BAR Magazine

Issue 02

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Display Narratives

Critical Essay

by Jameson Johnson

8 November 2017

Mark Dion, “Landfill” (1999-2000) mixed media. On view now at ICA, Boston’s “Misadventures of a 21st Century Naturalist.”

Collecting is a ubiquitous term in our hypernormalized world. On instagram we create collection of saves photos from the feeds we interact with. On Pinterest we “pin” recipes, pieces of clothing, photographs, or ideas we will probably never use again. An online checkout holds a collection of our purchased. Collecting media is everywhere; we have no choice but to be “curators” of our own lives. Does that mean that the art of curating or collecting is lost in the chaos?

The Institute of Contemporary Art’s The Artist’s Museum allows the artists to play the role of curator in their own micro displays. As culture producers, commentators, or critics, artists are constantly gathering information, the delivering it to us—the spectator—in what isn’t always a neat and tidy display. At the ICA, these collections manifest themselves both in the physical and virtual world, creating a complex relationship between tangible objects and digital documentation. This exhibition highlights the relationship artists hold between their artwork and their inspiration. “The Artist’s Museum” showcases careful arrangements of objects and digital media allowing viewers to become an active participant in considering the role of information intake and display.

Just as the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns utilized newspapers and print media within their assemblages, so too do 21st century artists utilize their available mediums. Upon stepping into the exhibition space within the ICA’s 4th floor, it feels more like an archive than a museum. Groupings by individual artists present themselves as little museums within a larger museum—carefully displaying the relationship between viewer, artist, and object.

Sara VanDerBeek creates temporary sculpture displays in order to examine the relationship between photography, sculpture, and temporality. Displayed in large frames, the photograph prints are structural collages of metal rods, crumpled paper, photographs, sculptures and various other materials. The collages, such as Ziggurat (2006) are made explicitly with the sole purpose of being photographed. By integrating other photographs into her structures, the artist creates a unique cycle where the photographs become structure and the structure becomes a photograph. The relationship between these two items becomes obscured as their roles change as the images and objects selected for the structure take on new meaning as the artist arranges and groups them together.

Sarah VanDerBeek, “Ziggurat” (2006)

It is evident that the artist is employing the past in order to create new items for the present and the future. Without individually labeling or accrediting the pieces that make up the work, viewers are tasked with decoding and interpreting the various parts on their own. The exhibition text asserts, “the flattening of three-dimensional form in two-dimensional image corresponds to the idea that the past is leveled in the present.” This emphasizes the need for context in relation to art and culture insisting that no single concept can stand-alone. In this regard, VanDerBeek attributes new meaning to existing objects by creating messages through arrangements.

While VandDerBeek represents the ever-changing nature of meaning attribution through photography, Christian Marclay calls upon viewers to consider the ways in which objects can be utilized beyond their initial purpose. While standing in the center of 16 video monitors, the sounds of moving objects converge to create a symphony of untraditional melodies. Shake Rattle and Roll (Flumix) (2004) was inspired by the Walker Art Center’s expansive Fluxus item collection. The ever-rotating short films feature Christian Marclay manipulating the objects in a sterile (likely an archive) setting in order to examine the potential for sound and movement. As papers are crumpled, metal boxes are closed, and marbles are shaken inside of jars, the artist gives individuality to each object while simultaneously examining the interplay between the collections. Curator Dan Byers informed our small yet sprawling tour group that the name Fluxmix reflects Marclay’s role as a DJ, filmmaker, and artist. This attribution to the Fluxus movement is evident beyond the objects themselves. As Marclay handles the objects, a question of authorship is at hand. As if picking up an unfinished project, Marclay carries on the messages of artists such as George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik by creating a conceptual piece not dependent on outcome. The piece is constantly changing as monitors randomize the object films and viewers can never truly experience the same order or arrangement twice.

Christian Marclay “Shake Rattle and Roll” (2004) photo courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

Recalling the happenings of Allan Kaprow and John Cage, Shake Rattle and Roll creates a space for chance, audiences, and objects to shape a fleeting moment. Though the installation forces audiences to actively engage by moving between monitors, there is still a disconnect between object and viewer. While Marclay creates movement and sound, the television screen still serves the same purpose as a glass box or a museum alarm—a clear barrier between artist, object, and audience.

Even in what seems to be an “interactive” and “engaging” exhibition, a certain level of context is necessary. It is perhaps still too idealist for audiences and artists to interact without the bureaucracy of museum interference. This exhibition is unique in that it gives audiences a different perspective into the working minds of artists, yet it is evident that context and precedent are still key. Goshka Macuga’s Kabinett der Abstraken (after El Lissitsky), 2003 serves as the epitome of the entire exhibition as it explores the relationship between the museum space and object display. Functioning as a “micro museum,” the cabinet showcases items in carefully divided sections. It was initially designed for viewers to move the sliding cabinets in order to reveal several curiosities, but naturally we could never be given such a pleasure as artist intent in a museum setting.

Wire frame glasses sit next to a photo of Walter Cronkite, an impossible puzzle box lay open, and scissors dangle from a glass ledge. The seeming disassociation of such objects forces audiences to consider the implications of such objects as they interact within their microcosms. She draws attention to the commonplace act of collecting by presenting objects within a curated space—therefore creating meaning by association. Though possible for visitors to simply take in the seemingly random assortment of objects, this piece relies on precedent and cultural awareness.

Macuga employs the same Fluxus ideology of combining images, items, and ideas to create contemporary associations beyond traditional settings. Authorship again is questioned as the cabinet is based on El Lissitsky’s 1926 “cabinet for abstract art.” Historical precedence therefore plays a key role in audience involvement as the larger context of art display in relation to Lissitsky’s original piece is explored.

The Artist’s Museum confronts audiences with the daunting task of reconfiguration and imagination in the digital age. As Google can yield search results in milliseconds, we are hardly responsible for forming our own associations between ideas, images, objects, etc. Every search result yields a section devoted to “similar” while our Instagram explore page is “based upon images you like.” Association has become automated as we can express our opinion of something through the form of an online click, like, comment, or heart. The art of collecting is not lost, however, it has been repurposed. Artists within the exhibition reveal the interdisciplinary relationships between digital and physical in our daily lives.