Michael Asher, in conversation with Charles Esche – an event staged in collaboration with Afterall, at The Serpentine Gallery’s Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion.
Michael Asher (b.1943, Los Angeles) is a seminal figure within the contemporary practice referred to as ‘institutional critique’. Since 1966 he has made site-specific interventions that focus on the ideological nature of the physical environments of galleries, museums and art institutions. His works have been included in Documenta (1972) and the Venice Biennale (1976) during a period when contemporary art was going through seismic changes – both through the conceptual art movement and the social and political context of the time (of which his practice and contribution are very much part).
The event offered a rare opportunity to hear Asher speak of his recent work and in particular his ‘Student Reinstallation’ at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a project begun in 2000. The project employs an experimental method. This method is used to uncover questions that Asher asks about the practice of institutional museum critique and Arts Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Questions such as: Could there be a way of involving young people that would be better than museum-controlled and museum-mediated programs that now exist at LACMA? And could there be a way of advancing display systems that reveals the shortcomings of existing presentation conventions?
These questions were a response to issues in LACMA’s strategies of display and formed the basis of his proposal for an intervention in their group exhibition Made in California: NOW (Summer 2000 – Summer 2001). The exhibition was curated by LACMALab – a new department at the museum. Their job was to close the gap between the public and the collection with innovative ways of experiencing art for young people and their families.
The work Asher proposed was no more than a structure that would give a group of 11th grade students an opportunity to rearrange the art objects in a gallery and the permanent collection. The students had to use the pre-existing objects that the curator had used for his or her installation and could not bring in additional artworks. These works included famous works of art, by Picabia and Mondrian for example. The students were trusted to engage not with ‘lesser’ work, but with the main components of the collection itself.
The 11th graders were asked to make a presentation that the students deemed to be the most ideal and compelling viewing situation for these particular art works. In order to make this happen, the students had to be able to design everything they wanted to use from surface finishes, vitrines, bases and lighting. At the same time, the students had to be accountable for their decisions.
Distinctively, in the context of institutional museum critique, this work proposes that it might be possible to reconsider aspects of display systems by observing the language of non-professionals. For instance, if we were to consider the routine of carefully spacing out the collection so as not to impinge one object upon another. The student’s installation broke this rule, yet clearly the objects’ visual presence was never lessened.
Besides operating experientially, this artwork also functioned as a critical tool. On one hand, it gave young people access to historical objects, and requires that they make judgements that will have a real-world effect upon reception. On another, it gives museum educators insights into the signs and beliefs of a few people whose learning is a product of they own motivation. And still another tool stems from the students who, despite (or because of) not having an investment in the affirmation of the museum or participating in a critical art practice, begin to touch on assumptions of each. They did this with an authenticity that is hard to overlook.
Edited transcription (pdf) – available soon.
Audio podcast – available soon.