Any retrospective of participatory art is a curatorial gamble that raises a host of questions. How do you encourage engagement? How do you physically display and arrange pieces that depend on the viewer's actions, interactions, or interpretations? And how broadly do you define participation?
SFMOMA curator of media arts Rudolf Frieling has recognized and embraced such risks in organizing the timely survey "The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now." The payoff is an open-ended terrain that is alternately challenging, gimmicky, and surprisingly fun. Critic Lucy R. Lippard loosely defined '60s and '70s conceptual art as "work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/or 'dematerialized'." This definition can double as a nice general description for many of the pieces Frieling has selected.
Formative minimal, conceptual, and Fluxus experiments fill the exhibit's first two galleries. Many are embodied by photographic or filmed documentations of actions, such as Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1965). Others involve a notable absence of action as with John Cage's infamous 4'33" (1952), here represented by the double-whammy visual pun of David Tudor's blank transcription of the score and the unattended piano the piece is performed on daily.
Some artists within "The Art of Participation" directly solicit input, although it should be said that browsing online art in a museum is kind of a drag when there's so much else to see. Reproductions of Lygia Clark's '60s dialog objects allow viewers to physically explore what the artist calls "tactile propositions." An elderly couple generated some unintentional comedy when trying on Clark's Terry Gilliam-esque, two-headed 1968 viewing apparatus Dialog: Goggles. Erwin Wurm's delightful One Minute Sculptures (1997) double dares viewers to join the ranks of his subjects photographed in varying fantastic and ridiculous situations that involve household objects by following microscopic posing instructions scrawled on a white platform and the gallery walls.
The accumulated scuffs and scrapes of past visitors' attempts at becoming art that surround One Minute Sculptures brought to mind Cage's comment that Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) which inspired 4'33" and are displayed near the perpetually silent piano are "airports for dust and shadow." So, too, is the museum in the age of electronic reproduction, as more and more people participate in aesthetics via YouTube and Flickr. "The Art of Participation" recognizes and democratically celebrates this shift, even as it sometimes stubbornly clings to old, institutional habits and material objects.
THE ART OF PARTICIPATION: 1950 TO NOW
Through Feb. 8, 2009, $7$12.50
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF