When the Walker closed for expansion in February, the choice to eschew the cultural landscape for a year could have easily been forgiven. But instead of hibernating, the museum's staff has chosen to extend its tentacles into the community with a program called "Walker Without Walls," which in some ways is an experiment in redefining the concept of museum itself. It has included projects that dabble in sports-lite entertainment (a miniature golf course), create an Oprah-esque literary community (a book club), and engineer commercial faux-advertising (the billboard project in downtown Minneapolis).
The newest billboard peering down on the corner of Hennepin and 12th Street comes from Matthew Barney, a provocative video artist and sculptor who has a rich history with the Walker, the only museum in the United States to own all five films from his renowned Cremaster Cycle. This billboard concludes a series that has seen mass media works from Yoko Ono, Frank Gaard, Takashi Murakami, and Laylah Ali. As with most rented billboards around town, the logo of the owner, Clear Channel, appears below the jumbo placard (but has been Photoshopped out of the Walker's promotional material).
Despite its gigantic presence, Barney's billboard doesn't come equipped with a convenient museum title card to describe the work. Literature from the Walker explains that A Penumbra da Lâmina (Penumbra of the Blade) is based upon iconography from a recent multimedia float collaboration with Arto Lindsay at Carnaval Salvador Bahia. The figurative references are to the Brazilian religion Candomblé, a blend of Catholicism and African slave faith. Elements of polymorphism and environmental annihilation are charged with a mysterious sexual energy.
Because a billboard is such a public form of display, we chose the critical method of going directly to the masses, accosting people near bus stops on Hennepin for their critical opinions of Penumbra of the Blade.
Deirdre McDonnell: What is that on the left supposed to be? It looks like life and death. There's dried-up death on one side, and the other side has a beautiful woman with flowers.
City Pages: If I told you that the title isPenumbra of the Blade, would you get anything more out of it?
McDonnell: [Pause] That makes it more complex.
Dave Olsen: Whoa! Look at that! Is that a beer ad? That's crazy. I saw something like that in a dream once.
CP: What happened in the dream?
Olsen: I don't think you want to print it.
CP: Do you think it works as a piece of art?
Olsen: I don't know, but it makes me want to drink beer.
CP: What kind of beer?
Olsen: Red Stripe, I think. Definitely not Budweiser.
Evan Pengelly: I don't pay attention to billboards very much. It looks like it's trying to contrast something--the shovel and dead plant on one side, and the living person with a flower in her mouth on the other. There's the dead plant with the tools and then a black person--I don't know if he's trying to say something about that or not. It's definitely interesting. But there is that Clear Channel logo below it--I guess you always have to advertise something.
Julian Kelly: It makes no direct statement to me at all. My opinion is blinded by considering it to be in the completely wrong place to advertise anything. I go to nearly every museum in every city that I visit, so I'm used to seeing challenging material. I don't necessarily need to be able to explain it to enjoy it. If it's provocative or stimulating, then I'll leave afterwards still thinking about the works of art, whether it's anger at their preposterous modernity or whether it moves me emotionally.
CP: Where does this billboard put you on that continuum?
Kelly: It leaves me amused and stimulated to some degree. I don't know who sees this billboard, though.
CP: I think mostly people in cars.
Kelly: They should be concentrating on the road! People who drive with their cell phones will get distracted when they see that hint of naked flesh up there.
Craig Copeland: I was looking at that recently. I was trying to make out the thing on the left. It looks like a shovel. Yeah, I walk around here every day. It seems to change every month or so. It doesn't evoke much for me right now. As an artist myself, I like the colors--the green and the brown. I think it's great. It's better than the advertisements you see for alcohol or whatever.
Michelle Offerman: I'm a member of the Walker.
CP: So what do you think this billboard is about?
Offerman: Unfortunately, I already read the blurb on the back of promotional material. It was about Brazilian culture, if I remember right. Personally, I don't get it. On the left is a dying flower. I associate it with cutting down the rain forest and things like that. There's life and we have an opportunity to bring that life back. [Pause] Oh my god, I don't know.