There is something Piranesian about Michael Asher's marvelous temporary installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, with its extraordinary tangle of architectural fragments that fill the main room. An array of unfinished and intersecting walls, permeable volumes, apparent passageways and occasional dead ends unfolds in the piece, which creates a dense and fantastical maze of light and shadow.
To borrow the prescription of the late Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, the idea that became the machine that made Asher's art was this: He decided to re-create all the stud walls that have been built for every exhibition since the Santa Monica Museum relocated to Bergamot Station in May 1998. Architectural floor plans for those 44 exhibitions, captioned with the title and dates of each one, are displayed in a small gallery at the show's entrance, providing a key to what visitors are about to see.
Piranesi's "Carceri d'invenzione" (Imaginary Prisons) were a suite of richly textured, 18th century engravings showing elaborate, fictional labyrinths from which there seems to be no escape. (Some examples from the suite are currently on view at the Getty Villa, in a show titled "The Magnificent Piranesi" and drawn from the Getty's research library.) Dark vaulted caverns offer somber intimations of despair. Shafts of atmospheric light pierce the gloom like hopeful flashes of warmth and inspiration.
Sometimes the Italian fabulist's convoluted chambers are said to be like a person's mind. Reason or intelligence cannot escape itself as it conceives the extravagant perceptual universe in which humanity exists. Asher is a premier Conceptual artist. Since the late 1960s, he has made works that grant privilege to the generation of ideas over the fabrication of new objects. The Santa Monica Museum show is no exception.
The museum's gallery space is essentially one open rectangle, with a high, pitched ceiling punctured by several skylights. Given this modest configuration, there are only so many ways to effectively skin the exhibition-installation-cat.
Perhaps the most elaborate solution came in 2002, when the bigger room was carved into smaller viewing spaces to accommodate half a dozen films and videos from the Whitney Biennial. But the floor plans reveal that in at least 11 instances, no walls at all were built for shows, beginning with the memorable 1999 survey of Jim Isermann's paintings and sculptures.
When re-erected all at once, the temporary walls that were erected sequentially over the years completely block your passage. A visitor is required to sign a waiver of liability before entering the show, since there is no completely open pathway through the gallery. But Asher has rebuilt the walls as open framing, without the final drywall, so you can step between the aluminum studs to awkwardly traverse the room.
Sometimes walls were built right next to the place where they had been built for an earlier show, so the studs are now layered two or three deep. As you explore the space, visitors must decide which way to proceed, leaving them feeling a bit like rats in a scientist's maze.
In places, the metal stud "bars," already rather prison-like, are dense enough to become nearly opaque walls, obstructing views, blocking light and creating unexpected solidity in otherwise empty space. They ratchet up a sensation of entrapment. The museum feels vaguely but viscerally oppressive, like an inevitably restrictive place of limitations.
Which, of course, it is and it isn't. We imagine art museums, especially those like Santa Monica's that are committed to the art of our time, as freewheeling and wide open, but there is no such thing as an experience free of context, which inevitably colors it. Leaving the studs exposed, rather than closing up the walls, and providing the necessary printed information to understand the installation's form create an image of museum transparency that being in the room interrupts.
Asher's work has often examined the institutional frame of reference in which we encounter art. He is unusually adept at devising scenarios that don't just describe that institutional frame but instead situate the knowledge in a visitor's experience of the work. Here the unfinished walls lend the aura of a construction site. As you work your way through the accumulated barriers of the institution's exhibition history, you literally experience the museum-bound construction of artistic meaning.
In a very good essay for a catalog that will be published after a photographer documents the temporary installation, UCLA art historian Miwon Kwon describes Asher's method. He "refuses the Modernist myth of the work of art as an autonomous entity whose meaning and identity are self-contained, as something that can be moved around from here (studio) to there (museum/gallery/market/living room) without substantial consequence to its integrity," she writes. "Instead, he insists on the inseparability of the 'work of art' and its supporting context."
What he also does, however, is something that less gifted Conceptual artists often fail to do. Asher doesn't merely grant privilege to the art idea over the art object. Instead, he embraces experience as fundamental to a meaningful work of art.
He's the artist who makes the art, but even he doesn't fully know what that experience will be like until the installation is completed. (Nor could a museum's catalog essayist, who must write before the art is even fabricated.) Vivid elements of artistic curiosity, willingness to risk and openness to surprise are integral features of his art's significance.
Poking around the installation, I imagined Asher doing exactly the same thing on his first encounter with the sculptural maze that he has wrought inside the museum. And I wondered whether any of his thoughts turned to Piranesi, as mine had. Whether or not they did is finally inconsequential, though. In this deeply absorbing piece, it's the richness of the conversation that counts.
Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays
Ends: April 12
Contact: (310) 586-6488,