Research: Museum Road Trip

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Multi-city road journey – London » Paris » Bordeaux » Bilbao » Barcelona » Valencia » Madrid.

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Versailles

  • Château de Versailles
  • Architecture: Palace
  • Type: Public Establishment (French Ministry of Culture)
  • Notes: Problematic – crystal clear sense of the inequality, the excess of gold, riches, and space, that no amount of golden gates could protect from the uprising of the French Revolution – creates a conflict in appreciating the works and the skill of the artisans. Questions, for example where did this gold actually come from and how many suffered to get it here? Problems that are more or less apparent in other museums (e.g. the black gold seeping into other institutions [1]) These issues are as inseparable from the museum arena [2] as capitalism, so it becomes a case of attempting to view the work for what it is and generating new ideas, directions and critiques with that awareness – deciding to enter a suspended world outside of reality, like entering one of those spectacular crystal balls (that hang in what was the Queens bedroom) where things can look exquisite, at the same time can be all distorted. Versailles is the warm up palace. Next stop, the complex of The Louvre.

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Paris

  • The Louvre
  • Architecture: Palace
  • Type: Public Establishment (French Ministry of Culture)
  • Notes: Epic. Encircling art history. One of the largest (35,000 objects over 60,600 square metres) and most visited museums. Surrounded by Haussmann’s urban renovation plan, one that seems to timestretch space and temporarily slow down the pace of the city with its depth of perspective in certain sections of the city, which were spared Le Corbusier’s seriously radical plans [3], moving to the Louvre’s subterranean levels, glimpsing fragments of massive monumental structures, circulating around weighty marble, makes for a densely packed experience – a labyrinthine structure that takes you below and above street level and back again in a supportably disorientating process. France is the number one cultural tourism destination in the world although free access to national museums seems unheard of, as in Spain. Give art back to people, reach new audiences and new generations for the future of the arts.

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Bordeaux

  • CAPC (musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux)
  • Architecture: Industrial (Former Warehouse)
  • Type: National Museum of France
  • Notes: The proportions of the open squares, streets and riverside of central Bordeaux left an impression of spaciousness, an apparent ease of urban spatial movement. This economy of space seems to continue into the CAPC, where the shadowy and darkly textured brickwork of the empty corridors of this former warehouse could be wandered for contemplative moments between the shows (time enough to apprehend the importance of fabrication and texture running through all of the programme – the use of fabric in the work of Franz Erhard Walther [4], a video work by Harun Farocki on how bricks are produced in various parts of the world [5], another video by Uriel Orlow showing lost wax casting almost merging with the red mud flooring of an African workshop [6], finished with the mud works of Richard Long in the cafe on the roof terrace [pictured]). Perhaps too many empty corridors could make a visitor stall, however it was motivating to see groups of friends and families interacting with Walther’s work, as well as Keith Haring’s – Untitled 1985, on the wall of the lift shaft, viewable as a scrolling piece through the glass screen as the lift moves up and down. The vibrant silhouette of a man stretched along the route of the lift crowned with the head of a crawling baby, filling an otherwise confined lifeless space with energy.

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Bilbao

  • Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
  • Architecture: Purpose built (1997)
  • Type: Nonprofit organisation (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)
  • Notes: Having passed through a few cities by this point, the chosen reading for the trip, Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino, crossed over into the experience.

    “the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities one had crossed to arrive there…”

    “You advance always with your head turned back?” … “Journeys to recover your future?”[7]

    This thinking around a spatial memory of a city, a cloudy sample of a structure experienced in the past running through to the present, resonated with the notion picked up by Nicolas Bourriaud of the past being the last unmapped continent, since every part of the world has now been fully mapped by satellites[8].

    Other ideas resonate here such as the metaphor of excavation in relation to the past, that the next museum, The Guggenheim Bilbao, had its origins in wealth generated from mining, that Bourriaud argues Modernism came about from the digging and discovery of oil, that its utopian movement towards the new was driven by oil and explosions of energy, and that Postmodernism came as a result of the unwinding effect of the first oil crisis in the 1970s.

    Walking a series of diagonal streets in central Bilbao slightly stretch a mental map out of what otherwise appears to be a standard rectilinear grid, just enough to further raise anticipation of seeing the iconic museum. Approached from the centre of Bilbao, at a certain point, slithers of titanium appear surreally at the end of a tunnel of city structural street perspective.

    Heading for the museum gives way to an interesting site, one which feels like it is on the threshold of a city, elements of an industrial/dockland, by a river and also rural (a few sheep moving around up on the hillside opposite).

    Entering this particular museum in the order of the trip follows the track put forward by Hal Foster in his essay ‘After the White Cube’, in that the order of museums visited moved from ‘refurbished rooms’ of palaces, a model that ‘was gradually displaced … as modern art became more abstract and more autonomous, it called out for a space that mirrored its homeless condition, a space that came to be known as ‘the white cube’.’ [9]

    Foster points to two factors central to the expansion of modern and contemporary art museums, the first (linking to CAPC Bordeaux) being ‘In the 1960s, as industry began to collapse in New York and other cities, manufacturing lofts were turned into inexpensive studios by artists such as the Minimalists, in part so that they could produce work that might test the limits of the white cube. Eventually, though, old industrial structures, such as power stations, were refashioned as new galleries and museums in order to cope with the increased size of this art. A circularity emerged…’

    The second factor (bringing us back here) where the ‘road to expansion was more direct: the building from scratch of new museums as vast containers for huge artwork, as exemplified by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. In some respects this bigness is the outcome of a space race between architects like Gehry and artists like Serra, and by now it seems almost natural to us.’

    Foster’s essay continues questioning ‘the museum as icon’ referring to criticisms of the Guggenheim Bilbao, elsewhere described as the ‘Bilbao Effect’, a term used on the one hand to refer to a kind of synergy of art, architecture and a name, to transform the fortunes of a city, and on the other hand as a symbol of gentrification and ‘cultural imperialism’. As Foster puts it ‘to achieve this iconicity, the chosen architect is allowed, even encouraged, to model idiosyncratic shapes at urban scale, often near poor neighbourhoods that are thereby disrupted, if not displaced.’

    The other questions around the uncertainty about what contemporary art is and how it can be presented that are raised in the essay (moving from the white cube to the projection of new black and grey boxes for video and also ‘art bays’ for performance) are being played out with the development of the next stage of museums like the Tate Modern II, the Guggenheim and the Louvre which are under construction in Abu Dhabi [10].

    There is something in the criticism of the architecture overshadowing the work and the experience. The image of the exterior shimmers in the mind from several reproductions seen over the years and there is almost a temptation to leave early in order to see that view from across the river.

    Staying focussed, the pop and contemporary works, for example Rineke Dijkstra’s The Krazyhouse video piece [11] and Julie Mehretu’s[12] spatial breakdown of city structures, peaked things. There is not an overload of work for a one day visit, which in conjunction with the building leaves a kind of light feeling and some time for thinking about the work and new ideas in the cafe and pintxo bars afterwards.

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Madrid

  • Museo Reina Sofia
  • Architecture: Former hospital
  • Type: Spanish Property of Cultural Interest
  • Notes: (Text to follow with future updates)
  • Museo del Prado
  • Architecture: Purpose built
  • Type: Spanish Property of Cultural Interest
  • Notes: (Text to follow with future updates)

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