Beyond Buildings


More Nothing at the Guggenheim

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Right now, the Guggenheim Museum is empty. That void is better than anything else 200 artists, architects, and designers managed to devise in "Contemplating the Void," the auction and exhibition on display in a side gallery there (about which I wrote several weeks ago), in which the museum posed its largest space as a challenge. The ideas in that exercise are myriad and some of them were inventive, provocative, or amusing, but the best one turns out to be that emptiness, which is to say, the exhibition that actually fills the Guggenheim’s central space while these extravagances are on display in a side gallery (where architecture always winds up).

The artist Tino Seghal has emptied the Guggenheim’s ramps and atrium, even forcing visitors to wait outside to buy their tickets. Enter into the holy of architectural holies, and you will find nothing but a pair of actors making out in slow motion on the floor (The Kiss). Their intertwining acrobatics are inventive, sensual, and completely mesmerizing. Finally, you realize that the atrium was a stage meant for encounters.

Move up the ramps and you will find more nothing except such encounters—empty spaces where usually Kandinsky’s or even Hadid’s flail off the walls. You start up the ramp and a child comes up to you, asking you, “What is progress?  Is it good or bad?” I didn’t think fast enough, I should have said: “A progress is a movement, like one up this ramp, in which we measure out steps in a manner befitting our public appearance.” Instead, I blathered something about Starbucks and whether it was good and bad, and then was handed off to a teenager who worried about community. Next, an adult who wanted to talk about bio-engineering met me, and finally I talked to a documentary filmmaker with whom I argued about whether Frank Gehry should have designed the Holocaust Museum on the site of a Muslim graveyard in Jerusalem (Gehry resigned from the project a few months ago).

As we walked and talked, the space unfurled around us, people passed us, most of them engaged in similar conversations, and space and time just flowed. This is what a museum should do, I thought to myself. It should bring people together to talk, to think, and to move through space in a way that opens them up to what is around them—except that I was not looking at what was around me, or at art. I was oblivious, living a critical version of the New York competition of informed debate and competition.

So, should the Guggenheim be a machine for social interaction, a place that unfurls a different form of sociality from the sidewalks of New York? Or should it be a machine for the display of those images and forms that are the sediment of what our society has thought and achieved, and that we now value enough to enshrine, frame, and display?


Is it progress that the museum now has reached a point where it is a vehicle for conversation? If it is progress, is that good or bad? Or do I now sound like a bad parody of Sex and the City?

Frankly, I have no idea, but I do know this: moving through the Guggenheim in this manner was one of the most exhilarating experiences of architecture I have had all year. And the Guggenheim, not just as a building but as an institution, remains one of the few organizations in our culture that can somehow produce these kinds of strange and beautiful moments repeatedly. For better or worse, it is our most theatrical and most social major museum.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.