Intervening on the Museum – Lauren Henkin’s “Props”

December 28th, 2019  |  Published in December 2019

When you visit the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center within the next few months, you’ll notice some oddities hiding in the buildings’ nooks and crannies. If you’ve visited before, you’re familiar with the famous building designed by architect Zaha Hadid. Curator Steven Matijcio says it’s “meant to disorient the viewer,” and Hadid wants you to recalibrate “your physical navigation through the space.” The building, of course, is disorienting. As a frequent visitor I’ve enjoyed traversing and familiarizing with the jagged zigzags, open rooms, and narrow corners. Matijcio remarks, “After 15 years, familiarity sets in and things that were initially meant to discombobulate become somewhat ritualized.” Indeed my own disorientation upon my first visit to the CAC has evolved toward allowing the building to control my interactions with it.  Over time comfort with the space has developed. There’s a sort of abstract flow that resists urges to view selectively and rather follow the exhibitions with trust.

The oddities, designed by Lauren Henkin, are meant to counter that comfort and ritualization and revitalize the initial discombobulation that Hadid imagined. The CAC writes, “Props is so captivating because it plays with the idea of the provisional in a playful, yet poignant way”. The eight pieces, I think, range from poignant and thought provoking to mundane. A few of the pieces, which hide in plain sight, are sometimes too easy to find. One sits right next to the museum entrance. A bundle of wood, which looks out of place, thrusts itself upon the visitor as though to notify you that Henkin’s work is here. It’s a neatly built piece but it’s also the least interesting of the bunch because it doesn’t actually seem to interact with the architecture in a meaningful way. Another, the second of three pieces in the lobby, sits directly behind the escalator. This one is made up of what looks like the skeletal remains of a torn down building. Warped wire grids wrapped in pink and grey foam reach upwards from the ground. It feels out of place.

This piece, however, alludes to one element of what makes Henkins’ work interesting here. As interventions into Hadid’s building, the sculptures – at their best – provoke intrigue about the human generated realities and continued relationships with those realities. In contrast to the other seven pieces, this one is very clearly formed from waste. Remnants of company branding and old glue tell us that this material came from a pre-existing structure. Herein, it’s the material that gives dimension to the piece. Its placement is odd but perhaps that’s the point as it uses waster to intervene on the refined, clean appearance of Hadid’s contours. As a singular piece, it still lacks – we’ve seen people make art from trash – I didn’t feel like I was looking at anything new. As a part of the Props collection, though, it serves the purpose of providing viewers with a certain discombobulation, and perhaps a certain discomfort at seeing such material in a refined artistic setting.

As we walk up the first level staircase, we look above at a glass ceiling with geometric structures sitting above. One more staircase gives visitors a bird’s eye view of the structures. A conglomeration of triangular mirrors obstructs the view, which normally looks out large windows over Vine Street. This, to me, is the most interesting piece in Props. It seems to perform the most effective act of “intervention” that Henkin emphasizes as one of her goals. It intervenes on the visitors gaze on both outside and inside the museum structure. It is one of the hardest pieces to misses while traversing the staircase. In this intervention it flips the view on the visitor. One, who is assuredly attempting to look at external structures or people, is forced to look at the mirrors. In doing so, the collection of mirrors imposes a disorienting, fractured vantage of the visitor’s likeness. Another piece upwards on the staircases consists of plywood that could be holding up a possibly decaying structure. What it shares with the mirrors is shape that evokes what one might see when ones’ computer screen fails. They almost resemble a disintegrating digital reality. In the case of the mirrors, I think there is an acknowledgement that art is often a mirror of human reality. If one thinks about this concept in connection with the Robert Colescott exhibition currently showing at the CAC, the work mirrors a challenging, racist reality. It seems to me that in the art world it can be easy for some of us to ignore this mirroring, getting lost in a sort of privileged comfort. Henkin’s mirrors take a step in forcing visitors to confront themselves as participants in a sort of fractured reality, perhaps leading to deeper reflection on the buildings other contents.

Another piece that I found interesting reveals itself on the fourth floor. As visitors walked through the Colescott exhibition into the small bathroom hallway, the right-side wall is covered black, protruding wires. My initial thought was that it looks like the wall is growing it’s own coat of hair. The hair evoked is the kind that we tend to cover up; our unkempt, inconsistent body hair. Seeing it evoked discomfort. It must have been intentionally placed near bathrooms. Considering two other Props are actually in bathrooms, placing this one on a wall outside of them also seems intentional. The bristles seem meant to evoke reflection on what we might consider an unsavory element of the human body. Growing outside the places of privacy they evoke reflection on why we consider the element unsavory and if such a commonly held notion should be questioned. It’s a more intimate, personal evocation than the Props I’ve talked about so far, and it’s interestingly placed in a more intimate, side space of the building. Rather than Hadid’s building presenting it immediately to all visitors, the space is encountered individually and intimately.

A piece constructed of PVC pipes can be found in a women’s restroom, while one that looks like large, rounded foam can be found in a men’s, both of which similarly serve Henkin’s purpose of disorientation. Individually they work with varying levels of success, but as an exhibition Props seems first and foremost to be a deconstruction of Hadid’s work, and ideas of the museum in general. By forcing confrontation with garbage, or the body, or the PVC innards that normally hide behind drywall, the pieces deconstruct the refined, designed aura of the art museum as an art piece itself. By strewing the pieces throughout the building, without label, they feel uncurated. Of course, art museums welcome work on uncomfortable, disorienting topics all the time, but here they are not part of an optional, curated exhibit for viewing. They’re simply part of the environment and seen as the visitor stumbles upon them. For some, they might be an abstraction immediately passed up and forgot, but for others, they might spurn some unexpected reflection. Different from usual art exhibitions, these might be incidental for some visitors, but they got under my skin more than I expected.

–Josh Beckelhimer

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