I wrote before about how the meaning of a work of art can be subverted by the way it’s presented. Well I recently encountered two museum shows that did that very thing.
Whitney retrospective that just ended, it was boring. That’s not entirely the Whitney’s fault. You can’t repeat that kind of art very often without it losing its edge, and her work had already lost its originality and thus lost its bite.
But in addition, the Whitney's fastidious installation made the work seem over-refined and even arty. And to make matters worse, guards actually prevented people from walking through the various installations (or "gangs" as she called them) even though there was plenty of room (see photo above). As a result, the fussy preciousness was magnified, and instead of being raw and transgressive as it once was, the work ended up seeming like slick Damien Hirst-type commodity art.
|Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (free/still), 1992/1995/2007/2011, dimensions vary (MoMA #225.2011). (I doubt if the signs, especially the sanitary inspection grade sign, were in the original 303 gallery exhibition.)|
Now MoMA has replicated the work and the surprise is gone. Not only have Tiravanija and others presented work like this many times (at the Zwirner gallery in 2007 for example), but the MoMA installation/performance is very didactic. There are explanatory wall labels, guards telling you where to go (and not go — for some reason we weren’t allowed in one of the spaces) and docents hanging out explaining things. And the artist doesn't even make and serve the curry and rice — it's done by MoMA restaurant staff. So rather than being a surprising and generous gesture, it’s become at best nostalgic, and at worst embarrassingly artificial and contrived.
Of course, as Duchamp knew well, the experience of all art changes depending on the context, but some art suffers more than others (e.g. Fluxus Art). I can’t imagine a way to fix things; it’s just basic to the nature of museums.