Post-Minimalism, Feminist Art, the Pictures Generation: if art was in a thrilling tumult of change when, in 1977, New York’s New Museum first opened its doors and started collecting, it was at least fairly easy to tell one medium from another. But it’s surely a mark of how extensively art has changed and grown since the late seventies that Daria Martin’s new project, Minotaur, takes on several media at once. It’s a film, first and foremost, but it’s also concerned with Rodin’s bronze Minotaur of 1886. Watercolors of writhing figures appear during its title sequence; as they disappear, a choreographer and two dancers come into view. It is as though the new art had, like the Minotaur itself, become a monster—both man and beast.
Martin’s project is one of four that are opening in the next few days at the New Museum under the banner of the Three M Project. It is a joint endeavor, supported by Deutsche Bank as lead sponsor, which unites the New York institution with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in a collective bid to commission and acquire ambitious new work. When I arrived recently to look in on the progress, Mathias Poledna’s new film, Crystal Palace, had also just opened. Meanwhile, curators were clearing galleries in readiness for a project called Informal Cities, staged by the Shanghai-based architectural magazine Urban China. And, on another floor, they were awaiting the wreckage of a car that was destroyed in a bomb attack in Baghdad in March 2007: accompanying the latter will be various individuals with experience in Iraq, including a former translator at the British Embassy there, a recently demobbed platoon sergeant, and the former director of the National Museum. When they arrive, Jeremy Deller’s project It Is What It Is: Conversations from Iraq will also be up and running.
It’s rare indeed to have four major new projects opening simultaneously in a museum, and increasingly so, given how ambitious artists are becoming. As Laura Hoptman, Krauss Family Senior Curator at the New Museum, says, mid-sized museums like hers have for some time been debating how to keep pace with these ambitions; how to facilitate them while also building the museum’s collections in a sustainable way. Take Daria Martin: her previous films have often explored dance, but Minotaur envisaged something particularly complex. "It was inspired by my desire to work with legendary choreographer Anna Halprin," Martin says. "Halprin spearheaded postmodern dance through her embrace of everyday movement. I wanted to make a film that is a tribute to her, but also an exploration of the ways that artists look to historical predecessors for material." She discovered that Halprin had choreographed a dance based on Rodin’s Minotaur, and this chimed perfectly with her interests; and, she says, she was "delighted to find that Halprin turns the sexual politics of Rodin’s sculpture on its head." The film that resulted is a darkly lyrical piece that has qualities of both documentary and fantasy: the camera finds the elderly Halprin leafing though a volume of Rodin’s sculpture; then, as if her imagination had penetrated the page, the camera swings over the contours of Rodin’s bronze. Reflections cast flesh tones on the surface of the sculpture and, suddenly, the bronze shakes and comes to life in the form of two dancers: the man gripping the woman, the woman somehow eluding him.
"My films are usually funded through grants and museums or gallery commissions," Martin explains, "sometimes with a small infusion of gallery money." She always has to piece together the support from various sources. On this occasion, it was all made much easier. "In my experience, the ‘three in one’ package of commissioning, exhibition, and collecting that the Three M project represents is unique."
Jeremy Deller relies on a similar blend of funding since, as he admits himself, "I’ve never had much luck with commercial galleries." It’s not surprising: he doesn’t aim to make objects or films that can be sold; he is, as Hoptman puts it, "a curator of situations." The ingredients of It Is What It Is are particularly spare: as he puts it, the show will simply involve "a series of people being present in the gallery and available for discussion and conversation." Its centerpiece is the car’s wreckage. "It’s an unusual thing to see, isn’t it?" he remarks. "A car is such a sacred thing in America." But Deller isn’t simply staging a provocation: he believes that, in news reports from today’s war zones, images of wrecked cars have come to stand in for dead bodies. "They would never show a dead body on the news in Britain or America. So in that respect, our car is a body, too." If the car is a curiosity, the conversations are the real show, and they will continue: when the show concludes in New York, Deller’s entourage will depart on a three-week road tour to communities across the US on the way to its next venue in Los Angeles. In a sense, Deller will enable all three museums—all Three Ms in the project—to reach out to entirely new audiences, and that’s exactly why the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation has stepped in to be the lead sponsor. Alessandra DiGiusto, the Foundation’s Chief Administrative Officer, says: "The Foundation is excited about supporting this new model. It increases awareness of these very talented artists and helps the museums build their contemporary art collections. We feel that the arts play a vital role in building vibrant communities and this commitment is becoming increasingly important in these economic times."
Some will probably ask whether Deller’s project belongs in a museum at all, and they might ask the same of Urban China—aren’t they publishers, not artists? Laura Hoptman defends their inclusion. "If you think of Rem Koolhaas, their titular godfather, he has always moved between visionary architecture—which often belongs in a museum—and buildable architecture. Urban China are just like this. In addition to producing their magazine, they’ve been creating an enormous photo archive of urban change in China." One can get a taste of that online, but for the show, in addition to an installation that brings the magazine to life on the walls, they’re also producing a special issue that gives an idea of their methods: it feels part exhibition catalogue, part artist’s multiple, with a spread featuring a large photographic panorama of a coastal city in China, broken up in places with diagrammatic motifs suggesting new structures which might be put in place.
Finally, if expansion beyond the gallery is one of the purposes of the Three M Project, then one could say that Mathias Poledna’s new film, Crystal Palace, examines a little of the history of such efforts. At first glance, it’s uncomplicated: it consists of a series of static shots of vegetation in the rainforests of New Guinea—palms and tangled undergrowth—accompanied by a soundtrack of the forest’s ambient sounds. Only after a few minutes do you realize the complexity of this: the images cut cleanly from one to the next, while the soundtrack remains the same; then the sound changes and the images endure. It’s a formal device whose intention is elucidated by the film’s title, which refers to the giant glasshouse that contained the exhibits at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The event sought to import a flavor of the British Empire’s furthest reaches and to deliver them up as if they were fruits ready to pick. Of course, they were never so accessible as they might have seemed, and that’s something we should perhaps remember whenever we relax into art’s pictures of the outside world.