Lost and Found

Surviving the crush, teasing an oracular virtual dolphin, and making sense of the Walker Art Center's reopening party

Certainly the strangest corporate sop in the museum is "Oracle II," a computer-generated, artificially intelligent dolphin housed in the aforementioned Best Buy grotto. The dolphin will answer questions when queried from a nearby keyboard. For example, this representative exchange with a museum visitor:

Interrogator: "What is your favorite food?"

Dolphin: "There's a restaurant, a café, and a coffee cart. You choose."

Interrogator: "Are you a shill for the Walker?"

Dolphin: "Sometimes."

At least he's honest, which is more than you can say for a lot of computer-generated, artificially intelligent dolphins.

This kind of populist commercialism can easily become a distraction. Consider the cautionary example of the Guggenheim, a once-maverick institution that's become a mere marketing platform for BMW and Armani. Excess begetting success, the Guggenheim has also franchised its brand in Spain and Soho and Las Vegas, as though a fine-arts museum were nothing more than a highfalutin Arby's.

Still, there's no reason to suspect that the Walker will sell its lively and independent soul to the highest bidder. In fact, the inaugural exhibits in the museum's new galleries underscore just how sound a curatorial and institutional foundation the Walker is building upon. These exhibits, which showcase artists the museum has collected in depth, are organized in a series of quartets. The first is dedicated to the four pillars of the museum's postwar collection: Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell, and Ellsworth Kelly. The second celebrates the spiritual descendants of those august pathfinders. There's a series of Duchampian readymades by Sherri Levine, for instance, as well as a room devoted to Kara Walker's brave confrontation with the mythology of the American South. Also on display is a collection of artifacts from Matthew Barney's Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, the five-film Cremaster cycle. This is especially intriguing, since, in one of the cycle's best scenes, Barney, dressed in a kilt and pink wig, scales the inside of the Guggenheim Spiderman-style. What, one has to wonder, would he cook up given free rein inside the new Walker, a building that already looks sort of like an REI climbing wall?

One can, of course, pick fights with individual pieces or artists (Is Levine advancing Duchamp's ideas or simply repeating his wry ironies? Discuss). But you can't argue with the overall excellence of the Walker's collection. The joy of seeing so much of this work at the same time is that you can begin to tease out the curatorial philosophy behind it. It's intriguing to note, for instance, that the exhibit identifies a series of "alternate modernisms" in often-neglected movements like Arte Povera, Fluxus, and Japanese Gutai art. In contrast to, say, the MoMA, the Walker doesn't lay any claim to definitiveness. As with the layout of the new galleries themselves, there are many points of entry and secret back alleys in art's canon. In this regard at least, the Walker's new form and its abiding spirit seem perfectly in synch.

I must admit that I didn't think much of the new addition initially. When first I remember seeing it, on a grungy winter afternoon, the building seemed soulless and chintzy, its whimsicality forced. In fact, I didn't really warm to the place until late Saturday night. The building's metal face was washed in mellow moonlight, its windows and balconies filled with people. Someone was giving away blinking red lapel pins, and the crowd below looked like the denizens of a bioluminescent sea. From inside the building, you could hear the burble of conversation and music. Finally, the Walker seemed finished.

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