Hirshhorn Roundup

We went to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden earlier this week to check out Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space. The show, which originated in Los Angeles with LAMOCA curator Alma Ruiz attempted to demonstrate the existence of a Latin American contribution to “light and space” art that “anticipated and paralleled” the development of the American Light and Space movement associated with 1970s California and artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The popularity of figures like Olafur Eliasson during the past ten years speaks to the interest in this type of work – technical, colorful, experiential – on the part of both museumgoers and curators. Coupling that with recent scholarly interest in contemporary Latin American art make this show quite timely.

Lucio Fontana’s Structure for the IX Triennial of Milan (1951) hangs above the escalator on the third level of the museum. In addition to being the earliest work in the show, in some ways it’s also the most impressive. Although it doesn’t provide the immersion of a work like Carlo Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (1965), its prescience and ability to alter one’s experience of moving through the space of the museum with such simplicity is stunning.

The Hirshhorn’s presentation of Suprasensorial is scaled back from the original showing in Los Angeles, but more than enough is on view to raise the debates about aesthetics, viewer participation, and museological ethics that this kind of work tends to inspire. The reviews of the show in the Washington City Paper and the Washington Post are cases in point. City Paper reviewer Kriston Capps writes that the artists in the show “fail[ed] to make a cohesive case for a unified approach to experience and perception,” in particular citing Jesús Rafael Soto’s Blue Penetrable BBL (1999) and Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s Cosmococa’s as not fitting in with the concepts of Light and Space. Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott writes, “it’s always worth being suspicious of anything that attempts to bypass the intellect through hyper-sensual appeal.”

Capps’ concerns feel perhaps a bit overparticular. After all, although the show does refer directly to the Light and Space movement, its aims are not necessarily to make a compare and contrast between the work of these Latin American artists and American Light and Space. Moreover, there is more to unite the works in the show than to separate them, as their aims are an engagement of viewers on a visceral, sensory level that democratizes the art experience, regardless of which medium they take. The Hirshhorn is a good choice as a travel location for the show in this regard, as it is a space with a very broad range of viewership.

Kennicott’s comments raise a really important point about democratizing, experiential artwork. Although from what we could see, most viewers to the museum that day were really enjoying themselves walking through hundreds of blue cables, lying on the ground, putting on the strange footwear required to enter Chromosaturation, for the artistic and critical population there can be some natural skepticism about this kind of work. It can feel hard to have fun and participate, or watch others do so, without analysis getting in the way. Kennicott takes his critique in the direction of totalitarianism, and the ease with which aesthetic spectacles can convince people to behave in certain ways. From another angle, these types of shows might be criticized as bald attempts on the part of museums to appeal to a broad public in a very simplistic way, even an escapist way. It’s important to acknowledge that if this is the case, these shows are necessary to museums for that very reason and moreover it might not be such a bad thing to try and keep people interested in contemporary art by encouraging them to have fun while looking at it. Surpasensorial, for those on either side of this spectrum, is an opportunity for you to test your theory about Light and Space art. Do these installations work? Can I engage? Does this change my perspective?

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Also on view at the Hirshhorn is an interesting juxtaposition of two video works where the respective creators present an artist’s perspective on two different kinds of work. In O.K., Ali Kazma, a Turkish artist producing documentary video art, took out a casting call for notary publics in his native Istanbul and found one with the nimblest, most elegant hands. Twice a year in Turkey, notaries are kept busy with the unenviable task of reviewing and stamping thousands of documents from Turkish corporations for approval. In an interview with Art in America, Kazma mentions that part of the aim of the work is to remind viewers that while people often comment on how different the world is today, how fast-paced and interconnected, there is still mind-numbing bureaucracy and repetitive handwork where an actual person is still needed to perform tasks.

Semiconductor, the working name of British art duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, in their work Magnetic Movie, use footage of the NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley, and VLF audio recordings, to animate and visualize magnetic fields, which are actually invisible. The animations are wild and hallucinogenic as compared to the drab settings in which they appear and the lecturing voiceovers describing their phenomena that serve as part of the soundtrack.

Suprasensorial and O.K. are on view until May 13th. The Hirshhorn Museum and Scupture Garden is open every day from 10:00 to 5:30.   

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