Excerpt from Michael Asher: Familiar Passages and Other Visibitilites by Marie B. Shurkus
Like many artists of his generation, Michael Asher took his lead from Minimalism’s theatricality, which was designed to enhance viewers’ perceptual awareness of their role within the exhibition space. Yet where many of Asher’s peers responded by expanding their practice into the more temporal realms of film and performance, Asher focused on the temporal as a condition of the spatial, which aligned his work more specifically with architecture. Overall, Asher’s entire oeuvre has investigated how viewers encounter specific sites, primarily spaces dedicated to the presentation of visual art. As a result, Asher’s work is typically associated with the Conceptual art practice of Institutional Critique. Historically, the placement of Asher’s work within the discourse of Institutional Critique was cemented with his 1974 project at the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles. For this work, Asher removed the wall separating the exhibition and office spaces, revealing the otherwise hidden gallerist working at her desk. With all physical traces of Asher’s intervention repaired, visitors to the gallery encountered a space whose only apparent focus was the administration of business. This intervention not only opened the discourse of the gallery to issues of labor and economic exchange, but also invited the participants—both Copley and the gallery visitors alike—to re-examine their understaning of what constitutes an artwork and how visual art functions within the larger social domain. While not Asher’s first manipulation of a gallery space, his intervention at the Copley Gallery was certainly one of his first to bring attention to the larger social discourses that inform the production of art—be it an aesthetic object or a system of exchange. Yet, Asher’s attention to the discursive functions operating within an exhibition space was already evident the year before in his project at Milan’s Galleria Toselli. Here, Asher sandblasted the gallery walls and ceiling, stripping away the neutral white paint and pristine surfaces to reveal the underlying brown plaster. The effect physically recreated the gallery as a site under construction, rather than one engaged with the conventions of display. For visitors the transformation was as stunning as the encounter with Copley was awkward. Together, Asher’s interventions at the Toselli and Copley galleries marked a significant transition that clearly positioned his work in terms of the more analytical, site-specific approach that has come to define Institutional Critique. Victor Burgin described this approach as a shift in focus from material effects toward a concern for the more immaterial effects of content, which he dubbed Situational Aesthetics.
Asher’s understanding of how spaces address viewers physically and construct visibilities emerged through a number of works that culminated in his 1970 exhibition at Pomona College. In fact, Asher’s contribution to the exhibition at Pomona College in 2011 was first inspired by his 1970 installation. Nevertheless, Asher admits that the significance of his original intervention at Pomona did not occur to him until after the logistics of recreating the space were complete. Initially, Asher was too consumed with solving a problem that had emerged a few months earlier during his first solo exhibition at the La Jolla Museum of Art. For the La Jolla exhibition, Asher installed a tone generator in one of the gallery walls that effectively cancelled out all sound waves in the room, creating a dead zone in the center of the gallery. Accordingly, “viewers” experienced sound as a physical force operating through the gallery space. Similarly, in the months prior to the La Jolla exhibition, Asher had employed industrial air blowers to create first a “wall” of air at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, and then the less intrusive “curtain” of air, exhibited in the Whitney’s 1969 “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” exhibition. Moving on from these and other sensory-based installations, Asher confronted the problem of how to organize light and sound at Pomona without introducing any outside equipment.