The Alchemy of Objects: Midnight Party

By Ingrid Nordstrom

Part 3 of 5

The mystical power and life of objects is uniquely explored in Midnight Party on view at the Walker Art Center from March 19, 2011- August 3. 2014. The display is arranged by guest curator Joan Rothfuss the through a daring paradigm of wonder and the fantastical.   This exhibition is unabashedly subjective and Joan Rothfuss states that there is “almost no art history,” in the exhibition.[i] Its focus, rather, is probing the shadows of the mind where dreams and nightmares live and it follows an uncanny logic that entices and disquiets. The exhibition is divided into numerous small, constructed spaces creating environments specific to the works they house, yet in conversation with the larger gallery spaces. The wall texts, done in sliver paint, contained quotes by nineteenth-century Romantics, Early Renaissance thinkers, Albert Einstein and Shakespeare. They reflect on the nature of mystery, framing the works in the idea of universal human curiosity yet maintaining the viewer’s subjective experience with wonder. Although claiming no art history, the combination of such important artists including: Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Ana Mendieta, Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas Demand, Clifford Stills, Ad Reinhart, Matthew Barney and Minnesota native Alec Soth to name a few others, imbue the exhibition with an intellectual gravitas for those who study art. The works are organized in thematically engaging visual conversations with each other. Even more interestingly, it frames the works’ investigation of a particular subject as if through a prism, fracturing what might be a typical reading into a rainbow of potential meanings. One such conversation pairs Kiki Smith’s installation, The Kitchen (2005) directly adjacent to a room devoted to Marsden Hartley still lifes. The still lifes hum with an energy that seems to be barely restrained by the canvas. The Kitchen, a three dimensional domestic space, houses objects of daily work and cheerful household decoration that are subverted by mice in the corner, a daily local paper, and the figure of a girl centrally located in the space, reaching out through the jagged opening cut into the wall. Each artist’s work, anchored in domesticity, reinforces the repressed energy of the other and renders objects of comfort or safety a sense of unease or, at the very least, restlessness.


Kiki Smith, The Kitchen (2005) Photo: courtesy of the author

The journey of the exhibition begins, however, in a darkened alcove playing Joseph Cornell’s silent film, Midnight Party (1938), for which it is named. The quiet images of a comet and observatory are spliced with acrobats, a sleeping girl with a baby doll, and a striking scene of a child Lady Godiva who demurely gazes down framed in close up. This work is the anchor or touchstone for the narrative to follow. The visitors are lead from the film around the corner by an array of Louise Nevelson sculptures: Rainforest Column XXXI (1967), Dark Eclipse (1974), and Young Trees VI (1971), with Joan Miró’s Standing Woman (1969) standing sentry. This clustered processional of human-sized, darkly-colored forms lend an immediate sense of mystery to the white gallery space. It is as if the visitor is the initiate to some ritual and, as if to confirm this, the eye is guided up a staircase and confronted by Chris Ofili’s mystical Third Eye Vision (1999). installnevelson

Installation view of Midnight Party (2013), Photo courtesy of the author

This is a gallery of visions and dreams, combining Ofili with Yayoi Kusama’s Passing Winter (2005), and Mark Rothko’s surrealist, Ritual (1944). Kusama’s sculpture is a mirrored box mounted to human height on glass legs in the form of an X. The head-sized holes cut into on each side, reveal an infinite universe within. One’s own face is the endpoint of a long tunnel and each other face that gazes inside is repeated, ad infinitum. It is dizzying, deceptively simple, profound and giddy all at the same time.


Yayoi Kusama, Passing Winter (2005), Photo courtesy of the author.

This journey through the fantastical power of human imagination ends in a Wunderkammer ala the Museum Wormianum of the sixteenth century natural philosopher, Ole Worm.   He is noted for his incredible collection of artifacts, fossils, and samples of flora and fauna; all detailed and categorized into a taxonomy of the known world. The Walker’s Wunderkammer feels like a room of artifacts and it mirrors images of Worm’s Wunderkammer with striking similarity. The room is colored a deep red, with the works displayed as if they are scientific curiosities. The display of objects create a taxonomy of works based on (either in their materials or subject matter) the natural world or everyday objects that have been manipulated and changed by the artists to create something mysterious. It is as if the surreal landscapes of the mind left material evidence of their existence. David Smith’s The Royal Bird (1947-48) perches high on the wall as if a skeleton to be studied by a biologist. Glass cases display Man Ray’s Cadeau (Gift) (1921/1963), Hi Red Center Hi Red Cans (1964) and Kiki Smith Animal Skulls (1995) in a logic that seems to subvert reality. Worm is known for debunking the existence of the Unicorn by correctly identifying the Narwhal horn, but this Wunderkammer threatens the solidity of what is known by providing evidence of the fictional with Paul Thek’s series of small bronze objects entitled The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper (ca. 1975).


Installation view of the Midnight Party Photo: @Walker Art Center

The brilliance of this final room following so many works of mystery and enchantment is that it gently critiques the modernist thought on which our institutions are founded by carefully debunking the real with the relics of the imaginary. The exhibition is primarily a display of works from the permanent collection. By providing the historical framework at the end of the journey the Walker, rather than touting the brilliance of their collection, calls to question the very need to collect, or even create. The wonder of such works is allowed to be discovered anew. The objects, de-contextualized from their customary art historical discourse, are shown to be just as powerful and intellectually rich organized in terms of their mystery.

[i] Joan Rothfuss, Accessed 1/13/2014.


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