A Hirshorn Discussion

Museum used to be thought as a family sepulchers of artworks

According to the reading, in the history of museum, ideal viewer such as Proust takes museum as a “family sepulchers” of artworks. The paintings there were described as being “put to death”. The soft version of this extreme statement is what Baudelaire and Manet held: they believed what museum doing is collecting the artistic memory. Both statements viewed not only museum, but also implied the role of painting. Once upon a time, art museum gathered no more than classic paintings and sculptures. The artworks carry the aesthetics meaning, but also have the function of recording or reification of some ideology. Genres as landscape, portraiture, still life and historic events are all a condensation of certain time. Under the religion theme, the work also tries to narrate tales as a telling truth story. All the practical function of artworks impressed viewers as something static: past congeal in the works. History and creating context could be shown in the details. That is why the museum serves as mediation between public and history: not only the artistic history, but also a reference to a certain period. Thus, museum, also reanimate the artworks, by bringing them back to the public attention. No matter “reanimation” or “sepulchers”, the interaction between museum and artworks is weak.


Installation Artworks and the Museum Space

However, the installation art is another story. When seeing the installation art last week, we feel deeply that the strong interactions exist not only between audiences and artwork, but also between museum and artwork/museum and audience. Museum participated in the relationship as an indispensable factor, not just a replaceable medium. The Hirshhorn Museum has a special environment, both the environment inside and the environment where the architecture located in is designed for its own purpose. The environment of the museum is like the context of symbolic meanings, and it forms the context of how curators and designers interpret their artworks and set up the background for the visitors to understand the artworks.


As we learned from Professor Irvine, a museum can be what is called an “interpretive container” for the artwork, and the museum and place in which the artwork is place plays as much of an important role as the artwork itself does when up for interpretation. As we looked at and discussed the importance of the Hirshorn as a “container” for Mark Bradford’s installation piece, it was noted that this specific work couldn’t be just peeled off the wall and placed somewhere else. It was meant for the Hirshorn, meant to be glued and configured in a type of way that was supposed to push the audience to interpret what certain aspects of the artwork means.


Since the work was installed on a curvature, and encases almost a whole floor of the museum, the idea is to go along the work, taking in every piece of material used, and try to not only understand why Bradford did what he did, but why we are viewing it in this way. Was the piece meant that this specific war in which he enlarged the photos and then tore it up, lengthy to show the extent of the war? Or perhaps he wanted to create an ongoing piece that contained much of the same materials throughout, but expressed how the suffering and toil that slaves had to go through was a long and treacherous journey to freedom?


The Mark Bradford’s artwork relies on the unique space: the inner-circle building provides enough length for the giant frame of the work. It is created based on the context, therefore, the door to the inner-space on this level is naturally avoided. The distance between the wall and window (the diameter of the annulus) is perfect for viewing the full scene of those paintings. Similarly, the space of museum also impressed me deeply in the exhibition What absence is made of. When viewing the installation work Safe Conduct, the dark lighting, surrounding sound and empty room all foiled the quirky and detached atmosphere, makes the whole installation standing out. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work also benefit by its interaction with museum space. The continuous cambered wall became a natural medium of his work. When the fingerprints and water waves was projected on the huge wall, the shocking visual effect really leads the audience to believe the power of pulse. The circle space makes the lights square stretching into endless in our point of view, immersing the individual in the dazzling sight created by himself/herself. If the room is a square like many other museums, the experience will be limited. Besides, the interaction presented by the museum uniquely emphasizes the function of museum as an interface. We related to the artworks not only in the gazing. There is no more division between object and subject, cause we are part of the artwork, and the artwork is the extension of us.


Space and the Sense of Time


What we found more interesting about the Pickett’s Charge and the Pulse series is that both of the two exhibitions, installed within the round construction of the Hirshhorn Museum, expressing a different sense of time, and therefore producing a contrast with the “static” artwork as we talked before. The first exhibition shows a linear or sequential time, while, the second exhibition record both the linear and the multisequential time of the visitors interactivities.


For Mark Bradford’s exhibition, the environment the museum and the artist created set up a series of story and history. The abstraction reminds me of the Rothko room in the Phillips Collection. With the shape of a cube, the Rothko room form an environment of still and self-reflection, and the time of the Rothko room seems stopped when I walked into it. However, Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge was installed on the round wall of the Hirshhorn Museum. To view the whole series, visitors need to walk alongside the wall and see each piece individually. But the process did not become fragment or broken but composed a linear storytelling experience, and the round installation consisted the infinite time, just like “historical cycles”, representing “historical cycles emerge anew”, and serve for “unity and continuity”.


Both the museum and the new media technique are mediums, and both of them are part of the exhibition and compose the context of the artworks. For the Pulse series, the linear time was recorded by the photos of the fingerprint, the data recorded by the interfaces, and the multisequential time was represented by the bulbs and the water wave. Visitors participated in the environment by “specific activity.” In the room for Pulse Index, each participants’ fingerprint was recorded by a photo and the photos are shown on the large screen, consisting of a community, a timeline formed by the visitors. However, in the Pulse Room and Pulse Tank show the multisequential timeline because, for each time of interactivity, the water and the bulbs compose a different artwork. The artwork seems never finished before the last participant’s interactivity.


To continue on this, the interactive rooms within the Hirshorn allow not only for constant continuity, and this idea of never being finished with a work of art, but also putting the art back into the audiences hands. Without interaction, there would be no work, right? So what is an artwork without its audience to interpret it? These are questions that continue to plague us when it comes to interactive art, especially within museums. With a traditional work of art say take, Rothko’s piece, there are multiple ways in which the audience can pick and prod at what the point of the piece is. However, with the Pulse Room, this interactive side brings in more of these nuanced questions. We beg the answer; Is the Pulse Room and the Lightshow Room examples of art if they are not being used for their intended purpose?


Work Referenced:

Foster, Hal. “Archives of Modern Art.” October 99 (2002)


Evelyn Hankins and Stephane Aquin, Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (Washington, DC and New Haven: Hirshhorn Museum and Yale University Press, 2018)

Evelyn Hankins and Stephane Aquin, Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (Washington, DC and New Haven: Hirshhorn Museum and Yale University Press, 2018).

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

Julie H. Reiss, From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000).