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.”)
“Art has the reputation of being erratic, abstract, inaccessible and problematic,” Ms. Breitwieser said, adding that, with Grand Openings, she was hoping to present “a very down-to-earth model of an artist in the museum,” apart from much performance art, which has been “so much about excitement and spectacle and entertainment.”
“Sometimes,” Ms. Breitwieser said, smiling, “I miss more thoughtful, more provocative, more critical engagement.” Those characteristics take on surprising forms in today’s art world.
MoMA visitors expecting the shock and drama of Ms. Abramovic’s retrospective are likely to leave disappointed. Rather than sitting in the atrium for weeks like Marina Abramovic, Ms. Breitwieser emphasized, “Grand Openings said, ‘Let’s do it for 13 days.’ It’s a very human scale.” When not staging their periodic events—a schedule is available via MoMA’s website—Grand Openings’ members spend much of their time working in the atrium. “They have an office, some benches and their laptops,” she said. “This is how artists work today.”
Throughout the past week, The Observer watched Grand Openings discuss hallucinogens with curators, work on their laptops and project YouTube videos onto an atrium wall, and heard many visitors asking if this was all, in fact, art. “Maybe that doesn’t matter in the long run,” Ms. Breitwieser said.
A few hours after speaking with Ms. Breitwieser, The Observer participated in Singles Night.
Most of Grand Openings’ events are inspired by MoMA’s history and activities, and this was no exception: “You know MoMA’s education program?” Mr. Arakawa, 33, said. “We made it sexier.”
In the atrium, Mr. Arakawa emceed. Pacing the room wearing a bright-blue T-shirt, shorts, sandals and a headset microphone, he looked like a slightly unhinged motivational speaker.
His audience was a few dozen self-declared singles, including Grand Openings members, all of them sitting on large sheets of paper—divided between Manhattan and Brooklyn residents. Mr. Arakawa asked them to pair off, and pick up long wood planks that Ms. Koether had made. He then instructed the plank-bearing couples to form a circle.
A dance track exploded out of nearby speakers. “Move! Move! Move!” Mr. Arakawa shouted gleefully, waving his hands, and sending the singles running in a circle with their planks. “Single! Single! Single!” He asked us to spin with the planks, put them upside down, and lastly to “Snake!” Applause burst out from around the atrium.
A dance contest with the planks followed, during which The Observer knocked down his partner, Linda Downes, who gracefully recovered, earning cheers from the hundreds in the crowd. Ms. Downes said she’d come to MoMA to see another exhibition and had been cajoled into joining the performance by Mr. Arakawa. “This was more than I bargained for,” she admitted, not sounding disappointed.
When Singles’ Night wound down, The Observer asked Ms. Koether how it felt coming to MoMA every day. “I am ecstatic,” she said, noting that she’s been making daily visits to the painting department. “I’m trying to really inhale it, since this is only for a short moment.”
Only hours earlier, Ms. Breitwieser noted that MoMA has largely been letting Grand Openings record its own performances. “There have been some really nice moments and they’re gone now,” she said. “We don’t have anything.”
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