April 17, 2008

The Man Leaning on Wall Project

Self-installation in the SFMOMA galleries is a project after my own heart, & I thought it would be interesting to talk to the person or persons behind this intervention. There is of course a long history (and currency) of museum interventions and examinations, from Andre Cadere‘s Barres de bois rond of the early 70s to Andrea Fraser‘s institutionally sanctioned and hosted performative critiques of those same institutions. Some of my colleagues suggested this video must have been an art-school project; I was not convinced. Straight to the source. Via YouTube mail, of course.


Full name: Lou Huang
Age: 25 now, 23 at the time of the installation
Occupation: Designer at an architecture firm

Lou, my colleagues and I have had a bit of discussion about your possible motivation for self-installing the artwork “Man Leaning on Wall” in the second-floor permanent collection galleries, but we cannot agree. Why did you do it?

This is an interesting question to start with because it’s also the most complicated to answer. In a way I was making a statement about art and that in itself became the art. It has to do with a question many people have when looking at art, especially modern art, which is “how is this art?” I know that’s a question the SFMOMA gets quite a bit, because I remember some years back there was a display explaining why the SFMOMA features so much of those large canvases where all you see is a single color. There was also a story I read in the news once where a museum night janitor threw out an installation created with bags of trash because he thought that was actually bags of trash. So I wanted to push that line between “art” and “not art” around a bit. I got around to thinking whether it was possible for me to create a realistic label, take it to a large, respected museum, then stick whatever I wanted on the wall with the label next to it, and see if people would give it as much respect as anything else on display. From there it became, what if I just had some normal guy leaning on the wall? Is that art?

Also, I thought it would be funny. I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t funny.

How did you decide which gallery, and among which artworks, to self-install?

It couldn’t have been a specific gallery with a theme because I wouldn’t have fit. We actually did a reconnaissance visit a few weeks earlier to look for potential spots and see how the labels are made, and the second floor is where the MOMA keeps a lot of permanent collection pieces, which had enough variety for this to work out. Other factors included blank wall space that wouldn’t crowd out other displays, and where the docents usually were so that I could install myself without them noticing.

What did you use to affix the object label to the wall?

We used reusable putty adhesive. I couldn’t actually drill into the wall or do anything to damage the wall, of course, but it also [had to] stay on for a while. Putty adhesive held up for over a day on our tests, so that’s what we went with.

What was the most common visitor response to the art object “Man Leaning on Wall”?

Interestingly enough, most people just accepted the fact that I was supposed to be there. I think the most common response is the same any piece of art gets– they look at it, think about it a little and then they move on to the next one. The other thing I noticed is that people tend to be a lot less comfortable getting up close to an exhibit when it’s a real person.

What was the most unusual visitor response to the art object “Man Leaning on Wall”?

I’m not sure how unusual this is but the best response I can remember was this girl who actually blogged about me. There were a few people who did come up really close, and then they would laugh when they took the time to read the entire label. I had to try really hard to ignore them and not respond, because laughter is infectious. Well, this one girl did laugh, and apparently I had to laugh too once she had left, but her boyfriend was still there and he saw it. So she wrote a blog entry about how she was “mocked by art.” I found it one day after looking up “man leaning on wall” on Google just to see if anyone had written about it.

The guards seem quite cordial to you, and it appears you were sent on your way with wall label in hand. What did they say to you?

They were actually very professional, very nice about the whole thing. The guard I was talking to told me they couldn’t have people touching the walls, it would get dirtier over time and then they’d have to repaint it. At first I told him I was supposed to be there, and he went away to check on my story (presumably). Twenty minutes later he returns and tells me he couldn’t get anyone to corroborate my story and I had to go. Actually, he took the label with him, probably to make sure I didn’t try it again. I don’t have it anymore, unfortunately.

Tell me something else about the project that we can’t tell from the video.

We had about 9 people who were “planted” as normal visitors who would try to lend believability to me as an art piece. In the video you see our group walking into the museum really briefly, but after that you don’t really see many of them again so it’s not clear what their roles were. They were included in the plan from the start because I didn’t know how other people would react, or if they would even notice me, so I had to make sure something else would draw their attention. I told them to make comments to each other or to other people, for example “Oh, I’ve seen Cornswallow’s work before” or “I remember this exhibit, it was in New York last year.” They didn’t necessarily have to act like they were aware of the work, and I left it up to them how they wanted to do it. Naturally they had to pretend they didn’t know me and they pulled it off very well; I don’t think any of the guards or the docents had any idea that I didn’t do it by myself.

I wanted to give a quick shout out to my buddy Christian Fernandez who’s the cameraman for the video. It was especially hard for him because film and photography isn’t allowed at SFMOMA and someone did notice his hidden rig, and they asked him if he was with me. Of course he said he wasn’t.

The first thing Jennifer Sonderby, SFMOMA Head of Graphic Design, said when she saw your video was, “Oh my god! Did he use Benton?!”. What font DID you use for the object label?

Aha! So that’s the font you use. No, I didn’t use Benton. I had forwarded the recon photos (taken with a low quality cell phone camera) of the actual labels to a typography whiz I found on Flickr to see if he could help me out, and he guessed that you were using Franklin Gothic.

Thanks, Lou, for answering our questions—

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