I'll be blunt: with regards to inspiring sheer visual awe, most of the pieces in SFMOMA's The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now don't hold up. This is particularly true when they are placed next to the marvels of Martin Puryear, or to Felix González-Torres's Untitled (Golden) -- a gold, beaded curtain that performs as an imposing and sensuous threshold to the exhibit Passageworks -- both of which are also currently on view at SFMOMA.
This shouldn't come as a surprise, however. Most of the works in the exhibition set out to intentionally complicate what at some point in the mid-20th century was decided to be an overly simple relationship: that of the viewer and the art object. It is from this discourse that we inherit phrases like audience complicity, social sculpture, relational aesthetics, and art as open work. So it's to be expected that many of the art objects in this exhibition play second-fiddle to our interactions with them, if there is an object present to begin with.
It's not a sneak attack, exactly. Like it or not (and some people really don't like it), the variety of art today deemed as "participatory," has long been folded into the art historical canon, and one of the intentions of The Art of Participation is to present a genealogy of sorts, revealing the historical antecedents of a new generation of artists whose works employ similar concepts and strategies, although often through different technologies. More broadly speaking, it's a look at analogue and digital notions of interactivity, nodes, and participation -- before and after the rise of the internet.
The curatorial staff has chosen John Cage's 4'33" (1952) as a point of genesis, and the logic is easy enough to follow. Think about it: a man sits down at a piano in the middle of an urban setting and what follows is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (see YouTube video here). A piece that invites you to listen to yourself listening. The piano (closed and untouchable) and the sheet music (blank) are on display, as well as a video of several different performances, all forming the centerpiece to the first room of the exhibition -- both a chronological and a physical precursor to virtually all the other works on view.
There's a lot of video documentation, of course, including two performances of Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1965/2003), in which the artist invites the audience to cut the clothes off her body. The decision to display both performances simultaneously is a smart one; the small differences in the way each audience handles the artist's request really change the tone of the piece. Also worth stopping to watch is a re-installment of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz's Hole-in-Space (1980), using original footage. Imagine, in 1980, a live video feed set up between crowds in New York and Los Angeles, before the availability of video chats. People get VERY excited.
Aside from the video documentation, the museum has done a great job of providing visitors with opportunities to participate. Yes, that means if you are like me and typically have to keep your hands in your pockets while you're in museums, you will be allowed to touch. One of my personal highlights involved trying on Lygia Clark's Óculos (1968) after many years of coveting the experience via photos. One pair of glasses, shared by two heads, with lenses that sometimes reflect your own eyes back to you and at other times, depending on their position, force you to look into the eyes of your partner, which is all the more intimate and startling if your partner is a perfect stranger, like mine happened to be.
If this sounds a little intense, there are plenty of other options on the table, like attempting one of Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculptures (2007/2008), or becoming a regular at Tom Marioni's The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (1970 ? 2008). In fact, you can choose not to come to the museum at all, and instead bid on eBay for the opportunity to assume creative control over one of the exhibits (the piece is titled 1st Public White Cube (2001/2008), by Joachim Blank, Gerrit Gohlke, and Karl Heinz Jeron; you can visit it online at 1st Public White Cube).
I have to admit that I actually had a lot of fun, particularly interacting with Erwin Wurm's pieces. My heart may not have soared like it did after I got a glance of González-Torres's golden curtain from across the way, but there is certainly a lot at stake in The Art of Participation, beginning with the definition of participation and all of its complexities -- i.e., when is it considered legitimate and illegitimate, and when is it expected versus unwanted? This is the subtext that lies underneath the exhibition, provided by works like Francis Alÿs's Re-enactments (2001) and Abramovic/Ulay's Imponderabilia (1977). And while the decision to highlight the contemporary artistic trend towards what feels like a very safe and non-threatening type of interaction (one that allows me the illusion of control and fair exchange) distills a lot of the potency in these questions, they are not lost entirely.
Postscript: I'm currently working on a collaborative piece that will be presented at the Koret Center as part of the educational programming for The Art of Participation. So if the above piece reads like I've been overthinking participatory art, it's because I have. And if it doesn't sound that way, yikes. I guess I need to polish my thoughts!
Participate in The Art of Participation through February 9, 2009 at SFMoMA.