Ed note: the following is a response to the first article published on Glasstire, a review of Karim Rashid’s exhibition Pleasurscape by Rainey Knudson. You can also see a response by Carl Gustav Horn here.
I respond to Rainey Knudson’s and Bill Davenport’s reviews of Karim Rashid’s Pleasurscape installation because both address critical issues that bothered me when I first visited the exhibition at the Rice University Art Gallery the day after it opened.
Is Pleasurscape really art? Should it be exhibited in an art gallery? I asked friends of mine who are artists, art dealers, and museum professionals their opinions, especially about the Rice University Art Gallery’s predilection for exhibiting installation art. I got a variety of answers (the consensus: the Rice gallery might be guilty of niche marketing — my accusation, but providing a place for installations artists to set up their works in Houston is important).
Despite my suspicions I went back to the gallery on a weekday afternoon. I brought an article I needed to work on, took my shoes off, and lay down on one of the biomorphic chaise-longues. There were only two other people in the gallery. Loud but not belligerent music masked their conversation, as did Karim Rashid, yacking incessantly on TV in a small room off the gallery.
After an hour I went back to my office. My experience was more relax/escape (from telephones, e-mails, and occasional visitors) than Pleasurscape. But despite misgivings and suspicion, I liked Pleasurscape enough to return. In fact I came back so many times I got through the first draft of the paper, read several chapters in a book, and several essays in a journal. I even got my picture taken by Jaye Anderton, the gallery manager, to document my newly acquired status as a regular. By the end of the exhibition, a few other people had taken to dropping by Pleasurscape to hang out, read class assignments, or chat, in addition to those who came to see the art.
Prolonged exposure gave me the opportunity to think about my resistance. It made me reflect on the question: Is it art? Pleasurscape looked super: a pristine island of gleaming, curvilinear shapes set on the gallery’s polished limestone floor. The gallery walls, ceiling, and light fixtures were painted Karim orange to frame the platform’s intense whiteness. What Pleasurscape lacked was depth. You didn’t discover more by looking harder. I want gallery installations to look super, but I also want to discover “more” in looking at works of art: additional layers, complexity, hidden meaning. Pleasurscape’s unwillingness to yield more to my vision was one of the attributes that made me question its aspiration to art.
Yet what I came to discover was how Pleasurscape played with my expectations about art and its exhibition. In a real museum, you don’t touch art. Even if the objects on display are pieces of furniture, you know better than to sit on them. Pleasurscape could, therefore, be categorically judged not-art because the whole idea was to walk, sit, lie, slip, and slide on it.
But Pleasurscape internalized a discipline of its own, which you had to conform to in order to take advantage of its exemption from art. You had to surrender something personal: your autonomy, your dignity, your property — your shoes. You took off your shoes not because they would damage the platform (they might have scuffed it, but it’s pretty impervious) but to access the experience of Pleasurscape: slipping and gliding your way to one of the lounges, to lie in it or test its capacity to accept postures and bodily movements it did not appear to be shaped for. I was working on my paper when an entire high school class arrived. They gave Pleasurscape an intense workout, exploring possibilities that never occurred to me. Most of the time though, the gallery was quiet, except for the music. The gallery attendant (a student) often brought her work in so she could populate the platform and, maybe, encourage passersby to stop in and do the same.
One wall of the gallery is all glass. It enables people using a cross-hall in the building to view the entire gallery. During the first half of the afternoon the hall is busy. A lot of people passed through and looked into the gallery. Not many entered. Lying on the chaise looking out, I came to realize that I was part of the spectacle. I’m not art. But like a work of art I was being looked at. Only one person stopped and came in to talk to me. But I became self-conscious about what passersby might think. I’m an adjunct faculty member, not a student. Here I was, lying around during the middle of day, in my stocking feet, making a spectacle of myself, showing off, an exhibitionist: the rhetoric of the art museum transposed into criticism of personal indulgence. Whether or not it is art, Pleasurscape engaged the specular like “real” art. Only here, thanks to the gallery’s design, the occupants were incorporated as unwitting objects of the outside viewers’ gaze. Looking out, reciprocating this gaze, made me realize how Pleasurscape also implicitly separated the leisure class from the workers, even in a liberal institution like a university. Students and gallery visitors engaged the installation. Staff members, especially building maintenance personnel in their uniforms, did not stop in to chill out. I could kick back and do my work; they couldn’t.
Pleasurscape projects a look. Since white T-shirts and socks are popular with both male and female students, you quickly became aware of how great people dressed in white looked on the platform. Pleasurscape would make a sensational setting for advertising shoots, with people and products arrayed in expressionistic poses, selling images of seductive cool. Yet as I discovered late one afternoon, when the hall became quiet, and the attendant retreated to her desk just outside the gallery entrance, its seductiveness is as much representational as experiential. Ready to leave, I decided to try something I had been too embarrassed to do with other people present. Surreptitiously I slipped out of my socks, stood up in my bare feet, and-stuck. I was grounded, immobilized. It was dismal. I had encountered one of the cruel limits of Pleasurscape. It does not reward a more intimate level of contact. You experience its frictionlessness only through the medium of fabric. As I shamefully retreated to the TV room to reboot (Karim still spilling his guts, always the same thing, over and over; the guy must have a disorder), the limestone floor felt much more barefoot friendly than Pleasurscape.At the exhibition’s closing event, a lecture by Renny Pritkin from the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco on installation art, I met Jennifer King, the guest curator of the exhibition. I guiltily confessed my initial misgivings to her (Renny Pritkin had talked about a San Francisco critic who steadfastly refused to accept installations as art), my subsequent enjoyment of Pleasurscape, and my disappointment that it was now turning into a pumpkin. For me, the question “is it art?” remained undecided. But it no longer seemed pertinent or compelling. However you categorize it, Pleasurscape was a great place to hang out, to be alone-yet with other people, to play on; even to look at, but not just to look at.Despite its responsiveness to the human body, Pleasurscape seemed to me to privilege the foot rather than the eye as an organ of consciousness. Pleasurscape passes judgement on art experienced primarily top-down, through looking. From its implicitly bottom-up point of view, might top-down art seem as inert, two-dimensional, and merely stylish as Pleasurscape first appeared to me, something you just can’t sink your toes into? Such argumentation sounds absurd, but occupying Pleasurscape for a few hours expanded my appreciation for the insights installation can yield. Pleasurscape provided a social space unlike any other at Rice. It encouraged visitors to have fun by transgressing the conventions of museum conduct in an art gallery. It legitimized lying down and taking your shoes off as acceptable forms of public behavior (as in other cultures, such as Egypt, where Rashid is from). And it clearly prompted more than one of us to question the limits of art and what we expect the work of art to do for us.