At New Museum Pia Camil Offers Visitors an Unorthodox Shop
Personal objects become currency in the exhibition.
The must-have art world item for 2015 just might have been Pia Camil‘s cool ponchos, handed out at Frieze New York. Fairgoers quickly fell in love with the Mexican artist’s multi-colored outerwear, handed out to those willing to wait in what soon became a massive line.
In her latest project, “A Pot for a Latch,” the artist instructed New Museum visitors in New York to “bring objects of power, of aesthetic interest, and of poignancy.” The invitation continued: “The monetary value of these items is insignificant; their value lies instead in their richness of meaning and in the new life that they acquire on the grid within the lobby gallery.”
Margot Norton is curating Camil’s upcoming solo show at the museum. On Wednesday, she was preparing for a one-night pre-exhibition event held that night in which the public was invited to exchange a personal object for one of a hundred sweatshirts designed by Camil in collaboration with Lorena Vega.
By the time the exhibition officially opens in January, the artist will transform the museum gallery lobby into an unorthodox shop where visitors can take others’ contributions, using their own personal objects as currency. The idea is based on the idea of a potlatch gift-giving festival, and there will be a number of designated exchange days during the exhibition’s run, with the initial stock coming from the sweatshirt giveaway.
“There’s something about the way that the work is allowing the public to become an active participant in the creation of her work that I think is really interesting,” said Norton. Everyone’s contributions will become part of the sculpture, which will evolve over the course of the show.
The scene on rainy Wednesday evening was much less hectic than at Frieze. By 4:40 p.m., twenty minutes before go-time, a modest line had formed, but the sweatshirt-crazed hoards I was fearfully anticipating never materialized.
At the head of the line, participants would present their object and sign a release acknowledging they wouldn’t get it back. One museum employee stamped the contribution with a potlatch logo, while another carefully emblazoned each numbered sweatshirt with the name of the donated object, slipped the garment into a mesh red backpack, and completed the hand off.
The exchange was scheduled to run through 9:00 p.m., and the last sweatshirt was handed over about 8:15 p.m. While some people were turned away because their contributions were smaller than the minimum six inches long, there were only a handful that went away empty-handed.
When I arrived, museum employees were already trading in their belongings for one of Camile’s stylish sweatshirts. It quickly became clear that my offering, the spare “emergency” umbrella that I keep at my office desk, paled in comparison to the beautiful, touching, and quirky objects that other people were bringing to the table. (The umbrella has gotten me through at least a few storms for which I would have been otherwise unprepared, but its value is far more utilitarian than sentimental.)
One employee offered a large jar of white placebo pills, cleverly labeled “chill pills,” leftover from Carsten Höller’s 2011 exhibition at the museum. Another parted with a pair of ballet shoes, a failed attempt to pick up the hobby as an adult. A gorgeous, multicolored scarf from Berlin’s Bless design collective was left behind by a woman who realized she didn’t feel comfortable wearing the bulky accessory.
For her part, Norton turned in a special frying pan designed to produce perfectly cooked eggs, its lid decorated like a giant sunny side up version of the form. An artist friend gave it to her some years ago during a studio visit, when she admitted she had failed miserably trying impress her then-boyfriend, now-husband, with a homemade breakfast. She was willing to part with it, she explained “now that I’m a pro at cooking eggs.”
There was the handkerchief that Faye Macarnig has bought with her first love, a faded floral swatch that she was carrying when she stopped into the New Museum for visit, not knowing about Camil’s project.
Her friend, Carmela Jorolan, had also decided to participate. “This is so sad, this is so hard to part with,” she told artnet News, showing me a list of compliments her classmates had written about a presentation she had given. The well-worn paper had become almost a talisman over the years, a wellspring of strength she could turn to when she found herself in need of confidence.
Cooper Union student Kiani Ferris turned in a large sculpture she created for the final of her 3-D design class. “It was my first time working in steel,” she told artnet News of the piece, which she had been instructed to destroy.
Mary Barone, formerly of artnet Magazine‘s “Out With Mary” column, gave the museum a small quilt she had made a year ago in a workshop run by artist Susan Cianciolo, because “they’ve two artists that have a great affinity.”
“It’s been a great experience to hear everyone’s stories about the objects,” said Norton.
Unsurprisingly, most attendees seemed fairly tapped in to the New York art scene, but there were definitely a few folks that had just wandered in off the street unawares.
One man was initially too embarrassed to tell me how he had found out about the event: as the last person in the slow-moving line, he discovered this was not, in fact, the queue for “pay-what-you-wish” hours, which begin at 7:00 p.m. Having waited around that long, however, he was now committed to taking part.
Luckily, the atmosphere was cheerful, despite the wait.
“I think we should have a party with everyone wearing the sweatshirt,” one woman told Norton. “Meet up at a bar, like SantaCon.”
“Pia Camil: A Pot for a Latch” is on view from January 13–April 17, 2016, at the New Museum in New York. Exchange days will be held from 2 –4 p.m. on February 7 and 21, March 6 and 20, and April 3 (all Sundays).
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