The first time I walked into 21c’s lobby, in Louisville, KY, I was trying to decide if it felt like a hotel lobby or an art museum. Somehow defied both and had a feeling as unique as the experience it offers. You are greeted with contemporary art on the sidewalk around the hotel and from the moment you walk through the doors.
21c has a feel of old and new together. The building itself is rehabbed from historic tobacco and bourbon warehouses (important Kentucky products) that were renovated to be a contemporary space. This was a very clever way to merge the city’s history and culture with new ideas. 21c also has hotels in Cincinnati, Oh and Bentonville, AK
I had read and heard about this hotel for years. So I jumped on the opportunity to spend the day there. Despite all my research, I still expected it to be a hotel with an art gallery and distinct places where art is placed in the hotel. It was quite the opposite. Contemporary art is integrated in every aspect of the hotel. There are traditional gallery-type spaces in the hotel. But at the same time 21c almost offers an alternative reality, one that keeps you on your toes at every step. You eat, sleep, even use the restroom immersed in artworks made by living artists. These experiences are provoking and challenging of daily rituals and the roles of art in our lives. But does this experience really challenge the museum experience or does it embellish it?
Just down the hall from the lounge area, is “Text Rain,” an interactive piece by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv. This piece is projected on the wall in between the 2 elevators on the ground floor. This piece puts the person standing in between those 2 elevators inside the projection and the raining letters build up and bounce off the projections of the people. If one needed to go to their room they are forced to be part of this piece every time they wait for the elevator.
Once in the elevator, above one’s head is a piece “Untitled” by Ivan Navarro. It utilizes lights and mirrors to create an endless tunnel of light. I noticed the plaque with a title before I looked up and realized the elevator itself was an experience of art, again almost forcing patrons to participate with it.
The public restrooms on the ground floor near the elevators, force people in the restroom to question the issue of privacy. Both the men and women’s bathrooms contain large 2 way mirrors on the outside walls, so that people outside the restroom can peer in. One cannot see into the individual stalls, but the rest of the bathroom is visible. Curiosity seems to force almost everyone that passes by to peep through the mirror and are then met with embarrassment when they realize they were now “peeping toms.” Inside the restroom (I can only speak for the women’s restroom) you are still confronted with the concept of being watched. The mirror in the restroom is littered with small LCD screens with rapidly moving eyes. This is a piece by Sean Bidic titled Voyeurism #6 and #7. If one reads the plaque they learn that the recorded eyes are eyes of people who are blind, so they are being watched by eyes that can’t see.
Even the restaurant Proof, which is part of the hotel, not only provides unique culinary experiences, many specific to Kentucky, but it also provides a space where you eat surrounded by contemporary art, in front of you, behind you, above you etc.
21c offers a free 24 hour experience of art that artists like the Art Workers’ Coalition would have fought for in 1969 -70. Still it seems to not have won the battle against the bureaucracy of the privileged art world like the artist Hans Haacke built art around in the 70’s also. 21c embraces the luxury of the art world. It is not an inexpensive “Super 8” or “Days Inn.” What would the experience of contemporary art in those type of hotels be, compared to 21c? The average “joe” may not be able to afford 21c’s 230-500 dollar a night rooms, or expensive dining. Could 21c be a family experience like most hotels promote? Maybe not with the explicit content that contemporary art often offers. Would there be more of a risk of the art being damaged or stolen in more affordable hotels, especially with contemporary art pieces in every room?
The artworks that hotel patrons in 21c could “live” with in the actual hotel room would have to be curated very carefully too, and there would be a lot of limitations to how far a patrons dreams could be realized. These works would have to be safe and sturdy and be conducent for sleeping, a Dan Flavin neon piece might not be optimal for a good night’s sleep
Does artwork in this hotel context change the work at all? Maybe the experience of being on a stress free vacation and being surrounded by art in your stay gives a more peaceful air to the works, or maybe being forced to interact with work brings frustration to the art.
The first time I visited 21c, I had the privilege of visiting Miami Art Basel a short few weeks later. It was interesting to me that I saw a lot of the same artists’ work over and over at the various fairs in Miami that I had just seen at 21c. I love it that a an art hotel in Louisville, KY is so update on the contemporary art world, that it shows the same work one would see at a famous art expo in the US.
Often my personal basic definition of successful art and art experiences, is art that promotes discussion and provokes questions. Though 21c might still be an imperfect institution to display contemporary artworks, it left me thinking and talking about the experience. After leaving the hotel I found myself wondering, what will the next generation of art viewing experiences bring?