Living off the Museum

For “Living off the Museum,” the now defunct Acconci Studio (Vito Acconci, Luis Vera, Jenny Schrider, Charles Doherty) conceived five installations (which included previously exhibited work) in response to the building designed by the Portuguese architect, Alvaro Siza.

Siza’s sleek design for this lightfilled, seven thousand square meter museum features several nicely proportioned galleries but also includes architectural elements which can hinder flexibility in exhibition design. For example, in each largescale gallery, Siza installed an “inverted table” — a rectangular plane connected to the ceiling with short, squat legs. Aside from the tables’ decorative function, in some cases they serve to diffuse the light from skylights or ceiling-mounted fixtures. They also hang low enough to effectively prevent us from seeing what lies on the galleries’ far walls. But the Acconci Studio seized upon Siza’s obstructive architectural detailing to brilliant effect. To “use the inverted table as a base for projected light instead of the other kind of light, the natural and artificial light, that Siza intended,” they created a veritable forest of differently-scaled inverted tables, then used these tables as supports for video monitors and film and slide projectors. Coloured strobe lights whirled around the darkened room, over a dozen monitors played Acconci’s early videos from the 1960s and 70s, and images and phrases were projected at skewed angles onto the walls. (The images were stills from unfilmed performances. The phrases were also extracted from Acconci’s performances, although he has never projected texts before.) Entitled (with deadpan humor), Early Work Room, any clear reading of Acconci’s prior production (and Siza’s intentions) was scrambled; what we got was Vito clubland, Siza on drugs.

In the adjacent gallery, one of Siza’s inverted tables served as a lid for Acconci’s Under History Lesson. First exhibited in 1976 in P.S.1’s gritty basement boiler room and now in the collection of LA MOCA, Under History Lesson has been converted into a bunker-like cinder block room, equipped with a narrow ledge from which the viewer can look down at a few rows of wooden stools and long plank tables. From a hidden speaker, Acconci’s gravelly voice insists, “We’ll keep a good thing going,” absurdly emphasizing some of the words. This may be a cleaner, brighter version, but Under History Lesson is nevertheless effective. It remains a chilling theater of indoctrination (although viewers can descend into the space to sit down, it’s significant that most people choose to be witnesses, to look down at the scene). Acconci’s sinister phrase speaks the unspoken: the hidden, coercive message of the propagandizing instructor who assumes that history’s on the right track.

In the museum’s largest gallery, Siza’s massive hanging table served as the support for The City that Comes Down from the Sky, two huge (16′ x 32′ x 32′ each) “flying machines” (originally shown as three machines at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1982). From a technical standpoint, the work is probably one of the most ambitious of Acconci’s viewer-activated pieces made at the time, such as Mobile Home, Instant House, High Rise (all 1980) and Community House (1981). A seat dangles by straps from each machine; sitting in them makes the wings flap or (conceivably) unfurls the roll of fabric inside each wing’s frame. When I was there, one machine was shown with the fabric rolled up; the other had its fabric unrolled and fixed into place. The wings featured a giant black hand flipping the bird, set against a background of blue sky and clouds. The implications were several. If we take the work’s title at face value, this could be a hostile city dweller’s gesture from above. But given the context, the flipping fingers could just as easily be interpreted as a giant extension of the museum spectator’s arms, or for that matter, of the artist’s (as Acconci later stated, he didn’t want to address art viewers anymore — maybe this was his fond farewell?). This would be a nastier attitude than that of Acconci Studio’s wacky photomontaged invitation for the exhibition, showing the manned apparatuses (with the fabric rolled up) soaring through the air in front of the museum, as though they were part-human-birds of prey, part-flying museum recreational vehicles. In any case, a certain psychological risk that the viewer assumed by engaging the work was accentuated by the way Siza’s low hanging table contained the machines within the space. Somewhat like viewing a helicopter indoors, its potential airborne power could be sensed.

In the museum’s lobby, Walls of Ground, consisting of twenty-two large architectural models of urban projects by Acconci Studio, was installed as though climbing up the principal wall, two side walls and the face of a hidden wall (a dropped ceiling over the information counter suddenly opens upwards as you approach the main galleries). A continuous line of plumbing conduit traced the shape of each project and acted as a connecting thread for the entire installation. Grouped by themes (written in bold type on the wall), the goofiest projects (for which some former Acconci fans won’t forgive him) such as Peels of Earth, Landslides, and Signs of Land, included sunken and raised airplanes, people-shaped islands, an indented and stacked face, a ramp shaped like a plane situated in the meridian of a wide boulevard.

Like Early Work Room, any serious contemplation of the works was rendered impossible. Walls of Ground reacted to the building (not the viewer), by clinging to its walls “like a leech or parasite,” an idea Acconci is fond of and used to describe his work for the museum’s exterior, Housing/Park. Made of two separate structures of metal grating, Housing/Park was suspended directly in front of the building’s walls by telescoping supports hooked onto the roof. Park, which took up one wall’s entire height and breadth, consisted of a stairway with niches which alternately provided seating or a space for a young tree. It zigzagged up the building from the ground level to its upper extremity, and although somewhat steadied by suspension cables, it took some daring to climb it. Housing, which wrapped around another corner of the building, could also be climbed via a stairway. Intended to represent a transition from the public to the more private space of a house, its modular rooms were fitted successively with seating, a table, chair, range, refrigerator, shower, toilet and bed. Overlapping panels of corrugated roofing protected the structure from the rain.

My Own Artistic Roots

Minerva Cuevas

Aside from the obvious (and successful) intermixing and reversals of public and private spaces, Housing/Park recalls prior Acconci works emphasizing the properties of suspension (Middle of the World, 1976), tension (VD Lives, TV Must Die, 1978), and balance (Decoy for Birds and People, 1979). Yet perhaps because of the gleaming materials and Siza’s handsome building, Housing/Park seemed oddly formal. It was by no means poetic (except for Acconci’s own appraisal of Siza’s building “as a mountain, like the stones and slopes of the region.”) More to the point was Acconci’s political agenda, perhaps related to his complaint that the museum is a pseudo-public space. Was Housing/Park an extension – or maybe an affirmation – of the museum’s coopting power? It seemed a piece for artists; after all, as the exhibition’s title suggests, artists really are “living off the museum.” As the show’s key work, Housing/Park could very well be Acconci’s most literal piece to date. I could not help but imagine him setting up house then and there.