When I was small, I hated museums. They seemed less like repositories of past genius and more like mausoleums where objects that once had a life now sat embalmed for display.
I did not then recognize the currents of energy that run between smartly juxtaposed artworks, or the ripples growing into waves of meaning triggered by a well-curated show. Still, some truth remains in my childhood perceptions: The museum is often an artwork’s final destination. Once there, objects treated with reverence and kid gloves can sometimes come off as precious, enshrined, drained of their juice.
“The Artist’s Museum” at the Institute of Contemporary Art through March 26 attempts to capture the fugitive energy that can go missing from art once it’s institutionalized. The exhibition’s organizer, Dan Byers, the ICA’s senior curator, told me that he toyed with the idea of titling it “Night at the Museum,” after the 2006 film about the after-dark antics of the collection at the American Museum of Natural History.
The show celebrates artists who work with collections and archives. Often, their material is art by other artists. Repurposing museum pieces gives them new life. They are no longer there simply to be seen and studied; they’re back in the thick of creation. Artists don’t face the same constraints curators do. When an artist takes the reins of a particular collection, almost anything goes, and that, too blows away the dust and mothballs.
“The Artist’s Museum” has its roots in the freewheeling imagery and illogical juxtapositions of the Dadaists and Surrealists, and today’s ready access to images on line has given artists a new tool for sorting and building idiosyncratic archives. The groupings artists create are full of personal associations and quirky organizational systems. They shine lights on dark crannies we’ve never noticed; they form fresh networks of meaning.
The first piece in the show, Rosa Barba’s sly, funny, surprisingly sentimental film “The Hidden Conference: About the Discontinuous History of Things We See and Don’t See,” sets the tone. Barba shot it in the storage rooms of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Other than opening the racks, she didn’t move a thing; she simply let the camera dwell on random pairings, imbuing them with story. Figurative sculptures dance with abstract ones. A cutout figure of a man (Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Man With Shirt,”) ruminates before a dark seascape by Gerhard Richter.
It’s very “Night at the Museum,” not least because the installation is in a darkened room, a giant analog projector flickering to one side. Byers and his associate, curatorial assistant Jeffrey De Blois, make keen use of light and dark in the show, invoking cinema and theater. If artworks are performers, then they lead double lives, on stage and off.
The curators have set up quite a challenge for themselves trying to reveal the secret life of art in a museum context. They’ve provided copious wall texts. While that seems necessary because many installations make use of works that should be cited, it has a deadening effect.
Then, a few of the works, such as Goshka Macuga’s “Kabinett der Abstrakten (after El Lissitzky),” a handsomely built cabinet displaying multiples of art by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Jenny Holzer, Christo, and a variety of Fluxus artists, fall into an infinite gyre of art about art about art. It’s so self-referential, it’s suffocating.
Most of the installations have more breathing space. Like Macuga, Christian Marclay took on Fluxus, a 1960s conceptual art group that aimed to democratize art, making it hands-on with puzzles and games.
Marclay went into the vaults of the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and set out to play every Fluxus piece in the collection as if it were a musical instrument. The subversive and charming “Shake Rattle and Roll (Fluxmix)” is composed of 16 video monitors in a circle, each screening Marclay’s white-gloved hands tapping on, shaking, or riffling ordinary objects – a scale, a notebook – that are now museum pieces for which touching is verboten.
Pierre Leguillon’s “La grande évasion (The great escape)” is daringly theatrical for an installation of small reproductions – film stills and art pictures that focus on dance and movement. The artist mounts them with magnets to clamshell cases arrayed as a miniature cityscape. The installation sits there until Leguillon animates it with a bewitching light show set to Amy Winehouse’s soulful, throbbing “Back to Black.” Suddenly, a sculpture about dance morphs into a dance club.
“The Artist’s Museum” adroitly connects unlikely genres such as theater and sculpture. Many works can’t be pinned down (don’t miss Louise Lawler’s wickedly hilarious “Birdcalls,” in which she whistles and caws the names of male artists), and that heightens the show’s wily ulterior nature.
One specially commissioned piece, Anna Craycroft’s sprawling, intricate, ambitious installation “The Earth Is a Magnet,” uses photographer Berenice Abbott’s life and work as a springboard, positioning contemporary pieces by artists such as Mika Rottenberg and Jill Magid in response to themes from Abbott’s oeuvre. Part historical documentation, part group show, part poetic meditation on all things Abbott, “The Earth Is a Magnet” reverberates with connections about ingenuity, sexuality, and photography.
When an artist responds to an artwork with another artwork, a great well of cool water opens. Associations shuttle from one piece to the other. This is why “An Artist’s Museum” feels alive. Within these works, images, memories, and dreams ping-pong and pulse, and those currents of imagination can then spark another secret life: the viewer’s.
THE ARTIST’S MUSEUM
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through March 26. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.