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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Fair
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A sense of place
Norms are upended in MMoCA's 'Absent City'
'The Absent City' could be more visually and conceptually
'The Absent City' could be more visually and conceptually challenging.

Site-specific art installations are just what the name implies, pieces that have been designed for exhibition in a particular setting: a certain space, a certain audience, a certain moment in time.

Through Nov. 16, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is presenting "The Absent City," the work of Miami-based artists Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt. The pair have taken over three of MMoCA's most prominent spaces, all visible from the street: the pointed glass "prow," the lobby and the State Street Gallery.

While their style is colorful and playful, Behar and Marquardt attempt to address social and political issues and notions of civic life. This is most obvious in the lobby piece, "Our Home Is Your Home," which they noted in a recent artists' talk is patterned after their own living space. On a bright yellow console fixed to the wall are objects that recall the couple's hobbies and previous artistic projects: a house of cards, a "bouquet" composed of colored holiday lights in a vase, vintage robot and rocket toys, a fake bomb, an old record player and so forth.

Above this assemblage is the "World Poetical Map," which is like a large schoolroom map that turns normal conventions upside down - literally. The new arrangement puts South America and Africa at the forefront, not North America and Europe. And while countries are demarcated by color, none is named. On the floor in front of this are three large, multicolored ottomans that are supposed to create a lounge-like space for visitors.

While I can empathize with the artists' desire to uproot political conventions and imagine a world in which nationalism plays a less pernicious role, I couldn't help but think that there's just not enough there there in this piece. While it's well-intentioned, it's also a bit facile, as Grinchy as it makes me feel to say it. Marquardt commented that "poetical" and "political" are only a few letters apart, as if this had revelatory meaning. Tell that to the wags pointing out the equally chance comparison between "Obama" and "Osama." Not all similarities have significance.

More successful is the installation of brilliantly colored ribbons cascading down the full length of the museum's signature glass prow. Viewed from the outside, it makes the museum seem like a dynamic, exciting, welcoming place to be - perhaps in contrast to some people's ideas that museums are cold or intimidating. (An idea I've never understood, frankly - what's more democratic than a place where you can see art for free?) From the inside, the ribbons create a magical screen as one looks out onto the street or ascends the central glass staircase.

The third piece, in the State Street Gallery, is the most interactive as viewers traverse corridors and enter little "rooms" made by densely hanging the same type of gaily colored, rubbery ribbons. At the front of the gallery, near the window, is a flag of artificial flowers surrounded by several small human figures (about knee-high). Behar and Marquardt say they've patterned the design of the room on pre-Renaissance Italian cities.

While the work in the prow succeeds as a site-specific piece, at least architecturally speaking, the most important question to consider is how these works relate to the people of Madison. On a recent opening night, people were enjoying themselves, but I don't know if these pieces really dig deeply at the social and political issues the artists want to address - presumably, in part, issues about a sense of community and questioning the conventional order. Madison, while not a progressive utopia, is a pretty savvy place, and I think Madisonians could go for something more visually and conceptually challenging.

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