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Learning from Louisiana.

We have become accustomed to the museum as treasure house, warehouse, even theatre or theme park, but within these zones of collapsing space and time there is a need for real places, made by architects, from which to contemplate the landscape, the past and the present.

'Museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells - in other words neutral rooms called galleries. A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world. A vacant white room with lights is still a submission to the neutral. Works of art seen in such spaces seem to be going through a kind of esthetic convalescence. They are looked upon as so many inanimate invalids, waiting for critics to pronounce them curable or incurable. The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of society ... Once the work of art is totally neutralised, ineffective, abstracted, safe and politically lobotomised it is ready to be consumed by society.'(1) You can see why Robert Smithson, the great American land artist, wanted to make all his work outdoors.

His form of rebellion was one of many against galleries, the gallery system and the commodification of art in general. Conceptual Art, environments and happenings were all attempts to relate art and society in a new way. Allan Kaprow, writing as long ago as 1959, pointed out that 'with the emergence of the picture shop and the museum in the last two centuries as a direct consequence of art's separation from society, art came to mean a dream world, cut off from real life and capable only of indirect reference to the existence that most people know. The gallery and museum crystallized this idea by insisting on a 'shshsh - don't touch' atmosphere'.(2)

Both Smithson and Kaprow were writing towards what we now perceive as the end of the Modern age, but as David Harvey has pointed out, earlier 'Modernist artists and writers painted for the galleries and wrote for the libraries precisely because to work in this way allowed them to break with the constraints of their own place and time'.(3) Harvey, whose analysis of the postmodern condition is remarkably perceptive and encompassing, argues further that 'the museum, the library and the exhibition usually aspire to some kind of coherent ordering. The ideological labour of inventing tradition became of great significance in the late nineteenth century precisely because this was an era when transformations in spatial and temporal practices implies a loss of identity with place and repeated radical breaks with any sense of historical continuity'.(4) So, in a sense, museums and galleries can be vital points of stability in an increasingly frenetic world, and while they certainly assist commodification of art and history, there seems to be no way of avoiding the process - Conceptual Art has come and more or less gone and the happening has scarcely replaced traditional forms of artistic expression - though it flourishes in various forms (for instance Christo continues to wrap up the great buildings of the world - p11). But it is difficult to see how artists could live in a world where art was not at least to some degree commoditised.

There has been a huge expansion in building museums and galleries, and in their variety. This issue, for instance, contains a spectrum ranging from buildings descended from the traditional enfilade of rooms containing particularly cherished objects, the museum as treasure house, to the almost entirely simulated sequence of events such as Hans Hollein's volcano museum in the Auvergne (p72), the museum as theatre. Both ends of the spectrum have their uses and both have their problems. The museum as treasure house can descend into the kind of travesty that Saatchi & Saatchi organised in London: a sort of warehouse for adding value to second rate architecture and art. The museum as theatre often seems to be at risk of toppling over into Disneyland.

In a sense, some of the most successful museums of our time seem to be in the middle of the spectrum. Think, for instance, of Tadao Ando's museums which help interpret the ancient tomb landscapes of Japan, one of which is shown here (p40). They do not attempt to emulate the experience of being in a tomb (in the way that Hollein has, perhaps too literally, attempted to give the sensation of being under the volcano). There is a slow descent to the subterranean world, but nothing that tries to copy the past, just an austere, abstract poetic space. Nor does Ando attempt to fit into the surroundings; he provides stairs and a platform, a silent place from which to contemplate and understand the landscape. These are real places in our world of collapsing space and time.

In a somewhat analogous way, Jorgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert built Louisiana, one of the century's finest museums, at Humlebaek north of Copenhagen. It is a large complex, made over many years, and the first phases in particular are master-strokes, straggling through the lawns of the gentle parkland that overlooks a forested lake on one side and the Sound on the other. Simple brick, glass and timber spaces both gently present the works of art they contain, and relate them to the magnificent landscape. With its interpenetration of interior and exterior space and apparently simple construction, Louisiana would have been inconceivable before this century. And under Knud W. Jensen's elegant and gentle leadership it is very much a product of its time: in some ways a work of land art as well as being the setting for numerous environments and happenings, and a continuously growing collection.(5)

Perhaps we have been Wrong in recent years to spend so much time brooding over museums as the contemporary equivalent of cathedrals, worrying about their presence and expression. Bo & Wohlert's early work scarcely seems to have a style. But it does marvellously make places, and allows the art and landscape to speak for themselves. Remarkably, it is rarely discussed, and has had scarcely any influence. It is time to re-assess its lessons and those of Ando: intensity, calmness, repose, tranquillity, all desperately needed in an increasingly frenetic world. P.D.

1 Smithson, Robert 'Cultural Confinement' (1972) from Art in Theory, ed Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell, Oxford (UK) and Cambridge (USA), 1993, p947.

2 Kaprow, Allan 'Assemblages, Environments and Happenings' (1959-61) in Art in Theory, ibid, p702.

3 Harvey, David The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell, Oxford (UK) and Cambridge (USA), 1990, p272.

4 Idem.

5 Described in Jensen, Knud W. mit Louisiana-liv, Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1993.
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Title Annotation:museum
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Words:1101
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