Undoing museum dos and don'ts

PORTFOLIO

It's sometimes confusing, but BMA's 'BodySpace' changes rules for looking at art as it looks at differences between public and private space.

May 13, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF WRITER

Touch.

Don't touch!

Sit.

Don't sit!

You begin to feel like a 3-year-old confronted with the seemingly inexplicable rules imposed by grown-ups. Eat your vegetables. Keep your elbows off the table.

But this is not a game of Simon Says. This is "BodySpace," an exhibition on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through May 27. It includes works by nine contemporary artists who have philosophical roots in the minimalist movement of the 1960s. In varying ways, each artist explores how spatial relations affect us, or the differences between public and private space.

The exhibit invites viewers to touch and even enter some of the artworks, and for that reason it is both liberating and disconcerting. And in the process, it raises questions -- sometimes inadvertently -- about the rules of looking at art.

Enter the first gallery and look around. Instead of gazing at a painting on the wall or a sculpture on a pedestal, you see a diaphanous house of cloth hovering overhead. Called "Seoul Home / L.A. Home / New York Home / Baltimore Home," the fabric dwelling is pale-green and nearly see-through; from on high, it shelters you and creates a space within a space.

Artist Do-Ho Suh has fashioned an intimate space -- a home -- in a very public space: a museum. Standing "in" the house (and under the work), you can sense a difference in the air. You notice the lines created by the edge of the cloth and the intersection of wall and floor. You feel protected, and yet are exposed.

Nearby, a label on the wall announces: "Several of the artworks in this exhibition can be touched, and even entered, by the viewer, breaking down the standard prohibition of the Museum 'do not touch.' Other works, however, cannot be touched."

But which works are which? How will you know?

That's the point, says curator Helen Molesworth. When designing the exhibit, she aimed for ambiguity. "I didn't want it to be solely about interactive art," she says. "I wanted there to be a tension between touch and not touch. I thought it would raise questions."

What about licking?

Indeed, "BodySpace" calls into question the ways in which you acquire knowledge through how your body experiences things in a particular time and space. The friction caused by the push-pull of do's and don'ts forces you to consider each object in unusual ways. Ways that might not occur in a traditional museum setting. What is this art object about? Should you touch this, or not?

Museums sometimes are seen as elitist institutions -- places where you must not touch objects or speak too loudly, where questions are deemed unseemly. With so many rules to follow, it's no wonder that some viewers find looking at art (particularly contemporary works) daunting. But "BodySpace" invites you to toss out the rules. And when rules are broken, who knows what will happen?

What Molesworth didn't anticipate was that visitors, encouraged to break some of the rules, would feel empowered to break more. And that by allowing some of the rules to be broken, the exhibit would make plain the many strictures for looking at art at museums.

As a curator, "You see work and you put it together as an exhibit in your head, and it sometimes does exactly what you think it is going to do, and sometimes it defies your expectations," Molesworth says. "I was surprised at how rambunctious it made people feel."

Who knew, for example, that some viewers would confide in the museum guards a desire to lick Claudia Matzko's all-white installation? (They were discouraged.)

Called "Salt Wall," the work is constructed of salt-and-resin tiles that were handmade by the Baltimore artist and her assistants. It seems monolithic yet fractured. Every tile is square and white. Each has its own identity: Some are marked with the handprints of their makers, others are smooth or have textured surfaces like miniature lunar landscapes. Look at the whole and you think of the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, a bathroom wall, sugar cubes. It is easy to see why you might want to touch this wall, to trace a handprint as though it were your own. But to lick it?

Perhaps it's the thrill of the forbidden. The artists in this exhibition are urging you to use all your senses to "see" their art. Haven't you ever been tempted to touch a painting? To "see" if the velvet gowns in Renoir's portraits feel as soft as they look? To test the smoothness of a Brancusi sculpture? Your knowledge of the world is gleaned from the use of all the senses. Why should art be different?

But as you move through this particular exhibition, you become aware that as the old rules are broken, new ones are being invented.

Strange beauty

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