by Rita McBride
Explorer in WIELS, Brussels
December 2017-January 2018
Rita McBride, Installation views of Explorer, WIELS, 2017. Photo by Anne Pöhlmann
Each exhibition is a new temptation to transform or reconfigure its site. But at the same time, each site is not a blank page but a record of its own history. This paradox is made palpable in Rita McBride’s exhibition Explorer, at WIELS, Brussels, which includes her new installation Guide Rails (2017): two hundred meters of whitewashed fences stretching over all three floors of WIELS’ exhibition space. The installation doesn’t build on the open postindustrial rooms of the institution, a former brewery, but mimics the length of white-cube walls designed by Richard Venlet, for the institution's previous exhibition, The Absent Museum: Blueprint for a Museum of Contemporary Art for the Capital of Europe. Needless to say, the white cube as modernist container, with its clean, unmarked surfaces, remains the international default for displaying art. What happens, then, when straight, white walls are overridden by weird, zigzagging barriers as spatial demarcations? Even if Rita McBride’s intervention does not render the cube matrix entirely redundant, it definitely weakens its significance in determining the visitor’s trajectory, or its unchecked status as the common backdrop against which the exhibition unfolds. Guide Rails, rather than the white walls, takes the lead in setting apart the objects on view. At times, it traverses empty galleries, assuming the role of an artwork in its own right—extending and complicating the ambivalence between art and architecture. Although they never explicitly declare it, the palisades simultaneously serve to demarcate a room of one’s own, a space freed from the logics and ideological inheritance of white-wall rituals. While the work performs the task of a display structure or organizing system, McBride also deploys the guide rail as a cinematic trope, evoking the fences that line American highways (McBride was inspired by the guide rails that run though Santa Monica, Los Angeles, where she lives part of the year). Whether road barriers are built to keep people off the land, to prevent animals from crossing the road, or to guide drivers safely along a route, they operate as infrastructure: an infrastructure which encodes meaning and power relationships; which both guides and contains; and which is as inclusive as it is exclusive. The guide rails’ form reminds us of the historical markers of the enclosure, yet at WIELS they release and unchain. The fences never frame nor enclose the space, but rather point outward or lurk against the walls. By altering the wooden structures’ basic mechanism, McBride highlights design’s adaptability and its capability of materializing processes of negotiation and inclusion. Materials are not just adjectives, but operatives, McBride once said, and the same goes for nouns that give names to things that often go unnoticed. Infrastructure such as pipes, vents, guide rails, or walls, are fundamentally operative as structures that sustain and organize life, and through which societies articulate their political imaginaries—in much the same way institutions define our gaze and circulation through space.