First is the gargantuan installation piece by Pipilotti Rist, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Feet). It's really astonishing. The entire atrium is filled with it. And because of the ambient sound of the piece, practically the whole museum throbs with it.
I stepped into the room and first walked around it. It seems that the MoMA, most particularly of the museums, has very much begun encouraging visitors to lay around. I really like it. I think when viewers of artwork are reclined is in some ways when they might be most susceptible to truly contemplating the work and absorbing it. Of course there may be more intellectual work that would favor standing upright and having just downed an espresso, but this isn't one of them. It was Friday evening, so the whole room was packed full of people laying around on the floor, the circular upholstered eyeball in the center was totally occupied. It really reminded me of the Chillout rooms at the Raves back in the olden days.
I'm also reminded that in the 1970s, the New York Philharmonic held their "Rug Concerts," where conductor Pierre Boulez removed all the seats from the auditorium, the orchestra would be down on the floor, and the audiences would lay around on rugs with cushions on the floor. I wish it were possible to bring that back, I think it would be fantastic.
I wasn't sure if I would sit on the floor of MoMA's atrium, but eventually I realized I must. The room was silent, but after I sat there for a few minutes, the soundtrack started coming in, almost inaudibly at first, to the point I wasn't sure if there were any sound. Then it became obvious. It's sound effects of the human body and vaguely natural sounds overlayed by a sort of beautiful, floating, chanting, haunting melody. I was grateful, actually, that I'd stumbled in while it was still silent.
The imagery caused a similar experience, due to my timing. When I first walked in, the video was showing an underwater scene, waving and swirling around the walls. It appeared very abstract at that moment in the cycle. In fact, it kind of reminded me of the psychedelic special effects in Barbarella. But as I watched through the ten-minute cycle of video, a lot of things came into focus.
Rist says that the footage was taken during the shooting of her first feature-length film, which will be released next year. This piece is basically about the very tactile experience of nature at various scales: at a human scale, the scale of a pig in a field (very funny, actually), the scale of an earthworm or snail--walking, traveling through. Bare feet trudging through shallow, muddy water, stepping on pieces of fruit, squishing them between toes. Fruit contains seeds, the potential for birth. Swimming, an exercise that completely immerses the body in the natural environment, like a womb. Long close up views of breasts, a nipple, not erotic exactly, though there's something to that, too. More it feels primal: the female body as the source of life, the cradle of life, like the earth itself. It also draws this connection with the act of viewing Pour, which is all encompassing, immersive, and tactile: the speakers are actually inside the upholstered benches. So I wasn't able to lay on them, myself, but I presume that you can actually feel the sound rumbling through your body. The curator also explained that they conceived of the atrium like a pool, filling it up with liquid artwork.
Rist drew the analogy between the MoMA's atrium and a cathedral. She's right; it does have that quality at times. And that's sort of the point, it's a communal experience. She also mentioned something about how so much art, media, entertainment gets piped into our homes where we experience it alone or only in very small groups, distracted and unengaged. The museum environment provides that sense of communally experiencing visual works.
One might say the same for the cinema, but in so many ways, home video has destroyed people's ability to enjoy going to see movies. On the one hand, it's destroyed any sense of courtesy or respect because people are so used to watching in their living rooms where they can do as they please. On the other, it's spoiled audiences, conditioned by their own tightly controlled, personalized home viewing preferences, so they can no longer appreciate the communal experience of watching along with a full audience.
A museum is one of the only places left where this is still possible. Most visitors don't have a set of rules and regulations for how artwork should be viewed, because they don't ever view artworks in their own homes, on their own terms. Of course, I've discussed Museum Etiquette before, and I think it's extremely important. But at the same time, Fine Art naturally seems to demand a greater sense of reverence from its audience than a blockbuster action film.
Rist's piece calls all of this into question in a beautiful, hypnotic installation. I do hope more artists will recognize what museums have become, culturally speaking, what they can be and can provide, and take advantage of it, encourage it, the way this artist has.
©2008, Ryan Witte