Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Curator's Forum: Enrico Lunghi

© Jacques Charlier

During my trip to Helsinki for the IKT conference, Enrico Lunghi, current IKT President and Director of the Musee d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (Mudam) Luxembourg told me about curating Belgian artist Jacques Charlier's "100 SEXES D'ARTISTES" for the French-speaking (Wallonia) community at the Venice Biennale.

Charlier eats at the edges of bourgeois pretension, like fellow Belgians Renee Magritte and Wim Delvoye, and the "100 SEXES..." project continues Charlier's quasi-scientific exposition on the genesis of creativity in artists by making drawings of their genitalia. This project, begun in the 1970s, is Charlier's mockumentary-style reduction of artistic "style" to secondary sexual characteristics (and a form of "macho feminism"?).

After being submitted to be part of the collateral events (in the form of posters scattered around Venice) for the Venice Biennale, supported by Ministry of the French Speaking community of Belgium (Wallonia Brussels), the Department of Plastic Arts with the help of Wallonia-Brussels International (WBI), Lunghi received a letter from Biennale artistic director Daniel Birnbaum disinviting the project. After an appeal, the disinvitation was confirmed.

So the posters can't be shown in Venice, but they will be in seven European cities (Antwerp, Belgrade, Bergen, Luxembourg, Metz and Namur) during the months of June and July, with other cities expressing interest as well. In Venice, however, the team will show all the documents relating to the project on a boat which will be moored along the Grand Canal, close to the Giardini, during the professional (pre-opening) days so visitors will still be able to see the drawings--and decide for themselves. It does mean, however, that the general public, tourists and residents alike, will not see the works--and weren't they ultimately the artist's target audience?

I wonder why this form of nudity--and a project with funding and support from legitimate institutions--would be censored and not, say, Francesco Vezzoli's 2005 "Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's 'Caligula' "? In Vezzoli's trailer--produced with blessings from Gore Vidal, who sued to have his name taken off the 1979 movie--the artist was drawing a parallel between the excesses of Caligula with the art world's "desire for visibility" as represented through the Venice Biennale. (Other soft porn / corn, Italian-themed works are Jeff Koons's performances with former wife La Cicciolina, intended to skewer American--and the art world's?--puritanism, image below).

© Jeff Koons

Birnbaum told Lunghi on the phone (and confirmed subsequently via e-mail) that the reason for censorship was a fear of offending the artists whose genitals are represented. One might ask, cynically, does this have anything to do with the art market instead?

Is quasi-pornography and art world critique acceptable in forms of high production (Vezzoli, Koons) and not, as in Charlier's place, base modesty? Are the Charlier works just, too, well...naked?

To quote Enrico Lunghi regarding the censorship: "It only remains for the art world and journalists (at any rate, those who don’t just parrot the official press releases) to ask themselves what values the Venice Biennale is promoting if it censors an artistic project in such a dubious and irresponsible manner. Is it up to the Biennale to castrate artists by deciding for them what might offend those whose very existence consists of forever extending the limits of freedom?"

This preemptive self-censorship seems familiar to Americans caught up in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Does this censorship suggest an Americanization of European sensibility, or simply the manifestation of personal taste? In any case, a vigorous dialogue around this project that has already begun, and we'll learn a lot from it.

June 4 up-date (sent in by Anila Rubiku):

From an interview of Daniel Birnbaum by Nicola Davide Angerame at

"In Italia ci sono stati recenti casi d’intolleranza e censura. Da Cattelan a Milano alla mostra di Sgarbi, sempre a Milano, a quella di Adel Abdessemed a Torino. Dove inizia la libertà dell’arte e degli artisti, e dove deve finire la libertà della politica e della società quando applicano la censura?
Gli artisti dovrebbero essere liberi quando creano i loro lavori, ma sono anche semplicemente esseri umani, che dovrebbero mostrare rispetto verso gli altri esseri umani, come deve fare chiunque. Non ci sono misteri. Nella maggior parte dei casi è una questione di decenza." (I would translate this but my Italian is a bit rusty, it would only be an approximation...)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Milwaukee / Chicago

I was in Milwaukee a few weeks ago and was lucky to catch the newly-configured Chicago Art Fair and the Next Art Fair for younger galleries. As expected, the art quality varied, but the Merchandise Mart's low ceilings allowed for a surprisingly refreshing, intimate experience (oh, that and attendance was modest, a sign of the economy or that the space self-selects its audience?) Kevin and I ran into many pals--Megan Riley of Megan Riley Projects, Chicago (me), Jen Bekman of Jen Bekman gallery, New York (him), curators from the mid-west, etc... The fairs are rebuilding after Chicago was trumped by New York and Miami, and indeed I found some good work.

Edward Lipski's Freak and Child, 2005 (above)
Timothy Hutching's video of murderous explorers Player vs. Player, 2008 (below)

Zoe Walker & Neil Bromwich's inflatable tank (I'm a sucker for the blow-ups)

The last art-related thing I did during my ASU-"sponsored" furlough was attend the opening of Milwaukee's latest addition to the young gallery scene, the Green Gallery (East), run by artist / entrepreneurs John Riepenhoff and Jake Palmert. The show--Lovable Like Orphan Kitties and Bastard Children--was a survey of contemporary art being made in LA.

The show was an irreverent, thoughtful snapshot of one of the most complex and dynamic arts communities--dare I say--on the globe? (I lived in LA from 1988-1997, and while the community has broadened and gone international, it allows for an astonishing range of artistic productions).

What the Green Gallery (located in an old gas statation? dry cleaner?) means to me is that the ecosystem in Milwaukee is sufficiently mature, and the artist community sufficiently diverse, to allow jewels like the Green Gallery to exist--let's hear it for pioneering galleries Hermetic, Jody Monroe and Hotcakes for paving the way!

Megan mentioned to me that she tried to weave together the Chicago and Milwaukee communities while helping to set up the educational programs for the Chicago Art fair--this pairing doubles the value of both communities. As art worlds dissolve and reconfigure themselves, this is surely a powerful combination.

(Henceforth, and unless otherwise noted, all pictures are by the author. This last picture, of Green Gallery, is by Kevin J. Miyazaki, a professional using an amateur's camera.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Favorite Estonian installation

installation of works by Villu Jaanisoo at KUMU Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia (photo MK)

While fumbling about the lovely but disorienting spaces at the KUMU Art Museum, I found this room.

The artist, the beloved Estonian modern master Villu Jaanisoo, created these busts between the 1920s and 1950s. While the variety of materials and size shifts created a nice coloristic effect, it was the installation itself that really wowed me.

The curator used the tall walls and narrowing, triangular pinch of the gallery to create a dynamic, purposeful installation. That the artist's work from different decades of real vs. historical figures was intermixed reflects how we live our lives--time is jumbled about, eras are unfairly compared, fictional characters play as large a role in our world view as do real people. It is not just the past that affects our present but the future taints our lives today as well.

I don't read Estonian so I can only guess at the notes on the works, and how this artist represents and preserves the Estonian character, but this installation shows that, when curators read space correctly and respond physically to three-dimensional space, their work adds to the conceptual meaning of an art work.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bonus! Education in America

top: ASU Sun Devil stadium and satellite dishes
bottom: special Barak Obama t-shirts
(photos: MK)

Finally, a discussion about the importance of educating young people in America at the ASU graduation ceremony tonight. I grew up in Canada, so these discussions seem rather distressing. Of course you need to educate your populace! Education is a fundamental part of the Social Contract, as we know.

Dr. Michael Crow, president of ASU, is an astute, visionary leader who has set the stage for how Arizona can work its way out of its financial abyss--education!

Tonight's convocation by President Obama and Dr. Crow was inspiring, and makes my rather bleak image (above) of Sun Devil stadium appear to hold promise--despite the heat.

(Below) A consolation prize for not sitting outside in the 100+ degree heat.

Summer is here!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Museum architecture--Lobby

top: © Steven Holl, Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, 2007 (ramp to board room)
middle: Steven Holl's KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki (photo MK)
bottom: KUMU Art Museum, Estonia, Tallinn (photo MK)

This post follows up on the question I've been asking museum curators--what museums do you like--and conversations with architect friends--what function is the museum building intended to have?

Today's post by Tyler Green concerning the renovations taking at the National Gallery of Art's East Building raises similar questions. The NGA's lobby was never meant to be for art, but rather, as a gathering and orientation space for visitors afraid of museums (this is another topic altogether). That Green suggests that the NGA's new space by I.M. Pei, opened 1978, is modeled on hotel lobby architecture is a snippy quip--and it feels completely justified. The galleries are a jumble, hoping to suggest the diversity and conflict represented by contemporary art itself. So here's the schism: lobby vs. exhibition space--what should an architect prioritize? What do museums prioritize?

Can contemporary architects create a unique museum identity through the lobby? This issue came to mind during my recent trip to Helsinki for the IKT conference. I had the chance to finally see the Museum of Contemporary Art KIASMA, the break-out Steven Holl building of 1998 sited at a central plaza in downtown Helsinki. The soaring lobby entrance was very welcoming for my group, but the experience of the galleries was confusing--the ramps seemed to take you away from the exhibition spaces, rather than connect them. (No wonder the general public is afraid of museums!)

It was surprising to then experience the lobby at the KUMU Art Museum, in Tallinn, Estonia, which holds the largest collection of Estonian art in the world (and, according to the website, the Estonian character is protected there). The building, by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, is half-buried into the hill to not compete with the palace nearby. While the logic of this is understandable, the resemblance to the Holl KIASMA lobby was beyond astonishing. And this building, too, had the disorienting effect of jumbled, disconnected exhibition spaces--with one exception (stay tuned).

Both these museums bring me to Holl's 2007 Bloch building addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Holl's lobby is webbed with a complex pattern of curving ramps found at KIASMA, with one problem: no-one gathers there!

During my two visits (hi mom!) I noticed that people are still drawn either into the original Beaux Arts building or they scuttle quickly through the Holl lobby towards the light at the end of the tunnel, where the galleries are. The space feels antiseptic. One ramp leads to a board room only--and given the volume of space above, this might be the most expensive board room funders have ever paid for. The galleries are much more logical, but it feels like the staff is still trying to fit too many square pictures into this curved space.

No doubt that museums are in crisis, competing with all the other options in an entertainment landscape. If hotels are more legible than museums, you can understand why Pei designed the NGA lobby the way he did. If the arcing lobbies of the Holl and Vapaavuori buildings seek a zen-like feel, does that undermine the excitement the museum wants the visitor to feel? Do we judge the success of a museum by its lobby now? What happens to the spaces for art in new museums?

Let's hear what museums you like!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Museum architecture

Copyright © 2004 Scottsdale Cultural Council - Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

I just returned from the latest IKT conference in Helsinki / Tallinn, where I met new colleagues, saw some new spaces and posed some new questions about museum spaces.

I've had a lot of conversations with colleagues on the difficulties encountered when dealing with architect-designed spaces that just refuse the art. An architect colleague recently said to me that it's really the curator's fault--when new curatorial teams come on board to a museum, they want to change up the use of space, thereby rendering the space difficult. How to address this issue?

What museums do curators really love? I've had discussions with several architect colleagues in Phoenix--Will Bruder, Eddie Jones, Maria & Matt Salenger, John Meunier--to discuss the function of museum buildings. When talking about the Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, (hint to MAM--you should play up the building on your website, you're internationally known for it!) for instance, Eddie Jones has stated that the museum was designed to be an icon, first and foremost, and by golly, he's right, Calatrava did his job.

But is it a functional space to display art work? The lobby is loud, they carved a two-dimensional space out of a lovely volume, the articulated ribs on the side are tough for art (and you risk bonking your head!) How do these public spaces function, and for whom?

The picture above is of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, where I spent four years curating exhibitions inside the Will Bruder-designed space. While Bruder followed the proportions of the former $2 movie theater, the space was rich, generous and giving--lots of things can be achieved in the various galleries, all different sizes. Not too much architecture, but enough personality to create an elegant dance. I will add this space to my "buildings I like" list.