Toying with the White Cube
In his introductory catalogue essay for ‘Museum as a Muse’ at New York’s MoMA, Kynaston McShine suggested that in times of economic well-being, the intervention of the museum becomes less important. At least, he says, this was the case in the 80s. The artist’s career, ‘now potentially lucrative’, was sustained by other sources of income, exposure and prestige than the museum. 1 In the 90s there seems to have been a tendency - driven, perhaps, by more considered curatorial strategies, a less ecstatic art market, and other ingredients in a complex mix - for the art institution to again take the wheel. A process-oriented slant in the practice of many 90s artists, or a bias towards placing the art work in the context of its production, are undoubtedly also factors that define the white cube in some of its less blatantly commercial, more experimental and believable incarnations.
Hidden in the recesses of recent art history is a project from 1968 by the Danish artist Palle Nielsen for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm: Model for a Qualitative Society. During a research stay in Stockholm, Nielsen chose the Moderna Museet to be the framework for an expansion of what he had previously been practising in the form of community action in less privileged areas of Copenhagen: the construction of playgrounds. After a long period of persuasion and fundraising, Model for a Qualitative Society - a playground in the museum - was built in October 1968 with the assistance of a group of local anti-Vietnam War activists. New walls and a Masonite floor were installed in the large hall, along with jungle gyms, a foam-rubber basin, swings, climbing ropes, and water chutes. Tools, paint, building materials and fabrics were at children’s disposal during the entire course of the project to aid their creativity. The Royal Theatre donated a selection of period costumes to be used for dressing up, while Nielsen provided carnival masks in the spirit of the day: 100 of Charles de Gaulle, 100 of Mao Tse Tung, and 100 of Lyndon B. Johnson. The noise level of the art project must be unparalleled in art history: loudspeaker stacks were placed in each corner of the exhibition space, and the young museum-goers operated turntables with a collection of LPs from every genre. In the restaurant, a number of TV screens carried live transmissions from the galleries, placating worried parents and enabling more sedate visitors to take in the whole experience from the comfort of their chairs.
The playground architecture embodied the project’s aim: the white cube was transformed into an open area for protected play and social irrationality. All of Stockholm’s kids were granted free entrance, but adults had to pay 5 crowns admission. During its three week life, the Model received over 33,000 visitors, 20,000 of whom were children. Under Nielsen’s auspices, the museum’s operative principle can be compared to the way that, after 1917, Russian artists brought art to the public on boats and trains, vehicles best suited for the task of large-scale communication. It was important to Nielsen that the Model… took place in Moderna Museet - that the message (elitist art isn’t everything) was carried by a traditionally weighty institution. In the midst of the 60s’ distrust of social institutions, the Model… accepted the patronage of the white cube from a pragmatic, if not propagandist, viewpoint. What counted was that the museum could be seen as a resource for ideological re-coding and territorial reclamation; that it became malleable in relation to all human activity. Art historian Troels Andersen has described how a kindergarten and day-nursery were organised during the May revolt in Paris, as a necessary step in ‘defending the building from within’ against the street, which is ‘the terrain of the bourgeoisie’. 2 Freedom could be upheld inside, but did not exist outside - something akin to the way the Model… uses the prerequisite white cube. Nielsen subsumed the gallery space in a single gesture, but ‘gesture’ is usually predicated on the naughtiness of formal excess, something which doesn’t gel with the lively, welcoming utility of the Model…. Or, as Brian O’Doherty states in his essay ‘Inside the White Cube’, a gesture ‘is not art, perhaps, but art-like and thus has a meta-life around and about art’. 3
Pontus Hultén, the legendary director of the Moderna Museet who offered Nielsen the opportunity to create the Model…, had previously worked with French Nouveau Réalistes Jean Tinguely and Nikki de Saint-Phalle. Both these artists sought to overcome the gap between art and life with action spectacles involving performance and happening-like activity. At the Moderna Museet, in 1966, Saint-Phalle created a colourful cathedral of the female body, whose ‘ludic spaces’ one could roam about in; during the early 70s, she experimented with ‘architecture for children’. But where her colourful, participatory sculpturalism seems to revolve around quasi-mythical aspects of attempting to perceive the world as an infant, the Model… had political aspirations for the creation of free space. Even though the Model… filled an entire museum as a single unit, the protective white walls seemed ultimately disposable. In this respect, the museum walls were transparent, a membrane through which actual and metaphorical social value would be exchanged by osmosis. The walls were also mirrors that reflected the activity of the children and their creative identity. Nielsen’s analysis of the white cube differs from many others in his emphasis on the project’s direct impact on behaviour. ‘There is no exhibition. This is only an art show because the children are playing inside an art museum. This is only an exhibition for those who are not playing. That is why we are calling it a model’, stated the press release.
In the context of the era’s desire for revolutionary upheaval, the Model… was more an action than a demonstration, an engagement with the individual and their relationship with the world. Nielsen considered political demonstration utterly lacking in fantasy, a means of protest which can only have negative effects. The more imaginative action of the Model… explored the idea that children’s early social relations create the adult. Creativity and experiential contact were thus declared human priorities, ‘the qualitative human being’ defined as a social individual with a strong need for group relations and the necessity to work collaboratively as an alternative to authoritarian society. With his project, Nielsen acknowledged that activity could not be prescribed. The artist had observed children playing in the street ‘...where they were allowed to play with the things they felt like playing with’, and thus the museum offered a topological premise for unrestricted physical and sensory exertion, unfettered by the urban milieu.
The question now is where our understanding of Model for a Qualitative Society begins. Does our contemporary artistic and theoretical climate allow us to really appreciate it? With our historical distance, could we imagine the Model… being realised again? Wouldn’t it just lapse into an art of appropriation that simply includes a lot of kids, its social and political thrust lost? Perhaps our apparatus for the discussion of aesthetic crossover still needs to be expanded before it is able to enter a dialogue with other cultural and historical areas.
1. Kynaston McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 12
2. Troels Andersen, Set er sket, Borgens Forlag, Copenhagen,1972, pp. 149-50
3. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, The Lapis Press, San Francisco 1986, p. 70
Lars Bang Larsen
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