The Gang’s All Here: Grand Openings at the Museum of Modern Art

A performance art collective takes over

officeposter The Gangs All Here: Grand Openings at the Museum of Modern Art

The Grand Openings group.

On Aug. 25, 1969, eight people waded into the pond in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden and tore off their clothes. A photograph of the event, published on the cover of the Daily News the next day, shows a short Asian woman in a striped dress—the outré Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama—slinking away from the performance, which she had masterminded and titled Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA.

“The museum archives have some great photographs of the security guards looking bewildered about what to do with this activity,” said MoMA archivist Michelle Elligott, sitting on the floor of the museum’s atrium last Thursday afternoon. In front of her were museum staff and artists sitting on benches and a bowl filled with mushrooms. Weather balloons were floating high in the air above them. Another performance, of sorts, was taking place.

This time, the event was authorized by the museum, and staged by a crew of five increasingly prominent, multitasking art world denizens who have operated under the name Grand Openings since forming for a one-night event in 2005 at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village, during that year’s edition of the Performa performance-art biennial. Since then, the collective has set up shop in various international museums.

Last Wednesday Grand Openings assembled in MoMA’s atrium, which they will occupy through Monday, staging a bewildering array of events and performances there and throughout the museum, for an exhibition—The Observer uses that term hesitantly—called “Grand Openings Return of the Blogs.” (The second part of the title derives from the fact that the group’s members are writing regular diary entries on the events and posting them in the atrium.)

The group has organized discussion panels and a tour of the sculpture garden, hosted a rollicking singles night (more on that below), made copies of Niele Toroni paintings, and invited their parents to present lectures. (Britt Marie Sundblad, the mother of Grand Openings member, art dealer and artist Emily Sundblad, spoke about the history of linens she has collected.) And there is far more to come: an operatic wedding, a re-enactment of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 zombie film Near Dark, and a concert by the black-metal band Liturgy.

But back to those mushrooms.

Just before Ms. Elligott spoke, another one of Grand Openings’ members, the elegantly tousled curator and onetime dealer Jay Sanders, explained to the small crowd in the atrium that the group had declared it “Mushroom Thursday” and invited MoMA curators to discuss the history of experimentation within the museum. “Many of our ideas are underpinned by psychedelia,” Mr. Sanders, who is co-curating the 2012 Whitney Biennial, said earnestly.

“How interested are you in the psychedelic experience and experimental practices?” another Grand Openings member, Jutta Koether, a tall, rail-thin German painter, asked the panelists. Her question led to the surreal scene of MoMA assistant director Kathy Halbreich segueing from a discussion of the drug use of the late German painter Sigmar Polke to a frank admission: “Personally, I have not had an experience with peyote, LSD, or mescaline, in part because I think I was scared, honestly.”

Ms. Halbreich may have shied away from psychotropic exploration, but her museum has shown some daring in its recent curatorial pursuits. Forty-one years after ejecting Ms. Kusama and her fellow orgiasts from its sculpture garden, MoMA hosted a much-discussed retrospective for performance artist Marina Abramovic, organized by its first new media and performance art curator, Klaus Biesenbach, who is now director of MoMA’s Long Island City outpost P.S.1.

MoMA’s project with Grand Openings—which comprises the artist Ei Arakawa and musician Stefan Tcherepnin, along with Ms. Sundblad, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Koether—marks another step in the museum’s embrace of hard-to-categorize art.

Curatorially, “Grand Openings Return of the Blogs” is the work of Sabine Breitwieser, founding director of Vienna’s Generali Foundation, whom MoMA hired last year to fill the curatorial position Mr. Biesenbach vacated upon his promotion. It’s her second curatorial project since starting at the museum in the fall, and it came together swiftly—over the past few months—after plans for the Mexico City-based conceptual artist Francis Alÿs to use the atrium for an installation in conjunction with his current retrospective were dropped.

“That’s sometimes just how it works,” Ms. Breitwieser cheerfully told The Observer of the sudden change of plans. She was sitting in an office that overlooks the museum’s sculpture garden. It was the day after “Mushroom Thursday,” and Ms. Breitwieser, 49, sounded ebullient as she recalled her initial discussions with Grand Openings. (“We couldn’t say no to MoMA,” Ms. Koether told The Observer. “But we had to scramble.”)