10 September 2007

Museography and Interpretation: A State of Encounter

Looking at artworks requires the viewer to be simultaneously drawn in and held at bay from the art. It should be both a conscious and unconscious experience, as perception itself. How artworks are displayed, the installation designs themselves, perform this necessary action.

When we work with other architects on museum projects – whether that may be Renzo Piano, Kazuyo Sejima or I.M.Pei – our work is to make sure that the art is never sidelined, never taken hostage, as the building is designed.

When we take on an exhibit design project, we begin discussions around the art works themselves, constructing a framework for viewing. Overlapping the perception of a work in some form or another, with the work itself: this is one way of creating meaning for the visitor.

Exhibition design is to entice the most effective emotional response of an artwork for the widest audience. To do so, our approach has been to enlist, so-to-speak, the language of the art itself to create a framework for the display. We call this the museography, the museological installation.

The blueprint for a successful museography project is to believe that all voices in the design can find their place, including those of the artists themselves.

In contemporary museum installations the battle is often half won at the start: working with the likes of Vito Acconci, Takashi Murakami and Yoko Ono, as we have done, we are not allowed to forget that the perception of art comes first.

Our work is to make that eminently clear, to delay interpretation of the works, giving time for our gaze to sink in.

“…meaning is contingent on context, how it is encountered.” Nancy Spector, on the work of artist Felix Gonzales-Torre

Palimpsest: Museography and Museological practice in Exhibit Design

Derrida’s erasing-erased writing - his palimpsest - is the re-inscription that continually displaces the reversed hierarchies of metaphysics.
Leavey intro. to Derrida, 1980, p.11 (quoted by Keep)

When we were first approached to do an exhibit installation – a short term display of rarefied objects in a New York Gallery – we had no precedents to work from, much less context a given context to generate a design, as we had been accustomed to in our architectural and urban work.

This lack of models, created its own anxieties, so we were quick to fill this void with a genuine strategy that spoke to the origin of the artworks, in this case Zenga tea bowls and ink drawings on hanging scrolls. By definition, these works needed an austere space, inviting a departure from what the gallery spaces had to offer. The only recourse for us was to perform a kind of erasure of the existing gallery. To provide the optimal viewing of these works, our efforts would focus on erasing the hard “givens” of the gallery, reversing obvious hierarchies, and eventually re-inscribing new traces on the gallery floor.

Our second and third exhibits conserved and reused portions of the previous installation, to save time and money. We had caught on to the other dimension of our, yet, unnamed strategy: it is an economic choice as well.

Much later, after experimenting with more than 14 exhibits within one series of galleries, our approach to each new design became a genuine working method. Erasure and rewriting over a previous layout – a palimpsest - provided the model we had been searching for. Neither a device, nor a metaphor for our process, the palimpsest is an action that allows for a layered approach to exhibit design.

The palimpsest performs a dual role: it may reinforce a curatorial voice, while simultaneously allowing a viewer to have an intuitive response to a series of art works. This layering of voices, the permeability of the design, is what we strive for in our museum work. We do this with a keen interest in art - both ancient and contemporary - and for sheer pleasure.

That was just shy of ten years ago. Now we have moved on to doing more permanent gallery and museum designs, while keeping faith with the palimpsest.

Note: We are indebted to Alexandra Munroe, former director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York, who commissioned our firm to design all 13 of the exhibits under her tenure from 1998 to 2006, and to her catalog forward titled: Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin, for the exhibition at Yale Art Gallery and the Asia Society, "The Art of Mu Xin" 2001-2002.
Image Credit: IMREY CULBERT for YES YOKO ONO Retrospective, Japan Society 2001

04 September 2007

Louvre-Lens: Museography as palimpsest

The New Museum Galleries
The galleries are naturally lit from above. A gentle downward curving translucent membrane hung from the roof, forms the ceiling and functions as both filter and projection screen. The membrane, a suspended layer below the building cable-net structure, becomes an ethereal surface on which exterior incident natural light and, perhaps, an ornate ceiling image, are held in a continuous state of flux depending on the time of day and season.
This stands in contrast with the night time image: artificial lighting, from adjustable fixtures stealthy mounted within the roof structure, will paint at times a carefully balanced diffused glow, or alternatively a vibrant fresco of light on this floating ceiling. The suspended membranes form a unique constellation of floating planes that define specific galleries, achieving viewing intimacy and lower light levels where needed.
Under this lit ceiling, the galleries spread-out in an expansive width, afforded by a columnless structure and walls that reach 6 meters high. Five unequal volumes, each with gently curving facades that respond to the site topography, make up the gallery spaces. They are linked at corners only, spreading out organically from the reception volume, to take full advantage of the linear characteristic of this reclaimed mining site.
This free-form overlap of volumes creates an intuitive flux within the space, as one is drawn towards the open corners, to the edges of the spaces. From within the galleries one can perceive the gently warped volumes. Through the exterior glass openings one perceives the adjacent gallery volume, creating an ease of “readability” to the layout of the museum campus. The splayed layout of the building forms reinforces what would typically be treated in extraneous wayfinding: this is a museum easily traveled by all visitors, of all walks of life.

The Renewable Galleries
Within the large gallery volumes, interior partition layouts, evolve progressively from one end to the other of the renewable galleries, reinforcing this same intuitive visitor path and – as we consciously designed for – creating the natural adjacencies between nearby gallery spaces.
The time-line galleries are distributed like a comb, with teeth and dents (dent-creuse) that dovetail with the volumes of the theme-based galleries of discovery. In effect the time-line expands and contracts with the more enclosed renewable galleries: this typology allows for a densely architectural driven time-line, a journey that can be experienced up or down the chronology (en remontant le temps ou l’inverse), depending on how a visitor is drawn from one discovery gallery to the next, or alternatively into an adjacent mediation space. The sinuous glass tubes, allows for a return flux that affords uninterrupted views of the landscaped site and sculpture installations in the museum park.
This organic layout, random (aleatoire) to a large degree, both flexible and highly determined, seeks to reconcile the dual agenda of the Louvre-Lens: to provide emotion and pedagogie in viewing the collection. The proposed galleries and layouts will provide the context for multiple viewers to see the same group of works in the collection in more diverse, more candid ways.
The “particular” nature of the spaces as we have designed them, are coupled with renewable spaces that walk the fine-line between virtual contextualizations – the floating membrane as one of them – to real contextualizations. This strategy will allow for display strategies that are built around a plurality of curatorial voices. More importantly they will “speak” to a more diverse public, they will be “read” for once as both pedagogie and emotion, art and science, desire and amazement, and not in terms of opposites or contrasts, periods or materials, departments and schools of thought.
The approach to museography and it’s too often polar opposite – the architecture of museum volumes – is now turned on its head. The museum volumes define the museology in a happy marriage of both opposites and similarities, allowing for a myriad of solutions of installations that avoid the pitfalls of either overly flexible spaces, or alternatively overly determined forms. The perfect fit for this unique vision as defined by the Louvre – to create a “musee d’art et d’essai”, to escape the constraints of the museum itself – is to create a truly transversal presentation of the collection. This is achieved by defining specific volumes as transversal offshoots that expand and contract along the time line (promenade-exploration).
Within these, alternate scenographic installations – large installations, dioramas, compressed ceilings for light sensitive works, can be created at will, based on a vocabulary of parts: this is the Louvre-Lens’ palimpsest: A place that reflects its history; a place or a surface that is rewritten, overwritten or erased a new.
Reconfiguring the gallery installations with relative ease, to escape the confines of the singular permanent features of the musee-mere in Paris, will allow for many “rubbings-out and putting-in” for each subsequent installation. This is true polyvalence. The palimpsest is not simply a metaphor for polyvalence, but the product of our design solution: it will allow for a many-layered nature to the installations where various traces of a prior exhibit are conserved in the following art installation.
The museum “plateau”, one single level covering some 350 linear meters, will be by its very nature a palimpsest for art. We hope it encourages a many-layered approach to selecting and hanging art - with a certain nod to chronological display outside of art historical categories - with flash-backs and flash-forward, curious juxtapositions of art friend and foe alike. In this way, the idea of a sole meaning to any art, an originating voice – one that the Palais du Louvre can never fully achieve – is almost naturally subverted, deferring meaning for future exhibitions, for future generations.

Temporary Galleries
Our preoccupations on diversity of scaled spaces, flexibility of format presentation, ceiling treatment and notably lighting – both artificial and natural – informed our solution for the temporary gallery. Linked most directly to the art-storage spaces and buffer installation rooms in the basement, the temporary gallery features an additional active layer of top-light mitigation, to allow for all types of art display in a controlled lighting environment, to complete blackout. The columless space is designed with a matrix flow diagram that allows for non-structural walls to define either small three sided gallery spaces along a spine, or alternatively more enclosed floating volumes within the larger space. The various typologies of layouts we have developed allow for a fluidity in visitor flow, a certain “souplesse”of use and natural hierarchy of spaces while avoiding the pitfalls of over flexibility.

The design reconciles polyvalence and flexibility. Flexibility is built into the design, by the very nature of large volumes, the light control systems, both natural and artificial, and the intuitive flux encouraged by the proportions of the spaces.

©Tim Culbert Architect
for Equipe Sanaa (winning joint-venture team for the Louvre satellite competition 2005 (Sanaa + Imrey Culbert); Image credit: Sanaa + Imrey Culbert + Mosbach / excerpt from video file by bhch, NY

Limits and Possibilities of Design

Our passion for architecture stems from our deep belief in architecture’s capacity to “speak” to the needs, values and goals of its users. For architecture to do this, it must know its users very well. That is why we strive to be good listeners and why we take ample time to understand and evaluate the design and challenges, both formal and technical, of a given program for each project is unique.

For architecture to succeed, it must have an acute sense of its own limits and possibilities. That is why we devote significant resources to in-house research and development, constantly developing our awareness of products and building systems.

This is especially important in today’s ascendancy of green and low-energy design. We encourage respect for the environment and its diverse users in all of our design work as well as in our office.