Some exhibitions offer up didactics to orient visitors. This one has a mascot.
The first thing greeting visitors to Walker Art Center’s “Question the Wall Itself” — a sprawling group show, loosely themed around the idea of “décor” — is a parrot.
Well, two parrots, actually. The first is taxidermy: a stuffed bird, real but stiff, standing at deadpan attention beneath a bell jar. The second is taxonomy: a print of the same bird, matter-of-fact, as demonstrative as a dictionary drawing, hanging on the wall. Both are elements of the 1974 Marcel Broodthaers installation “Dites Partout Que Je L’ai Dit” (“Said everywhere that I said it”). And both are flat-out lying in their declaration “This is a parrot.” As if to underscore this point, Broodthaers’s voice crackles from a nearby speaker, reciting absurdist poetry.
Hence, the vibe of the show is set. You’re walking into a realm of obvious fakes, thrown voices and props; of stages and staging. It’s that old chestnut of art-world semiotics: Things are not what they seem. Ceci ce n’est pas une pipe, as René Magritte warned in his famous painting of a pipe.
As its name suggests, “Question the Wall Itself” is a show about paranoia. Curator Fionn Meade, the Walker’s new artistic director, characterizes the “rooms” on display as untrustworthy. They are, he says, “psychologically charged, politically animated, and gendered spaces.” There is a vague, jumbled insinuation that interior spaces are somehow up to something. Possibly even something nefarious. Even the piece next to the Broodthaers, a cursive neon sign spelling out the phrase “Thoughts unsaid, now forgotten,” is written backwards. You need a mirror to read it — which the exhibition is chock full of. Reflective glass is a dominant motif. Red rum, anyone?
But what evil can a room be up to? Because they’re intentionally designed, are they somehow inherently treacherous? Or are they metaphors for pigeonholes, literal boxes that human identity is forced into? Can ambience be politicized?
The show never figures it out. As in all conspiracy theories, the conceptual thread here unravels as soon as you pick at it. Viewers wanting to connect the dots will either weary quickly or work way too hard for something half-sketched.
Still, as conceptually strained as the show is, it’s also ripe with individual pleasures. “Question the Wall Itself” includes several stunning, large-scale installations, some assembled specifically for the Walker, and one of its surprising joys is the feel of walking around and through some jumbo-sized art. You realize how much you miss the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (closed for renovation until June), and how naked the museum feels without it.
Perhaps the most satisfying is “La lampe dans l’horloge,” a collaborative installation by Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian and the late Swiss interior/industrial designer Janette Laverriere, who died in 2011, at age 102. The structure is a library, deconstructed in both its physical sense — clear glass walls with minimal books — and its intent; instead of information, it houses shrines to Western cultural heroes.
One shrine, to Louise Michel, an important anarchist in the Paris Commune, is a varnished rosewood box, its metal lid shot up with bullets and hinged on machine-gun casings. Another, honoring Martin Luther King Jr., has a slender wooden flame with a brass rod as its stem, like a Southern hand fan. The title nods to Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and the physical components leverage the junk-drawer fun of Dadaist assemblage.
Laverriere’s library becomes a “study” — a double entendre, in that it’s both a place for books and a site of scrutiny and investigation. Broodthaers, an artist/poet with a fetish for wordplay, would be proud.
Turn a corner, and you come across the show’s other gem: a series of illusionistic walls, glowing in theater lights, positioned in a ceremonious arc like a Greek chorus. This is “Letters to the Reader,” a sort of fictional museum produced by the Lebanese artist Walid Raad. The walls, each painted a single vivid color, with a trompe l’oeil segment of wood flooring at the base, represent possible showrooms where the art has been pilfered. Glyph-like shapes have been X-Acto-knifed through each surface. The idea here is to jab at places like Abu Dhabi, where money buys theme-park facsimiles of major museums (Guggenheim, Louvre), and to caution against the commodification of so-called “Arab art.”
If Laverriere’s library is about a Western cultural canon already enshrined, Raad’s museum laments that a Middle Eastern canon is going ignored. The two installations share a nice dialogue together.
Commentary aside, Raad’s installation is soaring, meditative, spiritual. And that’s the thing: Components may have histories, politics, agendas. But together they conjure an atmosphere, a spirit that exists above any piece read as a text.
Rooms are about mood. Moods that are felt and inescapable. Any interior designer will tell you that.
Gregory J. Scott is a Twin Cities critic and arts writer.