The Museum That Doesnt Sleep


As the foremost practitioner of a type of de-materialized institutional critique, Michael Asher is known to call aesthetic spaces into question by manipulating predetermined elements found just behind (and sometimes including) their white walls. For the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Asher’s untitled, altered readymade is an extension of the museum’s public hours, keeping it open around the clock. 




By its invocation of sheer endurance, the marathon-style work recalls the artist and professor’s infamous “Post Studio” course at Cal Arts, which consists of intensive group crits that can last for eight hours or longer. If time were a more traditional art material like rubber or wax, it would be stretched just to the point before breaking in Asher’s hands.

The exact duration of the artist’s intervention was ultimately determined by museum administrators, who were prompted to calculate factors including available union staff, overhead costs, and the life of projection equipment. After a series of negotiations, access was increased to twenty-hour hours per day for the final three dates of the show, rather than the entire exhibition run, as initially proposed to the Biennial curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari. (The Whitney’s signage and website reflects the lowered timeframe of one week, which was temporarily under consideration as a more tenable option.) It’s a Catch-22 of complicit antagonism: Asher simultaneously resists and conforms to institutional limitations in order to underscore existing boundaries. He likewise explores the threshold of viewership by staging an event that is nearly impossible to experience in its entirety. 

At midnight on Wednesday, a sparse crowd roamed the galleries quietly. A contemplative tone was palpable until greater throngs of visitors entered at 12:30 a.m., when the “pay what you wish” entrance fee kicked in. The event has a modest and unceremonious quality. The fanfare of opening receptions was remarkably absent; nor was there any pronounced farewell send-off for the show, which concluded with this, the museum’s Bucksbaum Award-winning piece. Among four floors of artworks vying for the spotlight, Asher refrains from tactics that solicit attention. His contribution does not impose itself physically on the space or audience like more monumentally scaled works by Thomas Houseago, Piotr UklaÅ?ski, or Pae White, but its conceptual weight is an intangible force looming large.

Both severe and gentle in its de-aestheticization, the physicality of the work is reduced to descriptive placards displayed on each floor. Wall labels, which customarily accompany artworks like appendages, are here disoriented in their solitary state. Asher’s text-objects set their invisible, attendant artwork adrift—dislodging location and meaning not only from the work to institutional frame, but also past its doors to social life outside. Here, Asher synchronizes gallery-time with the museum’s immediate context in a site-specific nod to New York, the “city that never sleeps.”

The denial of form and withdrawal from visual pleasure intensifies the spectator’s awareness of their surroundings at the Whitney. This piece depends on other work in the exhibition as it encompasses them. The perceptual shifts that ensue are perhaps most striking in the room where R.H. Quaytman’s Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 series is installed. Several of these paintings reference the Marcel Breuer-designed window in the same space. This intimate relationship between artwork and architectural feature is heightened as the transparency of the window is transformed to resemble a black mirror at night, reflecting the site-referential images that point back to it, in an infinite loop of signification.

Michael Asher’s Biennial intervention disrupts the norms of exhibition display, demonstrative of a long-standing practice that re-codes conventions and pushes practicality. By uprooting that which appears fixed, the artist renders institutions as the social, mutable constructs that they are.