Back in 1973, a small group of students in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (including your correspondent) organized "MU32UM," an exhibition designed to give a behind-the-scenes look at the Whitney and its history. The orthographically irregular title -- ostensibly the word "museum" in mirror image -- reflected the self-referential formalism of the day, if not the "institutional critique" of more recent years.
Installed on an entire floor of the Whitney, the show featured a year-by-year survey of works that had been acquired from the museum’s famous annuals and biennials -- a rather embarrassingly clueless lineup for the museum, as it happened -- along with a now-forgotten sculpture displayed in its half-opened shipping crate (a golden Gertrude Stein sitting in the lotus position) and photos of the museum trustees and staff displayed along with their statements about their role at the institution.
If memory serves, the self-regard in the board president’s remarks was mocked in the New York Times, and the young curators had to hasten to make some small adjustments to his comments in that part of the display.
Now, the Guggenheim Museum has done its own version of the self-reflexive exhibition with "theanyspacewhatever," Oct. 24, 2008-Jan. 7, 2009, a show organized by curator Nancy Spector that turns the museum exhibition space over to ten members of the contemporary neo-conceptual vanguard.
Though the notion of making the museum itself the subject of an exhibition is as commonplace now as it was 35 years ago -- the Museum of Modern Art’s 1999 "Museum as Muse" is another notable example -- such undertakings do require a certain institutional daring, and the Guggenheim is to be complimented for that.
An art object itself, Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous museum structure is at its best when it is entirely taken over by artists, as in Daniel Buren’s "Eye of the Storm" installation there in 2005 and Marina Abramovic’s performance series later that same year.
What did this particular gang of artists, many of whom are friends as well as collaborators, come up with this time around? Essentially, they made themselves at home. For artists, what is a museum but a kind of motel, a place to stay for a little while, providing the amenities of the studio without the responsibilities?
Central to this whimsical enterprise is Carsten Höller’s slowly rotating bedroom set, high up in one of Wright’s famous bays, where museum visitors can spend the night -- a prospect that might seem uncomfortable to light sleepers, though all available reservations have already been spoken for.
For late-night TV watching, Douglas Gordon has supplied a lounge playing old movies that were once banned; Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, was screening during the press preview. Angela Bulloch contributes a kind of night light: four stacked birchwood cubes with round perforations and a color organ inside. For your morning coffee, Rirkrit Tiravanija has set up a coffee bar (courtesy Illy Caffè, naturally).
A touch of nature -- perhaps as a sleep aid? -- is also supplied by Bulloch, who covers the museum’s famous oculus skylight with a velvety image of a star-studded night sky, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who closes in a length of the ramp and fills it with the soothing wet sounds of a rainforest.
One oversight, come to think of it -- the show needs a spa.
Adding a special note of Disney Goth creepiness is Maurizio Cattelan’s life-sized model of Pinocchio, who lies face down in the reflecting pool at the foot of the Guggenheim ramp. Though Pinocchio is no doubt a stand-in for Cattelan himself, considering the crisis on Wall Street, the figure is more morbid than comic, whether murder victim or suicide.
As installed, the exhibition feels rather thin, with empty bays and a few repeated works, as if to remind visitors that the show is in fact theoretical. The title "theanyspacewhatever" is a bit of filmic gobbledygook borrowed from Gilles Deleuze. "A locus of the possible," as Spector puts it, "a coherent space comprising multiple and shifting views that nevertheless coalesce to invoke the idea of pure potentiality."
A few works assay to engage Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture via design. Jorge Pardo has provided an imaginative, highly crafted labyrinth of decorative dividers made of corrugated cardboard, pierced by asymmetrical holes and patterned with biomorphic shapes, that is strangely unpleasant, considering its elaborate artistry. Is avant-garde design by definition ugly?
Pardo’s installation ends up being the site for the only old-fashioned "artworks" in the entire show, mostly photographs, including a biker-girl pinup by Tiravanija overprinted with the words, "I went to the Guggenheim Museum, and all I got was this Richard Print." Ha ha, a joke.
Liam Gillick has provided several "S"-shaped orange benches -- they look like dollar signs, actually -- where visitors are supposed to sit and listen to an Acoustiguide work, an audiotape on which a German memory expert recites various factoids about the artists in the show. A "conceptual" piece, it can be conceptually understood as well -- that is, there’s no need to listen to more than a few moments of it.
Further confirming the current Conceptual Art revival are the "word art" contributions of both Gillick and Gordon -- freestanding 3D phrases like "deceptionist at lunch" and "running backward" done in black-painted aluminum and hanging from the ramp ceiling on the part of the former, and sentiments such as "I am aware of what you have done" and "It’s better not to know" stenciled on the walls by the latter.
Oddly, for all its purported intellectualism, the show lacks much in the way of institutional critique. It certainly contains nothing like Shapolsky et al., Hans Haacke’s famous investigation of Manhattan slum ownership that led to the cancelation of his planned 1971 Guggenheim survey.
The phrase imprinted large on the rotunda floor -- "Are We Evil" -- is emblematic in this regard. Such a moralistic notion, presented without historical or social context, is nothing if not middlebrow.
At best, "theanyspacewhatever" is a naïve, hopeful and poetic intervention in the museum realm. At worst, the show feels like an in-joke perpetrated by an in-crowd, arrogant, nihilistic and puerile -- qualities that characterize much cutting-edge art.
At this point, a museum visitor might be excused for harboring a bit of nostalgia for the fire-breathing conservative critics of yore, writers like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes, who could push back a little bit. At least we still have Jed Perl.
In the show’s favor is the series of filmed interviews with the artists by Tiravanija, displayed on multiple screens in a carpeted gallery where people can relax on cushions on the floor. Dubbed Chew the Fat, these vids help draw viewers into the sociality that underlies the show. It’s always helpful to see things from the artist’s point of view.
But as far as "theanyspacewhatever" is concerned, perhaps most telling are two works that bookend the exhibition. At the beginning, outside on the sidewalk, Philippe Parreno has attached a gaudy marquee of blinking white lights to the façade of the Wright building, casting the august modernist museum as a locus of cheap kitsch distraction.
And on the way out, a parting gift is provided by Pierre Huyghe in the form of an 8 x 10 booklet of iron-on transfer images of museum spaces. The actual photos, taken by Craig Mullens, are mysterious and even haunting. The museum is filled not with people but with ghosts.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.