The Rules of Engagement | Open-Ended (The Art of Engagement)

Each work invites (but never forces) participation of more than one of the senses.


Had the studiously emaciated undergrad art student/security guard not casually hovered—careful to avoid eye contact, yet remaining just within peripheral vision—the exhibition’s title could perhaps have been fatally misinterpreted. OPEN-ENDED (the art of engagement) should under no circumstances be misconstrued as an invitation for museumgoers to view postmodern artwork as anything other than preciously sublime and inviolable objects that may only be approached in a manner that the museum deems appropriate.

Which, within their context, were quite interesting pieces. The exhibit was created by former Walker artists-in-residence, and the artists stretched themselves to embrace the audience. The challenging idea, presumably put forth to them by curator Doryun Chong, was to create “an exhibition that invites visitors to go beyond mere viewing to playing an active role in the art.” The Walker’s premise was to transform the Target gallery into either a “chaotic utopia or a utopian chaos,” to foster an intellectual salon fecund with diversity and lively conversations. Heady aspirations, indeed.

Three of the five projects were built onsite, and they did an admirable job of trying to turn a typically innocuous gallery exhibit into a forum for interaction—either between viewer and art, or in the form of discussions between gallery visitors. The site-built projects were constructed by choreographer Ralph Lemon, visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, and filmmaker Spencer Nakasako. Other projects were created by visual artists Catherine Opie and Sam Durant, whose less-splashy works were significant in their own light. One felt that these individuals are truly interested in the world around them; that they care about other humans, as either necessary participants or subjects for their art. Each work invites (but never forces) participation of more than one of the senses.

As Tiravanija says, “It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people.” Aptly put, as his wooden construct is a spiraling two-story ramp/stage/theater; it has been the setting for an avant-garde fashion show, as well as the housing for Nakasako’s filming booth and cinema. While viewers were watching Nakasako’s continuously evolving film that documents people’s responses about what freedom means to each of them, the awareness of footsteps overhead and multitudes of bodies passing around the perimeters of the semi-open theater created a sense of claustrophobic comradery.

Of all the projects, Lemon’s Come Home Charley Patton was the most racially charged, as well as the most intellectually and time-demanding; it was also the one less likely to entice participation. This installation was the third part of his Geography Trilogy, a coalition of history and personal anthropology with movement, sound, and art. While working on this 10-year Trilogy, and in the process defining what he considers a global language of movements and visuals, the choreographer grappled with the social pressures of race and identity in the 21st century. Lemon’s work is partially influenced by historical lectures on race, as well as his relationship with Walter Carter, a near-centenarian still living in Mississippi, the message being that the coexistence of the past and the present is a subtle stream to navigate, and Lemon’s objective is to rouse viewers’ somnolent consciences.

Icehouses, taken from Opie’s artist-in-residence project (Skyways and Icehouses), illuminates large-scale photographs of Minnesota fishing huts floating on frozen lakes. Opie, who exhibited several years ago at St. Louis Art Museum’s Currents program, had the intent to speak volumes about humans’ interaction with their environment—with nary a person in sight. Exhibition guests were allowed to listen to recordings of Minnesotans, recounting their personal experiences attached to the prefab boxes that are a winter anomaly of the Great White North. While the humanistic stories buffered the edge of otherworldliness of the icehouse people, they were unnecessary—it was the indomitable grace and sheer strength of character that made these photographs so arresting.

And confidence is something that the Walker Art Center understands well, taking its starring role as a leading civic guidepost very seriously. As a long-honored bastion of postmodern sensibilities and enlightened cultural programming, the museum has been a magnet for artists, designers, and scholars. Rather than suffering a brain drain, the über-cool climate of Minneapolis has produced a flourishing garden of arts and intellect, thanks in large part to the Walker as a drawing card.

Such an innovative, brave institution should have the courage to accept engagement with the public. Although the Walker may showcase innovative artists and display artworks and installations that are multi-sensory, they want visitors to remember that artworks are precious and delicate commodities. To “engage” with the art is a dangerous proposition, especially outside of the museum’s nebulous yet rigid rules of conduct.

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