ALEXANDRA MUNROE | “Eyes on Fire”

by Sam Bashaw

Image via John Bigelow Taylor

Image via John Bigelow Taylor

“It’s a thunderous clap.” On April 25 of this year, Alexandra Munroe threw herself at a golden door made of paper, bursting through the other side with a primal scream as the tatters of foil fell in her wake. Clearly, this was all for the glorious sake of art.

Senior Curator of Asian Art and Senior Advisor for Global Arts at the Guggenheim, Munroe was asked to reenact this performance, titled “Entrance,” by Saburo Murakami who first performed the piece in 1955. Munroe was the first woman to reenact this legendary art form, getting the chance to flex her jumping skills before the opening of the Gutai show at the Fergus McCaffery Gallery in New York.

“I was shocked by the power in doing this,” Munroe explains, reliving this moment through her phone call with me. “It was the biggest moment of invigoration that I’ve ever had; this feeling of ecstatic joy and total freedom.”

Artist: Saburo Murakami (1925-1996) Iriguchi (Entrance), 1955. Gold paint, paper, doorway. Performance by Alexandra Munroe at request of Murakami family, Fergus McCaffery Gallery, New York, April 25, 2018.

It is in breaking artistic boundaries that Munroe finds solace. A passion that she calls her career; working with Asian art that screams of original and contemporary relevance. Thanks to Munroe, we can enjoy the great minds of Yayoi Kusama and Nam June Paik, artists who have revolutionized social ideas on a global scale and who Munroe has worked closely with. In her new video series, “Eyes on Fire,” Munroe spends each three to four minute episode detailing the history of the artist or movement and the raw power behind the work. Kusama was the star of the debut episode as Munroe uncovered the dot obsessed artist’s history in cult art back in the 60s and the first show she curated with her in 1989 at the Center for International Contemporary Arts.

Her most recent episode pours over the artistic vision of Paik who she dubs the “Father of Video Art.” Munroe talks about Paik’s massive installation, Electronic Superhighway, as a revolutionizing movement of humans living through the screen of television. Her attention to detail is miraculous and the short history lesson feels like a stimulating glow-ride rather than a dry lecture.

Nam June Paik: The Father of Video Art From the new video series: Eyes on Fire with Alexandra Munroe.

“Eyes on Fire’s” upcoming episode revolves around the Gutai movement in post-war Japan, the same artistry that Munroe jumped through a gold entrance to open for back in April. The episode will chronicle her leap and describe how it acts as a perfect symbol for Gutai and it’s call to freedom of art and expression.

However, before Munroe was leaping through paper, she called Japan home for many years and studied Japanese language and culture at Sophia University in 1982. She felt it her calling to be a radical activist for modern and contemporary art, drawn to Asian artists as they were often left out of the conversation.

“For decades artists were usually white and male,” Munroe says and I can hear her discontentment through the cellular connection. “Why was it that they grow up and become the heroes of the 60s international art movement, but those Asian females participating in the shows and gave them ideas that the male artists stole, were written out of history?”

Munroe’s passion grows with every syllable as she launches into the complete originality of artists such as Kusama and Yoko Ono in avant garde history and how they need to be brought to an international level as she is trying to accomplish with the “Eye’s on Fire” series. It’s a striking call for justice.

Reimagining Kusama From the new video series: Eyes on Fire with Alexandra Munroe.

Yet, how is a white woman born in New York City supposed to accomplish the rejuvenation of Asian modern and contemporary art?

“So far, I have not been subject to that kind of critic of appropriation,” Munroe says, commenting that this scrutiny is less likely to happen in the field of Asian art than in African American art. “I am bilingual and bicultural and am very open and frank with my intentions to integrate this art to the global scene. I don’t go to China to tell them how to do their work, but try and link certain artists with others for a modern/contemporary interaction.”

Through her platform at the Guggenheim, Munroe feels uniquely qualified, but has, at times, received criticism for omitting certain artists with Asian background due to her belief that they will not resonate with a larger, global audience. At least, not yet.  

“The importance is that I’m not doing it alone, I don’t want to do it alone,” Munroe stresses about her activism work. “I have three fabulous curators at the Guggenheim who are on my team. Each one of them is teaching me every single day. Teaching and mentoring is also what I love to do because I get to learn from others and discover current ideas.”

It is through her discovery of Asian artists and the originality and activism they possess that drives her every single day. To recover, recuperate and reinstate the unfolding contemporary art that is in the Eastern world, Munroe has proven to jump through barriers (and golden walls) to do so.


Find Alexandra here and watch her “Eyes on Fire” series on YouTube here.