The Walker Art Center’s Existential Dilemma

By Ingrid Nordstrom

(Part 1 of 5- Institutional critique)

In a lecture opening the exhibition Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties at the Walker Art Center in September of 2013, with a nod and a wink Claes Oldenburg stated, “Well, this is an awfully clean version of The Street. So, now it’s become art, you see.”i

This is not a critique of one exhibition in particular, but a look at how the Walker Art Center tackles the question, “What is art?” It looks squarely in the mirror and asks itself, how and why do we bestow this designation on certain objects, and what does that even mean?


Danh Vo, Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010) Photo Gene Pittman, @Walker Art Center.

The Walker consistently embraces the challenge of conceptual art’s dematerialization of the object.

Danh Vo’s works entitled Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010) is a tombstone for the artist’s father, owned by the Walker and displayed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden until Phùng Vo’s death when it is to be shipped to Denmark to mark the man’s actual grave. In exchange for the tombstone, the Walker will then have in its possession four personal affects of Phùng Vo; a Dupont lighter, a Rolex watch, an American Military class ring, and a gold crucifix and chain, all to be displayed in a glass vitrine designed by the artist. These personal effects are not random but were totemic objects or talismans purchased by Phung Vo indicating a new sense of power and masculine success he achieved after escaping Communist Vietnam. The work, owned, legally documented, and stipulated in Phùng Vo’s will, evolves the conceptual precepts that the meaning of art goes beyond the object itself and that of life’s own ephemerality by attaching these ideas to other objects still to be considered the same work. The stone is an artwork on display to be transformed into an object with a designated function, an actual gravestone housed in the institutional framework of a cemetery. Meanwhile, the personal effects of Phùng Vo are everyday objects of utility, but also, totems of meaning that will be transformed into both memorial and acquired artwork. The work, currently, includes all the stories associated with the subject of the gravestone’s creation, but even more interestingly, includes an exchange of objects that will then be bestowed with the power of these same stories, as well as their own history of acquisition and display. The work houses stories of the past, speaks on a very direct level to the present when viewing it, and creates a future life for these objects and ideas. The transitory nature of the work’s meaning is juxtaposed by the human need to achieve immortality through tangible memorialization. The stone will continue to be owned by the Walker, however, legal care of it is relinquished to time and the family’s memory and ability to care for it at the time of Phùng Vo’s death.

Institutional critique (1) 

Map of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden taken of Walker Art Center Website.

At the same time, located in the sculpture garden is a skeleton of an unknown person buried by Kris Martin in an unmarked place, entitled Anonymous II (2009). In this case, there are the remains of a person whose story and memory have been lost to time. The strange thing about this memorial is that it is not an object one can see and ponder. This person’s memorial is the idea of their life story, the mystery of their identity, and the knowledge that their body is somewhere nearby. The object, the body, is unseen, however the power of its meaning then permeates the entire space of the sculpture garden and every object it contains. One begins to look at every tree as if it might be a nice place for final rest. One hopes that a nice spot was chosen. Or maybe it’s under a sculpture or walking path. And yet, this anonymous person and their memorial is now defined as a work of art.

Coincidentally, and for a finite amount of time designated by the ending of one human life, the garden houses a body without a gravestone and a gravestone without a body. These are “artworks,” so defined by their creators and the institution that bought them, but with conceptual and emotional power that taps into much deeper human need and ontological exploration.

The four exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties, Midnight Party, An Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada and 9 Artists, seem to come at the conceptual argument from a similar angle. They all seem to have a common thread stemming from the human fascination with objects as touchstones for the narratives we construct; our desperate attempt to cling to the evidence of our own existence. The Walker grants that we do, indeed, bestow power and life on objects, but then questions how and why we do such things. It examines our need to categorize, collect, order and ascribe meaning to objects. It examines the evidentiary claims of objects as indicators of identity, concept, or culture. By revealing our relationship with objects and the power we give them to define us and our existence, the more specific definition of art is framed by a much larger question. After seeing all of these exhibitions together, the overall feeling was one of existential desperation. To prove we exist in the mysterious dark we categorize our objects and fill them with our past history, our future hopes, our dreams and nightmares.

The Walker bravely tackles the logic of modern thought upon which our art institutions are based. Midnight Party reveals our categorical empiricism to be no more than incantations muttered over talismans, and yet these de-contextualized “art objects” can hold relevance, joy and wonder. 9 Artists exploreshow these objects define us currently, with some artists rejecting this, as in Haghighian’s work, or Vo’s deep examination of how to encapsulate a life. Cinematheque Tangier, attempts a resurrection by reanimating the objects to hold onto a faded glory and reclaim identity. ClaesOldenburg: The Sixties, seen in this context, becomes more than a retirement home for previously activated objects or a dry history lesson. What are we seeing when we see the clean Street? The concept? The objects? Artifacts? What, exactly, is a collection of ray guns?

The Walker does not take its relevance for granted. The life and power we give to objects, including those we denote as “art” is explored in the form of open debate, engaging in curiosity and wonder, and interestingly, embracing these objects placement in the institution as if in some sort of reliquary. In the following posts, each exhibition on view concurrently in December of 2013 will be reviewed through the institutional paradigm the Walker seems to present. Some of the exhibitions have closed and are brief, and some long-term, but through them all the spector of the Walker’s own existential questioning is present. “So, now it’s become art, you see,” becomes a statement to be dissected and unpacked, finally to be wrestled within the mind and eye of the seer. In so doing, the Walker questions itself as a collector of objects and concepts under the classification of “art,” you see?

i. Claes Oldenburg, Opening-day Talk: Claes Oldenburg, 9/22/2013, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Minnesota. Accessed 1/13/2014.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s