Friday, August 20, 2010

Lygia Clark: (Non)Interaction within the Museum

I was first introduced to the artist Lygia Clark by chance.  I was doing research in Brazil several summers ago, but arrived in Rio de Janeiro to find out that the Ministry of Culture was on strike.  All cultural institutions in the city were closed - including the National Library, where I had intended to do most of my research.  Argh!  Long story short: I discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro was open (they must receive private funding and not be associated with the Ministry of Culture), I subsequently discovered Lygia Clark in the Tropicália exhibition, and luckily I was able to complete my research a few days later.

I think that Clark is a really interesting artist.  Much of her early work revolved around participation of the viewer.  In order to truly experience her art, Clark wanted people to touch, manipulate, and sometimes wear (!) her sculptures.  In one piece, Diálogo: Óculos ("Dialogue: Glasses", 1968, shown left), two people were supposed to wear a set of goggles.  The goggles constrained the individuals to maintain eye contact, and thus forced a type of dialogue to ensue between the two people.  It is the experience created by the goggles that is the work of art, and not the actual object itself.

Unfortunately, museum display and security don't allow Clark's work to be interactive (or even to function, really).  With art museums as a "no touch" zone, most of Clark's interactive work is stuck on pedestals and behind glass cases.  (Although, to be fair, in 2008-09 the SFMOA had an exhibition called "The Art of Participation" which allowed visitors to interact with works of art, including Lygia Clark's Diálogo: Óculos.)

But the mentality behind the "The Art of Participation" show isn't found everywhere.  Consider the particular irony of this clip from the Walker Art Museum, in which the curator explains and demonstrates how the sculpture is supposed to be experienced, but then shows the Bicho ("Bug," 1960) sculpture placed behind a glass case:

Obviously, I understand why works of art need to be placed behind protective glass.  I understand the element of preservation too, since constant handling of any sculpture will cause wear and tear on the piece.  And, to be fair, the SFMOA blog has some great reasoning about institutional limitations in regards to participation, which was posted in conjunction with "The Art of Participation" show. (This blog post also includes a link to this video of people turning Lygia Clark's Rede de elástico ("Elastic Net") into a jump rope within the gallery, which is kinda fun but obviously dangerous in the gallery space.)

Still, institutional limitations aside, I wish that there were more shows like "The Act of Participation" in the museum world. Then Lydia Clark's art would actually be able to function, instead just being a neat thing to talk about.