WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Oakland-based, socially-engaged artist Lexa Walsh creates experiences for her audiences, and that's exactly her current mission at Williams College on multiple fronts.
With her winter study program "Mapping The Museum," Walsh has worked with students to take over the Williams College Museum of Art for a night, in addition to creating two upcoming projects with her brother, painter Dan Walsh.
Walsh's winter study course focuses on institutional critique, an art practice that casts its gaze back on the place that houses it, and asks questions about the purpose of art and museums. That will be put into action for Walsh's "WCMA At Night" event on Thursday, Jan. 28, from 5 to 8, when Walsh's students take their projects to the museum.
"One of the students is going to take the public on three tours through the night with an out loud soundtrack that goes with the artwork and the architecture," Walsh said. "Another project is 35 prompts all over the museum about things you can do, so instead of a list of rules of what you can't, there were interviews with security guards and they developed a list of things you can do. There will be a prompt somewhere to say 'You can breastfeed here' and another place 'You can make out here.' 'You can break up here.' 'You can cry here.'"
These all speak. Walsh says, to visitors' own assumptions about behavior in museums, which creates timidity. Walsh hopes to undercut that emotional dynamic.
"A museum is a social space and should be, I adamantly believe, a social space and a space for many things to happen, not this quiet temple to revere the art," she said. "That is one of the things you can do, but there are many others."
The evening will also include an "art fatigue" room for people who need a break from all the art, and an audio art component with strategically placed speakers in the museum.
Walsh will follow this up with "Both Sides Now," her first collaboration ever with her brother, Dan.
"When we were first invited, we thought this is a crazy idea," she said. "It was a really weird idea, but we also get along very well. We're both part of a family of 15 children. He's the 10th and I'm the 15th. And we're the only two active artists in the family, so we bond and have bonded for years about that."
The challenge for the siblings was to find a format for them to work together. Walsh says what transpired could never have been conceived by either of them separately, making it the purest form of collaboration. The pair will bring in pieces from the WCMA collection to present with sculptural forms fashioned around them, with an intentional mix of high and low art gathered together in one gallery.
"We will be surrounded by portraits of all different stature and some that are damaged or covered up," Walsh said, "so we're putting things that aren't normally seen or things that haven't seen the light of day in a long time, really important popular ones mixed with things that shouldn't be seen, and they all have this equal place. They're all looking at us, the audience, looking at the art, so they're all staring us down."
Some of the presentation structures will be a sphere, a stepped cone, a cube, a ziggurat, and a cylinder, with a diorama feeling to the actual presentation of the artwork contained. Viewing the work in the sphere will only be possible through a crack in the structure, making each what Walsh refers to as a "magical viewing space."
Meanwhile, other shapes take on other qualities, as with the cylinder, which will appear as a temple.
"We're really taking liberties with the way a museum shows collections and how they are organized together, and even how they're interpreted together," said Walsh.
The siblings are also bring in a number of elements from the school, like chairs and drawing benches, to transform the space into a social one that people can actual use and feel comfortable in.
"This is a place where you can feel free and feel the collection being free from its normal constraints," Walsh said. "It's a risky project. We have the potential of embarrassing the art."
Walsh says they're not "supplying a lot of didactic texts about any individual works," which levels the playing field for the displayed objects. Instead, the pair will hang a collection of canvases that each has cross-stitched. Inspired by the stitch-samplers they found in the WCMA collection, these pieces will examine their own working relationship on the project, presenting quotes from art theorists that influence their work.
"What's interesting is that his quotes are really coming from modernism and are very simple and snappy statements, and mine are coming from contemporary theory that's related to social practice and are very wordy," said Walsh. "You can tell the difference just by the length of them."
Walsh's goal in all this is to redefine the experience of visiting a museum and interacting with art. It even tears down the fourth wall of gallery viewing by dispensing with official art commentary and even by making displays of their own art philosophies. The man behind the curtain becomes the art himself.
"The museum is the subject and the material," Walsh said.
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