As a contemporary art museum of a bourgeoning art destination, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is known for enacting unexpected exhibitions that, instead of merely dazzling, have challenged viewers into becoming active participants in a space that relays possibilities of conversation and reflection on how can art can transport us to a different place or time while remaining in a fixed location with changing spatial conditions. Its new exhibition Permanent Collection/Impermanent Museum is no different in this regard. With its color layers, discarded vinyl labels, and paraphernalia, the exhibition is a rare glimpse at the metamorphosis of the museum’s exhibition space throughout its seventeen-year history since its inception.
The exhibition’s behind the scenes documentation is twofold: it is a photographic, linear documentation that shows the museum’s shifting space and its exhibition timeline, and an object-based documentation that signifies the living nature of an exhibition well after it is taken down and packed away for a possible reiteration in the future. The latter is envisioned through unused, leftover wall text, like the “Do Not Touch” signs and exhibition titles. These discarded items have no intrinsic aesthetic value by themselves, but the exhibition displays them in a way that lets viewers know how integral these vinyl labels are to the creation and refinement of an exhibition.
For instance, the “Do Not Touch” labels are attached to a white pedestal at the entrance of the exhibition—a move that facetiously recalls Duchamp’s Fountain in a label’s transition from a functional object to an art object stuck on a pedestal. The exhibition titles, meanwhile, are displayed on a wall and, although these titles were never meant to be seen by the public due to their misspelling errors or a curator’s change of mind, they evoke a conceptual text-based artwork in how the words come forward or go backwards in space according to their placement and font.
While these exhibition labels represent an altered exhibition history of the museum, the map and timeline in the back of the gallery offer a guide to the different past exhibitions held at the museum, along with a wall-size map of galleries in which each exhibition took place. The documentation on how the gallery space changes with each new exhibition is manifested in this visual timeline and also in the carved wall that spells out Permanent Collection/Impermanent Museum. As noted in its description, the carved title conveys the multiple color layers of the wall painted with each new exhibition. It’s a bold move to physically damage the museum—a space associated with preservation—and leave the crumbling wall’s remnants on the floor.
I wish such boldness had been taken with some of the other displays, such as the tools used during installations and the ephemera left over from past exhibitions, all neatly encased in vitrines. Placing these objects in vitrines, like 7th century Chinese pottery, connotes preciousness; however, it enacts a barrier between the objects and the audience. The concept of Permanent Collection/Impermanent Museum is the constant, interlinked development of the museum space; a concept that I think requires communication between objects, and communication between the space and the audience, rather than having them displayed separately and directly in the middle of the room without posing to the audience the question of what role these objects serve in building and shifting the gallery space.
Aside from this quibble though, I think Permanent Collection/Impermanent Museum does a fine job of balancing functional and commercial items with fine art. The featured photographs of Aaron Rothman and Bill Timmerman capture fleeting moments of light among SMOCA’s architecture—something that cannot be conveyed in the exhibition, only through photographic evidence. Timmerman’s photographs, titled Perspectives of a Museum and taken in 1999 when SMOCA opened, are particularly captivating, for they accentuate the minimalist architecture of a young museum with a clean slate, ready to grow in its identity as the foremost contemporary place in the valley. It has grown up a lot since 1999 and will no doubt continue to accumulate paint layers going forward, because like humans, a space often times gets better with age.