Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

In Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem’s 467-page, pot-fumed meditation on New York City’s Upper East Side, the author describes a fictional artwork by a fictional artist: Urban Fjord by Laird Noteless, a figure cut out of the same cloth as land artist Michael Heizer. A monumental earthwork, the piece taunts viewers into throwing all types of detritus into its gaping mouth. Curiously, New York’s Guggenheim Museum holds a similar sway. Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic design – the tantalising volume bounded by spiralling ramps – begs to be filled, but with what? Trees? Trampolines? Chocolate?

For five decades the Upper East Side institution has acted as a vacuum, sucking in artists such as Jenny Holzer, Matthew Barney and Nam June Paik. Now, for its 50th anniversary, the museum has formalised the process. Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum invites nearly 200 artists and architects to make proposals for its vast atrium. The results hang in an annexe gallery tucked just out of sight of said void.

The selection of these 197 practitioners (around 240 were asked to participate) is both broad in scope and of the moment. A common brief and salon-style gallery presentation gives equal weight to both superstar and emerging works. Rachel Whiteread, Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn show up, as do Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jürgen Mayer H and BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). Some of the faces on the architecture-heavy checklist are so fresh, one imagines they pinched themselves when the invite arrived.

But, as Contemplating the Void canvasses all these practitioners, what does it really ask? Is it a speculative free-for-all (speculations being in vogue at the moment) or something else? Under former director Thomas Krens, the museum spent the past two decades in expansion mode, creating fame for the Guggenheim brand across the globe. His departure two years ago coincided with economic contractions everywhere; this modest exhibition reasserts the New York Guggenheim as the main event.

The museum as subject matter may smack of navel gazing, but some of the propositions here riff on larger issues going on outside the Guggenheim’s recently refurbished plaster facade. Of these works on paper, delicately attached to the gallery wall with aluminium clips, many use the platform for ecological concerns. Sequoia redwoods reach upwards in Saunders Architecture’s scheme, and green utopias are echoed in the West 8’s Perfection_Perversion and WORKac’s Flow Show. Futurists N55 imagine a biosphere, with butterflies indicating that we are looking at an idyllic moment pre-systems failure.

Playing on the reshaping of the Guggenheim (and, perhaps, museums in general) as accessible, pedestrian and consumable, Doug Aitken’s photographic diptych, Untitled, refashions the building as a model/costume and takes it walking down a Southern Californian street and into a bodega, where it shares the frame with a sales clerk and an ATM. Group8, an architecture team from Geneva, makes consumption palatable. Its entry, Tasting the Void, is a photographic print of the rotunda space rendered in Swiss chocolate.

Other evocative things thrown into the void: an oilrig, a trailer home, an oversized vagina (scaled 450:1, says artist Pipilotti Rist) and an Airbus.

Sidestepping the bulk of collages and digital renderings on view, South African provocateur Kendell Geers (known for urinating in Duchamp’s Fountain) submitted a text. The 1995 artwork, By Any Means Necessary, describes a bomb hidden in the space, timed to destroy what Geers describes as the “virginal white cube”. The narration goes on to equate the liberation efforts of urban guerillas with avant-garde African artists. Although 15 years old, the text reads fresh in this context, but hanging it in a corner of the gallery with a couple of dozen other artworks diminishes its bite.

That, and the fact that a fundraising auction accompanied Contemplating the Void. Ninety-five percent of the works on view were donated by the artists and architects to the Guggenheim and were available for online bidding in March, with proceeds supporting programming. It’s a shallow irony for our time that after all the dreams are viewed 
and fantasies considered, the void to be contemplated is inadvertently economic.