kidding. Rosler’s Garage Sale was as much like a real garage sale as Lindsay Lohan is like Elizabeth Taylor. First of all, it was stylized and artificial – from the giant American flag on the wall to the tags, cutesy signs, and arrangements of goods that were clearly the work of an artist pretending to have a garage sale (for instance if someone bought something that was tacked to the wall, they had to wait until the event was over to collect it, so as not to disturb the display). Further, it was in a museum and the visitors who paid $25 to experience it did not look like people who would normally consider incorporating second-hand items into their lives – in other words, they were slumming.

I get pissed off when the art world plays at – and therefore mocks – the lives of others, especially “suburbia” and the now mythical “middle class.”  If I see one more arty photograph of a supposedly anonymous ranch house I’ll scream. 

However buying and selling second hand-items—i.e. “junk” – is what some people do for a living. They know where to find the stuff, how to price and sell it. It’s how they get by.

Others are forced to sell their belongings in order to raise cash to pay the mortgage or next month’s rent. As for the buyers, there are people out there who wear second-hand clothing not for a lark, but because it’s only way they can afford to cover their backs.

But garage sales as the iconic activity of the suburban not-desperate are about excess, accumulations of stuff that have to be regularly purged.

Therefore, to invite members of the elite to paw through over-priced discarded items seemed remarkably insensitive, not the least because of its timing—immediately following Hurricane Sandy, when the belongings of so many were reduced to just such piles, only logged with water.

But, it was pointed out to me, this exhibition was planned years ago. So what? It’s conceptual art. If Warner Brothers can remake scenes from a multimillion-dollar film in the wake of a theater shooting, why can’t art, especially conceptual art, respond to the times? As I suggested below, Rosler could have donated everything and left the atrium empty, as the hurricane left so many homes empty.

Again, I’m really tired of accumulations of detritus in all its forms pretending to be art, like Karen Kilimnik or Song Dong, the Chinese artist who laid out his mother’s possessions at MoMA in 2009 and recently at London’s Barbicon. Could we please just make something for a change? Or at the very least, attempt to transform it, as Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt does so beautifully in his work, now at MoMA/PS1.

There's nothing about "institutional critique" that a great work of art doesn't do better.    Toward that end, Olafur Eliasson's swinging fan in MoMA's atrium said it all.

Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator, 1997: Photo by C-Monster