From the Archives

From the Archives – #Hashtags: Going Up at SFMOMA

There are so many things to look at in a museum–but that doesn’t mean that art doesn’t exist in unplanned and accidental encounters. Today #Hashtags reprints one of our favorite essays from last year, on the topic of uncurated looking.

It was miraculous to me, only because I had never seen the space behind the doors. Yet, it was shameful, as if I had seen something I ought not to have seen and, worse, had relished the view. As if the question “Should I look?” had been answered by the act of looking before my mind could complete the question with “or not?”

The scene is precisely what a museum is not about: uncurated looking. It is also precisely what a museum is about: serendipitous discovery. The space behind the doors was as mundane as it was miraculous, usually hidden precisely because the space and its goings-on were judged more mundane than miraculous. My inspection of the space was unsuitable, because it was the equivalent of bringing the attention I should bring to the art to a trash can in the museum’s lobby. “Nut,” you might mutter had you seen me gazing, or “Poseur.”

The poster for “Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media at SF MoMA,” July 14 through October 8; Photo: Saul Rosenfield, ©2012, with permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

It seems a coincidence that the second time I saw the space, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was also staging an exhibit on performance art—Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media. More than a coincidence, a serendipity, because when closed, the doors of the miraculous space supported the enormous welcoming poster for Stage Presence, and when opened, they revealed—what?—a tableau, a stage! And to paraphrase Chekhov’s observation—that a gun introduced into a drama must surely go off—a tableau revealed to the world must surely contain a drama, even if the plot is only in my head, even if the stage-in-waiting masquerades as a freight elevator cab.

The SFMOMA freight elevator, 4th floor landing, revealed; Photo: Saul Rosenfield, ©2012, with permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Moments before I saw the space, I had watched the video of Andrea Fraser’s Official Welcome (2001), a coincidence because Fraser is both a leading performance artist and a practitioner of institutional critique. Had Fraser seen the elevator space, might she have read its normally concealed, and benighted, status as diagnostic of the state of contemporary art and art museums? In Official Welcome, Fraser embodies presenters and recipients at an art awards ceremony, but she is most famous for incarnating “Jane Castleton,” the docent-character documented in the video Museum Highlights (1989). Castleton narrates for her real-life tour group the banalities of the Philadelphia Museum—the cafeteria, a water fountain, the admissions desk—as her sibling docents might have narrated the innovations of Monet, Cézanne, Jasper Johns, or Robert Adams, also on view at the museum in 1989. Jane might, I believe, reveal SF MoMA’s freight elevator cab as “a hidden gem, a space of intrigue and metamorphosis, a room in the process of becoming, whose subjects—carpenters, electricians, preparators, among others—foster the becoming throughout the museum.” Her satire might hang on the characterization of the normally unacknowledged and undervalued efforts of exhibition creation and museum maintenance as being as magical and wondrous as art creation, itself. It might also suggest that the museum is a storytelling institution, in both senses of the word: weaving truth from a conjunction of events and characters, and fiction from the assertion of a narrative truth that, alas, is always partial.

In a sense, though, the elevator performance is an opportunity not only for institutional critique, but also for the sort of possibility inherent in the museum operation itself. So, although I might criticize the strictures of the museum—the forced march structured by signs, images, and spaces: wall plaques and labels, the sequence of numbered artworks, the route from one gallery to the next—it is also true that the museum offers endless opportunities for unexpected juxtaposition and revelation. It is easy to follow the pathway in a kind of structured trance, but not so difficult to deviate, even, and especially, accidentally.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981; chromogenic color print; 24 x 47 15/16″ (61 x 121.9 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Fellows of Photography Fund; ©2012 Cindy Sherman.

My experience unfolded, coincidentally, on the day I viewed the Cindy Sherman retrospective, in particular the Centerfolds series, which Sherman produced in 1981. Sherman is the consummate performance artist, although that is not how she is catalogued, and, in the Centerfolds, she appears the master of the pregnant moment, each image a one-act play depicting its climax. These vulnerable moments both encode the plot and expose my own vulnerability. They also ask, coincidentally, “Should I look—or not?” Looking, it is impossible not to feel that something is violated, whether it is the privacy of Sherman’s subjects (as the wall text observes), or of Sherman (who plays the model playing the character, but with the feeling of a subject), or, most of all, my own privacy. Yet, looking seems the only option at a museum. Certainly, it seems the only option when the freight elevator doors slide open—and, even more, when someone walks on stage.

The centerfold pictures are not, however, just about the danger of seeing. They are also about the inevitability of framing, about the constant stage-potential of living. Which is also what the elevator cab unwittingly, magnificently, enacts when it opens its doors to reveal a Chekhovian tableau. I find myself hesitating, I resolve to gaze, and the story unfolds.

The show goes on in the SF MoMA freight elevator, 4th floor landing; Photos: Saul Rosenfield, ©2012, with permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Even without characters, the set—an assemblage of a pallet, a sign stand, dollies, carts, a portable crane, ladders, wall panels, cardboard tubing, a chair—performs the hard work that all successful theater undertakes. It suspends audience disbelief, hanging it upon what seems to be our inclination to tell ourselves stories. It combines donated material—the set, the props, the characters, even the plot—with each spectator’s material—imagination, preoccupation, predilection—thereby achieving the feeling of consistency. The same consistency as a material that gets called “truth.” So, in the freight elevator named Stage Presence, there appears a Beckettian set, containing the instruments of our mundanity: a cell standing in, I guess, for life, furnished with the tools standing in, I guess, for the never-ending work of living, and inhabited by a character, an everyperson, standing in both for the “me” who watches and for the watched person who performs the work. Performs it apparently without complaint, accepting even the gaze of a photographer as if it were part of the task. As if his task were not even the task that requires the tools but the task that requires the gazer.

In 2006, at UC Berkeley’s CalPerformance presentation of the Dublin-based Gate Theater’s production of Waiting for Godot, I had the strange sensation of incredible hopefulness. Four people wait. For Godot. Who never comes. At least not today. Waiting, it seems, is just another word for living. The accidental companions of our waiting—geographic coincidences—are, it seems, all we have. The stage is all but barren, the language all but repetition, the action all but inert. Yet my subconscious recognizes this condition as the world that I inhabit, a world not only absurdly repetitious and pointless, but also familiar and comforting.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket, performed by the Gate Theater Dublin at Cal Performances, Berkeley, November 2006; courtesy of Cal Performances.

As the elevator curtain comes down, the everyperson’s eyes glance up and then forward. The quiet repose he assumes as he sits looking out seems to represent the state of peaceful coexistence with life that I suspect we all try to pull off. Yet, as the fantastical figure pasted to the elevator door swallows the man, it also swallows that illusion: we must settle, as a last resort and at least in public, for impersonating the appearance of the peaceful by staging the impassive. In any case, that’s my story.

The experience at SF MoMA was compensation for the performance that I had failed to document at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 2012. A group of, black-clad, white-gloved perpetrators—I mean preparators!—sat at a black-robed table facing the blocked entry to a large gallery, like a panel of inquisitors facing a prisoner. Each of their movements was articulated by work lights focused precisely on their hands as they cleaned the glass of pictures for the exhibition, Robert Adams: The Place We Live. If the elevator play is Beckettian, the glass-cleaning performance was Kafkaesque. Later, wandering through a different exhibition, I came upon the backside of the future Adams show, and there under the equally dramatic light, I spied framed photographs, propped up or arrayed flat, jockeying for position. A single image had made it to the wall. The performance was complete.

It surprises me that the museum has not taken advantage of the performative possibilities of the freight elevator. Imagine this procedure: the scene is set on the third floor, props and actors gathering in place in the elevator cab; the elevator rises to the fourth floor, actors on their marks; the doors rise signaling the beginning of the action and fall signaling its end. I have imagined requesting the space for a performance piece myself. There is, though, something precious about the impromptu performance I observed that would be lost in a planned performance, something startling, improvised, not by the elevator inhabitant—his action seemed planned, repeated a dozen times before—but by me. My mother, who accompanied me, thought the elevator man was engaged in a performance piece. In any case, that’s her story.

The dénouement; Photo: Saul Rosenfield, ©2012, with permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and the effect of the aesthetic experience on self and society. He received master’s degrees in journalism from UC Berkeley and in visual and critical studies from the California College of Art, and is the Publications and Training Manager for the Alliance Health Project of the University of California, San Francisco.