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Many critics looked to the formal qualities of the installation for a key to its critical content. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times experienced the densely placed studs as an -imaginary prison- rendering the museum -vaguely but viscerally oppressive- and contradicting the self-representation of museums as free spaces. Roberta Smith, on the other hand, found a -strong pleasure component- in the work. Her review for the New York Times resounds with the language of fiction, describing his interventions as -fabulous tall tales- of -irrational, gargantuan- effort, a kind of -Minimalism gone nuts.- Even Buchloh couldn't resist evoking labyrinths and halls of mirrors in his lecture at SMMoA the day after the opening, describing the project as -mannerist.via gregorg via afc
Right up to the installation of the studs, however, Asher said he didn't know whether people would even be able to get into the space: -These things are up in the air. I have no idea what will happen. If you can enter, you can go back and forth between the small front room and the frames, and cross reference what is in what show. . . . I want to see if the viewer understands this as a sort of abstract sculpture made of frames or something very specific. I am interested in how viewers' comprehension and experience change as they do that cross referencing. It is an operation very few critics appear to have undertaken. But Asher's comments point to another, more basic operation that seems even scarcer in the critical reception of his work: reflection on the process of reception itself.
It's fine to wax allegorical and hermeneutic over the formal and phenomenological effects of material procedures. Opportunity for such effusion is one of the pleasures that great art offers. Alongside accounts of Asher's installation as a prison or a playground, a fable and a folly, I am tempted to describe it as a graveyard of exhibitions past, a kind of institutional crypt, with studs for bones, which renders us ghosts as we pass through walls without surfaces; a hall of mirrors without mirrors, which refracts our vision but offers us no reflection of ourselves. Or perhaps it does, in these symbolic renderings, which are no more than our own projections looking back at us, flattering us with their acuity and erudition. They should be recognized as such and distinguished from Asher's project.
From everything we know about Asher's method, it is quite certain that the aesthetic, symbolic, and even phenomenological qualities that may be associated with the results of procedures he undertook are quite incidental. The specific logic of those results lies not in Asher's choices but in the decisions of the artists, curators, designers, and installers who placed the walls in the shows at SMMoA, and in the conditions that determined those decisions: broadly, the mission and economy of noncollecting contemporary art institutions and their programming of shows and projects. What is to be interpreted in Asher's work are not the formal qualities of the installation but the procedures of which they are the product, as well as the relationship between those procedures and the conditions of the site and situation for which they were undertaken.
The post-studio practice Asher has pursued since the late 1960s has often been characterized by a rigorous site-specificity limited to removing, displacing, reconfiguring, or reproducing existing or once-existing elements of the sites in which he works. Asher, along with Daniel Buren, reinterpreted the site-specific art that had emerged earlier in that decade, developing practices of formal investigation into strategies of critical intervention. The object of their critique, however, was not only the sites of art's presentation but its traditional site of production as well. For it is the studio, and its distance from the gallery and the museum, that dictates the production of transportable and transferable works-discrete objects predisposed if not predestined to circulate as commodities. By closing the gap between sites of production and consumption, site-specificity provided for a direct and potentially critical engagement with the social contexts of art, at the same time that it freed art from the logic of commodity production.
While many artists making site-specific work have also created discrete objects, or packaged documentation, that circulate as commodities, Asher has consistently eschewed all commodity production and exchange. His is not a utopian rejection of economic exchange as such-a gesture which, in a capitalist society, can only be symbolic-but a very practical and specific substitution of one economy for another. What artists receive on sales is not payment for labor but rather a portion of the value to be realized (or not) by the buyer in the market where that value has been (or, it is hoped, will be) established: It is an advance percentage on an anticipated profit. Since the early 1970s, Asher's only compensation for his projects has been in the form of fees. With the development of this fee structure, Asher conclusively redefined his activity, shifting from a model of goods production to a model of what, in economic terms, would be described as service provision: a form of labor that does not fix itself in a vendible commodity and can't be subject to further exchange. However, the most radical feature of Asher's work may be that it is not only site-specific but temporally specific as well. His installations cease to exist after a contractually determined period of time.
Like almost all of Asher's work, the SMMoA installation was destroyed shortly after the show closed in mid-April. All that is left of it now is the exhibition catalogue, installation photographs, and the documents generated over the seven years of the project's development. These will be collected in the museum's archive or in Asher's personal archive.
Asher will probably never be the subject of a museum retrospective. Short of a public presentation of his archive, there would be almost nothing to show of his forty years of work. However, as Smith noted in her New York Times review, at SMMoA he has, in a sense, given a retrospective to a museum. It is a very specific kind of museum, a kunsthalle whose history as a noncollecting institution, like that of Asher himself as an artist, is preserved only in its archive. If there is an allegory to be discovered in Asher's SMMOA installation, it is an allegory of his own practice, the structures of which were materialized at SMMOA through the homologies between that practice's conditions and those of the institution.
FINALLY, EFFORTS TO PIN DOWN the critique of museums and galleries in Asher's various installations broadly miss the point. The clearest and most consistent object of Asher's critical intervention is not the institution of the museum or gallery but that of artistic practice and the symbolic and material economies in which it exists. Asher's masterpiece, his monumental life's work, is his method: the procedures, conditions, and relations of production and distribution he has crafted over the course of forty years of work. His achievement is not that he developed strategies to materialize the invisible and immaterial structures of our material relations in artistic sites. Rather, his achievement is that by eschewing the commodity form, circumscribing the temporality of his interventions, and substituting the economic structures of service provision for those of goods, he established a mode of production that has redefined his place within those structures. If artistic production was long defined as the manipulation of formal elements within a given artistic frame, Asher's innovation is not so much that he shifted the object of that manipulation to the institutional frame, but that he constituted as the object of art the conditions and relations of artistic production itself: not only the positions artists manifest within the frame of their aesthetic systems but the very positions they occupy within the field of art and the economic conditions and social relations that produce those positions-and that artists, in turn, reproduce in their activity. What his work demands is that we consider whether artists fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the claims of their artistic positions on the level of social and economic conditions.
These aspects of Asher's work continue to be elided and even disavowed by art historians and critics. In an apparent effort to disqualify interpretations of Asher's work as a rejection of market relations, Buchloh asserted in his SMMOA lecture that Asher has always been willing to undertake commissions with private collectors-as if the distinction to be made with regard to Asher's work is between public and institutional versus private and individual commissions (if one can even draw a clear line between the two). Rather, what distinguishes Asher's practice is a site-specific mode of production, the results of which cannot be transferred, circulate in a market, or be subject to speculation, either by individual collectors or by museums. In another example, -artist contracts and fees- are listed among the -logistical matters such as travel arrangements- that were edited out of the excerpts from Asher's correspondence with the curators of Skulptur Projekte Mnster published in the journal October last spring. Logistical matters? If we continue to treat the conditions of artistic production as incidental and irrelevant to works of art, then we have learned nothing from Michael Asher.
It is evident today that the barriers that separate the artistic and material dimensions of art, that maintain a distance between the aesthetic or epistemic forms that constitute art's symbolic systems and the practical and economic relations that constitute its social conditions, remain more obstinate than the wall separating the exhibition space and office that Asher removed at Copley Gallery in 1974. The primary site of those barriers, as the reception of Asher's work suggests, may no longer be the physical spaces of art but the discursive spaces of art history and criticism.
I find it extraordinary and deeply symptomatic that critics and historians, even those whose methods are rooted in materialism, will only recognize the material conditions of artworks in the most euphemized ways. When literal investigations of actual physical materials are fastened on as radical figurations of social and even economic critique, as they often have been in writings about Asher, even while the economic conditions of works are ignored, materialist analysis becomes a kind of farce. It must be recognized that the bracketing off of these aspects of art performs a kind of censorship that may do more than the false neutrality of any exhibition space to perpetuate an idealist mythos of artistic autonomy and transcendence, and to provide the arbitrary mechanism of the market with artistic justification.
It may be time to consider this censorship in its psychological as well as sociological dimensions. It is difficult to see the consistent elision of economic conditions of production in the critical evaluation of art practices as anything other than a false sublimation of -vulgar- interests in money. With Asher, however, I believe what this censorship effaces is even more fundamental. It amounts to a denial of his monumental sacrifice and the demand it makes on us. What Asher has committed himself to may be the most radical enactment of the ambivalence that underlies avant-garde traditions of artistic negation: a form of artistic suicide enacted and reenacted with the destruction of every new work. Such self-destruction may be the only escape from the art market and its speculative necrophagia, as even the estates of artists such as Lee Lozano and Allan Kaprow are turned over to powerhouse dealers, their radical refusals reduced to symbolic gestures severed from any material stakes with the complicity of an art discourse that refuses to acknowledge such stakes except as symbolic gestures. The remains of Asher's work will not be sacralized in any museum, or valorized at any auction, but buried in our institutional equivalent of Potter's Field: the archive.
Thankfully, there are also books.