The Clark's Latest Exhibit is Setting the Standard For Modern Museums

Adam Rathe
·5 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and VI, VII. Clark Art Institute/T. Clark
Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and VI, VII. Clark Art Institute/T. Clark

From Town & Country

It isn’t quite fair to call the success of Ground/work, an exceptional new exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, accidental. After all, the show—which features new work from six artists spread out over the Clark’s bucolic 140-acre campus—was in the works for more than three years before it debuted this fall, and is a compelling collection of pieces that deftly brings the 66-year-old museum outside of its walls. The bit where chance comes in is really a matter of timing; earlier this year as the art world grappled with how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the Clark had the good fortune to open a show that not only met the moment but did so brilliantly.

As museums around the world attempt to deal with diminished occupancy, and gallery shows and art fairs move online, Ground/work, offers a smart, affecting masterclass in how to mount a modern exhibition. At the Clark, guests can take in the collection of sculptures by six artists in person and with extended hours. The museum’s campus will be open 24 hours a day until October 2021 for visitors to experience the exhibition in a variety of circumstances; a local pizza shop will even deliver to the museum’s patio.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago, and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. Image: Clark Art Institute/T. Clark
Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago, and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. Image: Clark Art Institute/T. Clark

“When Olivier Meslay came to the Clark as the new director in 2016, he was very taken with the landscape that surrounds the architecture and the buildings,” says Molly Epstein, who curated the exhibit with Abigail Ross Goodman. “And when [architect] Tadao Ando did the expansion in 2014, the positioning of the Institute really turned away from the street where it had faced for many decades and pivoted to direct attention out into the landscape. Olivier was really interested in leveraging this unique asset, which is 140 acres of unmitigated landscape that's open day or night to the public, so he came to us with an interest in activating and engaging the landscape and deepening the institute’s engagement with contemporary artists; that’s really where the show began.”

Goodman adds, “The origins of the show were settled in this conversation around what the landscape would offer and what would unmitigated access to the environment create as an opportunity for the artists.”

What it created is a thought-provoking exhibition that can never be seen the same way twice. Works like Jennie C. Jones’s “These (Mournful) Shores,” an aluminum sculpture strung with harp strings which harness the wind to create haunting sounds, or Kelly Akashi’s “A Device to See the World Twice,” a viewing lens held up by bronzed tree branches, offer experiences that depend entirely on their surroundings—each interaction is influenced by the time of day, weather, and even the path a visitor chooses to take through the exhibition. Crisscrossing Stone Hill to experience the exhibition can feel something like being in an interactive sculpture park. As Goodman explains, “We didn't go in with a tight focus, but what we've recognized is that all of our artists had a new approach to monumentality of sensitivity, to duration, and a reflection on vulnerability in the landscape.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist, François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Image: Clark Art Institute/T. Clark
Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist, François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Image: Clark Art Institute/T. Clark

When I visited the Clark recently, it was a warm autumn day. The pieces in “Ground/work” were freshly installed in the landscape; Nairy Baghramian’s marble-and-steel “Knee and Elbow” stood out against the green grass and blue sky, and the clear resin “Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens,” one of Haegue Yang’s three sculptures, sat unobtrusively among a cluster of trees. It was arguably a perfect day for a visit, but it also got me thinking about all the other ways the show will be experienced.

Would Baghramian’s white work start to hide in plain sight on a grey winter day? Would Eva LeWitt’s three colorful resin towers—which seemed to float against the blue sky—feel more imposing when the hill was covered in snow? My thoughts drifted to what a visit would be like for students looking for a late-night break from cramming for finals, or the museum’s neighbors walking their dogs early in the morning? I thought about the minor headaches of visiting an indoor exhibition in the middle of winter—coat checks and wet socks and tourists—and how braving the elements to experience “Ground/work” come February isn’t so much more difficult.

“Seeing the enthusiastic response our visitors have had to Ground/work has been a joy for us,” says Meslay, the Hardymon Director of the Clark Art Institute. “People are taking true delight in the immersive experience of wandering our trails and discovering these exceptional works all across the campus. I’ve seen people walking through the early morning mist and others grabbing a blanket and a picnic to enjoy as the sun sets over the fields. Flashlight walks are becoming a local favorite, and we really can’t wait for visitors to borrow the snowshoes we offer for winter explorations to see the art in all kinds of weather.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles Oslo. Image: Clark Art Institute/T. Clark
Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles Oslo. Image: Clark Art Institute/T. Clark

The exhibition is undoubtedly right for our contemporary moment but would be worth celebrating even if outdoor experiences weren’t so in-demand. “So much of it about is it has been about creating a condition for innovation, creating the condition for that opportunity to try a new material, to push a sense of scale, to go out of doors and leave the walls of a gallery space,” says Goodman. “Part of the lesson [we’ve learned] is how rich creating those conditions can be and how satisfying that is as a curator to be able to offer to an artist. That is really an opportunity of a lifetime.”

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