The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum wants to make something out of nothing. While the building's vast rotunda has been a blank canvas for artists like Jenny Holzer and Matthew Barney, the interior space of Frank Lloyd Wright's most beloved building works overtime as both setting and muse in the museum's latest exhibition, Contemplating the Void (through April 28).
To mark the building's 50th anniversary, its chief curator Nancy Spector invited over 200 international artists and architects to fill the once contentious void that occupies the building's central space. Since none of the proposals would actually be built, money was no object and the artists had the luxury of a reality permanently suspended. Spector's call yielded an exhibition of 193 appropriately indulgent proposals displayed on humble poster board, hung salon-style and in no particular order.
What's interesting about the exhibition is that a sort of collective unconscious reveals itself in themes that recur along the walls; more than a few artists want to see the rotunda re-claimed by nature in a post-apocalyptic interior forest. Danish art collective N55 suggests demolishing parts of the building before fertilizing and re-planting the ruins. Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig takes the idea one step further. They imagine the Guggenheim in the year 2060, when the ravages of time render the building unfit for use. Instead, the rotunda finds new life as a completely self-sufficient, almost utopian marketplace, supplied with water from the Central Park reservoir and energy from a nearby windmill.
A call for art's democratization manifests itself as well. Luzinterruptus, a light art collective from Spain submitted "A Museum Inhabited, 24 Hrs" (2009), a painting of the building's top floors criss-crossed with countless lines of laundry. It's a charmingly subtle reminder of something simple we all have in common. Perhaps one of the most satisfying proposals is "News Releases" (2009), by artists Walid Raad and Farid Sarroukh, In a typed message, they suggest that the Guggenheim close its doors for 38 days, give artist Hans Haacke a solo exhibition in 2011, and offer a sincere apology to former curator Edward Fry. Raad and Sarroukh are referencing the Guggenheim's cancellation of Haacke's 1971 exhibition, a stinging critique of the museum's board of trustees and dismissal of Fry (the exhibition's curator). Not only is this a refreshing instance of self-critique, it's necessary for honest reflection, especially since that reflection is self-imposed.
Thomas Hirschhorn's proposal (below) stands out with its familiar scribble and provocative message. The words "Art in its resistance is movement, is positiveness, intensity, belief," are scrawled across flags that hang along the rotunda walls. But Sam Durant's proposal "Early 21st Century American Textiles" (2009) offers a melancholy rebuttal. His proposal shows banners emblazoned with "God Hates Sodomites" and "I Heart Gitmo" hung in the same objective way that an institution like the Met would hang ancient rugs and textiles. Durant speaks melancholy truths about the present and the way it will be remembered.
It's certainly difficult for this viewer to think back to the building's inception, when the rounded walls were deemed unsuitable for hanging paintings and the emptiness of the interior was accused of upstaging the art that it holds. In 1971, Daniel Buren tried to fill the void with a gigantic flag that hung from the glass ceiling. In a controversial move by the museum, it was taken down before the exhibition even opened after complaints from Donald Judd and Dan Flavin that it was interfering with their work, which sat against the walls. But as one of New York's most famous landmarks, time has proven that the building's biggest void is the museum's biggest gain. And though the proposals to scale the building, fill it with smoke, and even blow it up are indeed larger than life, it's the simple ones that really trigger an emotional response. After all, it's a building that visitors feel close to in a way that is impossible with the other over-sized, brick superstructures along Museum Mile. Artist Aleksandra Mir understands this. Her simple proposal, typed on sheet of 8 by 11 paper, is more of a fantasy, one that is almost guaranteed to exist, if only briefly, in the head of every visitor: "I am roller skating down the ramp with a whole bunch of friends. We are wearing ice hockey gear not to get hurt and there is lots of screaming." Perfect.
(images courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum)