The Quick and the Dead, one of the more ambitious exhibitions the Walker has organized, is getting installed in our galleries this week and next. We’ll be posting videos soon that show curator Peter Eleey talking about some of the works; for now, here’s an interview I did with him about the show for the new issue of Walker magazine. (The show opens April 25, with an After Hours preview party on the 24th.)
Julie Caniglia: How did this show begin for you?
Peter Eleey: I wanted to do an exhibition about the things we don’t know, the big questions and deep mysteries in life, and our desire for experiences that transcend those we have every day. These are things that science, philosophy, and religion deal with perhaps more obviously than contemporary art does, but throughout history, art has offered us ways of thinking about things beyond the here and now. We expect to see objects when we visit museums, and yet this show allows us to consider things beyond what we can see. It’s very much about all that is “more than meets the eye.”
JC: So is that where the connections to conceptual art come in?
PE: In a sense, although the show’s not about conceptual art per se. Artists from the heyday of that movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper, George Brecht, and Robert Barry, had a keen interest in those big questions and deep mysteries. Brecht, for example, was a research chemist before he became an artist. Barry wanted to make things that could last forever and expand infinitely-he worked with materials from science supply stores. Lygia Clark made foldable sculptures that could be turned repeatedly inside out. They are like personal models of the universe.
JC: Can you talk a bit about how those relationships between art and science play out in the exhibition?
PE: Well, there are works by a few actual scientists, like a 1966 drawing a mathematician did to illustrate how we could turn a sphere inside out without breaking it. Looking at it alongside one of Clark’s sculptures, it becomes clear that at right around the same time, science and art were both finding new ways to think about space. A group in Los Angeles called the Institute for Figuring was founded in 2003 by a science writer and an art historian to explore the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of math and science. They have used knitting and crochet-crafts, really-to model an extra dimension called hyperbolic space. They’re coming to the Walker on July 30 to teach people how to crochet their own models of this dimension.
JC: So this show is going pretty far afield from conceptual art and that popular notion that it doesn’t actually offer anything to look at. After all, The Quick and the Dead fills three sizable Walker galleries.
PE: Well, there are some invisible things, like an electromagnetic energy field, which you simply have to trust exists. But there is a lot to look at, from films to performances to sculptures to paintings and drawings. The earliest piece is a 1933 photograph that Harold Edgerton took of a glass of milk shattering; the most recent is a sound installation that Susan Philipsz has made for the Walker parking ramp.
JC: A number of other works are placed outside the galleries. Why?
PE: A lot of the artists in the show explore different ways of expanding time and space beyond the present moment or location. For example, Simon Starling has “borrowed” some sunlight from a desert in Spain to make his site-specific painting on the ceiling of the Hennepin Lobby. So it made sense to also expand visitors’ experiences beyond the physical space of the galleries. In addition to Philipsz’s work, other sound-based works in the show include John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP. The Basilica of Saint Mary will host organ performances of the piece on selected Thursday nights. A Nauman work in the gallery broadcasts sound from the interior of a tree located outside the museum. And there are two works buried outdoors, along with some other things that we want people to discover once they’re here.
JC: Getting back to the idea of mysteries, right? So much of the art in this exhibition hinges on things out there that are simply unknowable. Which pieces do you think are ultimately the most confounding-or mystical? And conversely, in the course of curating this show, did you find any artworks that seem to clarify something-about the world, the universe, our lives?
PE: I’m a romantic, and I find great beauty in works such as Jason Dodge’s simple bundle of cloth sitting on the gallery floor. The artist asked a weaver in Algeria to make it for him using the length of yarn it would take to go from the surface of the earth to where the weather ends-essentially the border with outer space. Though it leads your mind to the outer reaches of the atmosphere, the cloth turns out to be much smaller than you might think. But I don’t think the works in the show clarify anything-like Jason’s cloth, they instead offer expansive ways of thinking about things that are much bigger than themselves.