IT WAS THE SUMMER of 2003 when we last checked in on the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's "Gyroscope," a new initiative that then-director Ned Rifkin described as adhering less to the traditional, "authoritative" exhibition model than to the idea of a "multivalenced," ever-evolving "process" of thematic micro-shows drawn from the museum's collection of modern and contemporary art. Through it, Rifkin explained, the Hirshhorn would rethink the way it presented its "fingerprint" to the world. "A lot of today's art is not necessarily supposed to mean anything," he said. "It's supposed to evoke, to inspire. Even, perhaps, to irritate at times."
What goes around, comes around.
Two years ago, one of the focal points of "Gyroscope" was a piece called "at hand." The attention-getting installation by artist Ann Hamilton consisted, essentially, of a room full of ever-accumulating scraps of paper dropped by mechanical contraptions designed by the artist and mounted -- pun fully intended -- over visitors' heads. As "Gyroscope" for the first time this fall takes over every one of the museum's galleries, Hamilton is back, once again stealing the spotlight with an initially confounding, but, like "at hand," compelling piece.
Called "Palimpsest," it's part of "From Ordinary to Extraordinary," a "Gyroscope" exhibition highlighting unorthodox and everyday art materials. Like "at hand," it also incorporates scraps of paper, only this time they're pinned to the installation's walls made of beeswax, and encased under beeswax floors (you'll be asked to replace your shoes with blue clean-room booties before you enter). Some of the artwork's squares of yellowed newsprint are blank; most are covered with handwritten passages, in English and other languages. Several appear to be recollections of a first sexual experience; others seem to have been written in response to various, unspecified instructions, as with the following Hallmark-caliber passage:
I like to take the work of other people who have grown to be smarter than me, and I like to use their wisdom as rules to live by. This time, I'd like to share some of my own words: Everyone needs a cheerleader. If you don't think you have one, be your own.
In the back of the room sits a glass tank containing two heads of cabbage and several live slugs, which, over the course of the exhibition, should begin to eat away at the heads. The sight gag -- referring to the erosion of memory -- is obvious, but it doesn't seem to be all that's going on in Hamilton's work. One passage, which I found repeated on at least two of the hundreds of pages, seems almost to give voice to concerns that the artist herself might have had:
I do not feel disloyal when I talk about my [illegible] life or that of the many others who [illegible] in here in one way or another. What I am loyal to, I hope, is something more complex, i.e., I would not use things I know about anyone's private life to further my own ends. That would be both indiscrete and disloyal.
Of course, that's exactly what "Palimpsest" -- whose title refers to text that has been written on a used, but imperfectly erased, manuscript -- does. The borrowed confessions it contains (if that is, in fact, what they are) do further the artist's ends, which seem to have to do both with the voyeuristic guilt we might feel at that very indiscretion, and the fact that, unless we write them down and share them with others, our private memories will inevitably decay along with our bodies.
Not everything worth seeing in this latest incarnation of "Gyroscope" is so cerebral. Olafur Eliasson's "Round Rainbow," for example, is purely about delight. A new acquisition given to the museum in honor of Rifkin's tenure as director from 2002 to 2005 (he has since been replaced by former deputy director Olga Viso, moving on to become the Smithsonian's undersecretary of art), Eliasson's piece is quite simple. An acrylic ring slowly turns in front of a spotlight, acting like a prism casting ever-changing rainbows that slide across the walls and fold in on themselves.
Other works on view evoke earlier shows by William Kentridge, Ana Mendieta, Gerhard Richter and Leonardo Drew. Single-artist focus galleries look closely at such enduringly creepy painters as Francis Bacon and Balthus, whose works include a 1937 piece on loan from the Musee Picasso in France. Among the new acquisitions you'll find Robert Therrien's oversize "No title (Oilcan)" and Karin Sander's "Ostrich Egg," each of which respectively evokes works by Claes Oldenburg and Constantin Brancusi (both on exhibit elsewhere in the museum).
Downstairs on the lower level, the museum has just opened a small screening room devoted to new media. Dubbed the Black Box, the new space is showing short black-and-white videos by Hiraki Sawa: "Dwelling," "Migration," "Elsewhere," "Eight Minutes" and "Trail." Shot in the young Japanese artist's apartment, the five related digital videos all feature the ordinary furnishings of an urban flat -- appliances, tub, bed, etc. -- as a backdrop to the peregrinations of tiny, toy-size goats, camels, elephants, horses, birds, airplanes and even people.
Fittingly, the videos are all about the power of the imagination. As with "From Ordinary to Extraordinary," their subtext is the ability to send us to exotic places of wonder and imagination by using only whatever materials are on hand -- or in Sawa's case, without ever leaving the comforts of home. It's one of the things that art is supposed to do and that the Hirshhorn, by periodically rummaging through its closet, does exceptionally well.
FROM ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY
SCULPTORS AND THEIR DRAWINGS
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE COLLECTION
All on view through Jan. 8 as part of the ongoing series of "Gyroscope" exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.si.edu/hirshhorn. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.
Hiraki Sawa's videos will remain on view in the museum's Black Box screening room through April.
Public programs associated with the exhibitions include:
Wednesday at 7 -- Meet the artist: Jim Hodges. Hodges talks about his work, "don't be afraid," on view on the exterior of the Hirshhorn building, followed by an after-hours opportunity to view the new "Gyroscope" installations until 10. Seating for the Hodges lecture is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Gallery talks will be offered throughout the evening, with new director Olga Viso speaking at 9 in the "Recent Acquisitions" gallery. Free. Cash bar.
Dec. 9 at 12:30 -- Associate curator Anne Ellegood talks about artist Ann Hamilton's "Palimpsest."
Regular "Gyroscope" tours are weekdays at noon and 1 and weekends at noon and 2.