The Roof Garden Commission:
Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance
The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY
April 14 – October 29, 2017
By DAVID AMBROSE, JUN. 2017
Brassai: In the lower strata of the valley of Les Eyzies (one of two sites of prehistoric rock dwellings and cave paintings, the other being Lascaux), excavation archaeologists had the brilliant idea of preserving a cross-section four to five meters high, with layers built up over a millennia. It’s like a mille-feuille (French layered pastry). In every layer, the tenants left their visiting cards: fragments of bone, teeth, flints. In a single glance, you can take in thousands of years of history. It’s very moving.
Picasso: And you know what is responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust.
Brassai: Conversations with Picasso
Wednesday 20 October, 1943
University of Chicago Press
In his site specific installation The Theater of Disappearance, a commission for the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden, the Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas (b.1980) casts his glance across the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s many layers as an institution and in the process he reveals much about the Museum and its collecting and exhibiting practices. When the dust finally settles, what we appear to have is a pleasant looking frothy confection in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster with more eager characters than you might find in a casting call for Ancestry.com. Many of the lead roles have been filled by sculpture and artifacts culled from the Museum’s collection (almost a hundred works) joined in lock step with a group of life-sized human figures.
The Museum discharges this raucous, amalgamated, totemic group from their holding cells in the galleries below onto its 8000sqft roof top garden. But in reality, this show has more in common with a classic black and white silent film. While my initial reaction to this solemn parade brought to mind some combination of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland meets Disney’s Fantasia, the end result had me thinking less of playful characters surfacing in the subway system via Tom Otterness and more about our isolation from this troupe of players. Isolation made all the more evident by their lack of color and a dusty patina applied to each surface. But if Mr. Villar Rojas offers us a many-layered confection, as he does so in his The Theater of Disappearance, it’s best to first carefully inspect the contents.
The installation of The Theater of Disappearance was conceived by Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, and curated by Beatrice Galilee, Daniel Brodsky Associate Curator of Architecture and Design, and remains atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art until October 29, 2017. It is the fifth installment in a series of site specific installations and is meant to marry the collection to a separate environment just outside the Museum’s walls; a banquet scene under the heavens. While creating this site specific work using the latest 3-D imaging techniques, Villar Rojas has tackled a space that acts not only as a gallery but as a bar and gathering place for the casual museum interloper.
Past projects chosen by Ms. Wagstaff have also been cinematic in scope: from Cornelia Parker’s Hitchockian, Transitional Object (PsychoBarn), to the Apocalypse Now jungle of the Starn Twins, Big Bambu’ and Imran Qureshi’s, torture porn/ slasher film buckets of blood/red petal stained floor.
Ms. Wagstaff and Ms. Bailey have given the artist the keys to virtually every department door, office and closet. Villar Rojas engaged in a yearlong dialog with a wide range of Museum staff and in the process questioned the institutions century and a half old curatorial and acquisition practices. What Villar Rojas’s institutional census tells us, is as much about ourselves as a nation, as it does about the Museum as a repository for historical art and artifacts; one with a specific filing cabinet of curiosities agenda.
The installation includes sixteen sculptures, a gridded tile floor, furniture, an extended pergola and additional plantings, along with a newly designed bar in a sobering palette of white, black and gray. The sculptures come in two varieties: seven black freestanding amalgamations constructed from a group of nearly one hundred objects from the Museum’s collection and nine antique white tabletop sculptures also harboring pieces from the collection. Each table is shaped like a trapezoid and comes with seven tiffany banquet chairs; the type made popular in America by a photo essay in Life Magazine documenting the 1953 wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John Fitzgerald Kennedy; three of the chairs are on the short side of the table with four on the long side. Rather than functioning as actual seats, the chairs function as structural supports for the tableau bearing tables. The pearlescent white chairs are bolted to the smooth underside of the planar tablecloths to discourage casual sitting. By doing so, the chairs free themselves from function and join the festivities by hosting sculptural groupings that reveal ghostly bas-reliefs or cavities into the tabletops that act as shallow graves on their top sides. In some cases, remains of the meal or decorative objects from the Met’s collection surface like vegetables and bones in a simmering soup stock. Some tabletop planes come with implied folds of tablecloth, but the tactility abruptly ends at its top and does not transfer to the fall of the tablecloth over the sides. On the day I saw the exhibition, a group of Met staffers busily wandered around the tables identifying works from their department’s collections like proud parents at a school play.
Many of the sculptural artifacts bond with life-sized human sculptures. These totems thread their way throughout the installation giving it the feel of “Night ‘outside’ the Museum”, as if some cross-cultural time machine/elevator has dropped you off at the aftermath of a Brueghel wedding feast. The work is somewhat reminiscent of the American sculptor George Segal (b.1924-2000) but without the caress of fingertips and resultant humanism. At times, with its cold, polished 3-D imaging production values, the piece has the feel of a replica; and by that I mean a replica of an Adrián Villar Rojas.
Each individual sculpture is coated with a dusty faux patina that sits on its surface like warm breadth on cool glass. The patina seems to wish a surface beyond the limitations of its medium and the installation’s seven-month lifespan. The dust, instead of Picasso’s conservator or “ally” - a soft, accumulated layer of protection – is more like a hardened glaze that will repel history rather than gather its remainders. The aerosol patina has the effect of sprayed cobwebs or silly string on Halloween night. This works against Villar Rojas, who has used decay and the implied passage of time to his advantage in works such as 2015’s Two Suns (II) at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. In it a toppled David by Michelangelo, rests off the floor on blocks of cement. Closer inspection reveals that the now sleeping (or perhaps dead) giant has lost his power through emasculation rather than the loss of his hair, as was the fate of Samson.
Under our feet, Villar Rojas has installed to new two floor systems; one a checkerboard grid of black, gray and white tiles (four similarly colored tiles per unit or grouping) that is set without any visible surface grout allowing for the collection of small fragments of daily decay, detritus or “tenants visiting cards” and the other is a checker plate textured steel common to subway and train platforms.
In many ways with Villar Rojas’s The Theater of Disappearance, Wagstaff has found the perfect artist and married him to the perfect project. But for all its playfulness, a cloud hangs over the work creating an earthbound melancholy, because when you think of dust frozen in time in concert with the Manhattan skyline, you can only really think of September 11th, 2001. So before you consume that drink you just purchased at the bar, give a look across the park southwest to those buildings on the horizon just above the tree line and realize this is not just a summery powdered sugar coated slice of the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, but a subtle reminder of what has been lost and how it has changed us forever and why perhaps those banquet chairs should always remain empty. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author