Millionaire timber magnate Thomas Barlow Walker seems to be haunting the museum he once founded. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there is a bust of him serenely overseeing the wunderkammer room in the “Midnight Party” exhibit. And now a life-sized portrait of him peers out from an enormous tapestry, surveying an installation that is at once a history of the Walker Art Center and a revision of that history.
The instillation is by Polish-born, Blighty-residing artist Goshka Macuga, who has spent the past year visiting and revisiting the Walker Art Center. Macuga has developed an approach to art that is absolute catnip to institutions, as she creates pieces about the institutions themselves, raiding their archives to create massive, free-associative installations, in which every aspect of the installation seems to comment on every other aspect, as though art and archives were in collusion to have a critical discussion about each other.
It’s a rather extraordinary experience, once you start picking up the threads. We tend to experience pieces of art as singular — as part of a movement, yes, but as individual, idiosyncratic works that are to be understood on their own terms, and then we move on to the next piece. But Macuga reframes the art in such a way that becomes necessary to understand it in relation to other art, and to the institution that houses it.
I’ll first describe the installation, called “It Broke from Within,” which can be done in a few words. The back wall is an enormous, photorealistic black and white tapestry showing people from the Walker’s history, as well as a few artists, as well as a few protesting Tea Party members from a Tax Day protest in St. Paul, and a few wayfarers. All are gathered in a selection of north woods called “The Lost 40,” because surveyors forgot to log 40 acres of woods, and so it was never purchased or cut down. In front of this is a gathering area, made up of sunken seating areas, one with televisions showing videos of artists such as Joseph Bueys. Around the whole of this are samples of art and various texts from the Walker’s archives.
At first the associations are not obvious. Why are there Tea Party protesters in the tapestry? Why does Bueys appear throughout the installation? There’s no absolute map to understanding the work, although the Walker will be providing a printed text offering some insight. It helps to wander about it, revisiting parts of it again and again. On one wall, for instance, is a rejected design for a commons area at The Walker. It was to have consisted of sunken seating areas, and look out upon a forest. Ah, ha — there we have the structure of the installation, with its sunken seating looking out onto the forest tapestry.
On another wall is a typically irritating piece by Sherrie Levine — and I say “irritating” with great respect, as Levine’s work is intended to irriter le bourgeois, if I can just go ahead and invent a phrase in my fractured French. In this case, she has taken a simple plank of plywood, painted over its knots with yellow paint, and then framed it with a simple wooden frame — I understand that sometimes she wouldn’t even bother to paint anything, but would just frame planks of wood. In another context, this could be considered provocation, but here it seems to directly reference T.B. Walker, who likewise took wood and turned it into art. And next to the Levine piece is a photograph, commissioned by T.B. Walker’s family, of a woman in a lumbermill, removing knots of wood and replacing them with wooden plugs, as though she were just waiting for the Levine piece to reference her one day. And if you look around the room, Macuga has framed many of the the pieces of art and archival pieces in the same plain wooden frame Levine used.
So what does Levine have to do with Bueys? Or with Marcel Duchamp, who also makes cameo appearances throughout? Well, these artists all appropriated other works and declared the art by their reframing of it. Duchamp famously exhibited a urinal as art, not bothering to change anything about it, but signing his name and calling it a fountain. And Levine later recreated that piece, gilding it with gold. Bueys, in the meanwhile, made Minnesota one of his stops on his first trip to America, and the Walker staff took him to Nye’s Polonaise Room. There, Bueys discovered the sugar packets were printed with lovely images of hares, and so he stole them all, stamped them, and sold them as his own art.
Once you start seeing the associations, it all starts to come together. I want to caution, however, that it’s not as though there is a key, and this is a puzzle, and it can be solved. There are reasons for everything in the exhibit, but the associations they create are not settled, or certain. From my viewing, there seem to be two central themes: That of the question of appropriation and recontextualization, which I have detailed, but also a question about the use of a public space, and the sorts of discussions that might happen in such a space, and how art can relate to this, and how people can sometimes react badly to art.
But these are just the themes I sussed out, and I had the help of one of the installation’s curators. I expect that individual viewers, going it alone, wandering from one piece to another, are going to make their own associations, and locate their own themes, which is as it should be.
I should mention that the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival begins tonight. And while I have often complained about organizational deficiencies, many of which I hear are newly smoothed out, the festival remains one of the most exciting and important that we have. The opening night showings include one that might be of particular interest to Twin Citians, or, at least, those of us who were around when the Twin Cities Reader still existed. The film is called “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” and the event will feature one of the film’s subjects, media columnist David Carr, who used to edit The Reader. Carr is supposed to steal the show, which is no surprise. I have met him, and have heard a million stories about him, and he is about as handy a show stealer as any I have ever met.
Carr was also responsible for the book “Night of the Gun,” which vividly detailed his addiction and recovery during his Reader years, and includes him misbehaving horribly to MinnPost’s own David Brauer. The book is one of two Minnesota biographies to extensively feature the Skyway Show Lounge on Hennepin Avenue, a few blocks from Keiran’s Pub. Diablo Cody got her start as an exotic dancer there, which she details in “Candy Girl,” and David Carr was busted for cocaine in the bathroom there, although not on the same night. So there should be some sort of historical marker put up on the Skyway, along with Block E, where Kieran’s is, and where the notorious Moby Dick’s used to be, which was the sort of downtown watering hole where fights happened all the time, cops were called in to bust things up, and, of course, David Carr knew everybody and was known by everybody.
It’s too bad MSPIFF isn’t getting its start at the Block E theater, as it has, on occasion, in the past, as it would be fun to hear whatever Carr memories got jogged loose by being on the spot. It’s at St. Anthony Main instead, a few blocks from Nye’s Polonaise Room, where Joseph Bueys once …
Once you see that Macuga piece, it begins to be impossible not to start obsessively free associating everywhere you go.