Rachel Harrison’s Rambunctious Sculptures

At Astrup Fearnley Museet, the American visual artist interrogates private and performative spaces of engagement

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BY Alice Godwin in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 03 NOV 22

In Alvin Lucier’s 1969 sound-art piece I Am Sitting in a Room, the American composer records, plays and re-records his voice until words dissolve into a throbbing wall of noise. The conceptual and formal elements that comprise Rachel Harrison’s exhibition, ‘Sitting in a Room’, at Astrup Fearnley Museum – with its titular nod to Lucier’s work – are similarly re-mixed and re-presented. Older and more recent sculptures are placed in fresh dialogue with each other and materials are transformed – as in Coffee Cup Mural (2022), which re-imagines the artist’s original 2021 sculpture as wallpaper. Harrison also brings her works into the context of others, referencing artists such as Duane Hanson, Martha Rosler, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Synnøve Anker Aurdal, whose introductory wall text from a previous show is split in two and used as an entryway (Marilyn with Wall, 2022).

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Rachel Harrison, ‘Sitting in a Room’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Øen

Harrison’s self-reflective impulse to frame and reframe her work in this way echoes Lucier’s own self-awareness as he situates himself in relation to the listener in his work, declaring: ‘I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now.’ As language disintegrates, Lucier draws attention to ‘the natural resonant frequencies of the room’ and invites the listener to consider what it means to be in that room and to hear the sounds that are being made; in effect, to contemplate the act of listening. Likewise, Harrison scrutinizes the act of looking and our relationships to objects in different coded contexts.

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Rachel Harrison, ‘Sitting in a Room’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Øen

The exhibition is divided into five sections – ‘Sculpture Court’, ‘Town Square’, ‘Gym’, ‘Living Room’ and ‘Cabinet’ – each of which carries connotations of behaviours informed by the contextual frameworks of public and private spaces. In the ‘Gym’, yoga mats, gymnastic rings and a medicine ball speak to the refashioning of bodies in a public display of self-improvement, while telephone booths evoke intimate conversations that cannot be heard but are conversely visible for all to see. In the ‘Living Room’, Hanson’s hyperrealist Housewife (Homemaker) (1969–70), which Harrison has borrowed from the museum’s collection, takes a break from the public performance of domestic femininity in a private moment of repose. ‘Town Square’ plays upon the shared space at the heart of a community, which includes the digital forum of social media. The installation Hot Topic Three (2022), for instance, explores the private attitudes expressed in the dark corners of the internet and the public incitements of violence over social media that sparked the storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021.

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Rachel Harrison, ‘Sitting in a Room’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Øen

In the ‘Sculpture Court’, Harrison interrogates the institutional framework of the museum, where objects are categorized and contained behind glass and art is separated from the viewer with velvet ropes. In her own version of an institutional sculpture court, ropes are discarded and slung over sculptures (Our Friend in Malta, 2006), and vitrines containing miniature versions of the Nike of Samothrace (ca. 190 BCE) and Venus de Milo (ca. 150–BCE) are filled with packing materials and smeared with paint (Winged Victory, 2017; Venus, 2021). Harrison wryly undermines the worship of objects through the veneer of the museum, treating such modern commodities as the iPod Nano with the same reverence as classical sculpture (Assorted Varieties, 2021).

Harrison’s rambunctious sculptures continue to occupy a world of shifting allegiances. As objects, materials and ideas are arranged and re-arranged, the way in which we see and appreciate art is profoundly changed. Harrison delves into these private and performative spaces of engagement but, happily, never finds resolution. Instead, we are asked to reassess the way in which we appreciate a work of art, as an act of performance for others or a deeply personal experience.

Rachel Harrison’s ‘Sitting in a Room’ is on view at Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, until 12 February 2023.

Main image: Rachel Harrison, ‘Sitting in a Room’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Øen

Alice Godwin is an arts writer, editor and researcher based in Copenhagen, Denmark

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