When the Museum of Contemporary Art moves to its new Chicago Avenue digs this June, two works in its permanent collection won't be making the trip--Max Neuhaus's Sound Installation, 1979 and Charles Simonds's Dwellings. Both artworks are site specific, so their ultimate fate, according to MCA curator of collections Lucinda Barnes, rests with the future owners of the Ontario Street building, though she says Neuhaus and Simonds have been invited to create permanent pieces for the new museum. "We value their presence in our collection," Barnes says.
Neuhaus's installation in the west stairwell can't possibly be moved. Created with the help of the museum's architect, it's simply a part of the building's environment. Hidden behind a wall of acoustic foam are 30 speakers, each tuned to a particular note. These speakers emit varying levels of low-frequency, industriallike sound--from steady drones to swelling tones--which can be heard more clearly in some areas of the stairwell than in others, since the sound waves bounce off the walls, floors, and ceilings.
Dwellings, the miniature Anasazi-like structures built into the basement's east wall in 1981 for the inauguration of the Site Cafe, can't be dismantled and moved either: it's carefully constructed of hundreds of tiny handmade clay bricks, and any attempt at excavation would destroy it--which would perhaps be a fitting end for it, since on one level it's about urban and architectural impermanence and the passing of civilizations.
"It's an amazing piece and part of the identity of the museum," says Barnes. "We've explored every avenue of moving the piece in its entirety, but we realize there's no way we can take it with us. It's made of unfired dried clay, and any significant vibration will turn it into dust."
Simonds (pronounced "Simmons") made Dwellings for a show at the MCA in 1981--his first retrospective in America. Prior to that, he'd built as many as 300 of these tiny clay structures on the streets of New York and in other cities, including Chicago. None of the outdoor works exists anymore, which was part of the idea: they were meant to comment on the transience of peoples and cultures. Rejecting the idea of ownership, Simonds made the dwellings for the pleasure and edification of the surrounding community; but as soon as someone inevitably tried to possess them--by playing with them or attempting to take them home--they crumbled.
Simonds called the imaginary civilization that inhabited his dwellings the Little People, envisioning them as a migratory tribe of hunters and shepherds with their own culture and mythology. ("I am not insane," he once told an art critic. "But I do think about them.") The miniature clay brick buildings he created, inspired by primitive cliff dwellings in New Mexico, were meant to be the only visible remains of the Little People.
Simonds made his first dwellings in SoHo from 1970 to '72, when it was still largely a working-class neighborhood. Using dental forceps and basic materials (clay, sand, stones, sticks) he painstakingly put together the tiny houses in dilapidated areas--crumbling walls and corners of abandoned buildings, on high window ledges, and in broken gutters. Simonds then went over to the Lower East Side, because he wanted to build his dwellings in an area with an active street life, where he could discuss the Little People's history with residents. He often worked in front of curious bystanders, and his "constructive performances" became public events; within five years he progressed from being a self-described "anonymous vagabond who made visionary things" to a folk artist who was also a neighborhood activist, working for a housing coalition and other community groups.
At least one dwelling had been made on every block of the Lower East Side by 1977, but kids, vandals, traffic vibrations, and would-be art collectors reduced most of them to rubble within days or hours of his creating them. The dwellings were metaphors for inevitable ruin, the cycle of life and death, growth and decline--the historic annihilation of one culture by another.
The art world began to notice the dwellings in the mid-70s. Simonds was invited to construct dwellings throughout the U.S., Europe, and South America as well as in European art museums and private homes. During a 1975 Art Institute of Chicago exhibit called "The Small Scale in Contemporary Art," he made a dwelling in an alley off Harrison Street.
Simonds returned to Chicago six years later for the MCA show; among other works it contained a series of earthen buildings that traced the evolution of his imaginary civilization. He constructed Dwellings in one of the MCA's oldest walls--dating back to when the building housed a bakery. Simonds didn't use existing holes in the rough brick wall; instead, he carved out cavities in which to place the dwellings.
The miniature panorama begins with mountains at the south end of the wall. To the immediate left lies another mountain range, showing signs of human activity: rocks seem to have been cut out and carried away. Moving north, a rocky outcropping looks like a stone quarry. A long cliff-side route strewn with broken pottery leads from the quarry to a cavern, where a village is situated. A steep path rises from the left of the village and connects to a cluster of kivalike buildings. At the far north end of the wall is a small, crumbling outpost where the Little People might have watched out for their enemies.
Simonds has indicated in an MCA catalog that Dwellings depicts just one possible evolutionary cycle of the Little People; no one representation is definitive. In this sense, we can all become archaeologists, interpreting and creating whatever history we wish for the culture.
While Dwellings attempted to preserve work that had once been ephemeral street art, the MCA's Barnes says that the artist knew while he was creating it that someday it would probably be destroyed or at best made inaccessible to the museum-going public.
"There were discussions from the beginning that it wouldn't be in the building forever," Barnes says, "that we'd probably have a new building within the next couple decades. If the new owners choose not to maintain and preserve it, like putting it behind Plexiglas, the piece would probably be destroyed with the artist's involvement."
While the miniature dwellings of another imaginary civilization may yet inhabit the MCA's new home this summer, Simonds's piece in the current museum still stands as a visible reminder of architectural change, of time passing. All things--even museums, those supposedly permanent repositories--must pass: Vita brevis, ars too.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tom Van Eynde.