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The rotunda at the Guggenheim / © David M. Heald

Artist Tino Seghal’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York is the best show I’ve seen so far this year. But it’s made even more remarkable by the fact that the two performance-based works staged in the museum’s rotunda leave the surrounding walls untouched, and thus offer the unusual treat of seeing the Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork empty of any ornamentation—just bare white walls wrapping the sloping ramp.

But if seeing the rotunda in its architectural purity leads you to ruminate on the possibility and potential of all that negative space, you’re not alone. The museum’s deputy director and chief curator Nancy Spector and assistant curator for architecture and design David van der Leer recently asked a group of artists and designers to propose imaginative ways to use the currently empty atrium.

Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum packs 193 of the resulting ideas—represented primarily by drawings with some photography and even electronic media—into a gallery in the museum’s Gwathmey Siegel & Associates-designed annex.
Speaking to a group of journalists, Spector described the exhibition as a “self-reflexive folly,” and a sense of playful creativity, experimentation, and fun runs through the show. It’s hung salon style, with designers and artists pinned up next to one another on the cluttered walls, and while some of the proposed uses of the space touch on the practical, most veer decidedly toward the whimsical, the provocative, and the bizarre.
There are no thematic delimitations to the show’s organization, but after a quick scan of the proposals, kinships between ideas begin to emerge.

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Terunobu Fujimori, New York 2109, 2009 / © Terunobu Fujimori
Many have the atrium filled with vegetation. The best of these, such as London artist Matthew Ritchie’s lush ink-on-velum The House of GI—A Proposal (2009) and New York firm WORKac’s rain-fueled water slide Flow Show (2009), carry the conceit beyond forces of nature simply overrunning and reclaiming the cultural institution.

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Matthew Ritchie, The House of GI–A Proposal, 2009 / © Matthew Ritchie

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WORKac, Flow Show, 2009 / © WORKac

Others, including Brussels-based Julien De Smedt Architects (JDS) and Mass Studies from Seoul, stretch nets across the atrium, making it possible for visitors to jump from the ramp and become suspended in the rotunda.

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Julien De Smedt Architects (JDS), Experiencing the Void, 2009 / © Julien De Smedt Architects (JDS)

Some proposals seem intent on doing some kind of violence to the structure. Swiss artist Christoph Büchel pulls the perimeter walls outward to create cracks and fissures that undo recently completed preservation work on the building, while Los Angeles’ Michael Maltzan Architecture unfurls the rotunda’s corkscrew across a city’s street grid.

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Anish Kapoor, Ascension (Red), 2009 / © Anish Kapoor

Some of the most interesting proposals rethink the social space of the museum.  Amsterdam’s SeARCH turns the rotunda into a school for children. Their countrymen from Rotterdam, Powerhouse Company, present a triptych of plans to turn the museum into a prison, an anarchists’ squat hung with anti-capitalist slogans, and the site of a massive orgy. “The extreme spatial experience of the rotunda is, for us, a mix of repression, anarchy, and pleasure,” says the firm in a statement about the project.
A few of the most outlandish proposals create correlations between the empty atrium and the body. While Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist would fill the entire rotunda with a giant sculpture of female genetalia, Doug Aitken conversely uses space to cover up. In two photographs, we see a figure dressed in an outfit modeled on the museum’s ziggurat form walking down a California street and standing in a liquor store.

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Doug Aitken, Untitled, 2009 / © Doug Aitken
The show’s only drawback is that rather than labeled wall placards, each work has a number that corresponds to a printed exhibition guide. The move, no doubt, was designed to maximize the impact of the installation, but it backfires in practice because it’s difficult to appreciate the juxtaposition of the proposals while continually referring to the guide.
The majority of the work was donated to the museum, and in early March, the Guggenheim will sell those that it owns in a benefit auction. The show itself runs through April 28th, and it has a robust online component featuring images of each of the works and transcriptions of incorporated text.

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Peter Coffin, Untitled (Proposal), 2009 / © Peter Coffin