Please touch this art — Pulitzer Arts Foundation exhibition seeks audience participation
It’s common for museumgoers to encounter signs that say, “Please don’t touch the art.”
An exhibition now on view at Pulitzer Arts Foundation turns that instruction on its head. Visitors to “Assembly Required” are encouraged to pick up, fold, walk into or even wrap the artworks around themselves.
The show features work by nine artists who wished to involve their audiences directly in creating the work.
“They invited members of the public in, to directly engage with the artworks and conscripted them as co-authors — almost co-conspirators,” Pulitzer Arts Foundation Curator Stephanie Weissberg said.
“Assembly Required” includes works by Francis Alÿs, Rasheed Araeen, Siah Armajani, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Yoko Ono, Lygia Pape and Franz Erhard Walther. Tania Bruguera and her collective INSTAR will be in residence later in the run of the show, which is on view through July 31.
Here’s a guide to some of the artwork visitors will encounter in the show.
A piece by Japanese American artist Yoko Ono just inside the museum entrance sets the tone for the show: “Painting to Be Stepped On.”
It is a piece of canvas, fabricated to mimic a scrap Ono salvaged from the floor of her studio for the original piece in 1961. Museumgoers are invited to leave footprints on the work, which the Pulitzer does not clean; the piece gathers dusty evidence of visitors’ interaction throughout the run of the show.
The entrance gallery also includes 100 notecards, copies of the ones Ono published as the book “Grapefruit #2” in 1964. She has revised and added to the book several times since. Each includes an instruction to the viewer.
“I do think that people get a lot out of reading Yoko Ono's words and feeling like they're having a direct exchange with her thought process,” Weissberg said, “and also that she's inviting them directly into these ways of being that are totally separate from how we might normally behave.”
Some tasks are quite tangible, like a directive to “imagine what the next person is thinking.” Others, like instructions to smell the moon or destroy all the clocks in the world, are more ephemeral.
“So many of them you can do, but many more are just prompts for poetic meditation or thinking more deeply about how we might engage with the world,” curatorial associate Heather Alexis Smith said.
Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica began his career as a painter before venturing into sculpture and writings on art theory. He was influenced by the Neo-Concrete movement, which emphasized the subjective nature of art and an awareness of the viewer’s relationship to the work, as a participant in creating its meaning. Artists of that school sought to upend the relationship between art and viewer by promoting active participation.
Oiticica was also influenced by Tropicália, an art movement in the 1960s that fused and celebrated Brazilian styles. Viewers can walk into and around some of his large-scale sculptures, which he called penetráveis, or penetrables.
“As he moved on in his career, he increasingly embraced ways that would bring in members of the public so that there they would have a fully immersive, sensory experience,” Weissberg said. “He evolved from creating artworks that would be hung on the wall to create works like his penetrables. In fact, they became so complex that they involved multimedia environments, including sand and in some cases, birds and plants and televisions and radios.”
Oiticica was inspired by the resourcefulness and community spirit he saw in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, impoverished districts where residents have fashioned houses from discarded materials. His piece “Penetrável Macaléia” nods to the makeshift beauty of these neighborhoods, while suggesting that poverty is a sort of cage. He composed the piece from colored metal grates, which he assembled into a box with a movable door. It sits atop a bed of gravel, flanked by plants that are native to Brazil.
Visitors may enter the structure and experience the somewhat disorienting sensation of peering through the metal grates, which are stacked together to create an uneven pattern.
The exhibition includes several pieces by Lygia Clark, who was a founding member of the influential but short-lived Neo-Concrete movement.
“You can get the sense of her interest in exploring art forms that could be interpreted and realized in many different ways,” Weissberg said. “A visitor would take an active role in shaping the final form, rather than just walking into a space and perceiving it in its final form.”
Pulitzer Arts Foundation is displaying several of Clark’s small, moveable sculptures known as bichos, or critters. Two studio copies are available for visitors to play with. They are fashioned from pieces of metal in different geometric shapes that are hinged together. Visitors can reposition the metal flaps and change the sculptures into different shapes.
The larger of the two pieces requires a pair of visitors to manipulate it. Similarly, her piece “Hand Dialogue” is a small strip of fabric designed for one or two people to put their hands into at once. She developed it while undergoing physical therapy after a car accident.
Another piece on view, “Caminhando,” is a station where visitors may take a strip of paper and cut it into a Möbius strip, which is similar to a physical representation of the symbol for infinity. A pile of such strips, made by previous visitors, sits on a table in the gallery.
“This basically is an artwork that can be done anywhere at any moment, with even the most simple materials. As long as you've got tape or glue, a pair of scissors and a piece of paper, you can make the ‘Caminhando,’” Smith said.
“Dialogue Goggles” is another Clark piece that requires the participation of two visitors. “The artwork asks questions about how we are intrinsically linked to one another,” Weissberg said, “and how our actions impact and affect those around us.”
The piece is composed of two sets of modified goggles, attached to each other. Each has two spinning eye pieces with clear glass on one side and a mirror on the other.
As two people wear the goggles, they look closely into each other’s eyes, their own eyes, or perhaps one of each.
“Just the act of looking at another person and being in a space with them, of sharing this kind of experience, is really, really poignant. There’s the idea of self-reflection, while we may be out in the world coexisting amongst other people — and also thinking about ourselves and our own place in relation to others,” Smith said.
In the late 1960s, Pakistani British artist Rasheed Araeen came to believe the artistic school of Minimalism, with its focus on geometric shapes and patterns, had become esoteric and disconnected from average people’s experience of the world.
“Once people can confront the rigidity of social structures and re-create these structures themselves, as part of their own productivity,” Araeen said in an interview with art writer Jens Hoffman, “it can lead to an equitable and egalitarian society.”
Araeen’s “Zero to Infinity” takes a common building block of Minimalist art — the cube — and presents it in a way that directly engages its viewers. The piece at the Pulitzer includes 36 cubes made from painted wood, which viewers are invited to stack into different formations outside in the courtyard.
“At the end of the day, depending on who's been through here, you might find all kinds of interesting shapes,” Smith said. “We can leave these when we've gone and somebody else can take up our project after we've left. It’s just such a delight to see what kinds of things people come up with.”
Franz Erhard Walther
The largest gallery is dedicated to textile works by German artist Franz Erhard Walther. He was a young child in Nazi Germany and saw collaborative work as a way to bring people together.
“He came to the conclusion that art was one of the most powerful tools in which some change could be created. And the decision to create artwork that involved the collaboration of multiple people and brought people together was something that he saw as key to resisting oppression,” Weissberg said.
The show includes several models for his pieces, and photographs of them in use at prior exhibitions. The centerpiece is a row of studio copies of fabric works that Pulitzer visitors may pull out of canvas envelopes and wrap around themselves.
A triangle-shaped piece of fabric is available for a single visitor to step into and become the de facto pedestal for the work. Another is designed for two people to wear, each leaning back in a way that is balanced by the other. Another piece fits up to nine visitors, who must communicate carefully and take small steps in order to move around.
On the opening weekend of “Assembly Required,” a group of museumgoers took advantage of the largest piece.
“There was a pair of visitors who went around recruiting other members of the public to join them so that they could activate the work, which I think is really exciting for people,” Weissberg said. “They marched along like a conga line together.”
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