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Challenging conventional concepts of art

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Miwon KwonAs an art historian, Miwon Kwon doesn’t focus on the paintings, sculptures and other mainstays of traditional art. Instead, she is immersed in the study of forms of modern art that challenge both our ideas of what art is and how it should be managed.

“I’m interested in art that refuses to be a static object, whether it’s landscapes that are used to make artwork that the climate then destroys, or art designed for specific locations that can never be moved, or purely conceptual art,” said Kwon, a UCLA professor of art history. “I look at art as a living thing. I don’t like thinking of it as just treasures to be stored away.”

Kwon — who helped to curate several exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art while enrolled in that museum’s program in curatorial studies — is currently preparing a historical exhibition for the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) facility in downtown Los Angeles. The show will feature land art, the 1960s to 1970s movement of artists who used the natural environment of remote and often physically daunting landscapes to create their artwork. Among the most prominent of these artists are Michael Heizer, best known for “Double Negative,” a huge trench carved out of the Nevada desert, and Robert Smithson, who created a monumental "Spiral Jetty" in the Great Salt Lake.
 
Robert Smithson's
Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in the Great Salt Lake.
Together with Philipp Kaiser, a MOCA curator, Kwon is co-curating the exhibition, which should open in 2012. Kaiser said Kwon was invited to work on the project because of her background in landscape and architecture, as well as her book, "One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity," an examination of art that is made for and inseparable from its location.

Questions about Art Stewardship

By its nature, Kwon said, land art raises questions about who is responsible for it and how it should be handled.

“For example, Heizer’s ‘Double Negative’ (a 1500-foot trench cut into the side of a mesa in the Nevada desert), which was made to escape the museum system, is in fact in the collection of MOCA,” she said. “Should the museum let the work deteriorate from weathering or conserve and preserve it? Should the museum make it more accessible to visitors, and if so, how do you do that? What effects do these kinds of artworks have on what we think is art and what a museum’s role is?”

Through a graduate seminar that Kwon is co-teaching with Kaiser, UCLA students in art history, art and architecture are conducting research on the pieces to include in the show.

The course is part of UCLA’s largest and most popular graduate studies sub-field in art history  — modern and contemporary art — which Kwon runs along with George Baker, associate professor of art history.

An Architect’s Sensibility

“Because she was trained in architecture before becoming an art historian, Miwon brings an unusual perspective, as demonstrated by her book on site-specific art,” said Dell Upton, professor and chair of the Department of Art History. “She is able to understand the nature of places and sites in a way that most art historians don’t. Nationally, she’s one of the stars in modern, contemporary art history.”

Kwon came to her current field of study after first exploring others. Born in South Korea, at age 10 she joined her family in Washington, D.C., where her father was a foreign correspondent for a Korean newspaper. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, she returned in 1983 to her home town of Seoul, which was undergoing intense modernization in preparation for the 1988 Olympic games.

Shocked by the demolition of old, poor neighborhoods and their replacement by high-rise apartment complexes, Kwon said she felt “a profound loss of something Korean, something culturally authentic.” She used a camera to document what remained of the old life for her master’s thesis in photography. When an exhibition of those photos was presented, Kwon received a second shock from the reaction of her fellow Korean students at UC Berkeley.

“They were appalled at what they thought was showing dirty laundry to the Westerners — that I was portraying Korea as backward,” she said.

That debate spurred her interest in the relationship between cultural identity and place, and later in art that defines and is defined by the place it occupies. She went on to complete a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory at Princeton University in 1998 and joined the UCLA faculty to teach contemporary art history the same year.

Artists and the Public Interact

For her next book, Kwon is researching the give-and-take between artists and the viewing public that has been set in motion by the artwork of post-1965 artists who have veered away from making objects. An example is the work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban conceptual artist whose art encourages viewers to touch and take pieces of it with them. In one artwork, Gonzalez-Torres created a pile of Baci brand chocolates to which viewers could help themselves.

“So this is art that you can consume, that can become part of your body, making the viewer part of the method of dispersing the art,” Kwon said.

This kind of art also raises questions about how it is collected and authenticated, she pointed out.

“How does the art world make up rules to distinguish the chocolate in a museum collection from the ones that I can buy?” Kwon asked. “The contract between the artist and the collector or museum becomes a fundamental part of the work because it is very important in determining what can be called authentic art and what is not.

“I will be using Felix’s work as a case study to look at current practices by museums and collectors, seeing how nonobject-based art moves through the marketplace, enters the institution and then challenges museum procedures.”

This story was published courtesy of the UCLA College Report.
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