Essay Series

Museum, the Artist, and ‘Intervention’ – James Putnam

This essay was written by James Putnam, Independent Curator and writer. It was delivered as a paper at the first symposium of the research project Ceramics in the Expanded Field on the 10th January 2012.

Museums have become increasingly aware of the benefits of working with artists and other creative people and now invite them for residencies to make new work inspired by their collections or as guest curators. This can involve them re-arranging or redesigning existing museum displays or making ‘interventions’ in gallery spaces. An early precedent for this was ‘Raid the Icebox 1’ in 1970 when the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence R.I. invited Andy Warhol to curate a selection of works from their collection. Rather than make a selection of his favourite works or the ‘best’ pieces from the museum reserves, Warhol chose to exhibit the complete collections of various types of mundane objects, regardless of provenance or condition.

Some artists have done projects with museums that question the institutional framing of art and examine the museum’s relationship with its visitors. Mimicking its classification systems and display devices, artists have thus focused both creatively and critically on practices traditionally associated with curatorship and exhibition design. They may regard their guest curating as indistinguishable from their art or a natural extension of their everyday practice. Since the late 1980s American artists like Michael Asher, Hans Haacke and Fred Wilson, have used what has been referred to as ‘institutional critique’ where they have investigated the hidden agendas in museums’ ‘official’ and supposedly unbiased interpretations of exhibits and exposed some of the darker aspects of their acquisition history. Critiquing existing museum display and interpretation schemes, their projects have investigated the social and political agendas concealed behind the museum’s supposedly neutral façade. They have also questioned the public’s belief that the museum’s ‘official’ interpretation of history based on specialist knowledge provides a ‘true’ and unprejudiced viewpoint.

In his critically acclaimed 1992 project ‘Mining the Museum’, Fred Wilson examined the Maryland Historical Society’s collection to highlight the history of Native and African Americans in Baltimore. He acted both as guest curator and as creator of several site specific-installations that served as ‘interventions’ within the museum’s permanent display. Composing new museum labels and juxtaposing all kinds of unlikely objects that he often ‘re-discovered’ in the reserve collection, he was able to question and deconstruct the traditional display of art and artifacts in order to illustrate the ‘hidden’ history of the museum. An example of this practice was his installation ‘Metalwork 1793-1980’ where he displayed a pair of slave shackles alongside fine 19th century repoussé style silver vessels. This was intended to make the point that the affluent 19th century lifestyle of Baltimore high society had been built on slavery.

Another groundbreaking exhibition around this time was Joseph Kosuth’s ‘The Play of the Unmentionable’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1991). Kosuth’s installation in the Grand Lobby comprised his selection and display of works from the museum’s collection. This was based largely around the theme of censorship as illustrated by works from various cultures throughout history. His large wall texts, that mimicked museum style interpretative graphics, included many provocative quotations from well-known philosophers, writers and other historical figures, including Adolph Hitler. Since the grand lobby served as a main route to the museum galleries, it had the advantage of a captive audience so that all the museum visitors were able to take in the exhibition irrespective of what art or artifacts they had intended to view there.

Rather than being set apart in designated special exhibition spaces, contemporary art can be installed in museum galleries that display the permanent collection.  These so-called ‘interventions’ involve the interweaving or juxtaposing of artists’ work so that it merges or interferes in some way with the museum collection or site. They consequently tend to instigate an immediate dialogue with established collections, displays, architecture and public services. Artists are sometimes given the opportunity to undertake a temporary rearrangement of galleries and to provide a more personal commentary on permanent exhibits. Interventions often tend to address museological policies of acquisition, interpretation and display or other provocative topical issues, thus challenging the traditional impartiality of the institutional context. Alternatively, a museum’s architecture or artifacts can add a unique spatial, conceptual or aesthetic dimension to the installation of an artist’s work, whether existing or specially made for the occasion. While interventions may tend to occur more frequently in historical and modern art museums, some projects have been staged in essentially ‘non-art’ contexts, which offer a challenge to interact with specialized collections such as archaeology, ethnography or natural history, and thus engage with a different audience. These have helped traditional museums to cast off their rather staid image in order to attract new audiences, while also reflecting an increasing climate of institutional self-criticism or self-evaluation. Interventions provide an opportunity for museums to reanimate tired looking displays by adopting a fresher contemporary approach. Artists are in turn offered the opportunity to show their work to a wider ‘captive’ and often ‘non-art’ audience who may be visiting a museum principally to view historical artifacts.

In America, artists’ interventions have tended to relate to institutional critique, while those in the UK were more aesthetic and almost ‘poetic’ in spirit. Between 1987 and 1994, the artist Chris Dorsett organized a series of five exhibitions at the Pitt Rivers Museum, collectively called ‘Divers Memories’. They featured works by artists, photographers, film makers, poets, actors and musicians, which had no accompanying labels because they were intended to be ‘submerged’ within the existing museum display. It was also in 1994 that the exhibition ‘Time Machine’ was staged at the British Museum, which included the work of twelve contemporary artists installed in the Egyptian Sculpture gallery. They were invited to create a response to the Egyptian collection in various media – painting, sculpture and video – and their works were intermingled with the historical artifacts. This exhibition was prior to the construction of the Great Court when this grand gallery was a major thoroughfare and principal route to reach the museum’s other collections. Consequently it had a captive audience of the nine million annual visitors. There was also two fold audience development opportunity – to interest in the permanent collection those visitors that had come specifically to see the contemporary works while the museum’s regular visitors had an opportunity to experience contemporary art, maybe for the first time. Being preoccupied with the traditions and cultures of the past, the British Museum has a rather conservative image so this exhibition that included some avant-garde works helped to give them a more progressive image in the media.

Central to the exhibition was a large-scale installation by Andy Goldsworthy entitled ‘Sandwork’. Made from thirty tons of sand, compacted by hand, Goldsworthy’s installation remained in the museum gallery for just a few days but his own large-format photograph subsequently became the ‘work’ shown throughout the show, together with a video of its making. ‘Sandwork’ incorporated the ancient sculpture on display and the imposing gallery architecture and its ephemeral nature served to echo the idea of the museum objects merely representing the legacy of a lost civilization. Along with the other contemporary works it also enabled the ancient Egyptian sculptures to be ‘re-animated’.

Another notable intervention in the BM’s Egyptian Gallery, a few years later, was Richard Wentworth’s ‘Questions of Taste’ (1997). Wentworth created a ‘display’ using a selection of ancient Egyptian drinking vessels juxtaposed with various modern drinks containers discarded in the museum vicinity. They were arranged in a vitrine and to match the official museum labels, the modern tins, cartons and plastic bottles were similarly described, including details of their manufacturing process and their individual find-spots. This juxtaposition set up dialogues between valuable and worthless, precious artifact and discarded rubbish/garbage, the unique hand-made object and mass-produced packaging.

Contemporary art interventions can be equally effective when seen in the more homely interiors of former private houses. Such sites and collections frequently reflect the character of their former occupants and can offer a more intimate context for a dialogue between them and a living artist. The Freud Museum in London has provided an evocative venue for contemporary artists to create site-specific installations in response to the aura surrounding one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. These projects inevitably involve curatorial criteria in terms of matching appropriate artists with the inherent qualities of a particular museum site. Situated in North London the museum is the house that Freud lived in the last years of his life while exiled from Vienna by the Nazis. It contains the famous analytic couch on which patients would recline comfortably while Freud, out of sight, listened to their ‘free association’. They were asked to say everything that came to mind without consciously sifting or selecting information and this became a foundation upon which psychoanalytic therapy was built. Freud’s study is also crowded with antiquities from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Orient and the importance of the collection is also evident in Freud’s use of archaeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. He liked to compare the uncovering of archaeological layers, and their interpretation and reconstruction, with analysis. The museum’s contemporary art projects attract a different and much larger audience than they usually get and generate good publicity and income for the museum. The artists also benefit from their newfound associations with Freud and his writings that usually help them to create a new body of work.

In 1999, Sophie Calle created a project at the Freud Museum entitled ‘Appointment’. In a series of installations she used her personal keepsakes and texts juxtaposed with Freud’s collection. Her ‘eroticized’ investigation of her own childhood and her adult memories became associated with specific objects from her personal museum and interwoven with her intimate texts. Composed from photos, objects and brief texts, her art often suggests extracts from a psychoanalyst’s classic case history of a patient. Her references to certain highly significant, objects and emotionally charged events in her life have many parallels to Freud’s own psychoanalytical theories and his collecting passion. In contrast to the sober setting of the museum’s furniture and artifacts, Calle’s texts printed on ‘lingerie’ coloured cards charge the space with sensuality. Her concise caption-like narratives tell of stolen love letters, shoplifted red shoes, and her wedding in a drive-through chapel in Las Vegas. In Calle’s texts fact and fiction merge to evoke contrasting images of innocence, sexuality, family and voyeurism and she shares with Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, a unique skill as a storyteller.

Inspired by one of Sigmund Freud’s writings ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, Sarah Lucas made site-specific installations in Freud’s study, dining room and bedroom in 2000. Using light-bulbs, a fluorescent strip and underwear stretched over Freud’s chairs, she created a highly suggestive installation (‘The Pleasure Principle’) in which a couple may be imagined under the ‘gaze’ of Freud, a photograph of whom hangs on the wall. Her sculpture ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ installed in Freud’s bedroom was subsequently acquired for the collection of Tate Modern.

Museums have not only invited visual artists as guest curators, but also invite architects, film makers, writers, designers and makers. Back in 1991 The Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam invited the filmmaker, Peter Greenaway to curate ‘The Physical Self’. This comprised of his selection of historical art and objects from the museum collection that related to the human body interspersed with nudes exhibited in dramatically lit vitrines. More recently in 2005, the ceramic artist and writer, Edmund de Waal was invited by the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff to create a site-specific installation in one of their galleries. This involved him selecting and arranging parts of the 18th century porcelain collection and placing new works of his own in dialogue with it in the manner of a domestic place setting. De Waal’s project not merely juxtaposes the new with the old but more significantly draws attention to the function of a group of ‘museumised’ objects, taking them out of their rarified historical and material culture context. The museum site provides an aura of authenticity and preciousness around an object, emphasized by the barrier of the vitrine, yet in doing so tends to subtract its fundamental everyday human connection, in this case dining.

There has also been an ongoing contemporary programme at the Victoria and Albert Museum who set up its own Contemporary department in 1999 to initiate projects linked to their programmes and collections The have the opportunity to have a studio in the Sackler Centre for arts education or the Ceramics Galleries with access to the collections and research support from their specialists. The V&A’s 2001 project ‘Give & Take’ was a group exhibition juxtaposing contemporary works of art with their historic collections. This included a dynamic intervention of Marc Quinn’s white marble sculptures of limbless nude men and women juxtaposed with ‘perfected’ forms of the Antonio Canova’s ‘The Three Graces’ (1814-17) and ‘Theseus and the Minotaur’ (1782) that represent the classical ideal of ‘beauty’. The bicentenary of the 1807 abolition of the slave trade was the pretext for another major group exhibition by eleven contemporary artists at the V&A entitled ‘Uncomfortable Truths’ (2007). This included major intervention works by Yinka Shonibare and Fred Wilson strategically positioned in the Norfolk House Music Room that addressed and questioned the interconnections between the slave trade and our perception of national cultural heritage.

Besides being invited to reinterpret and re-hang existing collections, artists now act as consultants and designers in planning museum architectural projects and displays. Back in 1990, the Museum of Applied Art (MAK) in Vienna took the bold step of inviting seven artists including Barbara Bloom, Jenny Holzer and Donald Judd to collaborate with their collection curators in both the reinstallation of the permanent collection and redesign of the gallery spaces. In 1990, Barbara Bloom’s ‘Historicism Art Nouveau’ involved her special arrangement of the museum’s Art Nouveau chairs. She created an installation with an ‘avenue’ of chairs behind fabric screens where their silhouettes emphasize their linear elegance.

When artists are invited by Museums to be guest curators they are using their creative faculties of selecting, arranging, hanging, installing and interpreting according to their own selective criteria and conceptual ideas and that effectively blurs the boundaries between curating, exhibition design and installation art. Artists have the tendency to select very different objects from those chosen by the museum curators, and they frequently draw on an institution’s reserve collection. This suggests that the objects they select might be regarded by the museum experts to be only of secondary importance, because its curatorial agenda is completely different. The artists’ groupings and juxtapositions are not restricted or regulated by historical conventions and formal museological ordering systems. Their ‘artistic license’ allows them to make groupings and juxtapositions that curators would never be allowed to do and thus offer fresh insights beyond scholarly interpretations.

Museums benefit from working with artists as it is not only a means of shaking off their ‘dusty’ image but also an opportunity to discover new meanings and narratives in objects from their exhibited and reserve collections. Such collaborations have offered individual museums an opportunity to take an objective look at their normal approaches to the presentation of their collections and learn more about themselves and their audiences. These initiatives allow the probing instinct of the creative mind to counterbalance the sense of permanence and order associated with the museum in a constructive dialogue. Artists tend to question the existing state of affairs and it is their personal selective criteria that helps to break down the self-conscious enforced neutrality of the conventional museum display. Interweaving artifacts of the past with those of the present provides an essential link between the hand of the maker and the museum object, representing an extraordinary subversion of the museum’s traditional dependence on chronological interpretation and presentation.