In 2007, I finalized a series of tiny cell phone videos—hundreds of low-resolution, fifteen-second, surreptitious snippets of urban life. The format consisted of grids of videos looping continuously on small digital monitors. When the series was shown in a museum and then a gallery, I was thrilled. The silent, dark rooms displayed the work with maximum clarity and minimal distraction.
Fast-forward a few years: I’m in a taxi, stuck in traffic. No air conditioning, windows open, honking horns and food truck smells. I watch scenes that are near replicas of my videos: a man running down the stairs to the subway, a woman being pulled by her miniature poodle. Then I notice the little backseat TV monitor— the same size as the monitors in my exhibitions—and it hits me: this is where my videos want to live!
Yes, I want my work to be seen in pristine, controlled settings. But when I imagined the videos looping on the monitor in the taxi, they took on another, parallel life. There, the viewer could simultaneously be a witness and a participant in the frustration and gusto of everyday city life. What better home for my urban choreographies than the back of a taxicab, riding alongside their real-life counterparts?
Since that cab ride, I’ve asked colleagues and students this question: Where does your artwork want to live? They usually assume that I’m asking which galleries, museums or publishers they want to contact. Then I repeat the question and add clarification: Where will your work have the most impact? Are there surroundings that will convey its meaning more clearly? Does it want interaction with its viewers? Does it seek an audience outside of the art world?
I’m not suggesting that you should pass up a gallery or any other conventional venue. But your artwork’s life is long, and an exhibition at a particular location is brief. Over time, your work can live in multiple dwellings. You can honor your art by thinking outside the (white cube) box.
I’m a museum lover, and that’s usually where I see the work of artists I admire. But I’ve also found their art in different, unusual locations, and these experiences have deepened or altered my connection with their work. A new setting could sharpen your awareness of, say, a diverse population, as in Vik Muniz’s Perfect Strangers series at the 72nd Street subway station in Manhattan. Or it might induce levity—quite literally—as William Wegman’s video “Up Down Up” does in the elevator in Denver’s the ART, a hotel. A random roadside billboard displaying an image by Felix Gonzalez-Torres of an empty, unmade bed will stop you in your tracks.
For me, Anthony McCall is a good example of an artist whose work has different effects depending on the environment. My first encounter with his 3-D light sculptures was during a visit to Governors Island in New York. Between You and I was part of an exhibition of public artworks presented by the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time. McCall’s installation was in the St. Cornelius Chapel, a soaring space designed by Charles C. Haight. The chapel’s windows were covered, so the interior was pitch-black—except for two cones of intense light shining down from the high ceiling. Nothing else was visible until a fellow viewer (worshipper?) glided into a cone.
I’ve seen versions of McCall’s work in two other locations: Fundació Gaspar, in Barcelona, and Pioneer Works, in Brooklyn. The Barcelona show, Solid Light, Performance and Public Works, was a survey of the artist’s work—McCall began his series of solid light works in 1973. I was immersed in the art, but unlike my almost spiritual experience in the chapel, this visit was cerebral. Because of the curator’s excellent presentation of McCall’s trajectory, I was more inclined to think than to feel.
Pioneer Works is a cultural center whose huge brick building houses residencies, exhibitions, performances and workshops. Like the St. Cornelius Chapel, the space was completely dark except for the light works. But here, it was crowded with families, couples and individuals, all noisily interacting with the works, interrupting the hazy light with their hands, bodies and, of course, smartphones. The high-energy atmosphere was the opposite of the chapel; it was about community, not solitude.
One venue was not “better” than the other; instead, each provided a unique experience that expanded my relationship with McCall’s art.
As artists, we’re grateful for the opportunity to exhibit in a gallery or museum. But your art—which receives such a huge dose of your creative effort—deserves one more leap of the imagination. So consider finding other homes for it. You may be surprised when you venture out of the neighborhood.
Which reminds me of that taxi TV... ca
© 2018 W. Richmond