Schütte said he generally shuns such big productions involving numerous assistants: “I prefer the opposite: crystallized spaces. I’d rather work with small institutions such as the Serpentine Gallery in London. [A survey of his portrait works opens there on September 25.] Only rich artists can do a big show, because if you don’t bring some money or some organizational help, then the institutions can’t do it.” Although Schütte did admit that the heavily staffed commercial galleries he is critical of can also provide invaluable services to artists that museums can’t afford, he noted that “the art industry is becoming an entertainment industry: it does the same thing.”
ART HISTORIAN HAL FOSTER’S 2011 collection of essays, The Art-Architecture Complex, addresses this very issue of art’s creeping proximity to entertainment, paying special attention to its symbiotic relationship with the surrounding structures, whether physical, social or fiscal. “Recent art is hardly a passive object . . . ; sometimes its expanded dimensions alone have prompted the transformation of dis- used warehouses and factories into galleries and museums,” writes Foster.7 He goes on to say that the architects of many new museums might be at fault, too, for attempting to compete with the work they are meant to be housing: “Some of these buildings are so performative or sculptural that artists might feel late to the party, collaborators after the fact.”8
In discussing his book with me, Foster went further, suggesting that art and architecture are currently locked in attri- tional “space wars”: “Rosalind Krauss coined the phrase ‘the expanded field’ to suggest how sculpture had exceeded its own limits. But now it is simply becoming confined by ever-grander architectural frames. These buildings are not only massive icons but also produce spaces that are sublime and intense, which can also lead to an experience of intimidation.” This follows, of course, from 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke’s early definition of the sublime in esthetics as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible.”9 Foster continued: “So rather than the old virtue—you can call it modernist, you can call it Minimalist—whereby one is made reflexive about a body in space, there’s a way in which much architecture now wants to overwhelm you as a body in space, to use the space to overwhelm you.”
Citing Dia:Beacon, the Guggenheim and Tate Modern among examples of this menacing accrual of institutional real estate, alongside the corresponding gigantism in the work of James Turrell, Bill Viola, Olafur Eliasson and others, Foster notes “a strong tendency in both contem- porary art and architecture toward the creation of atmo- sphere and effect.” He believes that “this spatial sublime has become esthetic experience for many people,” given that nowadays we expect to be continually awestruck or hyperstimulated when watching blockbuster movies or visiting the latest mega-malls. In other words, architects are also feeding the spatial boom in art creation and appreciation as part of a wider “experience economy.”
I put some of these charges to Rem Koolhaas, cofounder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, who describes himself as the builder of around a dozen soccer fields’ worth of art spaces so far, among them Kunsthal Rotterdam and the Guggenheim Las Vegas and not including two schemes currently under way for London’s Design Museum and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. “In the past two decades museums have become larger and larger; they have expanded in exact proportion to the escalation of Wall Street,” Koolhaas said, gesturing to a neat graph that he shows at lectures to prove his point. “Museums are now reaching a scale at which they can be understood no longer as buildings but only as small cities.” Consequently, his competition models for a new, sprawling, avenued National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing resemble the organic urban zonings of a town planner rather than the usual form-over-function plaza-fillers favored by today’s other star architects.
Even though his ideas for NAMOC were rejected (Koolhaas is not shy about referring to the 34 other soccer fields’ worth of unrealized museum projects he has designed), he has come to believe that “architecture is currently terror- ized by the impetus to create landmarks.” He added that art, however, “also has to seduce, please and exhilarate,” and that he doesn’t think the current direction constitutes progress. He described a continued proliferation of Tate Modern Turbine Hall-style structures as “a chilling prospect,” naming a shipyard conversion for the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk, Poland, and the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam as two among a number of such venues in construction.
CLEARLY, ARTISTS, ARCHITECTS, museums and galleries are all complicit in fueling a “space race,” but what about us, the beholders? What role do we play as visual consumers hungry for the next jaw-dropping behemoth of art and architecture? The rise of “destination art” since the Land art movement of the 1960s and ’70s and the “Bilbao effect” on tourism, spurred by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim building in northern Spain, suggest that we are also partly to blame. Indeed, Guy Debord’s 1967 Situationist tract, The Society of the Spectacle, opens with the assertion: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived is now merely represented in the distance.”10 The only surefire way to create a noticeable cultural offering in our age of chronic attention deficiency still seems to be to build it bigger than the last.
While the notion of erecting ever-larger totems of art seems anachronous during a recession (even in the Far East, where the relatively cheap labor market in China made it possible for Ai Weiwei to manufacture 100 million porce- lain sunflower seeds for a huge Turbine Hall installation), the mere existence of such boastful projects means they will attract column inches and, therefore, visitors. Nothing courts attention like grandiose descriptors such as: the biggest- ever exhibition of so-and-so, the most pieces by such-and- such and the largest-ever steel thingamajig. Yet conversely, any glimpse of sculptural or architectural bravado in these straitened times is just as likely to invite public criticism as it is appreciation—indeed, Anish Kapoor’s tower for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, has already been nicknamed in the press as the “Mangled Helter Skelter,” the “Eyeful Tower” and the “Hubble Bubble.”
Before Kapoor’s commission, aptly named Leviathan, for the Grand Palais’s “Monumenta” series opened last year, I asked him why he insisted on working in such large scale. (“Monu- menta” works are conceived for the building’s nave—an almost 150,000-square-foot space, with nearly 150-foot-high ceilings.) “These major projects are risky,” he said, “but also really interest- ing, as one doesn’t know what’s going to happen. At some levels scale has a bad name in art, but as one of the problems of sculpture it becomes an integral issue in dealing with space.”11
Another of the sculptors associated with such grand projets (and a fellow alumnus of the “Monumenta” series), Richard Serra, was more bullish about his ability to counteract any negative space asso- ciations: “People call my works monumental but I was never inter- ested in making Land Art, as most of it was shot from the air and so was essentially graphic. If I deal with landscape at all, it’s in elevation and bodily movement.”12 In other words he, like Kapoor, sees such spaces as challenges to be mastered. He believes that ultimately the artists themselves will solve the problems of art’s aggrandizement and of spectacular architecture. In a quote at the end of Foster’s book, Serra explains that “art has always found ways to intervene, to critique architecture, to transform and transgress space. Artists will continue to do that. They understand the contradictions.”13
Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, also had a response to the Turbine Hall effect on the future of art: “I definitely have problems with size, but I’m interested in scale. Artists and architects are starting to think about the differences and to come to terms with scale.” There’s an obvious distinction between staging a spectacular performance in the Turbine Hall, as envisaged by a choreographer such as Michael Clark or an artist such as Tino Sehgal, and simply trying to fill the space, and thus the world, with more objects. Koolhaas pointed to a more sinister endgame emerging from the spread of such giant art containers: “More and more former industrial spaces are being converted into museums, which need larger and larger art,” he said in a lecture last fall at the Barbican, London, gesturing to a slide that made a visual connection between Kapoor’s Leviathan and—in the manner of a world expo of aviation—an airborne zeppelin inhabiting the same space at the Grand Palais a century ago. “I have come to the conclusion that only apocalyptic art is capable of exhibiting enough power and strength to take over these reverberation chambers.”
The Apocalypse. It calls to mind Hollywood disaster flicks, and that such an over-the-top esthetic might be the one best suited to today’s preferred venue style perhaps underscores an increasing accep- tance of art as entertainment. A blatant refusal just might be the only solution to all this overproduction. One such rejection is offered by the controversial political artist Santiago Sierra, whose ongoing public art project “NO, Global Tour” has a more impressive international itinerary than Hirst’s spots (having visited close to some 40 towns and cities so far) and is becoming one of the world’s most viewed contemporary artworks. Towing two giant black letters—N and O, in plain Arial font, together weighing about half a ton—from place to place amounts to “a multicontextual, universal symbol that looks good everywhere,” says Sierra, with not a little irony.14 His negation urges us to speak up when art does not fulfill a social function. As such, it serves as an act of protest against the tyranny of size, spectacle and reach. It shouldn’t be the size of your work, or how big a name you are, but what you’re saying that ultimately counts.