ESSAYS Mousse 61
Mario García Torres on Michael Asher
Michael Asher, installation view at Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2008. Photo: Grant Mudford
My most memorable moments from Michael Asher’s Post-Studio class at CalArts are the long silences that occupied space after hours of discussion. It is well known that Asher’s classes could sometimes last up to twelve hours, during which a student’s work or body of work was thoroughly critiqued. However, it was not so much the duration as the experience of those hours that I remember the most. Each class started with an artist talking about his or her practice, followed by a more or less active participation and exchange among peers, during which Asher’s interventions were minimal. After a somewhat euphoric and not-too-organized critique, little by little words started to fade as people had less coherent ways to talk about what they were facing. Eventually, we would sink into long stretches of silence. Sometimes it felt like fifteen or twenty minutes of waiting for Michael’s intervention, which, most of the time, never came. Then, unexpectedly, someone would break the muteness with a question or a comment, and thereby reactivate the discussion. If, as it’s been said, one can conceive of Asher’s teaching as a fundamental part of his practice, the sanitized qualities of the school’s classrooms and the dynamics inside the class are yet another example of the tight connection between a work of art and its container. During those moments of silence, when the walls seemed more present than ever, it was the recovery of trust that motivated the students to make the discussion fill the space again.
In that same way, when one looks back on the aspects of Asher’s practice that came to be known as institutional critique, it doesn’t take long to notice the transition from the aesthetic experience represented by his early architectural interventions to his later investigations regarding the symbolic value of art. Let’s think of Pomona College, 1970. The aesthetic incident was a crucial part of that piece: having removed the doors of the exhibition space, the weather, the light coming in, or the street noise would allow it to change over time. Asher was confident about those exterior changes challenging the perception of the architecture that contained his intervention. It was as if, in every work, his trust just waited for things to happen, as in any Post-Studio class.
When thinking about the relationship between an artwork and its forms of display, the first thing that comes to mind is thus not just Asher’s work. His practice not only established a strong connection between the piece and the architecture that hosts it, but in many cases they were one and the same. His methodology was based both in his teaching and, I would venture to say, in the development of his works, in time and trust.
For Asher, absolutely everything in the composition of the artwork was important, besides its aesthetic presence: Who made the walls? Under what circumstances did labor take place? Where was the drywall made? Where did the glass come from? These are just a few quick questions that he could have asked himself during the conception of any work—convinced, more often than not, that using the infrastructure already in place inside the exhibition space was enough of a statement.
The project he developed for the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2008 consisted of a maze of mainly temporary wall frames and studs that retraced the structures built for the forty-four exhibitions that the museum had organized since it moved to that location. When one entered the space, and spent enough time in it, the shape of the original walls started to appear as such, turning the space into an almost impossible environment.