A few years after I graduated from art school I received a commission to do a public project in London’s East End. I had begun to grow a little tired of just taking pictures and with this new project I was trying to imagine other ways of making art. While doing research I came across the work of Michael Asher for the first time, and was immediately drawn to its clarity, intelligence and unexpected beauty. What appealed to me in particular was how Michael employed simple gestures such as displacement, removal and erasure to open up a world of possibility, a way of thinking about how art was touched by, and in turn impacted on political and everyday economies. Importantly Michael’s work seemed to achieve this orbit of subtle connections and overdetermination without being in the slightest bit didactic or pedantic. What his work invites us to discover, we do so with pleasure. And it is this sense of pleasure that the frighteningly technocratic and often lazily invoked shorthand of Institutional Critique (typically used to characterise Michael’s work) fails to capture.
The first work of Michael’s that I discovered was his famous 1979 project at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he removed the bronze cast of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s late-eighteenth-century sculpture of George Washington from the front steps of the museum and installed it inside one of the European Painting and Sculpture galleries. This work produced different but complementary encounters for viewers both inside and outside of the museum. On the one hand, and perhaps for the first time since it was installed in 1917, passersby on Michigan Avenue could notice, through its very absence, the strange classical public monument that heretofore had cast an increasingly misleading and certainly ambiguous shadow on the modern and expansive aspirations of the Art Institute. On the other hand, visitors to gallery 219, where Asher had temporarily installed the missing public monument, could now judge and appreciate Houdon’s work against other European works of the same period, perhaps reckoning it to be aesthetically weak by comparison. They could also speculate on the reasons why this work more than any other had been chosen by the museum at one time to announce its aesthetic (and necessarily political) ambition – to appear almost like a cinematic trailer hinting at the kind of experience you might expect once you entered the building. The fact that few in 1979 neither paid much attention to this public statue nor were likely to be comprehensively persuaded by its increasingly outdated metonymy was precisely the invisibility and the failed rhetorical ambition that Asher’s work sought to foreground. His intervention made the monument new again, staging it as an artistic confrontation with the museum itself, one that the latter was being asked to address, to defend or to denounce perhaps, but at least to evaluate. And if the monument’s metonymic effect was now judged to be ridiculous, or at the very least contradictory, Michael’s work made those types of judgement palpable and in turn demanded that considerations of this type be applied to all works – and not only those, like Houdon’s, that in retrospect had become aesthetically marginal. But even this reading reduces the complexity and unexpected pleasures that Michael’s work produced. For instance, looking at Houdon’s statue, with its acquired patina of green corrosion and filth, and now ensconced in the proper place for aesthetic contemplation meant that a certain disinterestedness was able to creep in alongside the institutional questions. Viewers could consider, for instance, the monument’s classical form, its status as a copy, its ‘groundedness’ (because removed from its pedestal), its scale in relationship to other works and to the human body, or even the general and perhaps defining effect of rust and bird shit on the form itself. In other words, for better or worse, under Michael’s guidance Houdon’s monument became, for the duration of the exhibition, a piece of sculpture – something to look at and think about. Michael achieved all of this (and more) simply by displacing an object from one place to another – and in so doing with a seemingly effortless poetry he produced beauty out of absence and provoked perplexing questions about aesthetic judgement through supplement.
Like many young artists exposed for the first time to an extraordinary and compelling work, I proceeded to make a number of my own works that tried, more or less, to mimic something of its effect – without much success I should add and I very quickly (and wisely) abandoned the exercise. But Michael’s influence continued, albeit more in the way that I looked at art than in the way I made it. This is, I think, his work’s huge achievement: it forces us to take absolutely nothing for granted when looking at works of art, it asks that we consider context, history and selection as part of our aesthetic judgment without diminishing the beauty and the strangeness of the works in question. At its best his work only adds to our experience of looking at a work of art, taking nothing of its value away.
In 2002 while I was preparing my exhibition at Kunsthalle Bern, I asked the then director Bernhard Fibicher to tell me a little bit about Michael’s exhibition there ten years earlier. Bernhard showed me an array of photographic documentation and he described in detail the way the work was conceived and how it was installed. As is well known, for that exhibition Michael organised the removal of the building’s heating radiators and then had them re-installed all together, fully plumbed, in the entranceway foyer. The originality of the work impressed me, as did the way it gracefully and unexpectedly introduced questions of institutional framing while giving visitors an unusual and startling aesthetic experience. Again, to simply describe this work as Institutional Critique or Conceptual art in some way or another would completely miss its sheer oddness and beauty. When you entered the Kunsthalle, you were immediately presented with a magical sculptural form comprised of all the museum’s radiators with their different colours and sizes, and complete with multiple rows of piping trailing off to the underground boiler, but you were also hit by an immense physical heat, and this in stark contrast to the cold and empty galleries that awaited you, now without either plumbing or art.
Two months ago we published an Afterall One Work written by Anne Rorimer and dedicated to Michael’s Kunsthalle Bern installation. I am proud that exactly thirty years after I first learned about Michael Asher’s work we are able to present an in depth consideration of a work by him that continues to make a difference.