Rudolf Stingel and Having to Be There: Participation
Posted by gninja on July 26, 2007
At the Whitney right now is an exhibition of works by Rudolf Stingel. (I have to admit–and I’m chalking this up to my being a medievalist–I’d never heard of Stingel before. But apparently, he [an import to the NY art scene from Italy] made a hit debut in 1991 with a great big orange carpet, and has been, as far as I can gather, a darling to the critics ever since.)
You can find reviews of his current Whitney exhibition here and here. In short, it’s the best exhibition I’ve been to in a long, long while. It epitomized for me why I go to a museum because it gave me what cannot be replicated elsewhere or in any other format.
From the Whitney website:
Employing such materials as rubber, carpet, painted aluminum, Styrofoam, and paint, Rudolf Stingel’s work questions and disrupts the viewer’s understanding and experience of an art object. Although Stingel’s work does not always involve paint on canvas, it continually reflects upon some of the fundamental questions concerning painting today, including authenticity, hierarchy, meaning, and context. While Stingel, who was shown in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, has created major installations for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and numerous other institutions, this is his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, surveying his career to date and including a new site-specific work.
Despite how much I was enamored of this show–and the experience of experiencing it– it has some shortcomings that are not so much a product of the exhibition as the result of its seductions.
The show includes several large rooms, each one devoted to between one and three works. But because of the relationship between the works and the gallery space, each room has the feeling of an installation, or I might even venture, a performance. The first room (pictured above) elicited some variation on “ooh” and “ah” from every person entering the room. It’s simply a large room with walls covered from floor to ceiling in aluminum foil panels, illuminated by a massive, somewhat low-hung chandelier glowing with soft warm light. Like entering the Tin Man’s ballroom. Unfortunately, I had approached from the stairwell, but I can imagine the effect of entering the room unaware of what would be in there would have been all the more exciting had I taken the elevator. Very theatrical.
I soon learned that the aluminum foil was actually a medium on which the museum-goers were invited to draw, place stickers and buttons or whatever else they had on hand. Some of the panels were transports from the same exhibition at the MCA, thus retaining a local flavor outside of its locale. It was a bit strange to see some shout-outs to Chicago in a museum in NY.
Clearly, this DIY aspect of the show went down well with the critics, though I thought it was the weakest part of the exhibition. Aside from the obvious criticism–that the invitation for musuem-goers to participate is gimicky– it detracted from what would otherwise have been an overwhelming experience of dislocation. Not only was the opulent and sumptuous effect of the room unexpected in the context of the Whitney museum, but it was also achieved through the use of an everyday item (aluminum foil) juxtaposed with a luxuriant lighting piece (the chandelier). The marks made by visitors, while fun, lessened the extravagant impression created by the use of these two strikingly different materials.
At the same time, Profiling, the other current exhibition at the Whitney which I discussed in a previous post reveals the shortcomings of the use of audience participation in Stingel’s show. Whereas the pieces in Profiling required the participation of museum-goers in order to communicate a very pointed and topical message (the simultaneous allurement and threat of omnipresent surveillance), the participation requested in Stingel’s exhibition lacked any sort of direction or, to be blunt about it, point. It seemed more an appeal to the increasing self-absorption of us these days, due to which it’s presumed we lack the attention span for anything not directly related to us. And rightly so. For chrissakes, each of the three headlining exhibitions at the Whitney now allow some form of participation (the Summer of Love one includes a kind of carpeted love cave in which people are allowed to cavort; picture the adult version of waiting in line for a carnival moon walk / bouncy castle, and you’ve got the right idea).
In any case, sometimes participation works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Stingel’s aluminum walls, I’d say it merely amounts to a questioning of the author of a work of art. Something which is neither new nor underdiscussed (if you’ve got access to JSTOR, just search in the art history journals for collaborative art or audience participation and art, and you’ll see what I mean).