Michael Asher's eponymous show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art recreates the temporary exhibition walls built since the museums relocation to Bergamot Station ten years ago. Before I add my words to the clueless typing already out there, I wanted to look back at some of Asher's earlier work.
At the day after opening lecture, October's Benjamin Buchloh said the work hearkened back to Michael's 1969 piece at the San Francisco Art Institute where he joined the gallery's modular wall panels into one continuous sheet that nearly bisected the gallery.
I was reminded of an independent study meeting I had with Michael some twenty years ago. In my first year at CalArts I decided to turn the studio space given to me by the school into a something with museum-like attributes. This was long before the days of the artist as gallerist/huckster. My interest was more in cataloging and labeling all the detritus that littered my space. I also kept regular hours when my studio-museum would be open to the public. Michael suggested I visit with the registrar at LACMA to learn about the museum's record keeping process.
The following week a woman was showing me a large wall filled with card files, similar to those libraries used to use. She told me to name any piece I knew that LACMA had ever shown, either permanent or temporary. I mentioned an early work by Michael Asher where he had three parallel walls temporarily constructed in one of the museum's galleries. She quickly found the card and showed it to me. Where the card listed the final location of the work (in storage, on display, loaned out, etc.) were neatly typed the words, "Destroyed by museum staff."
She was in shock, and quickly tried to explain to me the LACMA was not in the habit of destroying works in their care. When I told Michael that story, it got a giggle out of him.
Because so often Michael's work involves an intervention into the institutional system, and his materials are often those things already in the museum's possession, be it wall panels, a staff of preparators, or a statue of George Washington. By subtly manipulating the things that are already there he makes evident aspects of the institution that usually fade into the background. Though Michael would never admit it, these interventions come off in a way that offer not-so-subtle pokes at the staff and patrons of the institution. In some ways, I've always read Michael's work as mischievous and fun.
In this way the work at SMMoA was quite different. Rather than a manipulation of existing elements, this work was representational, like a Civil War reenactment, these metal studs were not original, but place holders costumed in the style and proximity of the original studs. Also, the temporary side walls, which did not become permanent until the Cavepainting show in 2002, were left in place, as was the short wall at the entrance of the large space which went up in 1999. Part of me understands there were logistical reasons for this: the museum probably uses the space for gift shop storage and the like. Unfortunately those logistical choices also read like aesthetic ones.
There is also the most obvious decision to leave off the drywall. By doing so the visitor is allowed the visceral experience of passing through history and seeing the light shimmer off the metal studs, which provides a very different reading of the work. I received this forwarded email, which captures a couple experiences of being in the work, as opposed to reading about it:
> Saw Michael Asher's show and lived to tell the tale. Very interestingI'm hoping Adam will guest blog here about the differences between experiencing one of Michael Asher's pieces and knowing a work through its documentation. Suffice to say those whose art education was through the tunnel of formalism will read the work that way.
> concept. I'm glad I saw it without a lot of people. The guard
> said one man fainted and had to be taken to the hospital and a
> women freaked
> because she was claustrophobic.
I'm not sure how Michael would react, but I think it's the most beautiful work of his that I've seen in person. Like a jungle gym, it invites exploration and play. I also learned that when they let the Mexicans show, the walls are made of wood, not metal.