How long does it take for a piece of art to give up its secrets? If
I had my way, museums would be full of couches and comfy chairs so a
person could kick back and really soak up a chosen painting. Most
museums seem to be set up to encourage flow-through. Step up to a
painting, regard it for a moment or two as you shift from one foot to
the other, lean in to read the didactic, move on to the next. There's
nothing inherently wrong with seeing art that way; Lord knows that
there are times when I run to SFMOMA on my lunch break when all I want
is a series of impressions to go back and make more sense of
later. However, if I do want to spend some time with a piece, I have
to plunk my ass down on the floor and crane my neck to see. If I'm
really lucky, one of Mario Botta's gorgeous and butt-numbingly
uncomfortable benches will be situated in front of the painting I
want to contemplate, though there seems to be a direct correlation
between how much a painting cost the museum and bench placement. So
yeah, I want wall-to-wall cushy seating. Imagine seeing some gorgeous
creature lounging in front of a Richter and wandering over to casually
settle in next to them...
We live in an age when museums strive to put on spectacularly popular
exhibitions, shows that will pack the public in and force them to
trudge through the art like they're in a Disneyland queue. Art as a
duty. Clusters of people around the pieces highlighted by the audio
guide. Eyes glazed, no longer seeing.
I sympathize, though, because I go to those shows too. I am not only
eternally searching for that elusive tingle down my spine, but I am
gripped by the need to see as much art and architecture as humanly
possible before it is eaten up by dust and decay. The Eva Hesse show
at SFMOMA last year brought on sheer panic for me as her fragile
pieces seemed to disintegrate before my eyes. I will never see some
of those sculptures again, and I felt it in my gut.
However, I think that this grappling with time and impermanence is
exactly what Hesse's work does so well. I don't think she intended
for many of her pieces to last as long as they have. Her point was
not to create lasting monuments in fiberglass and latex.
One of the things I truly love about multimedia art is how it tempts
me into staying long enough to see what happens next, whether it's a
video piece or a machine systematically oozing out an assembly line of
plastic sculptures. Sometimes this can be taken to self-indulgent
extremes, as in the case of Matthew Barney. On the other hand, I
would love to sit through Rirkit Tiravanjia's 8-hour animation that
has No Ghost Just a Shell's Annlee reading Do Androids Dream
of Electric Sheep? in its entirety.
Shortly after I moved to San Francisco, SFMOMA installed Tatsuo
Miyajima's Counter Line, a single line of red LED numbers
seemingly suspended in midair in an unlit room. Each digit was a
counter that cycled from 1 to 9 before going black and starting over,
but they all went at different speeds. There was a rumor that some of
the counters would change only at the rate of one number per year. I
spent a lot of time in that room, in the dark. Staring at time.