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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.

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