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Sit down, and you will be transported

Take a seat in the Getty's new interactive exhibit, and you'll feel like French royalty.

September 15, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Sit in a replica of one of Marie Antoinette's chairs in a new exhibit at the Getty Center in Brentwood and, through wizardry involving surveillance cameras and projection systems, you'll find yourself inserted into video footage of her bedroom at the Petit Trianon, the queen's private retreat on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. It's just part of a new interactive exhibit by New York-based video artist Nicole Cohen intended to bring fresh interest to the Getty's collection of French period furniture.

Visitors who enter "Please Be Seated," a bright white room next to the museum's decorative arts galleries that opens Tuesday, have a choice of six white wood and vinyl chairs, each paired with a flat-screen monitor suspended from the ceiling. When someone sits down, the individual's image appears in the video on the accompanying monitor. The video progresses and the scene shifts from the Getty gallery that displays the real chair to one of three places in France -- the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre or the Nissim de Camondo Museum, a private institution in Paris -- that housed the original or has similar furniture.

Viewers are swept away to splendid drawing rooms and intimate chambers, and as the setting and the sitter's perspective change, a recording of Bach's Fantasia in C minor wafts through the air, then fades away. From time to time, two actors in casual contemporary dress wander through the videotaped rooms.

Surprising as it may be, "Please Be Seated" is merely the latest effort to bring the museum's collection to life and make it more accessible, says Peggy Fogelman, who organized the show. A former assistant director for education and interpretation at the museum, she recently moved to the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where she is director of education and interpretation.

Cohen is far from the first contemporary artist invited to use the collection as inspiration for a new work, but she has brought a fresh approach to the program.

"My idea," she says in a conversation at the museum, "was to have an all-white room with white furniture scattered around. It's like a blank canvas, to get you excited about its potential. It's also an abstract form of musical chairs, where the music goes off and on. The white also works with the technology, so that the camera is able to record you and superimpose you on the monitors."

But the room she designed isn't entirely sterile. Instead of painting the walls solid white, Cohen added wide vertical stripes in a slightly different white to create a contemporary version of Neoclassical design. "The stripes also make the room seem higher, like a French salon, and the bulky monitors seem lighter," she says. "I wanted to make the room more lighthearted. It's an idea as well as an image."

She wants people to have fun as they grapple with what's real and what's virtual and "trespass into historical figures' personal spaces," as she puts it. But she also loves to explore what she calls "the psychology of the space" and "how the space is scripted." Today's visitors peer into rooms whose original owners adhered to strict codes about how they were used and who could go there, she says.

As Fogelman sees it, "Nicole is interested in bringing the life experience and personal narratives of the viewer into a conversation with historical built environments and the ideal lifestyles that they evoke." Stereotypical narratives embedded in the rooms are updated by contemporary viewers, she says.

Period rooms strike some museum visitors as musty old fixtures and some historians as less-than-accurate interpretations of the originals. "But people find them compelling, which is why they still exist," Fogelman says. "They conjure up a different time and place. And they are more accessible than you might expect. Even though the furniture looks very different and it's in a highly specialized, privileged environment, it's recognizable."

For Cohen, 37, who got to know the Getty's collection while doing graduate work at USC, period rooms are an source of fascination. The French chairs, in particular, contrast sharply with today's standard models, she says. The ones she has replicated were fitted for the people who commissioned them and designed for specific purposes.

Her Getty project grew from Fogelman's interest in a piece Cohen and painter Delia Brown made for "Seeing," a 2001 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that included a video installation with ghostly images of visitors set into a Rococo parlor. Fogelman followed her work and eventually invited her to do a project at the Getty.

"It was a good match between an artist and the Getty's collection," Fogelman says.

It was also a complicated undertaking that required Cohen to collaborate with museum staff in several departments and work with five subcontractors. Getty curators and conservators who have collegial relationships with their French counterparts found locations for Cohen and arranged for her to shoot there. Mike Fair, a furniture maker in Culver City who often works with contemporary artists, built the chairs designed by Cohen.

"This was a dream project," Cohen says. "It was so thrilling to go to France and actually experience those places for myself. I just wanted to give as much of the experience as I possibly could to the project."


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