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Opera Safety Curtain by John Baldessari, 2017-18, museum in progress. Copyright © John Baldessari. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

museum in progress – in a book and conversations 0

Una Meistere

The intangible, no-walls art space museum in progress – one of the most unconventional museums in the world – concludes the year with two remarkable projects. One of these is the Curtain – Vorhang book, which looks back at 20 years of Safety Curtain, an initiative implemented by museum in progress in cooperation with the Vienna State Opera. Each season the opera’s curtain transforms into a contemporary exhibition space, or rather, a solo exhibition dedicated to one renowned artist. The exhibition consists of only one work of art, and its unusual dimensions remain the same year after year: 176 square meters. The work of art is attached to the opera curtain, which weighs six tonnes and is known in the theatre world as the “fourth wall”, referring to the imaginary boundary separating the stage from the audience. Or, in this case, a point of contact where the theatre and visual arts interact.

Curtain – Vorhang book cover. Courtesy of museum in progress

The list of artists who have participated in Safety Curtain since its inception in 1998 is impressive: Matthew Barney, Richard Hamilton, Tacita Dean, Jeff Koons, Franz West, Cy Twombly, Kara Walker, Rirkrit Tiravanija, David Hockney and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, to name a few. In fact, the project is a kind of documentary – the record of the late-20th-century and early-21st-century art world in large format.

Opera Safety Curtain by John Baldessari, 2017-18, museum in progress. Copyright © John Baldessari. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

For the 2017/2018 season, the Safety Curtain at the Vienna Opera has been entrusted to American artist John Baldessari and his work titled Graduation (2017). Although visually impressive and slightly provocative, at first glance it can also be a bit confusing. It looks like a huge photo of a university graduation ceremony, perhaps reminding some opera-goers of an old family photo album. But the image could just as well be of a choir. The most puzzling thing about Graduation, however, is that four of the people in the photo have been painted out with bright spots of colour, leaving them like paper-doll silhouettes devoid of any personality. Who are they? Have they left or been barred from the group? Has this taken place under joyous or tragic circumstances? Perhaps these are the special ones – the rebels, the outsiders? This, then, is the riddle that opera-goers can puzzle over while waiting for the main event to begin. Or during intermissions. Or again and again, every time they come to the opera until the end of the season on June 30. And thus the passions and timeless energy of the stage connect with the energy of contemporary art. Here, at the opera, there are few other temptations, and one’s thoughts naturally drift to the artwork in front of one’s eyes. From this perspective, Safety Curtain might be a record-setter, because how much time do people usually spend in front of a single work of art and think about it?

The Curtain - Vorhang. Inside the book. Courtesy of museum in progress

The Curtain – Vorhang book contains all of the works of art that have graced the famous curtain over the past 20 years, presenting them at a precise scale of 1:50. Considering that an average of 600,000 people visit the Vienna State Opera in a single season, one can safely say that the Safety Curtain project has been one of the most-viewed exhibitions of contemporary art.

Artist Talking. Courtesy of museum in progress.

The second new project of the museum in progress is the four-CD collection Artist Talking. It documents another project by the institution, namely, its conversations from 1992 to 2001 with the most intriguing and influential artists of their day. Overall, the project comprised more than 100 conversations, but 50 of them were never published. The remaining conversations were available in video-cassette format and as a part of various exhibitions at prestigious European art institutions.

Artist Talking. Courtesy of museum in progress

Although formally best described as interviews, the conversations adhere to a unique concept. The interviewer remains behind the scenes, and only the interviewee’s “talking head” fills the frame. Each of the interviews takes place against a different monochromatic background selected by the interviewee – yellow, blue, green, orange, etc. Each artist was also able to choose his or her own interviewer as well as participate in the final editing of the film and decide what to leave in or cut out. The conversations are therefore truly authentic portraits of the artists. Austrian artist Peter Kogler created the visual concept for Artist Talking.

Artist Talking. DVD cover. Courtesy of museum in progress.

The current DVD series contains 18 of the artist interviews (among them Lawrence Weiner, James Rosenquist, Jenny Holzer, John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Paul McCarthy and Rirkrit Tiravanija), but there are plans to eventually publish all of the 100+ interviews. The conversations range in length from 10 to 71 minutes, and each of the DVDs covers a general theme, such as “Pop Art”, “Art and Language”, “Conceptual Art” and “Performance Art”. None of the interviews revolves around a specific fact or art event – on the one hand, they take place in a certain time and place, but on the other hand, it feels as if they stand apart from everything. And also apart from life and death, considering that several of the artists are no longer alive. Artist Talking is conversations in the best sense of the genre, reminding us of the value of authentic, deep dialogue – something that’s become a rare intellectual luxury in this fragmented era. There is no hurry in these conversations, and, without actually visually illustrating and showing it, they provide the listener with an insight into the process of how art is made, not only in the creative sense but also in terms of strategy.

Artist Talking. Courtesy of museum in progress

Let one quote serve as an example. In his 29-minute-long conversation, American artist Chris Burden (1946–2015) explains: “I started thinking what is the essence of sculpture? It is different from painting. It is different from two-dimensional work. With two-dimensional work you stand in front of it and you look at it. With sculpture you’re supposed to walk around it because it’s three-dimensional. Right? You stand in front, you walk by one side, you walk back, you walk around it. So, what separates sculpture from two-dimensional work is that sculpture forces the viewer to be active, physically active. So, I started thinking what is sculpture? And if you take reduction, if you take the minimalist thing, sculpture is an action. That is what sculpture does.”

The Curtain - Vorhang. Inside the book. Courtesy of museum in progress

Museum in progress was founded in the 1990s by Austrian curator Kathrin Messner and her late husband, an Austrian artist. The goal was to exhibit contemporary art outside of institutional settings, in places where it is usually not seen. Instead of classic exhibitions, museum in progress has displayed art on billboards, television, radio and the internet, the newspapers Der Standard and Süddeutsche Zeitung, on the pages of the Austrian Airlines inflight magazine and elsewhere. It thereby tries to find ever new ways of addressing viewers and finding audiences.