Sunday, January 27, 2008

Michael Asher at SMMOA

It was a big weekend in L.A. for Michael Asher. His new show opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on Friday night and Saturday afternoon Benjamin Buchloh spoke to a packed auditorium about Asher's work. In the current show, Asher rebuilds all of the temporary walls built in the museum from 1998 through the end of 2007. Mimicking exactly "the materials, size and position of the stud walls used to support drywall" from previous shows, this work shifts the terms of Asher's critical position. As Buchloh pointed out in his lecture, in the Santa Monica Museum show, Asher seems less intent on exclusively critiquing the institution as he does in analysing the exhibition and display strategies at work in the museum over time. This temporal dimension to the work was stressed as critical to Asher's investigation. Buchloh spoke for about an hour and then answered a few questions from the likes of Mary Kelly, Andrea Fraser, Simon Leung, Sally Stein and others. Miwon Kwon, who wrote about the exhibition for the museum, also contributed to the conversation. In general, Buchloh seemed interested in drawing out the themes of withdrawl, removal and voiding in the work of Michael Asher and highlighting repetition as a key strategy for understanding his work.

The exhibition itself is a strange experience... somewhat like a very clean and maze-like construction site. A small room near the entrance contains images of all of the floor plans of the previous exhibitions and as you enter the main space, you're required to sign a waiver that limits the liability of the museum... in case of an accident, I presume? For those of us familiar with Asher's work through photographs and text, this installation is especially curious in part because the physical experience of the exhibition is so visually charged. The rows of mostly metal studs in the gallery distort spatial perception so extremely that I overheard many visitors describe the exhibition as a hall of mirrors. The sounds of people moving through the narrow spaces between studs, zippers and buttons clinking and scraping against metal, creates an ambiance oddly unlike the dry, analytic tone usually associated with institutional critique. The phenomenologically charged atmosphere of the installation was described as Mannerist by Buchloh and as stifling and suffocating by others. I found it curiously delightful.

Buchloh began by raising a question about the 'conventionalization of radicality.' He also linked Asher's work to that of the poet Mallarme... presumably because of Mallarme's interest in the 'space' of the page. (Buchloh mentioned that Asher and the artist Marcel Broodthaers were his primary cornerstones in terms of influences for his writing. Broodhaers in particular is noted for his conceptual debt to Mallarme.) As in the work of Robert Ryman, Robert Morris and Lawrence Weiner, Asher notably denies the viewer the kind of visual gratification associated with art. But, Buchloh contends, Asher pushed this denial further by completely removing that denial from the context of the pictorial plane. In particular, he compared Asher's work to removals completed by Weiner in the late 60's that however successful as artworks, remained in the context of the pictorial frame. As an example, the 1973 project for the Toselli Gallery in Milan was cited as an example of Asher's move from pictorial space to architectural space... in this case by sandblasting the paint from the walls and ceiling of the gallery. Not only is the art object voided but the architectural space itself becomes a place of contemplation.

Speaking about Asher's use of repetition, Buchloh evoked Asher's astonishing re-installation of a trailer in different parts of the city for the Sculpture project M√ľnster over the course of forty years. In terms of repetition, Buchloh linked Asher's strategy to artists Piet Mondrian, Carl Andre and Dan Flavin. But in addition to refusing the cultural demand for innovation, Asher seems to add an ethical dimension to his critical practice, in part by bringing questions of history and temporality to bear on the spaces of art production and reception.

Finally, Buchloh suggested that Asher's work offers resistance to the spectacularization of aesthetic practice and to the aestheticization of everyday life. Difficult and valid questions were raised about the definition and nature of the 'aestheticization of everyday life' during the question and answer period... Overall, a great pleasure to be able to experience an Asher exhibition first hand and to hear Buchloh speak so eloquently about someone who has maintained a rigorous, critical art practice for so many years.

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