Fall 2001


An uncanny museum

Carl Skelton

Guggenheimlichkeit is what happens when the people making the decisions decide that the interface is where the action is. There are simple reasons for this, and simple reasons to walk away from it.

1 Gemütlichkeit is an aesthetic of familiarity, comfort, and unhurried enjoyment of life, much vaunted by the Viennese. It’s not about events, change, getting things done, or bringing up anything embarrassing.

2 Heimelig is simply familiar, homey.

3 Heimlich: There’s the maneuver, but that’s not what this is about. The German word Heimlich would be translated as “surreptitiously,” or “on the sly.”

4 Unheimlich: A Freudian psychoanalytic term, generally translated as “uncanny” in English.

5 Guggenheim: Yes, the museums. Not because anybody there is special, but because their Frank Lloyd Wright building on Central Park was one of the first modern museums to explicitly invert the figure-ground relationship between the work and the walls; also because Philip Johnson has been quoted on the subject of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao: “When the building is this good, who gives a fuck about the art?”[1]

An investment has been transferred….The first wave of modern art display may have been misrepresented as neutral, universal. In the last twenty or thirty years, it’s become officially obvious that the art and architecture of the “Family of Man” school actually articulated, and served, the desires of a rather narrow segment of the Family, a.k.a. “Daddy.” Now, the same rhetorical, symbolic, and technical devices penetrate with all the more lubricated ease, by a more and less explicit exhibition of the museum itself as object of fascinated deconstruction, whereby it is advertised as Pure Power.

Museum architecture and exhibition design have a much narrower ideological range than art, even in these tedious times. As the facilities become more and more spectacular (I use the word ‘spectacular’ advisedly), the customer and the product come to meet in a moment of mutual embarrassment, whose brevity is its only virtue. It’s understood that the viewer will be gone in five minutes, the piece will be gone in a month, and that in any case they are both there for the sake of the building, which is the real Social Sculpture, and which will endure (real is used here as in real big, real expensive, real slick, real site-specific).

1 Radio Guggenheimlichkeit: an author whose name I’ve forgotten, on tour for the book he had written about a week he had spent in one room with sixteen televisions, described the experience as a “snapshot of American popular culture.” If this use of the word ‘popular’ to describe television doesn’t give you chills, you’ll never really understand Guggenheimlichkeit. You’ll have to live it completely; popular culture describes a corporate cultivation of popularity, but it also insinuates itself as populist culture, which it is absolutely not…precisely because the populace is being cultivated as a resource.

2 Zone Books put out a new edition of The Society of the Spectacle so slick and precious and expensive and copyrighted that it had a closer affinity to Eau d’Issey than to the Situationist International. That’s not an embarrassing mistake, either. It’s détournement. Uncanny? Hmmm...

3 The medium is the competition: This effect is not proper to art environments, and in fact it is reaching its fullest realization online. Consider AOL, which provides access to the rest of the Web, but whose actual business it is to keep you within its own “environment” instead.

4 The Pardo installation at Dia went a step further in the explicitness of its reorientation of museum experience as designified, (in the sense of a standardized narrative, a true political theater of Agitational Shopaganda). In this case, the artist redesigned the bookshop and the first-floor gallery into a continuous and homogenized exhibition space of candy-colored tile, populated by an arrangement of Merchandise in its high and low modes (high=unique artifact, low=multiple inventory). On the gallery side, I found myself ogling memorabilia such as the original clay “buck”[2] of Volkswagen’s new Beetle (a life-size design prototype, which happens to be made out of a traditional artist’s materials, by hand); on the shop side, I found myself browsing books and editions. The application of an admittedly very nice tile job had effectively merged the two areas into a sort of double vitrine, by reducing their separation to floor-to-ceiling glass: two tableaux-vivants, each offering the other an arrangement of glazed people and products.

What we are calling Design these days is a very small piece of discursive territory. It’s precisely for this reason that it is foregrounded: The prerogatives of “client” are similar to those of “patron” prior to the First World War. What ground was given up by collectors and collecting agencies has been reclaimed indirectly, simply by a shift of emphasis from Picasso to Gehry, who can call himself a tailor without calling his fitness into question.

The rules and limits of Design can preempt the presumed deregulation of Art, and art consumption (think fuel). Think back to the last time somebody said “content” to you, as in “the content of the piece.” One may speak of “designing a program” without having to come right out and say “arranging the content.” This word, like “program,” “product,” “audience,” says less about the phenomenon to which it refers than it does about a vast distance between the speaker and what he or she is naming. Meanwhile, the tiny gap between content and nontent approaches zero.

Design and construction are now fully alienated, in a way they never could be when R.M. Schindler built his own house in Los Angeles in the twenties. At this writing, however, there’s a show of his drawings and photos at L.A. MOCA. A team of architects, modelmakers, graphic designers, and photographers, et. al. have been brought together to make the show really big. I had been in the King’s Road house an hour before, but it took me a minute to recognize contemporary pictures of the interior—they had been shot so as to make the low ceilings look high, and to make the simple carpentry look perfect.

A drama is being performed at this level (inflation), as another is being played out elsewhere (inversion): the re-orientation of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of “the” phallic modernist commodity-fetish, a stereotypical object capable of erasing (or at least eliding) local culture, identity, and alterity across vast distances in a single traveling retrospective. Over time, as art objects have been de-powered in favor of a self-reflexive vivisection of the conditions of dissemination and reception, museums’ facilities have become monster fetishes of another kind: simultaneously subject, object, shibboleth, figure, and ground (Valhalla), of Conceptual Designs at best, and at worst Designer Concepts. This is not, obviously, to be credited to the evil genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, or Thomas Krens, or the Stepford Wives’ Curatorial Committee. A building can and must be bigger, more expensive, more durable, and more specific than an exhibition.

What is being cultivated?
As “the work” comes more and more to serve as transient interior surface event for an architectural icon, the relatively mutable, flexible, and portable products of very small numbers of people are consistently represented as subject to the sovereign and ineluctable order of the strategies of institutions, whose mandate is purely and simply to expand, by inflation and extraction, from and over their constituencies. Fetish status shifts so easily from things a human can make or mangle to artifacts and situations only producible by an institution so big and hungry that it must meet the mandates of both public and private sectors of the economy at the highest levels, while reducing risk, on a very regular basis. Result: the Chelsea gallery district now blows your mind mostly with its consistency.

In fact, Guggenheimlichkeit is just as fundamental to the phenomenon of breakfast cereal as it is to any oxymoronic “contemporary museum.” Go to the supermarket, and walk down the cereal aisle. A tremendous amount of energy has gone into the production of elaborately extroverted graphic design, marketing, and printing. Inside, however, all the boxes contain the same plastic bag, which is not on display. In the bag, there are pellets, or flakes, or colored balls, made of different proportions of a standard mixture, the varieties of which span a very narrow segment of the spectrum food <—> candy.

Candy for assholes
The metabolisms of large cultural institutions have been evolving, fast. As their bureaucracies expand and mutate, they come to identify less and less with collections or specific works of art, and more and more with the programs and capital projects they initiate on a grand scale. Whether public or private, such organisms have actually reversed the direction of their digestion. A modern museum would have been built to display power-objects to the public, and in so doing demonstrate and justify the status and sophistication of a benefactor. A contemporary museum, on the other hand, displays largely borrowed objects in order to attract the largest possible audience; in order to justify the accumulation of public and private resources; in order to build a bigger box, which is the product, so to speak. The same institution that used to produce contact between strangers and commodities now consumes that contact as fuel.

University-trained artists are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of this smooth and creamy dead-end. Eventually, the fetishization of the museum-object as Cruel Mistress comes to represent it as determinant, as the Main Event, and Immovable. Within the terms of panoptical deconstruction, I can just relax—the beast will fondle or spank me at its pleasure, and I know what it wants. The real question, the interesting part, will come when I start to admit that the bewildering uniformity of neo-Pop parodies of perfect ease carries something of an ideological order, which has more to do with cultivating identity than cruh-teaking it. Until then, the distinction between art and exhibition design will be real trivial.

There’s a basic rhetorical reason why there can never be a parody of the after-the-fact passive voice of curator, critic, historian. When reading a critique, one often forgets whether the author is bragging or complaining. Attempting to write a dissertation into an object or installation only exacerbates this weakness. Just as museums realize the consensus of public and private sectors, museums are the only art that museums can make themselves, and that will never be enough.

Guggenheimlichkeit is the hole left in the middle of the gallery after the de-centering sinks in. What was obvious before is now just too embarrassing to even talk about: Dissection-display-disclosure-disinhibition of the circumstances and mechanisms of communication is both necessary and insufficient. The more art offers itself up as the condensate of mass-marketing and academic passive-aggression, the more museums are driven into their own (very limited) creative resources to make a spectacle of themselves. This problem can and should be considered in good old-fashioned structural terms, as a simple question of proportion: If your thesis consists mostly of preface and footnotes, don’t publish it yet. It makes no sense for artists to compete with the après-garde—borrow, acquire, arrange, fluff-and-flay. These games may truthfully reflect post-industrial guilt, or exuberance, or a fantasy of enough leisure time to get really, truly, madly, deeply, numb.

They now proceed from the same presumptions of inadequacy as General Mills:

1 That the content/product is somehow insufficient or simply invariant.

2 That its vehicle should expand anyway, which is to say that it can never reach or exceed an appropriate size.

3 That the creation of unsatisfied need and desire are social goods.

4 That conception and implementation can and should be segregated from each other, and be performed by separate social groups.

5 That the seductions of design are a necessary, if not sufficient, supplement.

This can’t be a conspiracy theory
What I’ve been trying to describe is more like a side-effect, a disorder, rather than a hostile take-over or corporatist cabal. Museums just can’t get enough filler. There is such a thing as an under-stimulated reactionary force, and here’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for Guggenheimlichkeit: It’s what you get when the administration finds itself setting the agenda, which can only ever happen by default. Media become ends in themselves when they develop the capacity, which is the need, to process more input than they get. If conditions persist and the image-sphere gets saturated with the products of such an imbalance, expectations collapse and people start to assume that there are only two choices: the radical iconoclasm of the Taliban, or the narcissistic cannibalism of a Jeff Koons.

The medium is no excuse
It’s important to remember that McLuhan was a political conservative. “The medium is the message” wasn’t just a structuralist catchphrase; it carried an invitation to falsely assume that “the medium” is immutable, as well as determinant. It’s always a broker’s market, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be a broker’s world. The Laws of the Market can be disobeyed as easily as any other command.

Why do you think it’s called Culture? Because it comes in a plastic dish?

Let’s at least admit that we think we know that some things still have to be done the hard way, in person.

Special thanks to Ursula Endlicher for her help with the etymology.

  1. Philip Johnson, quoted in “53 Design Classics,” One Magazine (April/May 2001), p. 64.
  2. Volkswagen New Beetle, Volkswagen AG Design Center, full-scale model, 1995, steel, wood, hardfoam, clay, 59.5 x 68 x 161 inches, Collection: Volkswagen Design, Simi Valley, California and Wolfsburg, Germany.

Carl Skelton, New York: sculpture, video, installation, long explanations.

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