For over 40 years, the Los Angeles based artist Michael Asher has been creating interventions in museums and galleries around the world. Asher's work has generally been described as institutional critique, but in each case he works closely with these institutions to imagine new possibilities for how they can function or be experienced. His diverse projects have included displacements of objects in museum's collections, alteration of the physical structures and programming of commercial galleries, and research projects that expose the inconsistencies and contradictions of institutional practices that often go unexamined. Asher has inspired hundreds of artists over the years in his role as one of the most influential professors at the California Institute of the Arts, and as one writer has remarked, "his influences marks subsequent generations of artists who define their work in terms of social context rather than physical media."
His work for this year's Whitney Biennial, remarkably the first Biennial in which he has participated, maintains the subtlety of his earlier works, but is by far one of challenging undertakings for this particular art institution. Beginning Tuesday at midnight and continuing through Friday at 11:59 pm, the Whitney will be open continuously, 24-hours a day, per the artist's instructions.
Until the work began, Asher's presence in the exhibition was nearly imperceptible to most visitors to the exhibition, indicated only by a simple wall label placed near the entrance to each floor of the exhibition. The artist had initially requested that the Museum investigate the possibility of remaining open 24 hours for the entire length of the exhibition before settling on a time period of one week as the duration of the work. As it turns out, due to both financial and logistical constraints, the longest the Museum was able to stay open continuously was 3 days. This alteration to Asher's proposal is also indicated on the wall label.
Asher's intent was not to expose the limitations of the Whitney, but rather to allow for new audiences to experience the museum and for regular visitors to experience it in a different way. During the duration of Asher's project, the Museum functions just as it would during regular opening hours. In addition to the galleries being open, the bookstore is open all night and the café is offering free coffee to guests after midnight. Docents are leading tours of the exhibition several times each night. Hundreds of people have visited the Museum during the overnight hours the past two days.
At 6 am Wednesday morning, another Biennial artist, Aki Sasamoto, performed for a group of visitors that included a businessman stopping in to the Museum on his way to work, a mother and her young child, and a young couple in the their twenties making a second visit to the exhibition. Ultimately, Michael Asher's practice is remarkable for the generosity it shows towards the members of the public who actually use and benefit from cultural venues (as well as the other artists who exhibit within them), by challenging these institutions to function more intelligently, self-critically, and expansively now and into the future.