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Night at the Museum

Look at those curves! Who wouldn’t want a one-night stand with the Guggenheim?


I have always wanted to have sex in a museum. To me museums are ecstasy machines, places to experience rapture, and the real thing is the real thing. So I jumped at what seemed like an unbelievable chance to carry out my fantasy: an opportunity to spend the night with my wife on a rotating queen-size bed fitted out with satin sheets on the sixth ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The work, Revolving Hotel Room, is Carsten Höller’s major contribution to “theanyspacewhatever,” a show devoted to the amorphous non-movement known as Relational Aesthetics. Höller’s “room” has no walls, is out in the open on a large round Plexiglas platform, and has a guard posted nearby. If you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the guard follows you. Intimacy under these conditions seemed dicey, but I had to try. And then, two days before our night in the museum, my wife’s travel plans changed. She was going to be out of town that night. D’oh!

Before I tell you about my personal happy ending, however, some thoughts on the show itself. This cheekily titled outing is devoted to a clique of artists who reengineered art over the past fifteen years or so. They created the most influential stylistic strain to emerge in art since the early seventies. Their impact can be seen in countless exhibitions. Yet “the anyspacewhatever” is less a celebration of these artists than it is an example of well-meaning but incompetent curatorial irresponsibility—further proof, if any is necessary, that while Thomas Krens gallivanted around the world, muddying the Guggenheim brand, he was also ignoring curatorial operations back home in New York.

“Theanyspacewhatever” was organized by the Guggenheim’s Nancy Spector (whose Richard Prince survey last year turned this difficult artist into overpackaged product). Its ten artists, all in their forties, emerged in the early nineties. Relational Aesthetics is a public-oriented mix of performance, social sculpture, architecture, design, theory, theater, and fun and games. These artists view museums as imperfect Edens, playgrounds, battlefields, and sites for seriousness. Over the years they have inserted kitchens, couches, mannequins, and mirrors into institutions. Exhibitions and museums are a medium to experiment with and explore. To them, audience interaction is everything.

Unfortunately, Spector has removed most of the “relational” parts of this art and left us with plain old aesthetics. Wan ones at that, since their work was never that visual. Viewers drift through this show barely stopping; the exhibition is so tame that it’s impossible to imagine anyone’s being challenged to rethink ideas about art exhibitions. Part of the problem can be traced to Spector’s narrow notion about the group, which hasn’t been a group for some time. Part of it is that the Guggenheim simply can’t allow (for example) Rirkrit Tiravanija to set up one of his ad hoc kitchens and dish out curried vegetables for free, allowing the refuse to pile up. Höller wouldn’t be permitted to put hotel beds all over the museum, leaving the Guggenheim open all night to anyone who wanted to sleep over. Mmmmmm.

So we’re left with a show that fizzles instead of sizzles. Tiravanija’s comfy video lounge, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s sonic rain forest, Douglas Gordon’s wall texts, Liam Gillick’s S-shaped benches, Philippe Parreno’s lighted marquee, and Angela Bulloch’s LED night sky are all okay. But the show is lackluster, as if the curator and artists were too busy to do more. Or maybe the artists instinctively fought against being confined by such a thin curatorial idea. And such a surprisingly limited roster. This kind of art sprang up when money left and a new nonvisual, conceptual-sculptural installation art appeared. It was an open, loose moment. Yet somehow, as its stars have ascended to fame and that shagginess has been organized into neat retrospectives, the women, as seems to happen every time, have been shortchanged. Andrea Zittel, Andrea Fraser, Trisha Donnelly, Cosima von Bonin, and Vanessa Beecroft are all missing. Whether or not they belong strictly in the in-group, yet again we’ve got a show that’s 80 percent guys.

That process of canon-building has been destructive in other ways, too. Although this anti-movement began as an excellent palace coup staged by savvy artists, a legion of sheeplike curators has embraced it with a vengeance. For years these annoyingly insular professionals have participated in one another’s panels, schmoozed in hotel lobbies, curated each other’s artists into exhibitions, and written impenetrable texts for one another’s redundant shows. Twenty essays in the “anyspacewhatever” catalogue are by curators! Many of these people have become the weak link in the art-world chain, and they really need to go.

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