the museum as a gym

text by Giorgio Palma

The project The Museum as a Gym was developed by Aldo Giannotti to open up new socio-architectural perspectives for Kunsthaus Graz. Inspired by the idea of a museum of art as a mind gym as well as by the Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano (“A sound mind in a sound body”), the artist has designed a gym-like environment within the museum building using only existing infrastructural features.

Through a series of drawings functioning as handling instructions, visitors of all ages are invited to experience the museum as a gym, not only for the mind, but also for the body. In line with the multi-purpose, open nature of Kunsthaus Graz, the project enables a dynamic and collaborative encounter with a museum of contemporary art as a space for public engagement. As one of the designers of Kunsthaus Graz put it, “like a human personality, a building can become more and more intriguing as we delve inside and get to know it” (Peter Cook). With this in mind, Giannotti invites the audience to engage with the institution and to conquer its space through a familiar, physical experience.

Like a red thread running through Giannotti’s whole body of work, here again his main concern lies in the relationship of individuals with their surroundings. Indeed, there is a functional correlation between the way a space is arranged and the tendency to behave in a particular way within it. In accordance with the notion of Umwelt as it was developed by Baron von Uexküll1, Giannotti explores the museum space as a set of orientation marks which work as instructions for use and turn the physical, objective space into a system of significance or living environment. In order to turn a museum into a gym, it is necessary to alter those “bearers of significance” (Bedeutungsträger) which delimit the extent of actions within the museum space in such a way, that the audience is tempted to do gym exercises in it. By doing so, the artist investigates the structure and functioning of the museum as a social space.

By shifting from one significance system to another and crossing the border between them, the functional relationship with the environment, which guides the audience’s behaviour, is temporarily suspended and deactivated. This “being-held-in-suspense” between different semantic worlds lets those sets of rules, inherent to a museum or a gym, appear in their contingency and plasticity. Ultimately, by way of this disarming artifice, Giannotti is able to hint with ease and irony at those common marketing strategies which, with regard to the audience and membership development, link the museum to the gym.

1 For Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt, see the brief but accurate overview by Giorgio Agamben in The Open. Man and Animal (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 39–43).