Michael Asher is regarded as the doyen of institutional critique. Since the late 1960s, the Los Angeles-based artist has intervened into the architecture of museum and gallery spaces with site-specific interventions. By removing or installing walls, he revealed the ideological mechanisms that produce economic as well as cultural value in exhibition situations — at least, according to the canonical interpretation of his work, which Asher himself has actively advanced in close collaboration with influential critics like, in particular, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh.
However, the very first images of the gleaming metal labyrinth that Asher recently installed on the occasion of a museum show in Santa Monica, referring to all exhibitions ever held in this institution, now raised the question if it shouldn’t be high time to critically challenge this received model of interpretation.
Winding through the flickering latticework of Michael Asher’s temporary exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Albrecht Dürer’s statement “Item perspectiva ist ein lateinisch wort, bedeutt ein Durchsehung”  came to mind, resonating with the experience of tentatively peering through the exposed stud walls filling the gallery and the revelatory promise of institutional critique, with which Asher is inextricably identified. Stepping carefully through the skeletal walls, one is subject to a sequence of disquieting perceptual transformations, the intersections of the stud walls optically reordering the gallery space along a multitude of planar confluences, reconfiguring the bedrock of exhibition design, the sight line, into a strobing view that rearranged itself with the slightest shift in physical position. The initial effect was visually disorienting yet corporeally grounded. I found myself slowly rocking from side to side, alternating eyes, sensitive to the disruption of my stereoscopic vision, a chance stumble or scrape against the exposed metal studs drawing me out of the optical detachment familiar to any exhibition goer.
It is no revelation that exhibitions have disembodying effects, it was, after all, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace — a transparent modular exhibition hall made of glass sheets and iron beams — that would define their most spectacular qualities, thrusting the term “exhibition” into the cultural imagination.  Yet, in trying to reconcile the spatial and optical conditions of Asher’s work, I experienced firsthand what I had assumed was merely theoretical flourish, the alienating cleavage of the corporeal from the visual, a potent reminder that at least since Alberti’s treatise on perspective, architecture has had literal and metaphoric governance over vision.
Organizational systems always run the risk of obliterating what they try to preserve: renaissance perspective and exhibition mechanics are no exception. The attempt to define rational space in the terms of infinite, reproducible and homogenous Cartesian parameters required the repression of certain material contingencies, their existence amounting to a tangible threat to the static reality such models propose. In the intersecting planes of Asher’s work — derived from the overlaid floor plans of the forty four exhibitions held at the “museum”  since 1998 — such attempts at organizational clarity become contingent, phenomenological immersion resting tentatively between the spectacular and the materialist, within a history presented as an array of intersecting fragments. As one moves through the exhibition, one passes through an almost infinite sequence of interlocking vantage points, their visual and physical containments rendered unavoidably palpable and curiously incoherent.
Asher’s excision of instrumental meaning by re-contextualizing and overlaying the past configurations of temporary wall supports appears continuous with processes Benjamin H. D. Buchloh outlined as the core operational logic of allegory, characterized by “appropriation and depletion of meaning, fragmentation, and dialectical juxtaposition of fragments […]” having the effect of “ruins”.  Furthermore, Asher’s current exhibition is remarkably analogous to the procedures Buchloh observed in Dadaist poetry which “deplete[d] words, syllables, and sounds of all traditional semantic functions and references until they bec[a]me visual and concrete […]” . Yet in Buchloh’s formulation, the political efficacy of allegory is suspect, leading irrevocably to resignation. A polemic succinctly argued by Craig Owens two years earlier, when he wrote that allegorical works of the postmodern period “enact a deconstruction of the museum […] [that] — like Daniel Buren’s — can take place only with the museum itself […] we thus encounter once again the unavoidable necessity of participating in the very activity that is being denounced precisely in order to denounce it” . Here Owens argues that allegory leads to a “complicity” that is irreconcilable with the political project of critique (an insight that is never extended to the critics engaged in deconstructive modes, themselves equally subject to this conundrum).
On closer examination, Asher negotiates a way out of this critical dead end. While Asher’s work is a cacophony of fragmented systems, piled, conflated and re-presented as an inscrutable whole, the work’s re-combinatory logic resists allegory’s melancholic reiteration of alienation, without presuming that authoritative structures can be simply ignored. Enacting a bricollagist logic, distinct from the allegorical for its insistence on the active instead of passive reception (what Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed as the asymmetrical oppositional model of the Science Concret), Asher reorders the mechanisms of the exhibition into a pastiche of spatial rhetorics that divert their performance of cohesion into an series of experiential contingencies. In this, Asher avoids the mute stasis of Walter Benjamin’s formulation of “allegorical seeing” (notably Benjamin’s arguments offer the theoretical basis for both Owen’s and Buchloh’s writing on allegory) by proposing a dynamic re-combinatory visual and spatial experiential model in an active site of participation. In Asher’s work for the SMMA, the result is a fracturing of the seeming unity of the institution into a multiplicity of irreconcilable intonations, opening up the possibility for alternate modes of vision and production that operate despite the presence of a hegemonic order. Thus, the naturalized authority of exhibition rhetoric is transformed in a recombinant logic that is corrosive to any authoritative prescription regardless of origin, here realized as a contingent spatial harmonic that asserts the possibility for political practice beyond simple revelations of dominance and subordination. In this proposition, Asher rejects the melancholic generalities that usually pervade the argumentation around artistic critique, imbedding his production in active social systems. As early as 1976 Asher began making use of the exhibition site in increasingly contingent and socially dynamic ways that extended into a larger socio-political field. From the insertion of a lounge area for viewers to “communicate on a social level”  in the 1976 Venice Biennale, or his work for a three person show at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1977 for which he employed paid participants to occupy the space , and continuing as chief concern through numerous exhibitions including those held at the Nouveau Musée in Villeurbanne in 1991, or the 2004 project Asher initiated with students from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles to reinstall the Modern and Contemporary galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Asher’s work had completely rejected  the idea that the exhibition space could be dealt with as a static model. It bears mention that these tactics that are all the more prescient in the light of recent interventions in the performative social field of the exhibition space, such as those of Rirkrit Tiravanija or Tino Sehghal.
In the light of these developments, one is prone to agree with the sentiment Miwon Kwon expresses in her catalog essay, that Asher’s work currently “seems all the more important and necessary”. Unfortunately, Kwon’s text misses the opportunity to reexamine the implications of Asher’s practice from the perspective of 2008, offering familiar analyses of his past work, then repurposing well worn conclusions: in her summation writing that Asher’s practice is “nothing short of the radicalization of the exhibition situation […] an antidote to the forgetfulness or willful blindness that refuses to see the gallery walls for what they really are and what they really do”.  How Asher’s stripped down walls, emphatically tied to the specific history of a small institution, support such a broadly didactic claim is left for the reader to assume, but the proposition is most disturbing for the qualities of the work it chooses to ignore, if not completely to repress, confining the practice to architectonics and the staid polemics of quarter century old arguments with their static models of power relations. Similarly sweeping appraisals were expressed by Buchloh in the conclusion of a talk given on the occasion of Asher’s exhibition. Entitled “Voiding the Void”, Asher’s work was again reduced to a lamentation of artistic efficacy, a negative revelation of alienation in the “prison-like” halls of the museum.
Deploying Asher’s work as a definitive treatment of the condition of “gallery walls” or a revelation “of the institution of the museum itself”,  reduces it to a vague metaphor, one no less absurd than the confusion of the regional, idiosyncratic Santa Monica Museum for an organization with expansive institutional authority, a role that is both clearly beyond its means and an indication of the all too common abstraction of the Asher’s careful practice into impotent generalities. Tired of metaphoric tropes like the “void” of institutional power, the singular monolithic Museum (not unlike the transcendental and trans-historical presentness Asher’s work is often called upon to counteract) aggregates and spectacularizes the work’s sensitivity to specific quotidian negotiations and the series of compromises and tactics that make up any collective organization, regardless of its relative dominance or scale. It is this gesture of agglomeration that lends power a well serving potent mythological façade (also giving intellectual laziness a heroic edge), and it is this very formulation of power that Asher upends in specific terms, without flatfooted proclamation, eschewing both the antiquated understanding of the conditions of exhibition and the propensity for critique to elevate and universalize its object of inquiry to Chimera.
It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to extricate Asher’s work from the voices of his most outspoken supporters or vice versa, but it is urgent that we do so, for just as Asher contextualizes the authority granted to any object in a site of exhibition within a sequence of ever changing, concrete and quotidian mechanisms, the sharp contrast to the ideologically over-determined readings it inspires reveals the stasis of critical models that had initially developed in tandem. As Asher wrote of his close collaboration with his editor, friend and supporter Buchloh on his 1983 book of writing, “Our collaboration has been essential for the analysis of individual works as well as for an understanding of the general historical context. Yet I hope that the fusion of the two approaches has not resulted in a seamless text, but rather reveals the parallelism that exists within the two enterprises of art production and criticism that are generally considered separate if not oppositional”.  If this distinction remains unacknowledged and if writers continue to confine themselves admirably cogent, historically significant, yet wholly dated theoretical models, what is sacrificed is a viable record of productions, that like Asher’s operate in subtle, contingent and nuanced concrete rather than abstract terms. It is the assertion of any trans-historical proposition of “transparency”, “exhibitionality” or “institution” (whether it is defined in the instrumental use of architecture or certain modes of exegesis) that Asher’s work summarily dismisses. His work’s assertion of an affirmative rather than negative model for aesthetic production despite the prescriptive confines of the institution exemplifies the practice’s most radical and incendiary proposition, one that is distinctly manifest in his work at the Santa Monica Museum.
|||“perspectiva is a Latin word which means ‘seeing through’”. Cited in: Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, tr. Christopher S. Woods, New York 1991, p. 27.|
|||As one critic described it as an “incorporeal space”, another commenting “There is no longer any true interior or exterior”, that the structure had a “perspective so extended” it appeared “like a section of atmosphere cut from the sky”. As quoted in Louise Wyman, “Crystal Palace”, in: Project on the City 2: Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Köln 2001, p. 240.|
|||The Santa Monica Museum lacks a collection and the institutional scale usually associated with the term “museum”.|
|||Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art”, in: Artforum, September 1982, p. 45.|
|||Ibid., p. 46.|
|||Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism (Part 2)”, in: October 13, Summer 1980, p. 71.|
|||Michael Asher, Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979, ed. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Halifax and Los Angeles 1983, p. 138.|
|||Ibid., p. 147f. Importantly, in Asher’s words, “[t]he paid participants were free to pursue their day-to-day activities as usual in as much as the context of the situation would allow them to do so”, leaving the viewer with “[…] the responsibility which, in traditional aesthetic practice and perception, was deferred to either author or object”.|
|||Ibid., p. 202.|
|||Miwon Kwon, “Support and Decoration: Michael Asher’s Critique of the Architecture of Display”, in: Michael Asher, ed. Elsa Longhauser, Santa Monica 2008, p. 55.|
|||Ibid., p. ix.|
The Santa Monica Museum of Art occupies an ‘L’ shaped building that has been used as its exhibition space for ten years, during which there have been 38 shows on view. Upon being invited to make the 39th, Michael Asher proposed to rebuild all the armatures for all the display walls from the previous 38. To prepare this installation — the first in his home city of LA for a shocking thirty years — Asher gathered diagrams of all former installations, transferred each onto acetate, overlaid them and produced a composite diagram that served as his floor plan. For one exhibition, the armatures had been made of wood, and so Asher recreated them in this material, but for all other shows, the armatures were galvanised steel frames. Each frame has ridged upper and lower horizontal parts, sturdy vertical ends and thinner ridged metal strips running down in even spaces along its length. The repositioning of these armatures was mostly simple, but where a diagonal wall crossed two others, the intersection required considerable cutting and welding. In the previous exhibitions, armatures like this would have been covered with sheetrock, but by recreating the armatures in their uncovered state, Asher allowed the viewer to walk through walls: the impression was created that the viewer could penetrate time as well as space.
In her catalogue essay and in his talk given the day after the opening, Miwon Kwon and Benjamin Buchloh respectively mapped the relationship of the Santa Monica installation to Asher’s own work with removal and with display walls by looking back to early projects of the late 1960s and 1970s. Though they did not make the case explicitly, these projects have been crucial to the discourse around site specificity and institutional critique and have impacted on younger artists — to cite just two recent projects: Simon Starling’s “Kakteenhaus” at Portikus in 2002 and Christopher Williams’s interventions at GAMBo in Bologna in 2007 are unthinkable without Asher’s precedent. In Santa Monica, by exhibiting the armatures of previous display walls, Asher withheld from the museum the kind of art objects that would previously have been exhibited there (mainly paintings and photographs). At the same time, he drew attention to the mechanisms of museum display, calling to mind the labour of construction that always takes place before an exhibition and that the visitor normally is asked to ignore. Making an exhibition empty of objects (or rather, full of materials which would completely lose their meaning anywhere else) is particularly urgent at a time when the art market is characterised by hyperinflation and overproduction, even though Asher might not have had the surge of the market in mind when he decided to make this work in Santa Monica. But another recent phenomenon would have been closer to his historical concerns. In the past decade or so, new museum architecture has involved the construction of dizzying spaces whose tectonic structures are rendered invisible — famously in Bilbao and within the new MoMA. Revealing rather than concealing architectural mechanisms becomes more and more compelling in this new context.
Such interpretations of the installation could have been predicted from reading the description of the project that circulated before the show — for instance Andrea Fraser’s Artforum preview stating that Asher’s installation would “involve reinstalling every temporary wall ever built in the museum’s current building”. But what was completely surprising when actually visiting Santa Monica was the physical dimension of the new work. You entered the space and signed a waiver, and then found yourself confronted by the armatures’ bars. Yo u could move to left or go forward, but from there on in there was no obvious route to follow: it was a labyrinth without a centre. For the larger viewers it became quite uncomfortable to squeeze through the gaps and step over the ridges on the floor. Some walls were close by others, elsewhere space opened up unexpectedly; moving from end to end of the museum felt relentless. Bars clattered as you passed through the walls and when the space filled with people, they would seem to disappear and re-appear in distant sections of the room. Sometimes you thought about imprisonment; but most of all there was the illusion that you were walking through a hall of mirrors. Asher’s idea might have been utterly clear as a proposal, but in reality it triggered a complete sense of spatial disorientation whilst tempting viewers to connect the space to other kinds of places and experiences. Previous literature (essays by Buchloh, Thomas Crow and others) on Asher has ignored the idea of allusion and has tended to underplay the viewer’s sensorial experience, and arguments have even been made that the “phenomenological encounter” was a Minimalist concern that Asher turned his back on. This is a line of argument recently challenged by Jennifer King who has suggested that the category “sculpture” might be a useful one for thinking about Asher’s work — she even attends to his attention to materials. King’s point makes perfect sense for Santa Monica, where the powerful physical experience of the installation was completely connected to the colour, reflectivity, malleability and sound of steel and its physical contrast with the relatively few wood frames.
Asher could not have known what the final installation would have been like until the last armature was installed, and it was rumoured that he felt it turned out a little too physical, but for many, the disturbing, oppressive aspect of the experience of the work could be related to his intentions. Just as he once revealed the adminis-tration of museum space, so too he created an experience of encaged discomfort, the better to emphasise this. However, another reading could emerge from thinking about the physical experience of the Santa Monica work. The piece felt all the more disorienting because the armatures seemed pretty randomly positioned. For sure, each armature followed the exact line of a former display wall, but though most ran along the main axes of the ‘L’, in the history of the Santa Monica Museum, these display walls have not been set out on a fixed grid. Some walls have been thicker or longer than others; many were very close by each other rather than in the very same place. In most other museums, temporary display walls can only go in very specific places, but not here. This is because of one salient architectural feature of the space: the display walls do not join the ceiling and so can go pretty nearly anywhere, since they do not connect with, and risk blocking, the lighting system. The multitude of positions taken by display walls over ten years is also a reflection of the character of the museum: the museum’s director has allowed each show to take the shape it needs. Given all this, it could be said that the physical disorientation of Asher’s installation was paradoxically an effect of the relaxed architectural and institutional character of the Santa Monica Museum. Asher produced a kind of portrait of a museum that has had a relatively free approach to the positioning of its display walls. This is not so much ‘institutional critique’ as ‘institutional commendation’ — a homage to a museum that has persisted in its vision in an elsewhere more constrained museum world. The relative freedom of this institution was proved by the fact that it could mount his project in the first place, since it so clearly flouts the health and safety rules that limit display possibilities in other museums.
Asher’s installation also comes out of previous works involving history, most famously the 1979 project at the Art Institute of Chicago where he repositioned a statue of George Washington from outside into the 18th century display rooms of the museum. In that piece, the displacement of an object from one site to another prompted a reflection on the history of the museum, of American nationalism and of 18th century aesthetics. By contrast to this act of displacement, at Santa Monica, Asher undertook an activity of superimposition and addition. It could be said that all the memories of previous shows were now resuscitated and that the work encouraged mnemonic activity, a sign of its resistance to the surrounding culture’s amnesia and attachment to the ever new. But even though I had not seen them, I felt that Asher’s installation could not have called any previous shows to mind. No single previous discrete floor-plan could be discerned whilst navigating the space. In an annex space, Asher displayed all 38 diagrams that he had worked with, and this only served to underline that once in the installation, it had been completely impossible to hold any single diagram in your mind. What the piece did recall was Siegfried Kracauer’s prescient claim that in an age of mass media “the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory”: just so here, a surplus of information prevented mnemonic activity. Even if the past is rigorously researched, it cannot be made present: the work’s pessimistic diagnosis was that mnemonic art is more and more compromised in the current age of constant information.
Probably as is the case for many other of his admirers, this was the first time I had seen a large installation of Michael Asher’s. I was struck by the characteristic imbalance between the conciseness and economy of the central proposal (to recreate the armatures) and the diversity of its implications and suggestions. Given that my earlier exposure to Asher had largely been textual, I was also surprised by the physical aspect of the piece and that this physical experience could yield so many readings — many of which would have been completely clear to visitors without any exposure to the literature of institutional critique. Re-installing previous display walls seems a simple idea, but the meanings are astonishingly rich and will hopefully reverberate around an art world which luckily still has Asher as a truly radical presence.
Michael Asher, Santa Monica Museum of Art, January 26 – April 12, 2008.