Cedric Price said in 2003, ‘A twenty-first century museum will utilise calculated uncertainty and conscious incompleteness to produce a catalyst for invigorating change whilst always producing the harvest of the quiet eye.’ He and Hans Ulrich Obrist take a walk through an empty Tate Modern, and discuss the ideal museum, including Rem Koolhaas’s plan for the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Cedric Price and I had an opportunity to visit Tate Modern before opening hours, soon after its inauguration. It was then that he told me about the importance of distortion of time in museums:
I think that the notion of the classic museum still has limited viability. At three o’clock every afternoon, I get very tired. I am no use in the office, so I go to this wonderful distorter of time and place called the British Museum. It distorts the climate, because the building has a roof over it; it distorts my laziness, because I do not have to go to Egypt to see the pyramids; and it distorts time, because I can see someone wearing an Elizabethan dress. This automatic distortion, whether of time or of place, when you visit a museum is a good thing. If you visit the same museum on two consecutive wet days, it will be different on both occasions.
As we walked through the Tate spaces, Cedric pointed out the need to think about sounds within a museum too. When the doors opened at 10am, an amazingly lively noise arrived. We liked both conditions, the silent and the noisy, as both led to totally different experiences. We felt how great a loss it would be if silence in the museum were lost. We should also consider ideas of slowness and acceleration. In the ever accelerated presence of faster museum visits, we must not forget its importance as a place for decelerated perception. In conversation recently, Matthew Barney observed that the beauty of art lies in how slowly we perceive it. Similarly, as Douglas Gordon’s piece 24 Hour Psycho (1993 shows us, slow motion is the new velocity.
In the context of the increasing number of big galleries and museum extensions across the world (alongside the homogenisation in all areas of life), it is also vital not to forget the small institutions, where an experience of work is enriched by very different circumstances; a place where you have a conversation with the art, rather than a singular viewing experience. (A good example is the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, or the Luis Barragán House, Mexico.) This isn’t an argument against large museums, but about how we can re-inject the notion of smallness into bigger conditions – to generate a situation receptive to interesting, interlocking spaces, ranging, as Rem Koolhaas has described it, “between bigness and smallness, between the old and the new, between acceleration and deceleration, between noise and silence.
One wonderful position of resistance to the threatening homogenisation of museum spaces is held by the writer Édouard Glissant. He observes that the institutions that have opened in recent years appear more like, as he puts it, continents, whereas he feels it is time to think about the museum as an”archipelago”. It needs to provide new spaces and new temporalities to achieve what he calls a mondialité. There are two very new projects that address this idea – Koolhaas’s plan for the future development of the Hermitage in St Petersburg and Herzog & de Meuron’s extension of the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis. In the Hermitage, many rooms are extremely small, like living rooms. There are also spaces that are monumental. Koolhaas suggests not developing some of the rooms. He asks the question: “Is there a virtue in neglect; does authenticity flourish in what remains untouched?”
With the extension of the Walker, the lines between the old and the new are certainly blurred. Herzog & de Meuron took Edward Larrabee Barnes’s cubic brick-clad architecture and duplicated it – matching the existing Barnes tower with a new one. The materials and spaces are, as it were, stolen from one building and used in the other, so that you appreciate you are still in the same museum. It is an extraordinary experience. The new galleries are connected with the whole flow through the floors. You can stand in one room and have an inkling of what awaits you in the next. The visitor is not bound to a prescribed route; he/she follows a non-linear process. There are large and small rooms, loft spaces and alcoves, which can all coexist. When devising his plans for the building, Jacques Herzog was reminded of old museums such as the Kunstmuseum in Basel, with its rooms similar to those in private houses. He wanted to bring this intimacy into the large museum that is the Walker – “a possible structure for the injection of alternative, unexpected and spontaneous forms of behaviour”, as he describes it, that allows the visitor to alternate areas of “conversation pieces” with moments of silence.
One of the most important aspects of the museum is the idea of the exhibition as a kind of programme. An example of this was Philippe Parreno’s show that I co-curated at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2002. Instead of a monographic exhibition, Parreno introduced technological aspects into the displays so that nothing was static. For example, in a room in which one could see three paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, at certain times a curtain would come down, and a short film would start. In another section, each moment the image of cuttlefish appeared on a screen, it initiated a film projection in the space. He developed all kinds of zones which were time-coded, programmed differently, so the viewing of the show would be different each time one came into contact with it. Working in collaboration with Jaron Lanier (considered to have coined the concept of virtual reality), Parreno’s starting point was the idea of an exhibition as a pop-up book, like a Walt Disney movie that begins with the picture of a book then moves to animation, with each section connected to the other. Similarly, when Anri Sala showed his film works at the Couvents des Cordeliers (a temporary site as part of the Musée d’Art Moderne), he transformed the space, using a complex computer program to regulate the light coming through the windows. Instead of building a dark room and allowing the video to dictate the dark room and allowing the video to dictate the atmosphere of day or night according to the projected image, he created two specific experiences – the video work, which often included shots taken at night, and the surrounding space bathed in twilight. It produced a particular luminosity, a light known in France as entre chien et loup (neither one thing nor another). The premise behind it was based on the fact that much of the exciting work of the past ten years has been made with moving images, with videos and projections. This has led to an absurd situation where museum spaces built for wonderful light are made dark by thousands of square metres of black plastic and cloth, and that is quite sad. So Sala created a display feature -the light becoming the invention of an exhibition space.
We have to listen to the artists. It is wonderful to remember what the Dia Foundation managed in the 1970s. For example, it was responsible for La Monte Young’s Dream House and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. At the moment there is a risk that this emphasis on the artist might disappear. My museum of the future is about being close to those who make the art. It includes chapters and laboratories, large halls as well as small rooms, white cubes and anti-white cubes. It is a perspective rooted in complexity, in the unexpected, the spontaneous and the unplanned.
The problem with some institutions is that they organise their schedule of contemporary art shows years in advance. Of course, with historical exhibitions you need to plan ahead in order to obtain the right loans. However, in the same way that there is no interesting music without free jazz momentums, there are no interesting museums without unplanned moments. Two of the great directors of the twentieth century, Pontus Hulten at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Willem Sandberg at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, showed that museums have as much to do with “free jazz” as they do with planning. The biggest problem now in terms of Western museums is the fear of making useful mistakes. As the Chinese architect Qingyun Ma has pointed out:”In China, failure is always positive.”