New York

Elizabeth Diller And Ricardo Scofidio

Museums generally present architecture in a predictable, acquiescent fashion. Drawings, photographs, and models are the usual fare. The relationship of the host institution to the visiting architecture installation seldom excites real chemistry or dialogue: the two remain independent and critically unengaged. For their installation here, entitled para-site, 1989, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio restructured this relationship aggressively, intelligently, and cogently. The artists, as both members of and dissident presences in the cultural establishment, played with the treachery of language and the chameleonic quality of architecture, creating a deeply disorienting and puzzling space. Their project explored a wider use of the museum as a surrogate site for new architecture.

This challenging, ambitious installation strayed beyond the perimeter—and conventions—of the projects room. Some of its structural elements and apparatus projected into the main lobby; video cameras trained on pedestrian movement through the museum were placed well outside the designated area. Around the walls of the room, the architects placed a dotted line which served as a datum for orientation in a radically transformed space, where the walls, floor, and ceiling did not conform to conventional uses. At the major entrance to the gallery, Diller and Scofidio strapped horizontal wooden beams onto an existing column with a metal collar. Steel cables secured the two parallel beams; one tore into and gripped the adjacent lobby wall with a large hook. Another stretched from the base of the column to the end of the trusses, where two monitors were mounted at eye level. The screens each showed a small portion of the museum’s two escalators. On the north wall, four more video monitors were mounted upside down. They showed overhead views of the four revolving doors of the museum entrance on 53rd Street. The third site of surveillance was the east wall, where a sideways-mounted monitor showed the activities in the outdoor sculpture garden. On this wall, the artists had cut a deep gash and placed a long mirror at a 45-degree angle to the floor.

Throughout the space, they arranged and manipulated rather ordinary chairs in extraordinary ways. Some were sliced in half, others were mounted on the ceiling or on the walls; some bore mirror-image inscriptions about the conditions of parasitism, others carried simple truisms. These chairs created a generic texture and discernible use of scale, as well as points at which to test perception, vision, and position. The installation abounded in layers of information and rich conundrums. It constituted a fastidious, compulsive involvement with the projects room and its place—literally and conceptually—in the operations of the museum. Tucked off the main lobby, this is a site where the museum shows ephemeral works that don’t quite align with the agenda of the institution. The idea and space of this room are themselves parasitic, suggestive of some alien attachment.

With Diller and Scofidio’s elegant, disturbing environment, the subject’s position was always in question. As viewers passed through the installation, their movements set up a choreographic counterpoint to the passages of others into and through the institution. The dialogue between the lenses of the cameras and the lens of the eyes parallels this complex, complicitious encounter with the space of ideas. The viewer’s very presence was an act of collusion; the parasitic condition was manifested in the many ways that vision depends on and deforms experience.

Patricia C. Phillips