The Spectacle Stripped Bare

Justin Bennett’s Hyperforum at the Maxxi in Rome

In the most radical move: Rome’s Maxxi: the National Museum of XXI Century Arts has executed a dramatic “mise à nu” to peel away any artifice of materiality, exposing the stark presence and beauty of the space of sound by emptying its galleries. Curated by the Maxxi visionary-director Hou Hanru, the Open Museum Open City exhibition has eliminated so-called “visual art” in order to refocus the viewer experience on sound works by Bill Fontana, Justin Bennett, Ryoji Ikeda, et al. The resultant mix is a sonic collage that infiltrates the space stripped bare to its white walls. The overall uber-concept of this revolutionary idea is startling in its sheer simplicity and daring, leaving the viewer to reconsider not only what it means to “look” at art, but the significance of entering and navigating the space of a museum.

In Justin Bennett’s Hyperforum for example, the viewer(s) inhabits a cubic environment of recorded sounds, drawn from a myriad of locations and sources, creating a new ordering of the space through 8 equidistant speakers that define a multi-channel cube. Within the cube, sound coalesces to rearrange the sources of origin by going beyond even the suspension of disbelief. You are simply there: listening and virtually inhabiting the sonic architecture.

Here in Rome, as I navigate the history of its sociocultural spaces, from Maxxi to the Sistine Chapel to the Roman Forum, Hou’s vision updates the meaning of social relations and artistic mediations within the contemporary forum of art. He has, so to speak, cleansed the “palette,” avoiding the visual in order to re-energize our collective experience of the act of listening. It is a powerful idea akin to John Cage’s 4’33”, in which the composer removed all sonic “content” from the performance in order to focus the listener on the ever-present presence of spatial ambiance. It was a daring move in 1952, and it remains one today in 2014 as Hou dramatically challenges the excesses of museum practice, pointing out:

“Very often, new museums are conceived on the models of the entertainment industry and tourism. Their designs are supposed to be extravagant, or “iconic.” The programs and collections have to be spectacular and popular. They are intended to celebrate the triumph of a world driven by consumerism.”

Through a severe act of reductionism, Open Museum Open City has removed the largesse of the Spectacle in order to expose the pure essence of sound, powerfully re-articulating our sense of connection to the world around us. For unlike the image, which can never perfectly render visual information, sound can in fact be an accurate and realistic representation of its origin. Sound is a form of virtual reality that can remove any differentiation between the world outside and its electronic diffusion: a perfect medium for opening up the museum and dissolving its boundaries.

Hou has employed techniques of acoustical realization to activate the museum as a space of social relations, what he describes as a contemporary “Roman Forum.” In the present day circus of contemporary art fairs and the like, Open Museum Open City invokes the ancient social model as a gesture of defiance, an act of purification, the Spectacle stripped bare.