The Speed: A Laboratory for Art

Spencer Finch (born 1962), Evening Star, 2010 (detail),  Aluminum, fluorescent fixtures, tubes and filters, Dimensions  variable, Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York. This image is a detail of another work of Spencer's that is a relative to the Speed Art Museum commission project that is still in development. 

Spencer Finch (born 1962), Evening Star, 2010 (detail),
Aluminum, fluorescent fixtures, tubes and filters, Dimensions
variable, Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York.
This image is a detail of another work of Spencer’s that is a relative to the Speed Art Museum commission project that is still in development.

March 12 may seem like a date in the distant future, but for those involved with the reopening of the Speed Museum — a process that began nearly three years ago — three months is but a relative moment away. There are a million balls in the air, as every department scrambles to finish their respective projects in time for the reopening. Miranda Lash is the Speed’s curator of contemporary art and the spearheader of one such project: the new Speed’s site-specific commissioned art pieces.

A layman may need to have the phrase “site-specific commissioned art piece” broken down. Essentially, such an art piece is one that the museum in question – in this case, the Speed – requests to have created specifically for that museum. In other words, the museum pays and collaborates with an artist to birth a new painting or sculpture that can only be seen, at least temporarily, at that museum.

Matthew Moore (born 1976), Conceptual rendering for the Elizabeth P. and Frederick K. Cressman Art Park, Speed Art Museum, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Matthew Moore (born 1976), Conceptual rendering for the Elizabeth P. and Frederick K. Cressman Art Park, Speed Art Museum, 2015.
Image courtesy of the artist.

In accordance with the new iteration of the Speed’s goal to become a preeminent, worldly and modern museum, Miranda Lash began assembling a wide swath of the world’s most talented and renowned contemporary artists from which to commission pieces. “I first begin by giving the artist some very initial parameters. Things like, ‘This is how much money we have’ and, ‘This is how much space you have,’” says Lash.

“Next, it’s up to the artist to see what interests them, what sparks their imagination. They come to Louisville, and we show them the things they want to learn about,” Lash adds, going on to say that this sometimes culminates in a lengthy process of narrowing down the proposal, obtaining the required materials as well as giving the artist the time and space necessary to create the work: “It really depends on what the needs of the artist are.”

It’s not an easy task, and Lash mentally prepares herself for the Herculean effort by reminding herself that there will almost always be changes. Despite this knowledge, Lash has no complaints. In fact, she seems to display an almost reverence: “It’s actually a very beautiful process. If I can compare it to the germination of a human, it’s like seeing the ultrasound of a work of art all the way to completion. You really do get to see all the intricacies and how it’s conceived. And how it changes.”

Wangechi Mutu (born 1972), Early conceptual rendering,  Image courtesy of the artist.

Wangechi Mutu (born 1972), Early conceptual rendering,
Image courtesy of the artist.

The site-specific commissioned art pieces at the new museum are divided by display area, two of the pieces indoors and several of the pieces outside in the Speed’s new Art Park. The word “park” brings to mind a sense of languid interaction, an unhurried enjoyment and appreciation of one’s surroundings, and that’s exactly what Lash and the rest of the Speed’s team wants for the patrons. The Art Park will be a place where people sit and have lunch while looking at, listening to and experiencing the art.

One of the pieces in the Art Park will be from Matthew Moore, an artist based in Phoenix. He is a farmer and activist with a strong interest in the local food movement. Louisville has a burgeoning interest in its surrounding agricultural community, so Lash thought the Speed would be a perfect fit for his work. Upon arrival in Louisville, Moore became quickly fixated on tobacco.

Consequently, Moore’s piece will be a to-scale tobacco barn-inspired edifice complete with roofing and doors. The structure will be chapel-like and white, featuring 3D scans of tobacco leaves made of fiberglass that will adorn the interior in which people can have lunch and sit in the shade. It will reside on the north lawn of the Speed Museum premises.

Moore is the only American whose work will be featured outside. As was previously mentioned, the Speed’s goals are more cosmopolitan. Nari Ward, a Jamaica-born artist who now resides in New York, is interested in civil rights history. At the time of this writing, his proposal has yet to be finalized, but some of the local history he gravitated to were the widespread protests and protests in Louisville on segregation of housing and schools. According to Lash, many of these protests took place at Churchill Downs. Lash also says that Ward’s piece will probably be in response to the confederate statue on UofL’s campus.

Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu, widely considered to be one of the most important African artists in the world, is currently at work on some commissioned pieces as well. She is more well known for her fantastical collages, but as Lash says, “Sometimes, when you’re developing a new project, it can be exciting to have an artist considering experimenting with a new medium. Wangechi said she has long been interested but has never really had the opportunity to try some outdoor sculpture, so I thought [the Speed] would be an attractive offer to her.” It appears that Lash was right, and Mutu’s prominent sculpture will be that of a sea goddess emerging, as if from the waves, from the hill in front of the museum’s original building.

Nari Ward (born 1963), Nu Colossus, 2011, boat, metal, wood, metal chimney, copper drum, furniture, plexiglas and rubber roofing membrane, 720 x 336 x 168 inches (approximately). Created in collaboration between the artist and MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. This image is a detail of another work by Nari Ward as his project for the Speed Art Museum commission is still in development. 

Nari Ward (born 1963), Nu Colossus, 2011, boat, metal, wood, metal chimney, copper drum, furniture, plexiglas and rubber roofing membrane, 720 x 336 x 168 inches (approximately). Created in collaboration between the artist and MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. This image is a detail of another work by Nari Ward as his project for the Speed Art Museum commission is still in development.

The Turner Prize is one of Britain and the world’s most prestigious art awards. It is to be given to an artist who not only shows singular promise but who has made an exemplary contribution to British art in the last year. Susan Philipsz, Scotswoman and winner of the Turner Prize in 2010, is contributing art for the Park as well. Philipsz’s medium is sound, and her piece, “Sunset Song,” based off of a 19th century murder ballad called “On the Banks of the Ohio” will be a soundscape featuring back-and-forth, passionately sung dialogue between two lovers that will play in 15-minute intervals and ebb and flow in volume with the sunlight. (The piece was originally developed for Art Pace San Antonio.) The murder ballad is a song form with origins in Kentucky. They are morality tales of people whose passion drove them too far, to murder. “It’s no surprise to me that Susan was drawn to this very Scottish-influenced music to use in her work here,” Lash says.

Some art pieces that were commissioned elsewhere will round off the Art Park such as Henry Moore’s horse sculptures and Jeppe Hein’s social bench, a circular bench that forces the sitters to face each other. These pieces were designed to last longer and were built with more durable materials like bronze and steel, which is a big difference from the site-specific pieces: “We wanted to let artists work with whichever materials they wanted, but some of them are not very durable. That’s okay though because we’ll be rotating new pieces in approximately every two years. It encourages people to come back and experience Art Park.”

Brian Knep (born 1968), Conceptual rendering for the English Renaissance Room, Speed Art Museum, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Brian Knep (born 1968), Conceptual rendering for the English Renaissance Room, Speed Art Museum, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

In addition to the ambition of the Art Park, there will also be two indoor commissioned pieces. Spencer Finch, an American artist, is at work on a stainless steel, inverted tree that will be suspended from the ceiling in the atrium of the addition to the Speed. Fluorescent bulbs covered in gels will adorn the branches of the tree with the goal of employing a scientific approach to the cumulative effects of color and light to recreate the morning light on February 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Ky.: “His concept was whether you’re here in the morning, at midday or in the evening, you will always have the feeling of dawn. He loved the idea of Abraham Lincoln ushering in a new dawn for this country, and the founder of this museum, James Breckenridge Speed, was grandnephew to Joshua Speed, a great friend to Abraham Lincoln, so the connection to the museum is even stronger.”

The final site-specific commissioned art piece is perhaps the most ambitious: the re-imagined Renaissance Room. “Museums all over the country are trying to rethink their period rooms, and when I say period room, I’m talking about a room trying to look like a particular era or evoke a different time or place,” says Lash, “The problem is that’s always a fantasy. No place, even in the past, is frozen in time.” In an attempt to solve this situation, the Speed is collaborating with Brian Knep who works in technology and new media.

Inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Knep decided to capitalize on the transitory and transformative nature of time. The theme of the “Metamorphoses,” as one might guess, is transformation and features such events as Daphne turning into a tree and Zeus turning into a cloud to visit Io. To align with those themes of change, Knep’s software, in tandem with a series of sophisticated cameras and projectors, will take a patron’s image and transform it. It will show the patron as an animal or perhaps even as the opposite sex. The software will also store this image to be put on display in the room so that every time a patron walks in, he or she will be greeted by earlier visitors of the room. They may even meet themselves.

It’s staggering to think that all of this information pertains to merely one aspect of the new Speed Museum. “I want people to think of the Speed as not just a museum but also a laboratory for art,” says Lash. It’s an interesting idea. There’s an erroneous conception that museums are where art goes to die, where it is buried and visited on occasion, certainly not where it is created and certainly not a vital part of the creative cycle. Miranda Lash, the commissioned artists and the rest at the Speed Museum seem ready to combat that misconception head on, and March 12 cannot come soon enough. VT