The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect

Kynaston McShine, "Introduction" in The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (1999).     1   2   3   4

General Idea's sales counter in the shape of the dollar sign, which carries this Canadian group's multiples, is amusing at the expense of the museum's commercial side, the merchandising of which many people are quite critical. Jac Leimer takes aim at the same target, presenting a large wall piece assembled from the shopping bags of museums around the world. Leimer implicitly asks us to compare museum practices-here, marketing and advertising--with the quite cerebral and ambitious art of the past whose approaches and formats (for example the grid) she appropriates. That art too may suffer from her wit, but she emphasizes the fact that the public's expectations of a museum now permanently include the presence of a shop and a range of commercial products. Robert Filliou, by contrast, addresses the museum's templelike aura, collecting, boxing, and presenting the dust from major artworks as if they were holy relics; but his activity too has its hilarious aspect. Finally, Barbara Bloom's room-sized installation The Reign of Nardssism (1988-89) returns us to the idea of the artist's personal museum, but Bloom takes it to its logical extreme: all the images, objects, and artifacts in her collection carry her own likeness. Her fantasy is the ultimate museum that many covet.

Wit and humor are certainly facets in artists' reflections on museum activity, as they may be for the general audience also. But the museum remains an enormously complex body. Whether as members of the public or as staff, we all have a great many expectations of our museum visits, including, generally, the hope of a sublime memory and a pleasurable time; few, though, would say that ordinary pleasure or entertainment was the museum's raison d'Ítre. If, for better or worse, the museum is in fact to remain a crucial site of its culture's memory, that must mean that inside the museum there is work to be done.

Jeff Wall's Restoration (1993) dramatizes one relatively uncelebrated aspect of that work. Wall's photographs often describe staged and fictional scenes that reveal intricate relationships to earlier art. Here, however, he articulates his concern with art history in a different way: by documenting the museum's preoccupation with restoration and conservation. This very iarge photograph (it is over sixteen feet wide) was taken in the conservation laboratory of the Kunstmuseum Lucerne. The transparency--illuminated from the back, as advertisements in public spaces often are--has an extraordinary luminescence, which, with the almost 180-degree field of vision, makes the activity of conservators at work into a near-Cinemascope display.

If the role of viewer risks introducing an element of passivity into our experience in the museum, Wall counteracts that problem by making us strain to grasp this enormous image in its entirety. Meanwhile the conservators are restoring a painting that is itself so enormous--it is a panoramic battle scene--that it swallows them in its spectacle; and we expend a certain effort simply trying to unravel the figures of the workers on their scaffolds from the image on which they toil. The result is a sense of layered, complex activity, a heightened realism, an awareness of the need for decipherment, and an awe at the labor involved in coming to terms with the past and extending its reach into the future.

Although the museum's art restorers generally enter the public eye only on occasions of unusual success or disaster, in Restoration Wall gives their work an epic scale, unveiling its heroic dimension. Yet conservation is only one of the museum's tasks, only one of the departments through which the museum performs its role; the security staff, for example, is no less vital to the preservation of the artwork than the conservators are. As a large institution, the museum is a compound organism. For many artists, I suspect, it is Kafka-esque in quality: it is the castle they must penetrate, the bureaucracy they must learn to manage. Having negotiated the paperwork, they must also take on the history laid out in the galleries: artists often disrupt the linear story that those galleries tend to tell. Their responses to what they see there come from a different perspective than that of the curators, and are no less well informed.

It is a peculiar relationship of mutual interdependence, and one in which the curator ends up on a tightrope. Does he represent the artist to the institution or the institution to the artist? Is he an intermediary between the artist and the museum, or the museum's personification? Overall, the relationship between museum and artist is far less adversarial than it was a few decades ago; occasional disruptions aside, the status quo prevails. Museums are allowed to maintain their lofty functions, and artists are allowed to behave in the expected way, their transgressions against the museum being usually consistent with the romantic definition of the artist. Even so, this fascinating cohabitation and coexistence will probably always contain an element of wariness. Like two superpowers that mutually respect each other, even mutually depend on each other, artists and museums nevertheless watch each other vigilantly-as if practicing for the field on which they are engaged together, the miraculous field of visual art.



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