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I accidentally entered Adrián Villar Rojas’ exhibition through the back door. Rather than passing through tall custom-printed curtains and ascending cinematically up a flight of midnight-blue painted stairs at the museum’s front entrance, I ambled through a backroom dotted with scaffolds, stacks of folding chairs, and tools—the mechanisms of a yet unbuilt exhibition. Later I would be berated by a proactive art handler, but this bumbling back entrance allowed a profound rupture between the finished space of installation—meant to transport and awe—and the actual labor, man-power, and material relied upon to create it.
For his exhibition, The Theatre of Disappearance, Villar Rojas—undoubtedly with the help of dozens if not hundreds of others—has dismantled the preexisting architecture of The Geffen (not even the bookstore was safe from being deconstructed and rebuilt elsewhere). Perpendicular blue walls now loom over a raised platform of packed earth (16 tons of it) which displays 65 large rocks, 23 towering tectonic columns made of compressed earthen materials, and a dozen or more industrial refrigerators and freezers. The freezers, brightly lit from the inside with fluorescents, provide the only lighting in the dim exhibition, while also housing assemblages of various materials: animal bones, rotting carcasses, vegetables and fruit, floral arrangements, octopi, lobster and various crustaceans, human bone replicas, wires and vague machine parts, and the occasional neon-colored Nike trainer. One freezer houses an ode to Duchamp—an upturned bicycle wheel attached to a wooden stool. Yet, in Villar Rojas’ homage, a large fish—gills splayed—is tossed into the mix, and a cracked egg is at the stool’s base. Homage turned juvenile egging.
Another particularly-composed freezer houses a beautiful floral arrangement dappled with pumpkin husks, crab carcasses, and fur pelts, all lampooned from the side by a large and imposing swordfish. The weight of the fish forces the careful arrangement into the lower left corner of the fridge and turns its slowly rotting tail and dorsal into the stars of the show. Elsewhere, in other freezers, old-timey prosthetic limbs meld with driftwood, robotics, and assorted animal parts to suggest both our ultimate demise, and the promise of futuristic technological advances.
As an installation meant to be both a mirror and a portal—showing us our current selves along with our decayed, post-anthropocene, post-apocalyptic future selves—the exhibition might be successful. Yet, an awareness of the labor taken to elicit this well-trodden narrative of our ultimate demise is inescapable, inhibiting the potential for any revelatory experience.
Other recent blockbuster exhibitions at The Geffen—Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament and Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth—have similarly relied on an extensive outside work force. Where the former two exhibitions (both by “rock-star” white male artists) were on view for the typical four months each, The Theatre of Disappearance has been extended to a lengthy seven-month run—perhaps indicative of the strain this exhibition placed on the museum budget.
“When an institution invites Adrián Villar Rojas to create an installation there are a fixed set of obligatory ingredients,” writes Bryan Barcena—MOCA’s research assistant for Latin American Art—in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue. Barcena supports this with a list of Villar Rojas’ requirements: “a crew of Argentines living on site in a house, hundreds of Skype calls, thousands of emails and WhatsApp messages, innumerable CAD renderings, inventories of exotic objects and materials, and the booking of many flights to far-flung locations.”1 Countless narratives from museum staff across the catalogue recount Adrián’s offbeat antics leading up to the exhibition—field trips to seafood shops, cake makers, and Hollywood prop houses. Later Barcena describes Villar Rojas’ relationship with institutions he works with as “parasitic in nature and function.” Indeed, in a lengthy interview with Villar Rojas, Helen Molesworth admits that when she first saw his proposed exhibition budget, she proclaimed, “Fuck, you can’t rethink your relationship to spectacle! Not on my dime. You can do that on your next project!”2
Though hyperbolic, Molesworth’s response emphasizes the absurdly expensive lengths Villar Rojas proposed to go to, leaving MOCA the bill. Referring to the planning process for the exhibition, the artist later tells Molesworth: “art, this art world, is very much a political battlefield, and somehow, this is what we ‘staged’ during our two years of dialogue and negotiations.”3 Yet two years of negotiations on this particular battlefield played out only for the select few behind the scenes. A further distinction amidst this behind-the-scenes battle is inevitable between the people performing the labor, and the people intellectualizing said labor (i.e., artist and curator).
Villar Rojas describes the tasks needed to create a spectacle—and the resultant physical labor—as “limited resources to fulfill infinite desires.”4 He wonders, “Is all this invisible process more relevant to me than the visible side of my work?”5 Here the labor not only becomes pedagogy but also disregarded as invisible. The fact remains that this labor is not nothing: people are needed to do the labor. Stuff needs to be produced, materials cajoled. The labor is visible to somebody; the pertinent question is to whom.
Semantics aside, there is a conceptual rift between Villar Rojas’ experience of the making of the work and the average museum visitor’s experience of viewing it. While MOCA is often referred to as “The Artist’s Museum,” institutions also have a responsibility to be public-facing rather than navel-gazing. For Theatre of Disappearance, were the extreme amounts of physical, material, and financial demands worth the ultimate public-facing end product? A moody and ephemeral spectacle? It seems that the viewer is left to experience only a fraction of the work, and potentially only the less interesting remnants, while inside the inner sanctum of the museum, checks are written, flights are booked, and an intellectual battlefield spins onward.
Originally published in Carla issue 11