Creating a concept
The new Carnegie exhibit at Nevada Museum of Art asks you to use your head
“Ever-widening circles of shattered glass.”
If you would, please, take a moment and visualize just that—it’s easy enough to do.
“Ever-Widening Circles of Shattered Glass” is just a line of text written on a window. It’s one of the more evocative of the 52 playful and perplexing conceptual works included in An International Legacy: Selections from the Carnegie Museum of Art at the Nevada Museum of Art. The exhibit will be on loan to Reno through April 4, and it’s the collection’s only stop in the Western United States. The show surveys the last 30 years of art-making and is sort of a “greatest hits” collection, boasting the inclusion of many widely known names in the contemporary art world.
Present are works by such revered artists as Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close. But some of the lesser-known contributors—Lawrence Weiner, for example, the man responsible for the text written on the window—demonstrate effectively the conceptual nature of the show.
Much of the art included in the Carnegie collection is elusive and shoots for a thoughtful response, rather than a visceral or sensational one. Many of the artists are the same ones who, toward the latter half of the 20th century, rejected the idea that art was necessarily a material object, concluding that it was about the idea—that the essence of art was the idea itself. Still, when it comes to “Ever-Widening Circles of Shattered Glass,” museum visitors are asking where the actual work is.
With Wiener’s challenge to the audience to imagine the artwork for themselves, the idea and responsibility to create the piece remains with the audience, and because their imagination has, in a sense, already done the job, the artist need not even make the would-be sculpture. Kind of a cool idea, isn’t it?
But why bother to go to the museum at all? You could simply sit around, save a few dollars and “imagine” what the artwork is. Well, aside from just intellectual exercises, much of the artwork is about the experience of participation.
Rirkrit Tiravanija creates work that, as the exhibition catalog reads, “is meant not merely to be seen but, more important, to be used.”
His addition to the show, a large orange tent housing items including a table, chairs, tea and water, actually invites the audience to take part. Tiravanija’s previous works also beckon viewers to join in—to dine, to simply hang out, or, as in one experiment, to play in a garage band. However, when patrons are allowed to walk atop certain works of art but not permitted to set their personal belongings on others (one of the installations includes a large table), things can get confusing.
When the exhibition opened at the museum on Jan. 18, visitors were invited to participate in a tea ceremony, during which they could drink, socialize and even have their feet washed. By moving routine activities and social exchange from the real world to a museum environment, Tiravanija hopes to imply that art is indeed a part of everyday life and wants to dismiss any boundaries between the two.
Tiravanija’s works are meant to be fun. However, while they expect a certain level of participation, interaction and just plain friendliness among fellow patrons, much of the other work in the concept-heavy Carnegie collection can be cold and challenging, avoiding an easy interpretation.
Robert Ryman’s painting “Issue” might qualify as one of those more-difficult-to-decipher works. Ryman prefers to paint using only the color white. His painting hardly stands out from the white walls of the gallery, and if it were not for the metal clips suspending the work, one might walk past it altogether; many people nearly did.
“What on earth could possibly be said about a picture of nothing?” one female patron asked upon surveying the piece. She then concluded that the artist who made “Issue” must have been much smarter than she.
Ryman’s work embodies much of what is often misunderstood about conceptual art—that there is some sort of riddle to be figured out. “I don’t get it” is a phrase frequently overheard in such a setting. Oftentimes there is, in fact, really nothing “to get.” True, the work can be difficult and intellectual, as it is idea-based, but it isn’t necessarily meant to be elitist, which is a misconception about contemporary art.
“Since people assume that it is hard to understand, it becomes hard to understand,” one docent explained while directing a group of visitors throughout the exhibit. (Docent-led tours are available in English and in Spanish.)
An all-white painting might seem more approachable if one imagined that it was done simply for the enjoyment of painting, without the pressure to render any recognizable form or, as Ryman puts it, to study “how paint works.” Conceptual art can be quite enjoyable if you allow your mind to rest, letting the elements of the piece fall into place in order to focus on the process of how the work transforms in upon itself, from the original idea to the physical thing. All that artistic rhetoric can come later.
When you visit the show, find the piece “Der Lauf Der Dinge.” This film, created by the team of Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, is hidden on the second floor and is well worth seeking out. It looks like a school science experiment gone wrong. The film records gasses, fire, corks, tires and bottles as they pop, spill, push and propel each other forward at an astonishingly rickety pace. In one scene, a balloon deflates, causing a cylindrical weight to fall and land on a leaning plank that arches over a pipe that propels spinning tires across the field of view toward a waiting concoction—a flammable liquid that spills over the floor and toward an open flame. As the meticulously constructed sculpture moves toward its inevitable destruction, it leaves in its wake a chaotic mess.
“Der Lauf Der Dinge” is an ideal point of entry to the Carnegie collection because, while forward thinking, it is not intimidating. Suspenseful, funny and wholly accessible, it requires only that you watch it to “get it.” This film is so entirely mesmerizing that it’s easy to let your guard down, to enjoy the process of art without questioning why it was made or what it all means.
Even if you walk away with the feeling that you’ve missed something, the piece’s title cues you in. Its English translation is that’s "the way things go."