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Report from San Diego: Ai Weiwei, Sam Gilliam, Helen Pashgian

A view of Ai Weiwei's newly acquired "Marble Chair" (2010) as part of MCASD's "Prospect 2011" exhibition. (all images courtesy the author unless otherwise noted)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is now two-for-two this spring in Southern California museum collector’s committee acquisitions, with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego announcing Thursday the addition of his “Marble Chair” (2010) to their permanent collection through their annual acquisitions drive. This comes on the heels of the high profile event held less than a month ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where big donors moved to add Ai’s “Untitled (Divine Proportion)” (2006) for a reported $400,000.

Left, Helen Frankenthaler's "Five Color Space" (1966), already part of the MCASD permanent collection. Right, works from Sam Gilliam's "Dance Me, Dance You 2" series (2009) acquired by the museum.

Along with Ai Weiwei’s “Marble Chair” (2010), MCASD also scooped up a piece from Sam Gilliam’s colorfully suspended Dance Me, Dance You 2 series (2009) as well as a sleek, translucent sphere by artist Helen Pashgian, a pioneer of Southern California’s Light and Space movement (and just in time for the upcoming Pacific Standard Time exhibition that will take place in 60 California cultural institutions). The pieces were assembled into a well-stated exhibition entitled Prospect 2011, which also included works by Elenor Antin, Janine Antoni and Helen  Frankenthaler, as well as a witty collaborative piece between David Ellis and Roberto Lange that produced sporadic drum-line percussion from an overflowing trash can in the gallery.

David Ellis's kinetic sculpture "Busted Plume" (2010), made in collaboration with Robert Lange, at MCASD.

In addition to high level museum patrons voting on which works to acquire, San Diego residents were also allowed to give their opinion as to which pieces they thought MCASD should buy in a joint effort with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two polls picked the same three works, with San Diego readers and patrons alike side-stepping the more provocative Antoni piece documenting her upright urination off of New York’s Chrysler building, for the works by Ai Weiwei, Helen Pashgian and Sam Gilliam (who said museum patrons and the public weren’t in sync?). Nevertheless, these three new acquisitions are strong and welcomed steps in the growth of the San Diego museum’s permanent collection. The Gilliam piece augments the museum’s holdings in terms of Color Field works as well as African-American art, with Gilliam himself being a path-breaking figure in both those contexts beginning in the 1960s. Helen Pashgian’s sculpture is a also a nice fit in the museum’s collection in light of MCASD’s long standing connection with figures of the ‘Light and Space’ movement. With critics and collectors alike often overlooking Pashgian’s role in that group, this acquisition is all the more relevant. In September, MCASD will open Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface in conjunction with PST, and it will interesting to see if the piece makes an appearance in that show.

Helen Pashgian, "Untitled" (1968-69), cast polyester resin (via mcasd.org)

MCASD Director Hugh Davies has been an outspoken supporter of Ai Weiwei’s since the artist’s detention by Chinese officials last month, and indeed “Marble Chair” takes on a new gravity in the face of the artist’s disappearence. The empty cold larger-than-life marble thrones are signature meditations from Ai on absence, authority, and tradition — themes that are no doubt playing themselves out in his current situation. The curators of the Prospect show heightened the effect in their installation by isolating the works in an adjoining room.

Ai Weiwei, "Marble Chair" (2010) in MCASD's "Prospect 2011" exhibition.

In conjunction with this exhibition and new acquisition, the museum has organized a 24-hour silent protest of Ai’s detainment called “Sitting in Solidarity,” to begin on Thursday May 19. The protest will feature a rotating number of volunteers performing a sit-in using traditional Chinese styled chairs from 11:00 AM Thursday to 11:00 am, Friday May 20. While the public will be able to observe and participate in the protest during the museum’s regular hours, volunteers will also have the opportunity to continue the sit-in throughout the night after the museum closes. Furthermore, the chairs will remain open to the public during the week following the initial protest, with the museum encouraging visitors to post pictures online as a visual petition.

Prospect 2011 continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego until July 10, 2011.

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