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Art goes underground at Aspen Art Museum

Stewart Oskerhorn
Pitkin County correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
Jordan Curet/Aspen Times WeeklyHeidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, whispers into a hole in front of the museum last week, kicking off the Imaginary Thing exhibition.
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ASPEN, Colorado ” The Aspen Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Imaginary Thing, stems from the extremely practical consideration that the museum space is relatively small, limiting the number of exhibits, and their size, that can be shown at one time. Imaginary Thing, consequently, is in line with the museum’s growing affinity for staging exhibitions outside of the museum’s walls ” on ski-lift tickets, in parades, on Aspen’s mountains. This one takes place just outside the museum’s front door.

More significantly, though, Imaginary Thing comes out of an exploration of the conceptual, rather than the practical. To Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum, the exhibition links back to a strain of art from the 1990s, when people began asking not only what is art, but what is an artist, what is a curator, and what is a museum.

“Part of the business of contemporary art is testing the boundaries of what art is itself,” she said. “It’s the idea of institutional critique ” artists who are making art that questions the validity of the museum, and of any hierarchy of the presentation of art.”

Zuckerman Jacobson offers up the example of Andrea Fraser, who, in a 1988 work titled “Museum Highlights,” put on a suit and pretended to be a tour guide, leading a crowd of viewers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through a tour of such pieces as a water fountain and the museum cafeteria.

But at least they could see Fraser, and hear her.

In Imaginary Thing, the art will be invisible ” most likely. Conceived by Peter Eleey, the visual arts curator at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and credited as guest curator for the Aspen project, the exhibition will be shown in a hole in the ground, 7-feet deep and less than a foot in diameter. Over 30 days, the hole will be filled with 31 pieces of art, with one work being deposited each day, at 5 p.m. Meaning the works ” including sculpture, photographs, dirt and more ” will become invisible, though there is the chance that the pieces will pile up high enough that those near the top will escape the visual black hole. Under Eleey’s guidelines, each object must be small enough that it not protrude from the hole. The only other rules he issued was that there be nothing illegal or toxic.

The only sure way for viewers to see the objects is to be at the museum each day, when they are transported from the storage area to the installation site. Even then, some of the works will be impossible to see. The project was launched July 9 with two pieces, both of them in the form of spoken words: First, Zuckerman Jacobson read a statement about carbon, written by the duo of Shannon Ebner and Erika Vogt. (The message is to be read each day, by a member of the Aspen Art Museum’s education staff, through the duration of the exhibition.) Then, in a concept contributed by Robert Barry, Zuckerman Jacobson whispered, down the hole, something that absolutely no one else knows.

Other items to be added include dirt from China, as proposed by local conceptual artist (and Aspen police officer) Rick Magnuson; a carved skull by Australian Ricky Swallow; and a ceramic vase with a list of the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq inside. Other local artists participating in the project include Shelly Safir Marolt, Rick Parsons, James Surls and Kris Cox.

The exhibit concludes Aug. 7, when the hole is scheduled to be filled with concrete, mixed from holy water, and including alphabet cereal, as per the instructions of Iain Baxter. All the works will be buried inside, and Eleey will memorialize the project with a talk.

It is fitting that Imaginary Thing ends with Baxter; the Canadian artist also gave birth, in a way, to the concept. In 1968, Baxter and his partner Ingrid, known as the N.E. Thing Co., proposed to drill a hole to the earth’s core and line the cylinder with mirrors. The idea was, of course, an impossibility. But Eleey has resurrected the project, with considerable alterations.

Zuckerman Jacobson believes that Imaginary Thing easily clears the bar of challenging popular notions of art, exhibition spaces, and especially the relationship between art and the viewer.

“There’s a real tradition of artists burying art, where the image exists only in the imagination of the viewer,” she said. “And this exhibit is definitely an outgrowth of [Eleey’s] thinking on the subject. There are serious considerations about what the role of the viewer is in contemplating art and the role of the artists, and the role of the institutions. The show definitely challenges people’s perspectives on longevity, endurance, sacredness, purpose, value.”

There also is the opportunity for artists to rethink their approach to art. Exhibiting their work in a hole, rather than on gallery walls, requires a new way of thinking. Swallow, a sculptor, is contributing a tiny likeness of a skull. The skull, Zuckerman Jacobson observes, is typically something pulled out of the ground, not put in it.

“I think that’s a great gift ” to shed light new light on the practice they’re engaged in,” said Zuckerman Jacobson. “That’s the beauty. The e-mails back and forth with the artists have surpassed our expectations.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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