Ralph Rugoff on "Psycho Buildings"
By Oliver Basciano
Published: July 8, 2008
LONDON— Ralph Rugoff, the amenable director of the Hayward Gallery, is regarded as one of the London art world's good guys. Under his leadership the museum has been revitalized from a stale institution open only half the year to one that consistently hosts critically acclaimed exhibitions (a 2007 Anthony Gormley retrospective excepted). It's a skill the 51-year-old, New York–born Rugoff honed as director at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, where he enjoyed a six-year stretch starting in 2000.
Since coming to the Hayward, Rugoff has personally curated two shows: "The Painting of Modern Life," in 2007, and now "Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture," which runs through August 25. The exhibition helps mark the Hayward's 40th anniversary by calling attention to the museum's building: a modernist, concrete edifice on London's South Bank that might be likened to a Boxer dog — it's ugly, but likable. With "Psycho Buildings," Rugoff effectively gives the dog a hug, presenting a tribute to the Hayward building in the form of ten large-scale architecture-inspired installations, from Atelier Bow-Wow, Michael Beutler, Los Carpinteros, Gelitin, Mike Nelson, Ernesto Neto, Tobias Putrih, Tomas Saraceno, Do-Ho Suh, and Rachel Whiteread.
ARTINFO recently talked with Rugoff about the curating process and what architects and artists can learn from one another.
Ralph, how did "Psycho Buildings" come about???Well, artists have been working with an architectural vocabulary for some time, but a lot of that was quite close to conventional design, which didn't interest me that much. I was more interested in work that had a relationship to Psycho Buildings, the title of Martin Kippenberger's 1988 book of photographs. With the Hayward's 40th anniversary coming up, I wanted to do a show that called attention to the building itself.
Did you ask the artists to react directly to the Hayward's architecture???We wanted them to address the multi-dimensionality of the space and to create works that would be not just visually affecting but would involve all of the senses. That's what makes the work psychological: the perception of space coming from memory.
The show is about how we perceive space, how we interact with it physically and mentally, and how that affects our behavior. What is it in these works that changes our behavior???Take Ernesto Neto's Life fog fog fog… Fog frog (2008) [a tentlike Lycra structure filled with scents of pepper and cloves]. The work is a bit like a children's tent made out of bedding, an environment within an environment with a playful juxtaposition between the inside and outside. The piece is multi-sensory, involving your sense of touch and your sense of smell. I think it makes people more aware of their own bodies, in a playful way.??The work interrupts many of the messages of conventional museum architecture. That is: Stand back, only use your eyes, and observe very strong lines between one space and another. Ordinarily, you acknowledge those lines by maintaining a rather rigid behavioral protocol.
There's a ritualistic aspect to visiting a gallery.??Yes, but a very rigid ritual.
And here the ritual has been broken. The theme of play clearly runs through the exhibition, but did you fear that people might come away from these works without much else? When I had a row out on Gelitin's boating lake [a work installed on one of the gallery's outdoor terraces overlooking the Thames], I concentrated on not capsizing; I wasn't thinking about it conceptually.??I think a lot of people can have a row around and enjoy the Gelitin work on a very physical level. But I think it's impossible to enjoy it purely on a physical level.??I think the experience of being up in the air, high above the street, rowing on a pond, is one that, even if you don't theorize it to yourself at the time, creates a major disjunction from our normal reality. It creates a sense of possibilities opening up, a sense of freedom. People can interrogate that experience and take it in all kinds of directions.
When Carsten Höller installed giant slides at the Tate Modern in 2006–07, some argued that the theme park had literally entered the gallery. Were you concerned about this with "Psycho Buildings?"??A lot of people worry about art getting too close to entertainment, but I think the [Höller] slides worked on many different levels. First, it was great as a sculptural work. I also think the experience of sliding down it was great — the fact that the experience links with the kind you might have at a fun fair does not invalidate it. Serious painting has a lot to do with cartoons and comics. ??I wasn't too worried about this with "Psycho Buildings." A lot of the works are quiet, and some of them are very difficult. Mike Nelson's piece [a seemingly war-torn room] will be a real challenge to a lot of the audience. Someone has destroyed a room: How is that a piece of art? It has a narrative, but it's not one that's immediately apparent.
Were there any works you wanted but couldn't get???There was one artist, whose name I won't say, who wasn't available. In retrospect I'm glad, because I think the work proposed wasn't quite as strong as what we do have. Having said that, I can think of another four artists who would have been good if we had another floor to the gallery.
Architecture has obviously influenced the artists on display here. What can artists teach architects???That's a good question. I think that architecture is trying more and more to appeal to us as something we experience only with our eyes, as visual spectacle. The artist-architect relationship is a funny one. In the mid-'90s you had a lot of big flashy museum architecture. A lot of the buildings were sculptural in themselves but not very good at actually showing work.??I think that space, as a concept, has become a crucial issue, partly because the majority of people now live in cities, but also due to the proliferation of virtual space. The fact that so much time, and so much human experience, is being spent in a purely graphic space affects our perceptual capabilities. If you leave out the thinking that comes from other types of sensory spatial experience, you risk shutting down human potential. How we deal with space is a really important issue that shouldn't be left in the hands of land developers.