‘Active Ingredients’ enlivens gallery space at WCMA

A museum exhibit typically asks active attention from its visitors, but in Active Ingredients, a new exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) which debuted on Oct. 20, the objects on display defy expectations to physically engage with museum-goers in the present. Organized by Lisa Dorin, interim director, Marsha Ginsberg, artist and designer, Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre Amy Holzapfel and David Levine, artist and director, Active Ingredients subverts the inclination of the museum to memorialize its objects and suggest a gap between the worlds of the viewer and that of the object. The name of the exhibit suggests potential, the fusion of various components to create something new.

Before entering the galleries, visitors are already confronted by William Pope.L’s Mudder of Excess Part B in the form of smell – the installation comprises what looks like a stage flat, graffitied with words, propped on top of a cluttered table smeared in oil and peanut butter. As the rich, organic matter starts to decay, its scent wafts through and drifts out of the gallery. The table is covered in art supplies, as if Pope.L had left them there on purpose. Ranging from empty containers of glue to brand new palette knives still sealed in their packaging, the items lend the piece a sense of incompletion and hint at the indulgence of creating art.

1-1-1, a 1969 sculpture by minimalist sculptor Richard Serra, is composed of a heavy cylindrical object precariously balanced upon three vertical sheets, waist high, like a lead house of cards. The objects are heavily codependent on each other to maintain their arrangement: The lead sheets depend on the cylindrical object to stand up vertically, while the cylindrical object rests on the three sheets. Fenced off from the viewers, the sculpture threatens to collapse at any time and challenges the safety of the viewing experience promised by the museum.

In the middle of one of the galleries, visitors encounter a powder blue platform. This is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 piece, Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform). For only five minutes each day, a dancer climbs onto the platform and “activates the space.” Visitors who are not so lucky as to catch the performance are left standing before an empty platform. Gonzalez-Torres’ piece examines the stage as the site of performance – instead of positioning the dancers as pure spectacle, Gonzalez-Torres makes the concept of spectacle, and its absence, the real focus of his piece. When active, viewers are made aware of the ephemerality of the performance; when inactive, the platform nonetheless holds its potential. The crude suggestion of the piece’s title, moreover, points out the voyeuristic relationship between the object and its viewers.

Jamie Isenstein’s Arm Chair occupies a place in between object and performance, past and potential. It takes the form of an unassuming green armchair, but lacks a few components – there are four holes where the legs and armrests should be, for the artist to place their arms and legs into and make the object functional. The performer thus becomes the object, and the object becomes a performance.

With no Isenstein present, Arm Chair abjectly slumps forward on the floor, a “will return” sign dangling from its ear. Isenstein’s sculpture is patently absurd – a nonfunctional functional object, effectively suspended between past and present by the promise of the artist’s return.

Camille Henrot’s Enough is Enough is an interactive telephone attached to the wall. Upon picking up the phone, an automated voice prompts the listeners to click on “1” if they want to complain about the world at large, and similarly strange requests. Listeners are then redirected through a series of different automated voices that ultimately loop back to the original automated hotline.

With its various live components, Active Ingredients is an exhibition worth visiting and bringing to life.

‘Active Ingredients,’ an interactive exhibition, will be showing until Jan. 7, 2018, at WCMA. Photo courtesy of WCMA.