The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) reopened its doors during the COVID epidemic on August 27, 2020. The entrance was taken over by a series of physical controls to guarantee the health of the few visitors that would be allowed in. Only a hundred guests were allowed each hour. In fact, the total capacity was capped at a quarter of the usual number. This experience—of being at the museum almost on our own—allowed for a different phenomenology of being there.
The museum became at the same time smaller and larger. Larger because one was able to inhabit the rooms in silence and solitude. The long corridors without people, the high ceilings: these restored a lost space for memory and reflection, freed up from the cognitive stimuli usually around us in mass museums. And yet, the museum was also smaller because the absence of people allowed a lighter movement through the building, without the friction and exhaustion of having to walk through a multitude.
One of the unexpected consequences of this feeling of being alone was how it rendered legible and transparent things that typically lay ignored in the background, like the signs that guarantee an organized circulation; the rooms that were closed to make sure there were no agglomerations; or the new empty spaces created by the removal of furniture to ensure social distancing.
Eight months later, in April 2021, MOMA itself decided to comment on these new circumstances for being in the museum itself. It placed Amanda Williams’s Embodied Sensations in the main atrium of the second floor, the one that welcomes visitors as they exit the stairs from the lobby. Embodied Sensations is a participatory artwork, featuring the furniture that was removed from around the museum to facilitate social distancing. “By bringing these items back into the Museum’s center,” explains the official museum catalog, “Williams points to the ways in which everyday objects that once seemed welcoming are now forbidden to touch—and imbued with a sense of risk.” The museum’s online survey on Embodied Sensations, meanwhile, asked visitors to reflect on the axis of care, power, access, and visibility.
What was made visible by this work of art, and why does it matter? The timely book by Fernando Domínguez Rubio—Still Life—answers this question, in an original and exhaustive way. Looking at the curatorial and conservation departments at MOMA (as well as its storage facilities) and combining approaches from material cultural studies, anthropology, and social studies of science and technology, Still Life presents what its author calls “an ecological vision” of modern art.
Domínguez Rubio’s ecological vision focuses on “the seams” of the museum: scrutinizing how art itself comes into being, how it is made legible, and how we come to know and experience it in the way we do. The book does so in an original way: by flipping the tension between the visible and invisible forms of aesthetic work through which art comes to be. This inversion of perspectives allows an unusual view, much like our opening walk in the quarantined museum. Both Domínguez Rubio’s book and the quarantined museum bring into focus elements hitherto hidden in plain sight, like the infrastructures of display that surround the artwork or the constant, but largely neglected, work of maintenance and repair that complements that of creation and invention.
Still Life manages to tackle all the queries about money, power, institutions, and expertise of those externalist approaches, but without sacrificing the emphasis on what—paraphrasing the Spaniard poet Juan Ramón Jiménez—one could call “getting the thing itself right.”
The book does so by inviting us to see art from a counterintuitive perspective: from that of the infrastructures that sustain it. This perspective allows us to observe the stratified character of how the art world operates and to learn, for example, that the movement of artworks, from storage to exhibition, and from MOMA to other museums, is made possible and constrained by seemingly negligible things like insurance forms, or the ability of an institution to meet hygrothermal and lighting standards. It is then that we understand how mundane questions, like “Does the museum conform to the air-quality standard the work needs?” or “Do they have storage spaces for the in-between moments that guarantee the proper standardized care for the canvas?,” shape the globalization of art and the inequities built into it.
The existential threat we pose to the work of art becomes an entry point to see the museum under a different light.
Still Life does not use the theatrical metaphor of backstage, which works only by substituting the focus on what is staged for the “behind the scenes.” Instead, the book shows the always-interconnected character of what Domínguez Rubio calls the “neographic” and the “mimeographic.” While the “neographic” is concerned with the work of creation and invention, the “mimeographic” is concerned with labor: the work of maintaining things the same, over and over again.
The book’s decision to find connections between creation and labor isn’t a capricious choice. On the contrary, the kind of inquiry Still Life undertakes is based on a materially informed view of how the work of art is constituted in the museum, in a tragic and paradoxical way. Because while the museum is designed to allow us to see and to find pleasure, solace, and reflection in the artwork, it does so always at the cost of pushing the artwork toward its own death. The light, heat, and humidity of the exhibition room damage the material composition of the artwork, a damage that builds over time to slowly, but surely, undo the artwork from within.
The existential threat we pose to the work of art becomes an entry point to see the museum under a different light. From Domínguez Rubio’s perspective, perhaps, the museum is a (tragic?) machine built to exhibit artworks and maintain their stability while preventing their inevitable death.
The tragedy we see in Still Life is not that of the confrontation between front and back, experts and laypeople, or market forces and aesthetic purity, as we have read in other monographs. Rather, what we get to witness is the drama of art itself unfolding. There is an endless tug-of-war: on the one side, an inexorable process of decay; on the other side, the human attempt to defer this tragedy by constructing all kinds of technologies, discourses, and infrastructures, trying to impede the impossible.
The museum’s goal, then, is to still life itself and prevent the world as we know it from disappearing before our eyes. As such, the tragedy of the museum is not a secondary attribute. Rather, it is something constitutive of it—and art, and life—as we know it.
Consequently, Domínguez Rubio shows how to observe the museum, as a unique modern apparatus dedicated to maintain art qua art. At the same time, he exposes how much it takes to keep it as such.
Domínguez Rubio calls these practices Sisyphean work, building on the myth of Sisyphus, who pushed a boulder uphill daily, only to realize there is no culmination and the same labor was waiting for him the morning after. In the museum, this endless mimeographic work results in a vast infrastructure that needs to be in place so that art can be contained and remain the same.
Still Life shows how this work is as important as the one of production. But the book also reveals how creative such mimeographic labor really is. And it does so by showcasing all the techniques and devices that go into maintaining and repairing sameness, from the work of lighting and storage to transportation and conservation.
Thinking of MOMA this way means expanding the scope of the space from the exhibition rooms on West 53rd Street in Manhattan to the different conservation laboratories and workshops, the curation offices, the storage spaces in Queens. It means looking even further: into the world of legal and physical standards for artworks that make possible their movement—in and out of the display, or into other museums.
The museum’s goal, then, is to still life itself and prevent the world as we know it from disappearing before our eyes.
Perhaps my description so far seems to be one in which the practices are presented almost as an addendum to the work of art, as an extra kind of support. If so, consider an example of infrastructural work that will allow us to see how much these technologies have become constitutive of the artwork itself: the white cube room.
We now take the white cube room for granted. But Still Life shows that the white cube is actually a particular high-modernist technology, which grew out of the fantasy of a one-on-one encounter—without any obstacles—with the work of art.
The white cube has become the de facto way in which we see art, as a functional, modular, transposable, standardizable, and replicable “void”—as Domínguez Rubio calls it—to render art visible. The white room has an important consequence: it has become internal to how art is not just presented but also imagined, planned, executed, and experienced as such.
To see the centrality of the white cube, one only has to walk a bit farther uptown, to see the Frick Collection at the Breuer Building, where the Whitney and then the Met used to exhibit. The white cubes at the Breuer allow for a different intensity from when the Frick Collection was exhibited at Henry Clay Frick’s Indiana limestone mansion, where artworks were surrounded by wallpaper, next to heavy curtains, or displayed in a somewhat lumped proximity to others. Liberated from the “clutter” of décor, the artworks at the Breuer are no longer one among many. They can thus recover the capacity to make an encounter with them an actual experience.
The Breuer helps us to see the productivity of putting a device like the white cube at the center of what we observe when studying a museum. But a new documentary titled White Cube allows us to see in full power both the metaphoric and the metonymic capacities of that space.
In this 79-minute film, the Dutch artist Renzo Martens makes the case for the restitution and repatriation of African art back to Africa, not only as a social-justice issue but also as one of economic development. In naming the movie White Cube, and making it about a project that would link wealthy fortunes to a plantation in Congo, Martens underscores the centrality of the exhibition room as a generative technology. According to him: “What needs to be restituted is not just old objects … but it’s also about the infrastructure. Where does art take place? Where is art allowed to attract capital, visibility, and legitimacy?”1
Moreover, as one of the subjects of the film, the artist Cedart Tamasla, affirms: “The film, like the white cube, is a tool. It tells what we are doing, and it makes it visible, and it also connects us to the world … and it gives us access to things we didn’t have access to before.”2
Much like the white room is at the center, figuratively and literally, of Martens’s documentary, Still Life focuses on the infrastructure of maintenance and repair. In so doing, Domínguez Rubio reveals how the different assembled parts of a museum interconnect with the networks of circulation internal to the museum. He also shows the museum’s connection to outer networks of money and status.
Domínguez Rubio goes beyond the social-science-externalist approaches that some social scientists favor. Such approaches understand works of art as naught but the result of other forces, a tool for social closure and exclusion, the place where the rich throw lavish charity parties and launder their money, or where a bunch of experts decide what esoteric things count indeed as art.
Instead, Still Life shows how art needs to be comprehended not just by looking at fields, traditions, and markets. It also reveals the socio-technical devices and how they are asymmetrically accumulated geographically. Because in a world in which these technologies are unevenly distributed, these infrastructures are what ultimately shape what we get to see, and how and where. Few museums in Latin America, for instance, and almost none in Africa can afford these infrastructures.
The first parts of the book exhibit all the work the modern museum has put into containing and stabilizing those things that we call artworks. The final parts, meanwhile, reveal the limits of the preexisting infrastructure to accommodate some of the new objects making their way into the museum, like installations, or video and digital art. These “unruly” objects destabilize—just when we thought we were safe—the infrastructure for storage, containment, and conservation (How do we store a video piece shot on VHS? And how do we show it?), and the technical operations to do so (copying master files, migrating from one outdated technology to a newer one). And yet, they also destabilize the very categories through which we have learned to imagine modern art as original, unique, authentic objects. For, as Still Life shows, these media objects can survive only by betraying those modern tenets and becoming ever-changing, multiple objects. And yet the museum insists, trying to domesticate them and transform them into unique objects.
In resisting their incorporation into the museum logic, these unruly objects confront us with a set of questions: Why the insistence? Why the endless attempt to prevent the unpreventable? These questions linger all the way to the end, where the author discusses Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, which has so many cracks that at this point it is beyond repair. It is here, at last, where we see the museum engaging in the plight of Sisyphus: condemned to eternally try to avoid death and decay, deferring them as much as it can, only to finally fail and start again, over, and over, and over.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Nina Siegal, “With a New Museum, African Workers Take Control of Their Destiny,” New York Times, April 13, 2021. ↩
- Siegal, “With a New Museum.” ↩