Monday, April 16, 2007

Virgil Marti and Pae White: Directions, Hirshhorn Museum

The wall text for Marti and White’s installation in the Hirshhorn’s lobby calls it a “transformation” of the space. In its failure to live up to this buildup, the actual work is ultimately a disappointment, seeming more of a collection of disparate pieces than a space-altering installation or cohesive collaboration. The installation, however, does contain the beginnings of several interesting ideas, which would be convincing and powerful if explored further.

There are four main components to the installation. Marti created decorative sculptures in a playful goth style, with curtains made of golden bones as well as colorful chandeliers composed of resin branches and flowers and hung from the ceiling with macramé. White’s contributions ranged from a giant window decal portraying a network of bright cartoon lines to lumpy sofas draped with tapestries that depict enlarged scraps of newspaper or yellow pages.

Approaching the museum from the outside, one senses an avenue the artists could have investigated further. From outside the building, the lobby has the appearance of a gloomy, somewhat creepy church. White’s window piece acts as an out-of-control, spider-webbing stained glass window, while Marti’s chandeliers glow within. It brings to mind the idea of the museum replacing the church as the new institution that controls art. Upon entering the lobby, unfortunately, the effect is lost. The original feel of the space tames and overpowers any new feeling suggested by the installation (unfortunately, it’s difficult to find shows where that museum feeling doesn’t overpower the work). In the interview White reveals that she had considered “covering the windows completely with huge heavy tapestries;” this raises the question of why she did not choose this route, which may have helped bring about that desired transformation of the space.

The most interesting idea in the installation (and the place where collaboration is most evident) is the dialogue between Marti’s curtains and White’s newspaper sofa. White’s sofa transforms important news events into objects that are sat on while their significance goes unnoticed. In an interview she discusses the awkwardness of “a tragedy in Somalia yesterday becom[ing] furniture in Washington, DC, today.” In light of this, Marti’s curtains are laden with a new layer of meaning; the bones allude to the atrocities we commit or at least allow in order to maintain our golden wealth and status. Together, these two pieces speak of first world commodification of third world suffering. An advantage of this idea is that it doesn’t necessitate the aforementioned transformation of the space, since it seems more like a subversion of the system from within. However, it seems the artists stopped short of truly exploring the fertile territory hinted at by this idea.

In the end, the problem may be partly rooted in how the museum frames the work. In addition to the “transformation” issue, another example is a relic from the artists’ first collaboration at Skowhegan. Originally it acted as a suggestion box to fuel their interactive piece. The museum text justifies its presence as a reminiscence of the artists’ history, an allusion to the nature of collaboration as an exchange of suggestions, and an object that “echoes the form of the museum shop.” The first two reasons are valid, but the third makes me think, “So, the suggestion box and the gift shop are both sort of rectangular boxes; isn’t that kind of a stretch?” This is diagnostic of an overall attempt of the museum to justify the installation through a description that may not actually apply, thereby confusing viewers with wrong expectations and awkward inconsistencies.

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