A WORK TO BE STEPPED ON, announces an index card placed on the floor of the gallery. The label is positioned next to a scrap of canvas, inviting visitors to traverse the tattered fabric. Yoko Ono’s Painting to be Stepped On (1960/61) is one of many works in the Pulitzer Arts Foundation exhibition “Assembly Required” that ask viewers to participate in some manner. Spanning more than six decades, the works are connected not by historical moment or geographic context but by a broader consideration of how we engage with art and with each other. Participation is treated as both a means of democratizing artistic production and a tool for imagining new ways of being—yet what is most palpable in “Assembly Required” is how these ideals come up against the parameters of an institution.
“Break a contemporary museum into pieces with the means you have chosen,” reads another prompt from Ono’s iconic book, Grapefruit (1964). “Collect the pieces and put it together with glue.” These texts set the tone for a playful if unfulfillable exhibition, suggesting that large-scale transformation must begin with the imagination. In the next gallery, Franz Erhard Walther’s Trial Sewn Pieces (1963–2001) forms a lexicon of bold colors and architectural silhouettes: a deep-blue pleated textile square, parallel segments of burgundy and brown fabrics, a bright-red jacket crisply starched and folded. A selection of wearable elements from Walther’s related Werksatz (First Work Set), 1963–69, is available for visitors to try on in the carpeted “activation space” nearby. Many of the items require multiple people to perform an activity or become bound by the same cloth. They not only demand careful coordination but ask their wearers to consider the choreographies of their movements and perceptions, both within the context of the artwork and beyond it. Walther and Ono pose similar questions: How do we speak through our actions? What sort of structures do we inhabit and uphold? Contained in these questions is an invitation to communally conceive or enact new structures and alternative modes of coexistence. Interestingly enough, however, the works in “Assembly Required” that most poignantly capture this disruptive and speculative quality of participation are those that require no assembly at all—at least, not here, not now.
On April 11, 2002, five hundred volunteers gathered at the base of a sand dune outside Lima, Peru. They were instructed to form a line and start shoveling sand in an effort to “move” the 1,600-foot dune over the course of a day. The remnants of this gesture, a collaborative performance by artist Francis Alÿs, are now exhibited as Cuando la fe mueve montañas (When Faith Moves Mountains), 2002–03. Our assembly is no longer required in this instance; the performance has been documented and canonized in the form of video footage, photographs, drawings, and correspondence. This distinction, combined with the simultaneously hopeful and Sisyphean nature of the original task, might spur viewers to think critically about the institution in which it is presented. While ambitious in scale, Cuando la fe mueve montañas represents a more realistic stance on collective action. Five hundred strangers may have come together to “move mountains,” but they did so knowing that the sand (and their efforts) would soon be swept away by larger forces. Any long-term change would require near-constant reinforcement, and even then, their impact would not be recognizable. The work is therefore as much about the limitations of participation as it is a heroic display of cooperation. It reveals the underbelly of participation in/as art; the sense of futility, reluctance, or inaction—perhaps even the twinge of cynicism—that may come with being asked to take part.
“Assembly Required” paints a wide range of artworks with a broad brush, making us acutely aware of their participatory elements but not much else. The result feels more didactic than transformative; it implies a level of agency, yet stops short of addressing the various conditions that facilitate or inhibit agency, and to what end. Countless social, political, and economic barriers limit some and enable others to show up, speak out, or move through space in any particular way. Walther, for example, grew up in Germany during World War II, while Alÿs’s work was conceived in response to corruption and human rights abuses in Peru at the start of the millennium. For the artists in “Assembly Required,” art has served as a vessel for resistance, participation as an exercise in world-making. But what function is it serving here at the Pulitzer today? Who is calling us to action, and in what way? Start with your gaze on the floor, the foundations on which you stand. Break a museum, and collect the pieces. How would you glue them back together?