We live in the age of the museum. Thousands have opened in the US and around the world since 2000, and visitors have answered their call, flocking to them for everything from exhibitions to lectures to children’s sleepover parties. Often architectural wonders in their own right, museums today are no longer musty storehouses of the past, but public venues where private dreams intersect with public life. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that they have come under increasing artistic and critical scrutiny. The old opposition between the “white cube” and the “black box” feels obsolete, even as the exhibition space’s importance as a subject of artistic and critical investigation continues to grow. One such investigation, by Sarah Oppenheimer, an artist who has long worked with built environments, and, in particular, the spatial organization of the museum, takes place this fall at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. This interview began as a conversation between Oppenheimer and media theorist Alexander Galloway held at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in April 2016.
Alexander Galloway I’d love to begin with the fundamental question of space in architecture. I was struck, listening to a lecture you gave recently, by your discussion of the acts of dividing and splitting space. You establish boundaries within and between spaces that do not take the form of a grid or a rigid, regular structure. Tell us how you have gone about this in recent projects.
Sarah Oppenheimer You’re pointing to a very common trend in contemporary architecture: a lack of fixed subdivision. Spatial zones are defined but not divided, and flow is encouraged between zones. More traditional ways of design tended to produce discrete, divided spaces. Nineteenth-century museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the National Gallery in London direct visitors through discrete galleries along a fixed path. They have fixed walls that do not get torn down and reconfigured for every new exhibition. Visitors move through isolated, specific and, sometimes, dead-end rooms, and there’s a processional quality to the experience. By contrast, Frank Gehry’s Bilbao, or Marcel Breuer’s former Whitney Museum of American Art [now the Met Breuer], or Renzo Piano’s new downtown Whitney building, have open, cavernous, and infinitely flexible zones. SANAA’s 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa, Japan emphasizes undirected navigation through an open plan. But in order to make this open-plan function, a tremendous amount of dividing happens. Partitions are concealed, so you don’t notice lighting systems or the air conditioning. You don’t see the maintenance or storage areas, or how artworks travel between storage and exhibition spaces. What appears to be open space is often the result of an architectural sleight of hand. Boundaries create the illusion of openness, transforming the chaos of undifferentiated space into a discrete, empty whole.
AG How does this play out in your work?
SO In P-021110 , a project I showed in 2014 at Galerie von Bartha in Basel, the open space of the gallery was interrupted by an irregular column grid. Exposed columns and trusses created an excentric wedge along one side of the exhibition space. I buried these structural members within a floor-to-ceiling partition wall. A pair of glass-and-aluminum thresholds were located within this wall, isolating light conditions on either side of the boundary. At the same time, this increased division created a sense of seamless openness.