I’VE GOT A BLANK SPACE, BABY
“Don’t say I didn’t/say I didn’t warn ya...”
Do Ho Suh, Home within Home within Home within Home within Home, 2013
We’ll start with four walls and a floor. That sounds right.
At its foundation, museological architecture works backwards from emptiness, operating first and foremost as a chamber for the presentation of objects. The experience of institutional space is defined by the way the human body is ushered through it, constrained and directed by explicitly exterior forms of curation. Back in 1979, American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote that the terms “space” and “place” exist along a spectrum. To Tuan, “space” implied an undifferentiated abstraction that could become a “place” through familiarity, through purpose. “Place”, on the other hand, comprised a “pause” in the flow inherent to “space”, a caesura marking the shift from locale into a “special kind of object”. “Body implicates space”, Tuan declared. “Depth and distance are a function of the human sense of adequacy”.
In other words, things are made special by the rooms that house them. Rooms are made special by the things they keep. If space is rhetorical, place is felt, mnemonic, a ghostly grammatology of home.
Back in 2019, I woke up on an air mattress in Sunset Park with a hangover so hot my hands went numb. I grumbled while Ana fried eggs in her kitchenette, occasionally refilling the glass of iced coffee she had placed on the hardwood next to my pounding skull. Our friendship was founded on mornings like this, codas to long nights filled with ugly laughs and ungainly bar tabs. Eventually, we both crawled into her bed, groggy and egg-stuffed, and she projected Playtime, a 60’s film by French New Wave director and former mime Jacques Tati, on a blank swathe of white wall opposite her headboard. My eyes could barely open, but I watched with rapt attention.
A still from Playtime, 1967
The movie follows the physical misadventures of Mr. Hulot, a hapless cypher loosely based on Charlie Chaplin’s iconic “Charlot”, or “Tramp” in English. Hulot, outfitted with a trenchoat and pipe, never finds himself at the center of any coherent plot, but instead moves clumsily through a “cascade of incidents' ', in Roger Ebert’s parlance. He slips and slides on a generic showroom floor, he shatters a glass door at a swinging nightclub, he loses his way in a maze of cold grey cubicles. Filmed in crisp, angular monochrome, Playtime is considered a comic masterpiece by most metrics, and not for lack of trying; it was the most expensive film project in French history at the time of its release. Tati filmed it in “Tativille”, an enormous set outside Paris that reproduced an airline terminal, city streets, high rises, and a traffic circle among other anonymized landmarks. Hulot’s serendipitous blunders through modernity feel as poignant as they are pointless, composing a gentle, winking treatise on contemporary alienation. To a viewer in 2019, it’s a film about the presumed spatial benevolence of white men—Hulot strides into each new situation seamlessly, never answering for his trail of small destructions. He’s forgiven, forgotten, and onto the next.
To a viewer in 2022, though, it’s a film about airborne droplets, or Kafka, or a harbinger of technological apocalypse to come. In 2022, Playtime is a warning.
Constant Nieuwenhuys, Collage of Sector Models, 1969
I went to MoMA last week, masked, of course, and was surprised to find the movie playing on loop as part of the museum’s permanent collection. It lives on a mounted monitor next to a Constant Nieuwenhuys painting from 1969, a visual plea for “unitary urbanism”, the belief that art should never be “divorced” from its environment. (Nieuwenhuys would hate this curation. So would Tati).
When the two minute excerpt from Playtime ends, the screen goes black for thirty seconds. I saw my reflection, dim and cold, amid a swarm of strangers. It wasn’t funny.
Playtime in situ at MoMA
Still from Playtime
Ana moved back to Wisconsin before the pandemic hit. She was getting into fights with her roommate over shared space, exhausted by the cramped, costly quarters that typify New York living. “I feel like I have nowhere to put me, here”, she grunted as we lifted boxes into her Uhaul.
“It’s time to get out”.
Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
I grew up in a big, old house, surrounded by oil portraits of dead relatives whose eyes followed me as I walked. There were chairs I couldn’t use, dolls I wasn’t permitted to touch—I came about my love for museums honestly, it seems. As a kid, visits were a family affair. I liked the withering things my mother would say as she examined each painting and waited patiently for our lunch reservation (“Oh my, this person looks like they’re having a dreadful time”). I liked that my dad, the smartest man I’ve ever met, asked my opinion on the shows we’d visit over scallops at Bravo, the fancy restaurant on the second floor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. My sibling, two years younger but many leagues cooler than I, finally felt like my equal in hallways this huge.
Because of my white cisness, because of my dad’s finance job, because of my straight teeth and new shoes and after-school art classes, I associated the institutional white cube with a quiet, gorgeous, safety, although I didn’t know that then. I did know that the museum was better than school, where the boys called me names and the girls kept their distance. I hadn’t been woefully underpaid at a nonprofit art job, yet, or watched the construction of a new wing displace generations of locals, or rubbed a friend’s back after their attempts at an art handler union were dashed for the third time. I hadn’t put together that the artifacts lining the hallway towards the John Singer Sargent collection were smuggled from Nigeria in the 1880s via briefcase, either plucked from the ground with the help of a rifle or purchased for nothing from scalpers just trying to feed their families.
I thought the museum was a blank space. I was wrong.
Musei Wormiani, 1655, Ole Worm’s collection
The history of the museum is inextricable from death. The word itself stems from the ancient Greek mouseion, or “seat of the Muses”, a site designated for lonely contemplation. Throughout 16th century Europe, “museum” was used to describe cabinets of curiosities, or wunderkammer, a mode of private collection display that combined emergent humanism with the cruel siren song of colonial violence—taxidermied chimeras regularly lived alongside stolen fossils, pilfered plants, and “exotic” human remains, some fake, some genuine. Wunderkammer initiated common folk to the worldly power of the rich, a cacophonous reminder of all they could not hope to have.
Levinus Vincent, 1706, “wonder Theater of Nature”
As the late eighteenth century rolled around, cabinets of curiosity phased out, replaced by privately-funded educational institutions. Scientific philosopher Francis Bacon famously dismissed wunderkammer as “frivolous impostures for pleasure and strangeness”, praising the “modern” museum for “regrouping the random and the strange into recognizable categories that are systematic, discrete, and exemplary”. Taxonomy was next to Godliness, it seemed, and served to sharpen its messy predecessor’s imperialist program. The rise of natural history museums ran tandem with “Western” investment in racial purity—the second International Eugenics Conference was held at the American Natural History Museum in New York in 1915. At the Field Museum in Chicago, a 1930 exhibition titled “The Races of Man '' presented a primer for “racial progress”. To this day, up to 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s “material legacy” lies outside the continent due to centuries of plunder, according to a 2019 report by Sengalese economist Felwine Sarr. The metonymic art object, ennobled by its institutional context, became its own value semiotic; inclusion signified its relevance to the business of empire.
Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA
In 1990, art historian Rosalind Krauss published “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum”, a polemic against the “hyperreality” of contemporary museological architecture. Her primary gripe was with Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, but her argument could also apply to Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, or Dia Beacon in upstate New York. While she never used the word “gentrification”, Krauss objected to the self-consciously industrial environs of big-ticket art installations, which she believed pushed viewers towards “a euphoria of space first, and art second”. The juxtaposition of form and content betrayed, in her view, an increased artistic proximity to big business, a phenomenon art theorist Claire Bishop would term “starchitecture” in 2009.
In Bishop’s landmark essay, “Radical Museology'', she offers a 21st century curatorial solution to Krauss’s spectactorship crisis in the form of “dialectical contemporaneity”. This approach eschews audience thirst for all things new and privatized by resisting genre categorization, preferring to celebrate “disjunctive temporality”, a non-presentist praxis that groups art objects based on experiential anachronicity.
You know, like a wunderkammer.
Savages and Squatters, an installation by Meg Evans, a white woman married into an aboriginal family, paired with indigneous prints at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, 2018
Temple of Dendur, MET Museum
“So, you’re kind of hard to pin down, huh?” the bartender chuckles coarsely. I know he’s trying to sound more casual than he feels, but his body language belies something squishy and uncool. He can’t look at me. I try to feel terrible, but I feel nothing, or more accurately, I feel too many other things to care about this. He’s a bartender, for fuck’s sake, flirtatious by vocation; I had assumed we’d be more evenly matched in this game. I had also assumed I’d get regular access to coke, or molly, or something. Instead, I got an achingly sincere Stephen King enthusiast with a penchant for cargo shorts and AC/DC, a sweet local kid whose guilelessness makes me feel jaded. He thinks I ghosted him, when in fact, I did something worse—I forgot he existed for two weeks. I used to thrive in the role of heartbreaker, but post-lockdown, the casting feels increasingly hack. This is mean. I’m being mean.
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that…I’m busy and bad at being busy. Easily distracted. But, I’m here now!” I purr with a grin. He smiles back. We talk about something else over cocktails in a dark bar I picked near his apartment.
I like him. I like being in a room with him. I like that when we’re together, we’re not just bobbing bodies in the wake of international biocatastrophe. When we’re together, I’m a pretty girl who isn’t scared all the time. I hope he’s acting, too.
He asks me what I’m doing in grad school, and I talk about my art writing practice, which sounds much more impressive than it actually is. “You know”, he responds, “my dad is a stonemason, one of those old school blue collar union guys, and he actually built part of the MET”.
“No way!” I chirp. “That’s so cool! Which part?”
He leans in, beaming. “The Egyptian wing, where the Temple of Dendur is. He ran the whole install back in the day.”
He explains that his dad is the son of Polish immigrants, born and raised in Queens, a borough he seldom leaves except for work. Union benefits are unbeatable, but the carving life is hard—frank heat, heavy rocks. His pension was good, though, and he gave his kids a nice childhood; a cute house in Long Island City that, thanks to gentrification, he could now sell for upwards of a million dollars. Dad got in on the tail end of the American dream. His children aren’t so lucky. The bartender has no health insurance and was forced to drop out of the school I currently attend when his mom got sick. He would have studied creative writing, like me.
The MET’s “Egyptian wing” isn’t called that. The bartender’s dad built the Sackler Wing, the result of tax-deductable philanthropic donations by another son of Polish immigrants, born and raised in Brooklyn, a borough he escaped the moment he got into med school.
Arthur Sackler skipped out on the family grocery business for psychiatry, eventually earning enough to buy a small pharmaceutical company, Purdue-Frederick, with the help of his two brothers. Arthur single-handedly revolutionized the concept of medical advertising by marketing Valium, a benzodiazepine developed for seizures, directly to physicians, forever disrupting regulated models of prescription in the States and yoking millions of housewives into hazy physiological dependence in the process. This innovation made the Sacklers mega-rich, and Arthur hit his stride as a high-rolling collector and international patron of the arts—cultural heritage institutions all over the world bear his name on their arches. Before his death in 1987, Arthur had signed off on the development of a new slow-release narcotic, tentatively titled Oxycontin.
The rest of the story has been covered by countless news outlets over the last decade, although the effects of that reportage feel disappointingly minimal. America’s opioid crisis emerged from a swampy constellation of factors, of course—our collective fetish for free markets, the criminalization of addicts, unchecked corporate outsourcing, economic obsolescence, racism, pain—but Purdue Pharma’s flagrant disregard for ethics at its financial zenith led to the deaths of at least 600,000 people, not counting those who switched to heroin after the pills dried up. On September 1st of last year, courts approved a deal for the dissolution of Purdue Pharma, citing its aggressive, illegal sales tactics and wanton greed in the face of sweeping human tragedy. The Sacklers settled for $4.5 billion, a fraction of their earnings. Purdue’s bankruptcy process has granted the Sacklers total immunity from future lawsuits. Nothing will change.
The MET has made the decision not to change the name of Dendur’s location, although it was forced to publically decry their mutual arrangement.
The bartender makes a quip about how the Temple of Dendur was stolen from Egypt, which isn’t technically true. It was a gift from the Egyptian government to Jackie Kennedy, of all people, as a token of appreciation for America’s help in the relocation of Egyptian relics during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The temple itself was commissioned in 15 BC by a Roman colonizer, governor Petronius, whose major claim to fame was plundering modern-day Sudan and selling as many slaves as possible back to the capital for gladitorial entertainment.
Examination of a Mummy, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, 1891
In the bartender’s defense, though, “stolen” is a sticky word. In 1967, the year Dendur was bequeathed, the year Hulot got lost and lost and lost again, Gamal Abdel Nasser declared a state of emergency in light of Israel’s pre-emptive arstrikes along the Straits of Tiran. While the United States pledged to mind its business during the Arab-Israeli war, Dendur served a diplomatic purpose, securing the receipt of American weapons by Jordanian infantry, despite Egypt’s insistence that Lyndon B. Johnson supply a steady stream of guns to Israel alone (America loves an arms deal—we don’t discriminate).
What’s another artifact when hundreds of thousands have been destroyed by white people over the last five thousand years, right?
Who does it hurt to uproot a ruined place?
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare
I hold the bartender close like a toe-stubbed toddler and count down to a moment that might be appropriate to leave. He clings to me with a pathetic charge of want that lets me know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I’ve been bad. He likes me, and I forced him to—I twinkled correctly, I hit every mark, I made him moan like a pretty girl. I rarely text back. He could at least pretend he’s less available. That’s certainly what I do.
“You like me, right?” he croaks nervously. I place two fingers under his chin and tilt his face upward from my chest.
“Of course I like you, honey. We should do something during the day sometime” I lie. I realize that I have no earthly idea what this boy’s last name is.
“We should go to the MET”. He burrows his face into my neck and exhales hot air. His shudders. I ignore it.
“For sure. Saturday?”
I can feel a spiky smile form against my skin. “Saturday”, he whispers.