Which is more interesting

On the Lentos Art Museum for the art magazine "Idea", published 2006

Which is more interesting, the architecture of a modern art museum or what happens inside it?

Tourists, politicians and commercial sponsors generally seem to be more interested in what a modern art museum looks like than in what goes on inside it. People seriously concerned with contemporary art – what art is capable of today, right now, in all the different real and virtual, public and political spaces where art happens – tend to be skeptical of museums in general and modern art museums in particular. The Lentos Art Museum in Linz, Austria, is no exception. Perhaps it is just this field of tensions, all these conflicting interests and expectations that make the Lentos Art Museum interesting for Stella Rollig. And it is certainly Stella Rollig, artistic director of the museum since May 2004, who makes Lentos interesting for a growing number of people.

The representative architecture of the Lentos Art Museum is part of a long series of examples of cultural edifices intended to found and display a kind of "collective identity" of a place, a city or a region, as being "modern", "up to date", forward-thinking and dynamic, all the allegedly positive attributes that actually indicate conformity and subordination to the dictates of globalized neoliberalism. This is the kind of position that regards dialogue as an exchange of self-confident statements and counter-statements. It is reassuring, inspires respect and conveys a sense of order in a chaotic world. One of the reasons why art museums are so frequently chosen to embody this kind of representative architecture is that one of the aspects that makes art collections so appealing is the opportunity they provide to observe conflicts of the past, points in history where something in our perception of the world changed, and to feel secure that these open questions have been resolved.

But what of the conflicts of the present, of the here and now in which we live today? What role does art play in these conflicts now, if not to offer alternative visions, different possibilities of perception and order, and a space to reflect on where we are and what we want and all that could be? This kind of art is based on questioning, on not taking anything for granted, not rushing to reach fixed conclusions. It can well be argued that art in this role is incompatible with museums, which by nature present what is resolved, concluded, finished. What kind of communication is possible between the self-assured modern architecture of the Lentos Art Museum and art that takes as its material the insecurities and instabilities of the society it belongs to?

The Lentos program under the direction of Stella Rollig is less of an overt, direct engagement with its own setting, but rather an expression of engagement on its own terms, using methods that are quite distinct from, but not irrelevant to the origins of the art housed in this building. Whereas the Lentos architecture is designed to display the museum's extensive collection on pristine white walls in an impressive expanse of space, framing each single art work in sufficient space to allow for respectful, contemplative viewing, the exhibitions under Stella Rollig's direction respond by overflowing the space with a proliferation of details, an overwhelming abundance of visual and mental stimulation that cannot be easily taken in at once. Instead of only presenting the works of the Lentos Collection one by one, respectfully distanced from one another, Stella Rollig entrusts the Collection to other artists to work with, respond to, reflect on, make use of in their own work. In these exhibitions, the masterpieces from the Collection are taken out of the framework of recognition and representation and included in the polyphony of a free-for-all exchange with other works, where they can speak for themselves, as themselves, in their own original, most personal and intimate voices.

In exhibitions such as the "Atlas" project by Deutsch/Schimek, the culture jamming exhibition "Just do it!", or the current Matt Mullican exhibition "model architecture", for instance, the abundance, this wanton luxuriousness of visual attractions immediately has a strong, emotional appeal that draws the visitors in, inviting us to abandon ourselves to this different world and become immersed in the endless details of possible modes of perception. This proliferation offers an opportunity to tell our own stories, as we gradually find our way. This kind of story-telling is different from an orderly dialogue; it allows for so many different nuances of understanding and engagement.

Questioning is yet another form of communication, and it is one that is inherent to art. One of the greatest strengths and most fascinating aspects of Stella Rollig's work over the years and in different contexts has been her ability to let questions remain questions, not incomplete even if they have no immediate or obvious corresponding answers. As Federal Curator, as founder of the Depot in Vienna, as an art critic, author, freelance curator, artistic advisor, again and again she has opened up spaces – both physical and mental – for looking at things from many different sides with no pressure to choose just one view. This same approach is also evident in the Lentos programs accompanying the changing exhibitions and the ongoing work of the museum. Young visitors to the museum are offered drawing paper, color pencils and wax crayons as an implicit invitation to engage with the works on display on their own terms – or even to turn their backs on art and engage with their own imaginary worlds. What the children do with the supplies is entirely up to them: the paper is not collected later to display what young visitors to the museum have "learned". In a series of breakfast discussions open to the public, directors from museums and galleries in other places are invited to present their work for discussion and comparison, considering what they have in common and how they differ and how they relate to their respective contexts. These discussions have no pre-determined goal, they are not intended to find the "right" way to operate a contemporary art museum, but instead open up a broader space for reflection on a plethora of possibilities. In addition to guided tours, Lentos offers "histories/stories of art", in which visitors are given the greatest luxury possible in this day and age: the luxury of having time to focus on details.

There is nothing naïve or unintellectual about this kind of questioning, and it is a mental activity that must be carried out at many different levels, if art is to be relevant to the society in which it arises. It is therefore only logical that Lentos is involved in networks of scholarly and theoretical work as well, including the new Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for media art research in partnership with the Art University Linz and the Ars Electronica Center, and a cooperation with other European art institutions in cities such as Riga, Barcelona and London in conjunction with two EU research projects.

Within the brief period of one and a half years, Stella Rollig has embarked on a remarkable program that does not conform to the imposing smooth surface and straight lines of the museum's architecture, but which does not merely contradict the self-assurance of the architecture either, offering only the other side of the same coin. Instead, she has opened up the museum to all the many different perspectives and contradictory choices that are art – the vivid, passionate, essentially necessary art of here and now.