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Michael Asher's all-nighter at the Whitney Museum

May 27, 2010 | 11:39 am

Whitney Reporting from New York -- L.A.-based conceptual artist Michael Asher is a master of the institutional intervention who has spent his decades-long career devising provocative strategies to challenge the ways that museum-goers experience art.

In 2008 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station, for example, he reconstructed the temporary walls from the museum's 44 shows from the previous decade. In 1992, he relocated all the radiators from Switzerland's Kunsthalle Bern to the lobby.

Asher's latest intervention closes out the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York. His concept is to keep the museum open all day and night from Wednesday at midnight through Friday at 11:59 pm, a first for the museum, including pay-what-you-wish hours for after-hours art lovers on a budget.

Asher was unable to travel to New York for the show. “I’m interested in museums and how they function,” Asher said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s a museum and it closes at regular hours. What would happen if we kept it open?”

The idea was to make it possible for people who normally can’t go to a museum on a weekday to have the chance to do so. “I wanted to democratize the idea of going to a museum a little bit,” Asher said, "so that somebody could go to dinner and then stop by the museum. Or wake up at 3 a.m. and decide not to go back to sleep but maybe to go to the museum and see some art.”

Asher's initial proposal was to keep the Whitney open 24/7 for the duration of the Biennial, a proposal that was scaled back to a week and then to 72 hours, which was as long as the museum could afford to pay union guards and video technicians to keep the museum open.

How is it going, midway through the "intervention"?

“Sometime after midnight on Wednesday there were twentysomethings making the Whitney their last stop for the evening, tourists and even museum members who were hoping to take advantage of the wee hours to have some quality time with the art," says Whitney marketing manager Gretchen Scott.

 "I think some people were excited by the novelty of being able to go to the museum late at night, or to say they did it," Scott said. "Some people were familiar with Michael Asher's work but not everyone really understood that it was a piece of art itself."

Whitney Biennial co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari went to work Wednesday at 6 a.m. -- just in time for an early-morning performance by Aki Sasamoto and to spy some of the some 400 insomniacs and others who showed up starting at midnight, including, he says, a man in a business suit ostensibly on his way to work and a mother with two young children. "I can walk through the museum at 2 a.m. any time I want, I always have that access," Carrion-Murayari said. "For me it was about seeing people who aren't just the young, artsy New York crowd we usually get for the Biennial."

The museum isn't documenting the Asher work in any official way and its effects will be quantified only in the impressions of the visitors who make the effort to haunt the museum in the off-hours.

Asher’s body of work may be high concept, but he says he wasn’t looking to create a spectacle or to influence the viewer’s experience, only to facilitate it.

“Someone who has an art collection can wake up in the middle of the night and go to their living room and look at a painting for awhile,” Asher says. “That is the idea of how close and unmediated I wanted the experience to be. The core of the work is just a reconfiguration of the museum’s hours.

"Many museums would like to see the experience of museum-going democratized but many museums also want to limit the experience," he said. "They have outreach and educational programs where they mediate the experience and change the meaning of it rather than say, 'oh well, this experience is the responsibility of the viewer and they have to work it out themselves.' ”

-- Kristin Hohenadel

Above: Museumgoers at the Whitney Museum at 1 a.m. Thursday. Credit: Whitney Museum.

Comments () | Archives (5)

Typically, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I just role over and go back to sleep. If that doesn't work, there's always a book.

Does Asher really expect someone to wake up, get dressed, leave their building, walk or hop on a train or bus or cab and go to the Whitney? Besides, most museums have extended hours during certain nights of the week, allowing those who couldn't make it during the weekday to go at night. And what's wrong with going on the weekend?

How about Asher "democratize" CalArts? He is a part of an institution that requires interested students apply for spots in class. Open the school to all who want to study art and waive tuition!

May 2007: The Seattle Art Museum will be open for 35 hours straight as it kicks off the grand opening of the newly expanded downtown facility! Come in the wee hours of the morning to experience SAM in a completely unique way. You never know what you’ll see!

Admission is free all weekend but will require entry tickets with specific times. Tickets will be available on site only on May 5 and 6.

If you read the article Elagabalus you'd see that plenty of people did do exactly as Asher expected. Why did you just ask a question that the article answered?
Your analogy is silly. CalArts is a school to which people apply and are accepted and yes - the school is open and students work 24/7. People don't have to apply to go to a museum - they have to adhere to other rules which Asher relaxed as a artistic gesture so that people could have a different kind of relationship to the institution and to art for a night or two.
Sounds fun to go to the museum at midnight! Asher's show at SMMOA was one of the best shows in LA in a long time.

not a new idea. sorry museum's have done the open all night thing before, i'm surprised no one told asher that.

The article does not state that anyone woke up in the middle of the night and decided to see some art at 3 a.m. instead of going back to sleep. My question was meant to refer to this hypothetical individual. People stopping by as a last stop on their night out or en route to work, whether planned or spontaneous, are not the same thing.

Yes my analogy is silly, but as you imply most museums are already open to the public. Extending the hours does little more to change the public's relationship to art and the institution than, if Patina stayed open for 72 hours straight, eating there at 3 a.m. would alter the public's relationship to fine-dining and the institution of the restaurant.

Democratizing the art-education/production experience would have far broader, more profound, and longer lasting implications.

Thus, my critique is one of degrees. Asher operates within and is beholden to the institutional system he seeks to challenge. He wants to democratize the idea of going to the museum, yet cannot go so far as to democratize the idea of the museum itself. In this respect, his artistic gestures are limited and operate more as gimmicks than meaningful interventions.


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