Who's in Charge?

The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now

Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible 1840-1900

Like all love affairs, the bond between artist and audience brims with antagonism as much as desire. Each side finds the urge to become lost in the other hard to disentangle from the urge to destroy it. Each craves more than the other can deliver, yet simultaneously longs to be free.

One apparent way out of this quandary is to bring maker and viewer together as collaborators. But the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious survey of six decades of work based on this strategy, The Art of Participation, demonstrates that making art a two-way street creates a new set of paradoxes.

Abramovic;/Ulay, "Imponderabilia" (1977). Photographic documentation of performance at the Galleria Communale d'Arte, Bologna, Italy. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York. © 2008 Marina Abramovic; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany.
Photo: Giovanna dal Magro.

Out of thousands of possible choices, SFMOMA Media Arts curator Rudolf Frieling picked the seventy or so works in the show based on their historical significance coupled with a fairly austere notion of participation, in which audience members realize the artist’s vision rather than co-create. So Lygia Clark’s Rede de elastico prompts viewers to add to a growing net made of large rubber bands. Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin collect photographs from museumgoers’ wallets and put large chromogenic prints of ten of them on display. Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures asks visitors to use their own bodies to create momentary absurdist tableaux.

Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, "Chamaeleon Cristatus" (1896). Photogravure. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s delightful 1980 Hole-in-Space used video screens to open a magical window linking a storefront in sunny Los Angeles to another in New York’s wintry Upper West Side. People walking by could suddenly see and talk to strangers on the other side of the country; at SFMOMA, archival videos of the two windows play across from one another, so that we can watch the silly, sweet, and strange interactions that ensued. It’s a charming document, full of accidental poetry and, in its depiction of the human urge to connect, surprisingly moving.

As Boris Groys observes in the show’s catalogue, “Participatory art can be understood not only as a reduction but also as an extension of authorial power.” Far from undercutting the artist’s dominance, audience involvement often foregrounds it.

Thus in a film of John Cage’s 1973 performance of his 4’33”, a crowd in Harvard Square reverently watches the composer sit at a piano, his hands folded, for four and a half minutes of silence. One of the show’s most powerful works is Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which she invites members of the audience to approach her one at a time and cut away a piece of her clothing. In a film of a 1965 performance, Ono looks young and painfully vulnerable; in a 2003 reprise, she’s a venerable matron who remains cloaked in celebrity even as her dress is cut away. But in both versions Ono’s audience, whether they humbly snip off an inch of her skirt or slash away at her shirt, remain mere acolytes, while the artist assumes the role of a deity, one whose humiliation and veneration are inextricably entwined.

In some works the artist’s aggression is more direct. When Marina Abramovic and Ulay stood naked on either side of a museum doorway, forcing anyone who wanted to enter the museum to squeeze sideways between their bodies, audience members were less collaborators than uneasy victims, judging by the film of this 1977 work. The same could be said of the museumgoers Vito Acconci stood uncomfortably close to in his 1970 Proximity Piece, or of the nervous passersby appearing in Francis Alÿs’ side-by-side films—one original, the other a staged reenactment—of himself striding through Mexico City with a loaded gun.

Of course the audience has ways of fighting back. They watch a few seconds of Alÿs’ or Ono’s films and walk away. They push a key or two on the various Internet-based works in the exhibition but decide not to spend any time exploring them. (Why are so many online artworks still so clumsy to navigate?) As in any relationship, the cruelest response is indifference.

The Art of Participation gains added resonance from the other shows on view at SFMOMA. The Martin Puryear retrospective has arrived here, providing a lovely counterargument in favor of the artist’s traditional role as inspired, inspiring maker. And the photography department offers Brought to Light, an exhibition of 19th-century pictures that were for the most part created with no thought of an audience at all—at least, not an art audience.

These “photographs of the invisible,” made between 1839 and 1900, revealed things too large or small for unaided eyes to perceive, reminding us how dramatically this technology changed the way we see the world. Daguerreotypes of plant cells and itch mites, photographs of comets and the motion of birds in flight, a print capturing ribbons of lightning, an x-ray of a man’s hand dotted with buckshot—they all brought tidings of worlds beyond yet embedded within our own.

Almost all these pictures were made for scientific or educational purposes, and their power originally lay not in their aesthetics but in the startling news they conveyed. But what’s striking in 2008 is their amazing beauty.

An 1839 photomicrograph of a diatom looks like an ancient tribal relic crossed with some 1970s craft-into-art masterpiece. An 1888 print of “electric effluvia” evokes mythic sea creatures and Sixties psychedelia. An 1896 x-ray of a lizard has the totemic gravity of a cave painting and the elegance of an Andy Warhol drawing of a shoe.

The gorgeous catalogue doesn’t have much to say about the esthetics of these pictures or how scientific photos helped inspire the artists of the early 20th century and beyond. But their variety and intricacy of form, their lush chiaroscuro and evocative sepias, and their astute selection by curator Corey Keller make for a viscerally exciting show.

And perhaps it’s fitting that we’re left to come up with our own way of seeing them—arguably the most satisfying form of audience participation there is. Free from any overlay of artistic intent, these images give us the space to become discoverers of visual thrills undreamt of by their makers. Here, in some sense, the art-making is not the work of the photographer; rather, the artist is our universe itself, and the inadvertent beauty we respond to is written into the raw material of our being.

Contributor

Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.

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