Rolywholyover: a circus


Having previously come across Cage’s stunning ‘Ryoanji’ series of drawings and prints from the 1980’s, (see John Cage: Ryoanji Series) inspired by his visit to the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. I was familiar with the working processes and concept of employing ‘chance’ to dictate the compositional properties and physical application of mark for these pieces. After undertaking further reading around the series I had


Ryoanji series

even also stumbled across an exhibition of this series curated and hung using the same procedures. I was unaware, however, that Cage himself had begun to explore this idea in the final years of his life, even devising certain processes and developing exhibitions exploring and employing this theme.

Cage disliked the linear displays found in galleries worldwide and sought to develop a new style of exhibition, one that would differ markedly from traditional shows. The result would be an exhibition in a constant state of flux and change – mirroring more accurately the realities of life and existence.


‘Rolywholyover’ exhibition view, MOCA Los Angeles, 1993

‘Rolywholyover : A Circus’ which Cage described as ‘composition for museum’, would include pieces hung at various heights, groupings and arrangements around the space, and incorporate various performances, screenings, readings and events at different points throughout the show and exhibition space.

The exhibition would be guided and dictated by a computerized process of random distribution: a digital alternative to Cage’s use of the I ching (Chinese book of changes). By allocating numbers to pieces and


‘Rover’ bespoke computer program by Andre Culver

performances, and applying a ‘Ryoanji’ style spatial grid to the gallery walls, The programme, or “score”, would essentially generate a random order of numbers from which to follow. By generating a new series of numbers every day, the exhibition would be in a constant state of flux, with pieces being added and subtracted, groupings changing, and a performance itinerary changing daily.



Cage encouraged his audience ‘to be open to unexpected experiences’ and said of the show; “The basic idea is that the exhibition would change so much that if you came back a second time, you wouldn’t recognize it”.


The curator of Rolywholyover at The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 1993, discussed how Cage re-imagined the exhibition experience and sought to create an interactive environment for visitors.

“Cage was enthusiastic about the possibility of having a space within the museum that could become like a living space where visitors could see day-light and cook macrobiotic food; where there could be rocks, trees, books and chess games all available to the public at the same time”


‘Rolywholyover’ exhbition view: interactive space, MOCA LA, 1993

Due to the way the computer program composed the artworks in time and space, the gallery’s art-handlers took on the role of musicians in ‘performing’ the instructions of the score. This again resulted in an increased interaction between the audience and the exhibition as they would be present when artworks were moved or re-arranged.

The element of chance was employed in every aspect of the exhibition with the only exception arising when the positioning of works collided. In music when two notes are played simultaneously they create a chord or discord, but when two visual artworks meet at the same location on a gallery wall, one has to be moved to prevent a collision.

Rolywholyover: A Circus at MOCA Los Angeles in 1993, represented the first time that every aspect of Cage’s ground breaking vision for a contemporary exhibition were realised in the same show. Prior to this he had experimented with various combinations at other exhibitions internationally but never all under the same roof. Since 1993, Rolywholyover has been repeated at various galleries worldwide.

above left: solo for voice no.11. above right: river rocks and smoke #1, 1990





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