Elana Herzog’s project involves places in the Museum that are forgotten spaces—hallways, stairwells, and other architectural details like corners, seams, and crevices to question the role of museums in society. By directing visitors’ attention to the ways in which they travel through the Museum, Herzog considers how they might understand the displays within it.
Consisting of three principal components, Civilization and Its Discontents radiates out from a gallery typically reserved for old master prints. Reflecting the artist’s interest in carpets and tapestry as a widespread form of material culture—whose uses range from providing comfort to symbolizing wealth, telling stories, and religious practices—the installation includes Herzog’s “deconstructed carpets” displayed salon-style, flat on the wall, up to the gallery ceiling with some draped onto the floor. The second component makes use of the carpet residue in various other locations, where it reappears in the form of drifts, surface coatings, and accumulations in niches and crevices as well as covered pedestals. The final portion takes place in the Museum lobby, where Herzog has suspended an array of carpets, mimicking the tradition of displaying carpets from a church balcony, thereby inviting comparisons between the function of churches and museums in our society.
While the installation’s title is borrowed from Sigmund Freud’s book of the same name, in which he argued that the greatest struggle in life is the disconnect between our inner world and the society in which we live, Herzog is less interested in the psychological aspects of Freud’s analysis. Rather, she appropriates the widespread expression to examine how a culture might create its own image and history, and what might get lost in the process. While a main mission of a museum is to preserve a culture’s heritage, Herzog points to how the original meanings and values of objects placed within the museum context might shift. While some objects might lose their use value and structural integrity, the value of other objects might be enhanced.
It is in order to express these kinds of shifts in value and meaning that Herzog presents the rugs in three different material stages—as residue scattered around the Museum, as deconstructed carpets embedded into its walls, and as complete carpets draped in a loose assortment over the balustrade. To Herzog, these various stages become apparitions, ghostlike images, that haunt the galleries, and, in her own words, “what once represented acquisition, now comes to represent loss.” In this way, Herzog’s installation also becomes a sort of blueprint for the imagination, suggesting how we might cull meaning from flashes of memory.
This exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts and public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art