Immersive Museums

Art museums increasingly rely on the power of experiential works to attract the public's attention. We visit The New Museum in New York, which has been showing immersive installations and performances like “Menesunda”, by Argentinian artist Marta Minujin. The episode also explores Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh with works by Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, among others.

AIRED: April 01, 2020 | 0:23:34




Gioni: To be a contemporary art museum today

doesn't simply mean that you show contemporary work,

but you have to think that the way in which

you stage exhibitions is itself contemporary.

Haldeman: There is a much greater interest

in installation arts,

specifically because it is so immersive.

The beauty right now in installation art,

as well as immersive experiences in general,

is it forces one to look up,

and it forces one to have that multidimensional experience.

Risk-taking and experimenting -- often those things come together

to create a larger atmosphere or, like, environment,

create something that is slightly more immersive.

The exhibition is an event

rather as a series of objects on the wall.

Haldeman: For many artists, it goes well beyond

just what they are physically creating at the space,

and it goes into being truly immersive and thinking about,

"How can we activate all five senses

of our visitors' experience?"

which is really the immersive beauty of installation art.


The Mattress Factory is a museum.

It was founded in 1977 on Pittsburgh's North Side,

and today it is a museum of contemporary installation art.

Installation art -- I like to think of it

as art you can get into.

Artists come to the museum and install art exhibitions

that take up an entire room.

That's the best and easiest way to describe it.

So we've have artists who have done everything

to cut holes in the floor, to plant trees in a room,

to completely cover a room with felt.

Anything that is truly immersive and is art you can get into,

taking up the entire space and fully immersing the visitors

and the audience in the room and in the exhibition itself.


Our permanent collections includes work by Greer Lankton,

James Turrell, Sarah Oppenheimer, Yayoi Kusama,

a number of artists who,

when they came to The Mattress Factory,

weren't nearly as well known now.

But that's always one thing that The Mattress Factory

and our founders really had a knack for,

was sort of discovering artists

and giving them the flexibility to create

and do things that they had never done anywhere else.


Particularly for a lot of people in Pittsburgh,

as well as international and national visitors,

The Mattress Factory is the first time

that many of them experience James Turrell.


The works that we have, I think, are just truly thought-provoking

in the way that all of James Turrell's works are.

I've seen people walk away, jaws dropped in shock,

literally shrieking because it's not what you expect.

And that is the real beauty of installation art.

He's made you see how you see.


The Mattress Factory's goal is not to say no to its artists.

If an artist tries something, and it doesn't work

or if it fails, we think we've done our job.

I know that they might not always feel that way,

but again, what is so important for us

is to give them the space to create

and to remain a sanctuary for artistic expression.

And so I always like to think

that we're focused on process and inquiry

as opposed to outcome and any final result.


Milner: The founders especially, who invited me to do this show,

like, a year and a half ago, use language like,

"Make the exhibition that you've always wanted to make

and that you couldn't."

Or, like, "Make something

that you wouldn't be able to make anywhere else."

That's sort of the, like, philosophy at the core,

I think, of this place, and that's why you have artists,

like, putting trees through the building and things,

which you might not see at every space.

You know, I've shown at places that are much more, like,

controlled in the way

they protect the building itself,

and this space seems to prioritize the artist

and the artwork.

This is just a building.

Use it however it makes sense.

Haldeman: Something that I thought was really interesting

and great with Adam was,

he was really attracted by the fact that the museum

does physically alter its space to engage with the artists

and allow full freedom of expression.

Milner: I think any art exhibition is a kind of installation,

even if you're just looking at, like, a row of paintings.

They're lit in a way.

The wall is painted a certain color, usually white,

but all of that is still an installation.

But at this museum, you can't just, like,

hang a drawing on the wall.

I feel like you have to kind of create something

a little more enterable.

I don't think maybe I would have gone floor-to-ceiling,

wall-to-wall and worked around the fire alarm

and exit sign in the way that I did

if I was at a different museum,

But at this museum, it felt important to, like,

kind of make a large gesture

and to acknowledge the space that I'm in.


Haldeman: So we have a really exciting piece at the museum

right now that's titled "The Other Apartment."

And this exhibition is a collaboration

between Pittsburgh-based artist Jon Rubin,

who is a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University,

and an Iranian-based artist, Sohrab Kashani.

And Sohrab and Jon came up with the idea

of creating a collaborative space

that doesn't truly exist in either Iran

or at The Mattress Factory,

but the idea of duplicating, down to every single object,

the entirety of Sohrab's apartment in Tehran.

Sohrab obviously wasn't able to travel to the U.S.

because of the travel and visa ban,

but over the course of a number of months,

through numerous pictures, [laughs] video calls,

we were able to replicate, down to Sohrab's toothbrush,

the posters on his wall, the brick outside his house,

the radiator near his building, his carpet, his bedspread,

his posters, everything.

And our hope is that over the course of the exhibition show,

it will operate as a space that truly coexists between both here

and then across the world.

It's absolutely amazing when you walk through,

and you forget that you are not in an actual residence,

which I think is the biggest testament

to how well done it is. Man: Yeah.



So Patrick Robideau is a New York-based artist

who installed at the museum, and his show opened two days ago

as part of our factory install 2019.

His piece is fascinating,

and it centers around a 14-foot facade of a building

that he found in a field.

And so this is a great example

of what The Mattress Factory does best.

When we met with him a number of months ago,

he showed us pictures of this massive, old

Gothic exterior and said,

"I want to come bring this to The Mattress Factory

and present it the exact way

I first saw it laying in this field."

So we said, "Okay." [ Laughs ]


When he was a child, his grandparents had a house

that he used to crawl under the tunnels,

would crawl under the porch.

And for him, that was play and how he enjoyed his childhood

and connected with that home,

and he has many wonderful memories there,

so he wanted to create that same idea.

So if you go to the exhibition, you'll see there's this facade,

but it's built on top of a series of tunnels.

And talking about what the museum does, it was --

we had a construction crew come in

and build tunnels and hardware and a hallway,

all with the idea that Patrick wanted to replicate this idea

and this wonderful experience that he had as a child

of exploration and discovery.

I was so surprised and pleased, and I know Patrick was, too,

to see people of all ages

getting down on their hands and knees

and crawling through and discovering.

And there was this -- despite it being darker,

there really was this sense of play

and wonder and exploration and curiosity,

which are all emotions that we love to think

that we evoke at The Mattress Factory,

and I think Patrick's piece has done a really great job of that.


The social media rise is an interesting

interaction with installation art.

And when we look at the museum's attendance,

I can't deny that I think social media has a large role in that.

And, in fact, our biggest demographic,

which is fantastic for an arts-and-culture organization,

but our biggest demographic is that 18- to 25-year-olds.

So we frequently in the museum talk about,

"Well, how do we recognize that that's a draw for people,

but making sure that they leave hopefully with an understanding

of what installation art is and having that background

and having those transformative experiences?"

I think it's just absolutely lovely

when I see people in their early 20s coming in

and still treating the art with such respect.

And I think even if they come with the hope to get a selfie

that oftentimes just overhearing conversations or comments

or seeing them looking at the work with such reverence,

that we've really done our job.


If someone comes out absolutely hating something, great,

because at least they experienced something

and felt it and had a reaction, as opposed to just sort of

the more traditional two-dimensional art on the walls

that's more easy to walk past.

You literally have to get on your hands and knees

and crawl through it.

It forces engagement, and through that process,

forces, I think, thought and reflection.


Milner: The museum is special in the way that it's --

it lets artists take risks, and then it gives those projects

space to really, like, live for a while.

That's something that we hear time and time again

from our visitors who are coming --

that this really is a place to experience art

but also experience your own interactions with art

in a way that I think still is unparalleled in the world.

So we're very proud of that,

and it's a great place to come visit.



Moore: The Chinati Foundation is a contemporary art museum

founded by the artist Donald Judd.

This had been a former military base,

Fort D.A. Russell.

We have 34 buildings and 340 acres,

so we're not your typical museum in that respect.

But Judd saw the potential

in these abandoned military buildings

to create an institution that was different,

where artists could install work on a large scale

permanently on their terms, and then that way,

it would set an ideal experience of their work.


I'm so proud of the fact that we continue to support artists

in this way and on this scale,

certainly with the Robert Irwin project

that we announced a few weeks after I arrived as director.

This is a project that was 15 years in discussion.

The invitation was extended to Bob in 1999,

and for many reasons,

the conversation developed over time.

It's a building that he's designed.

The architecture of it, the interior installation,

the courtyard, the plantings,

every aspect of that building and site is one artwork for Bob.

The whole thing is the art.

The perceptual experience of it is the art.


You come, and you separate yourself

from kind of the daily concerns of life and other places

and open yourself up to an immersive experience

of light and art on a vast scale.

To see an artwork like this

come into being for an artist like Bob,

who so many of his extraordinary installations

have been temporary installations,

and the work doesn't exist anymore --

when it gets de-installed and dismantled, it's gone --

and so for so many people to know about Bob's work

and to have read about it

or learned about it to have a place

where they can always come and experience his work,

and I'm so proud that Chinati is bringing that into the world

to stand the test of time,

as so many of the other installations here do.




Gioni: "La Menesunda" was an installation

that was originally created in 1965 in Buenos Aires

by artists Marta Minujín and Rubén Santantonín.

It is one of the first total environments

in the history of contemporary art.

That's the reason why we decided to show it at the New Museum.

Today it is one of the first occasions in which

artist creates an installation which surrounds the viewer

and requires its active participation.


The experience of art as a transportative,

or transporting, experience

where the viewer enters the space,

and the space is completely alienated

or separated from everyday life,

but that separation is actually achieved

by almost amplifying the experience of everyday life,

so through more media or through more projections and sounds.

What makes "La Menesunda" particularly relevant today

is that not only it's a participatory environment,

an interactive environment,

but what is particularly interesting

and what makes it even more radical

when compared to other works in the 1960s

is that it also imagines a new connection

between the body, the self, and media.

Very early on in the '60s,

they understood that media were gonna transform

our perception of our own bodies, of our identities,

and they imagined a form of art that not only was more tactile,

but was at the same time

immediately physical and immaterial.

You know, what I think is very interesting

seeing today people going through it,

is that they have a physical experience,

but this physical experience is mediated through cellphones,

which certainly wasn't what was happening in the '60s

and I think was ultimately not what Marta was thinking about.

So I think what makes this piece both radical, utopian,

and at the same time dystopian and tragic, in a sense,

is that it's a piece that anticipates

the condition of digital life today,

which is of hyperconnectivity and solitude.


"La Menesunda," the title of which means

"a confusing situation," is a sort of labyrinth.

It's composed of 11 rooms.

Sort of the way in which the artist

described it was 11 situations.

You enter a bedroom in which suddenly you're confronted

with people in a very bourgeois

or middle-to-lower-class environment

typical of that time.



When the piece was shown in the '60s,

interesting enough to have a woman and a man in bed

in public space

was considered a little risque or a little erotic in a sense.

And so that was another example of an everyday situation

that, by being transported inside a museum,

took on completely different

and also confrontational elements.

The following room is this room in which suddenly,

you are confronted with a kind of parody of a makeup shop

with a makeup artist in very 1960s outfit.

Hi! Come on in.

Okay, so have a seat.

I'm gonna give you a facial spritzer today.


So I'm gonna spray you four times.

I'm gonna just, like, give you four all over.

Okay? Ready?

One, two, three, four.

Marta said she made that piece, which resembles

actually the inside of the head of a woman,

because she felt that housewives --

that's how she describes it in the '60s --

in Argentina were only preoccupied with beauty

and with beauty products.

So she wanted the public to be inside the head

of the average Argentinean woman.

You know, obviously the way she depicted was a clear attack

against certain stereotypes of femininity

that she felt allergic [laughs] to,

and so "La Menesunda," in that case,

is another example of determent of everyday objects

and everyday situations that are almost accelerated to a point

they become unbearable.

Now, the act of going to a makeup shop,

which, you know, maybe was both a novelty and a pastime

and a moment of care of the self --

when it's charged and, you know, transformed

almost into a carnivalesque version of itself,

it becomes unbearable.

There is too much pink, too much sponges,

too much niceness in there.

I grew up in a moment in the '90s

in which artists themselves

started thinking less about exhibitions

as individual objects and more as experiences.

I have often used the expression "total environments"

or "total installations"

and the idea of being inside an environment,

not having windows, being in a constructed situation,

that it's, again, both alienating and exciting.

You encounter everyday situations

and everyday materials,

but they are transformed to a point of estrangement,

surprise, comedy, parody, or anxiety.

I think that the even physical character of the New Museum,

its sort of boxy interior with no views on the outside,

lends itself -- and even the vertical circulation

lends itself to being inside a space

that feels sometimes like the brain of the artist,

lends itself to being somewhat enclosed in a fiction.


The reason also we wanted to have this piece

is that it anticipates

the kind of corrupted version of the museum,

which are all these fake pop-up museums

that have become commercial enterprises

everywhere in the world and which sort of appropriate

ideas of the avant-garde and dilute them

to make them completely user-friendly

and completely commercial.

I think that's probably the key and the delicate balance

when it comes to this type of works.

You know, many of these experiments

come with great pleasures,

and, you know, pleasure, in a sense,

for a long time was considered to be the enemy of high art.

You know, the avant-garde was never meant to be pleasurable,

or so we were taught.

And so now there is also a level of suspicion

for anything that is too pleasurable

because it means that it's more manipulative,

more complicit, rather than radical and critical.

And I think that's also the discussion around a piece

like "La Menesunda."

You know, are we just catering a type of entertainment

that is backwards and cynical,

or is the piece still capable of creating situations

of estrangement, of critical?

I think that the question is really how,

not only as an artist but as an exhibition-maker,

you find yourself navigating also the distance

between entertainment and manipulation,

between spectacle and critical thinking.

Under the disguise of participation,

a lot of very infantalizing behaviors are proposed.

I don't know if we succeed at that,

but that's certainly a question we always have to ask ourselves.


Haldeman: I always say that for those who aren't familiar

with contemporary art,

installation art actually is a great place to start.

Gioni: I think that being a museum of contemporary art today,

it means you have to rethink the way

in which exhibitions are staged.

And I started thinking that a show

is less a series of discrete objects on the wall

and more dispositive or as a choreography.

It's not a painting that you stand in front of.

It's a room where you're hearing things,

smelling things, feeling things,

seeing things that really engage all of your senses

and create an experience.







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