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Artist Ruth Buchanan on How She Made Basel’s Biggest Museum Come ‘Totally Alive’

Art has a long history of artists taking apart museums and reconstituting them anew.

Chris Burden famously dug up the floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, leaving its foundations—its physical ones and its metaphorical ones—exposed.  Andy Warhol, Fred Wilson, and others have been invited to dive into permanent collections and exhibit works that tell stories not typically portrayed by their owners. Andrea Fraser has offered unforgettable tours that have provided alternative—and hotly political—views of museum spaces.

The latest artist to fit within this lineage is Ruth Buchanan, whose practice has periodically involved long-term engagements with museums and their staff. She’s now zeroed in on the Kunstmuseum Basel, the biggest museum in the Swiss city that’s currently host to the world’s biggest fair, and she’s considered its collection, the workers who keep it running, and the sterile setting in which the art appears. (Len Schaller, who curated the exhibition with Maja Wismer, is even listed as a coauthor of one work.)

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A gallery space with wood flooring

Her resulting show, “Heute Nacht geträumt,” features some new objects, including sculptures that she made with Kunstmuseum Basel staff, but for the most part, Buchanan’s interventions are not immediately noticeable—which is especially the case because the show includes artworks that she didn’t make, among them a painting by Miriam Cahn.

Buchanan, who is based in Aotearoa New Zealand and is of Te Āti Awa, Taranaki and Pakeha descent, has instead opted to seamlessly embed her show into the Kunstmuseum Basel’s collection while also questioning the institution’s value.

To hear more about how she enlivened the Kunstmuseum Basel, ARTnews spoke with Buchanan by email.

In preparing to do this exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, you did a deep dive into the museum’s history and collection. It’s not the first time you’ve done this with an institution: you also did it for a 2019 project at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand. As you’re beginning to research a museum and its holdings, how do you start? What is your process like? 

My work is fundamentally about relationships—how things fit together, whether it is a body on the softness or hardness of a seat or whether it’s our sense of fitting into (or not fitting into) (art) histories as we have known them. For this reason when I begin working into an institution and its collection I have tended to focus on the whole and the mechanisms that have shaped that whole, recurrent trends and tendencies rather than individual works. In working in this way, eschewing standards of performing art history through exhibiting of canon hits or even my own favorites, I’ve opted to give space for friction and discomfort that makes the moments of joy, experimentation or precedent setting all the more palpable.

A gallery bisected by a long horizontal sculpture with holes in it. The sculpture moves between two columns and seems to show artworks hanging behind it.

Installation view of “Ruth Buchanan: Heute Nacht geträumt,” 2022, at Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.
Photo Jonas Hänggi/Kunstmuseum Basel

As with the Govett-Brewster work, you have pulled out certain works from the collection to explore their relationship to the museum’s architecture and history. There’s a section centered around Minimalism, which you note influenced the look of the Kunstmuseum’s contemporary building. Why did you zero in on Minimalism, and how did you select these works? 

The selection from the collection came about by dividing the four-story building into four time periods. Each time period then had a “selection grid” applied to it which guided what is exhibited—for example, showing the first and last work acquired in that calendar year. For the ground floor we focused on the time “Pre-history—1982” which as a timeframe fundamentally shaped the foundation of the museum both as an institution and a building. The ground floor was purpose built for large scale minimal work, so we selected an ensemble of sculptural and large-scale wall works that reflect this. We even have a work that was included in the opening exhibition of 1980.

More than producing a “document,” it was important to me that we offer this foundational impulse as an embodied experience, and while many of the pieces included in this section are wonderful, none of them are neutral. While it would be legitimate not to show these work anymore as we attempt to expand and reform standardized narratives of art history, not to mention the brutality of some of this history, I think a legitimate option is to expose and undermine the suggestion of neutrality. The access to “Pre-history–1982” is mediated by a large sculpture by myself, Enclosure (2022), which functions like a fence, so there is no predetermined “classical” interaction with this work. Rather, it is radically interrupted and specified.

The other ready-made work you’ve included in the show is a Miriam Cahn painting that you have situated alongside objects of your own creation. What interested you about the Cahn painting? 

Our exhibition works a lot with placing an emphasis on exceptions, that most systems, whether they be categorizing systems or an artistic process, must reckon with their own limitation. The Cahn piece is my exception. Using the “selection grid,” this work would not have been included in the show, but on encounter with it, it became clear to me we had to include it. The work Heute Nacht geträumt (mein werkstatt N.Y.), 2011, also provided the title of the show, and translates as “last night I dream (my studio NY).”

In developing the exhibition I wanted to imagine the museum as an engine, something totally alive, and this work is that engine. It is so potent! It calls up the imaginative and sets it to work, and from my perspective imaginative work will always also be political work. Cahn is also one of the few woman artists who reoccur through the collection so it also felt good to acknowledge that. 

Throughout this show, there are references to bodies that are not explicitly shown. One of the core questions you asked during the making of the show was “Where does my body belong?” Enclosure (When the sick rule the world reverb), 2019/22, the long steel work you made for the show, shares a name with a Dodie Bellamy book that considers disease and bodily functions, among other topics. Why did you invoke the body in relation to an institution like the Kunstmuseum Basel? 

I invoke the body because we have to, museums have to. Dodie published that book in 2015, so she was already beginning to discuss the way in which our physical experience dramatically affects key issues of equity such as value and access. With the reckoning with what is to be a human with a body in the world that I now hope we’re all alive to, there have been significant shifts in language in many facets of daily life, including in museums and the broader arena of the cultural. It’s great to see this more reflective language and strategy emerge, but what we’ve had less access to is embodied experiences of what this kind of reckoning means in real time. I always ask: how do we know we are entering an institution in transformation? If we only know that by reading an updated mission statement on a website, then I think there is an important ingredient missing. This exhibition is one answer to that question, what a museum under transformation might feel like as a spatial-temporal experience. 

A wall that is half painted in translucent purple with the phrase 'Where does my body belong?' visible in big bubble letters in both German and English.

Ruth Buchanan with Len Schaller, Epoch Studies, 2001–21.
Foto: Jonas Hänggi

As part of the project, you worked with museum staff, making the work Spiral Time (2022) with them. How did that work come about? What conversations did you have with museum staff in the process? 

The museum engine applies to all facets of this exhibition, from back of house to front of house, and also timeframes for when and how different stakeholders became involved. We know by now that many standard procedures within the museum world don’t serve many of the those employed by the museum, let alone the artists and artwork. In order for me to make this exhibition and the process from which it emerged as deep and textured as possible, it was important that I draw in as many arenas of museum life as I could, including the day to day care of the artwork.

The invigilation team [the guards]—who, despite being so crucial to the sense of any exhibition, and often the key to “Do I want to come back?,” one of the questions we ask on the floor where this piece is installed—is not usually invited into an exhibition until the day before the opening. To me, this feels out of step in 2022. We need to draw on tools of abundance rather than scarcity. Therefore, the curatorial team, Maja Wismer and Len Schaller, and I ran a week-long natural wild-dyeing workshop, inviting the invigilators to come and dye parts of their uniform as well as to co-produce a large-scale textile work which is now included in the exhibition.

The museum facilitated that they could come during regular working hours so it didn’t impact their down time, and we spent a week over hot pots of boiling elderberry, sweating it out together, talking through the project, their job, my job, Basel. It was such a great exchange! It also allowed the staff to express their desires for this kind of participation and exchange in an ongoing way. From a matauranga Māori perspective, it makes sense to work in this holistic, and frankly reasonable, way, to give proper space to reform processes, stay curious, and share agency.

This project could be situated with a lineage known as institutional critique, which addresses museums and art spaces themselves. Do you in some way hope to reorient viewers’ understanding of the Kunstmuseum Basel? Did working on it any way change your own perception of museums? 

Definitely, this exhibition should certainly be understood as an invitation for reorientation of the viewer and their relationship with this museum in particular, but also with museums in general, whether that’s through enjoying the standard museum white walls becoming a washy lilac, or whether that’s through analyzing the under-represented communities within the collection.

While I see my practice as emerging from the legacies of feminism and institutional critique, scholar Marina Vishmidt has very helpfully described the difference between critique and transformation. She has said critique is the moment of pointing, while transformation is the moment of grabbing. This is where my interest lies, moving to grabbing at the museum matrix. Working on this exhibition, it became clearer than ever to me the fundamental role museums can play in shaping the cultural narrative, the opportunity they have to set precedents and offer an otherwise and that there is the will for this, but so many of the systems need redressing. The more we invite the body, the human, a variety of perspectives and paradigms to get into dynamic, maybe even dangerous contact with each other the more often we’ll encounter this otherwise in a meaningful way.

There is an incredibly powerful poem from Diane Di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letters” series that sums it up for me, #51. “As soon as we submit / to a system based on casualty, linear time / we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again / into slavery. Be strong. We have the right to make / the universe we dream. / No need to fear ’science’ / grovelling / apology for things as they are, ALL POWER / TO JOY, which will remake the world.”

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