Three-Ring Museum

Until his death in 1992 at age 79, John Cage carried out a revolution that aimed to break the hold of the cultural elite. More than a composer, Cage was a philosopher, poet, inventor, teacher and prophet who formulated a new attitude toward content, composition and the function of art. When he advised artists to leave their ivory towers and look at the world around them again, he attacked the century-long alienation of the artist from society. When he refused to impose a fixed meaning to content, leaving interpretation open to the experiences of the viewer, he destroyed the most basic symbolic and metaphoric assumptions of Western art since the Renaissance. In place of a self-expressive art created by the tastes and desires of the individual artist, Cage proposed an art born of chance and indeterminacy. Instead of the accumulation of masterpieces, he urged a perpetual process of artistic discovery in daily life. For Cage, art and life were no longer separate entities -- as they had been in the past -- but nearly identical; his entire career can in fact be seen as a long campaign to break down the barriers between the two.

A Buddhist and devout student of the 3,000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes, also called the I Ching (which uses coin-tossing as a means to arrive at chance formations), Cage rejected the notion that artwork is a supreme act of invention powered by the ego-driven will. For Cage, life and art were exercises in attentiveness, discipline and surrender. In this regard, Cage's use of the I Ching offered a method based in action for arriving at the visual representation of change. Considering the nature of object and process, Cage wrote: "You say: the real, the world as it is. But it becomes! It moves, it changes!... You are getting closer to this reality when you say ... it "presents itself": that means that it is not there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process." Thus, if the process of making art changes the artist, and if the artwork changes the audience, then this cycle brings about a gradual perceptual revolution. Like nature, one "never reaches a point of shapedness or finishedness," according to Cage. "The situation is in constant unpredictable change."

Just as Cage delighted in the notion of music's being chanced upon without expectations, so he took to dismantling the system of hierarchical judgment central to most museum thinking. At the Menil Collection, Rolywholyover A Circus seemingly takes the form of an exhibition, but is in fact a semi-autobiographical performance piece. In one gallery, for example, works are perpetually reinstalled according to chance operations, thereby creating a dynamic composition without an explicit focus or center. The word "rolywholyover," taken from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, implies revolution and movement.

Conceived by Cage and curator Julie Lazar of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Rolywholyover turns the museum into a three-ring circus, but on Cage's own terms. "This exhibition points to a lot of problems in museums," Lazar commented during an interview at the Menil. "John was really aware of that and put it in very simple terms: museums are stuck in the mud. And part of the mud is the linearity -- that is, everything tastefully hung at eye level. When John did his performance 4' 33", he wasn't just jerking around. He was basically saying, let's relieve ourselves of the bias and prejudice." Similarly, Rolywholyover calls into question the curator's role in defining artistic standards, and the museum's function in preserving them. A chance-generating computer program, designed by composer Andrew Culver in accordance with Cage's compositional instructions, is used in the three exhibition spaces to plot unpredictable and eccentric placements for the art on view. The result is a show of integrity and grace, one that reinforces our faith in the possibilities of the body and the spirit.

The exhibition is a portrait of Cage's passions: mushrooms; chess; the music of Eric Satie; river rocks; plants; Zen; Merce Cunningham; the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Thoreau. Moreover, two of the galleries are devoted to Cage and his milieu: his writings, scores and etchings, as well as the works of authors and artists whom Cage especially prized. In the hallway, works lent by museums within a 60-mile radius of the Menil are shown, in selections also made by chance operations, so that we examine unrelated objects from a fresh, non-curatorial perspective. What curator would even dream of placing a magnificent pair of Lucchese cowboy boots (custom-made for Princess Anne, no less) close to a Kigango commemorative sculpture from Kenya and a portion of the heat shield from the Apollo 12 spacecraft?

The largest gallery holds approximately 150 works by 50 artists important to Cage. Ranging from the obscure to the world-famous, they include Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Dove Bradshaw and Fanny Schoening. The chance process specifies not only where but how long each work is displayed (only about half of this section is up at any particular time), effecting a kind of perpetual-motion installation as preparators move about, consult the computer printouts and relocate Cy Twombly or Louise Nevelson accordingly. That means that on any given day, at any given hour, Merce Cunningham's delicately rendered "playing cards" and a luminous orange Indian sari may happen to find themselves installed alongside one another at ceiling height. On another wall, a mystical painting of a bird in flight by Morris Graves hangs partially over an exit sign, while a small Jasper Johns drawing is placed slightly above eye level at a corner's edge. But a few minutes later the configuration changes, and it will continue to change throughout the show as the staff follows the daily instructions. "The basic idea," noted Cage, "is that the exhibition would change so much that if you came back a second time you wouldn't recognize it."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help