Lygia Clark: (Non)Interaction within the Museum

I was first introduced to the artist Lygia Clark by chance.  I was doing research in Brazil several summers ago, but arrived in Rio de Janeiro to find out that the Ministry of Culture was on strike.  All cultural institutions in the city were closed – including the National Library, where I had intended to do most of my research.  Argh!  Long story short: I discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro was open (they must receive private funding and not be associated with the Ministry of Culture), I subsequently discovered Lygia Clark in the Tropicália exhibition, and luckily I was able to complete my research a few days later.

I think that Clark is a really interesting artist.  Much of her early work revolved around participation of the viewer.  In order to truly experience her art, Clark wanted people to touch, manipulate, and sometimes wear (!) her sculptures.  In one piece, Diálogo: Óculos (“Dialogue: Glasses”, 1968, shown left), two people were supposed to wear a set of goggles.  The goggles constrained the individuals to maintain eye contact, and thus forced a type of dialogue to ensue between the two people.  It is the experience created by the goggles that is the work of art, and not the actual object itself.

Unfortunately, museum display and security don’t allow Clark’s work to be interactive (or even to function, really).  With art museums as a “no touch” zone, most of Clark’s interactive work is stuck on pedestals and behind glass cases.  (Although, to be fair, in 2008-09 the SFMOA had an exhibition called “The Art of Participation” which allowed visitors to interact with works of art, including Lygia Clark’s Diálogo: Óculos.)

But the mentality behind the “The Art of Participation” show isn’t found everywhere.  Consider the particular irony of this clip from the Walker Art Museum, in which the curator explains and demonstrates how the sculpture is supposed to be experienced, but then shows the Bicho (“Bug,” 1960) sculpture placed behind a glass case:

Obviously, I understand why works of art need to be placed behind protective glass.  I understand the element of preservation too, since constant handling of any sculpture will cause wear and tear on the piece.  And, to be fair, the SFMOA blog has some great reasoning about institutional limitations in regards to participation, which was posted in conjunction with “The Art of Participation” show. (This blog post also includes a link to this video of people turning Lygia Clark’s Rede de elástico (“Elastic Net”) into a jump rope within the gallery, which is kinda fun but obviously dangerous in the gallery space.)

Still, institutional limitations aside, I wish that there were more shows like “The Act of Participation” in the museum world. Then Lydia Clark’s art would actually be able to function, instead just being a neat thing to talk about.

  • H Niyazi says:

    How wonderful that you found this after being locked out of the traditional cultural institutions!

    It definitely represents an interesting aspect of art and interaction. I think this type of participatory appreciation will become more prevalent when digital media are able to incorporate participation in a manner that will not limit interaction with physical objects that will later need to be preserved.

    Whilst still very much a concept in the tech manufacturing world, the research done by Dr. Andrew Chien at Intel looking at programmable matter would go wonderfully with interactive art if it ever became a practical medium.

    A brief clip on programmable matter:

    Imagine visiting the Louvre and having a PM version of the Mona Lisa you could get up close and personal to, touch, tear, draw on etc!


  • heidenkind says:

    That video was just… depressing. And horribly ironic.

    I understand needing to protect valuable art, yes. But a museum is built to let the public interact with art. If you need to touch or play with a piece to interact with it, then they should be able to somehow.

  • e says:

    This made me think of what we do at the Holocaust Museum in terms of preservation, but still leaving items exposed.

    We keep the bunks, barracks, and electric fences out and do not keep them behind anything that would protect them. There are signs telling people to not touch them, and it is the job of any officer or any staff to tell anyone touching the pieces to stop. Still, without doubt, the museum knows there'll be SOME touching and they are willing to let it happen to a degree. Very interesting.

    What I also think is interesting (and I've so wanted to write a post on it on my blog for so long!) is the near constant complaints we hear from people because the artifacts are out in the open.
    Here's how:
    Because they are left out in the open, we have to keep that floor of the museum very cold to preserve the items. Without fail, everyday, people complain about how cold it is on that floor.

    When you explain to people the reason it is kept so cold is for preservation, most people accept the answer and are fine. However, there has never been a day where I haven't heard at least one visitor fight staff, issue a complaint, or go to a manager saying that it *shouldn't* be kept that way even if it is preserving the artifacts. They hate that they had goosebumps the entire time they were in the exhibit and if the museum HAS to keep it like that, they should issue a warning before people enter the museum, that they should provide jackets, that they should just turn up the heat (yes, people really say all that).

    I suppose it brings up a good argument in so many ways:
    1. Is it worth it to most people to "suffer" through a chilly exhibit if they get to be face to face with such important artifacts or should they be kept in climate controlled boxes far away from the masses so that everyone is "comfortable"?
    and 2. Would it be wrong for me to one day fulfill my dream of pointing out to visitors who behave this way that the people in the pictures and videos they're watching, and those that actually laid in the bunks before their eyes certainly suffered a thousand fold what they are going through by being in a chilly exhibit?
    Oh, unfulfilled dreams I have!

  • M says:

    H Niyazi: That CNN clip is very interesting. You're right – programmable matter could really change a visitor's experience within the museum space. How interesting.

    heidenkind: I think it's interesting that you said "a museum is built for people to interact with art." That's definitely true, although the interaction might not be the type that is suitable for the work of art. The more I think about it, I wonder if the museum setting is the ideal location for a lot of works of art. It would be interesting to know if/how the idea of a museum is maintained in say, 200 years.

    e: I loved your example of the Holocaust museum and the chilly room. Isn't it interesting how people can be so self-serving at a museum? Sometimes there is no thought for the artifact/exhibit at all, just the want to satisfy comfort or curiosity. I love your point about how the people in concentration camps suffered far more than a "chilly room." If only the museum chould make visitors strip down and walk around in freezing weather at Auschwitz. I'd like to see them complain about a mere "chilly" exhibit afterward!

  • sonoroy says:

    Thanks for passing this along. I really like the clip with rattle of the sculpture being folded and refolded and the guy in the curator's gloves saying things like "…this ties into the existential issues she was dealing with all her life."

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.