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Strategies in Presentations I, II, III, IV en V
El Lissitzky, Abstraktes Kabinet, 1925-1928; Kasimir Malevich, Laatste Futuristische tent 0.10, Petrograd, 1915 Strategies in Presentations I
The Grand Narrative of Modern Art has its counterpart in the Grand History of Exhibitions. Although the History of High Modernism has been unmasked during the past decades as a construct of bourgeois society it is extremely difficult to bring the consequences into practice. The bourgeois concept of High Modernist Art, with its emphasis on style, attribution, dating and connoisseurship, authenticity, originality, rarity, reconstruction and rediscovery of forgotten artists, still dominates the discursive field of art. As such, it is taught and practiced in academies, and informs a range of related activities in schools, museums, general publishing and the media. In other words, although it has been challenged by the historical avant-garde, by leftist theorists and critics, by poststructuralists and feminists, this History of Modern Art, with the figure of the artist as its principal point of reference, may still be called a 19th century conception. This bourgeois concept of Art as 'one of the last outposts of reactionary thought' (Nicos Hadjinicolaou) not only formed the basis of many presentations of art in the past, but has continued to do so until this very day. The principle terms of this bourgeois History of Art, its aestheticism and ahistorism (in speaking only of a History of Art, isolating it from its social and political context), its reverence for the individual artist hero, its concept of art as an individual expression, its sense of itself as objective and disinterested, and its pursuit of universal values, all are inscribed in as much of the art that is still produced today as in a large part of the exhibitions that we are confronted with. And, as this Grand History of Art is being written till this day on, so is the Grand Narrative of Exhibition - Making. That is to say, although there are many alternative ways of making exhibitions, these are dominated by the influential representation of these monolithic Art Exhibitions "that select some practices as significant, while marginalizing others as residual, reactionary and historically irrelevant" (Tickner,25).
What I would like to do during these sessions of Strategies in Presentations is first to set out my construction or a history of exhibitions in Western Europe, and, second, to do this from a critical and feminist position. To put it another way, my story is not only a construction, based on the constructions and texts of others, it is above all an intentional one; I intend to clarify my ideas and opinions with regard to Strategies in Presentations and in doing so to use several arguments; from historical dates to fictitious proposals by myself and the other curators I have invited to speak in this seminar (Kosuth, Deliss, Coelewy). Of course I hope to succeed in my plan, although I am aware of the fact that there is much unintended material that will be shaping these lectures as I proceed. Therefore I count on your critical attention.
Before clarifying the categorical distinctions I make between the presentations I will discuss in this seminar, I want to define my conception of presentations, and the reasons for which I gave this seminar the title: Strategies in Presentations.
When discussing presentations I generally refer both to 'practices' that consist of the display of objects for examination, and practices with a less traditional character, that is to say any project dealing with the presentation of objects/subjects (be it texts, films, video's, installations, but also lecturers, performers etc). All these different categories are subject to forms of presentation. They are subject to modes of interpretation, definition and ordering - all strategies of framing and outlining the discursive field in which meaning is to be produced. Besides the presented object/subject, three other terms can be distinguished: the producing subject (maker of the 'object'), the curator (exhibitor of the made 'object'), and the spectator/ participant (observer of the exhibited made 'object') - all of them with different subcultural backgrounds, ideas and value-judgements. Making a presentation is creating a context in which a complex play between these agents and the 'object' takes place and in which different object- and subject-positions are changing constantly. They can be described as practices that, in conjunction with other practices, form complex interrelated fields responsible for processes of experience and signification. In their turn these fields are part of larger structures in which social, political, economic and cultural systems continuously inform one another. But to return to the practices of our concern - presentations - I want to direct your attention to the assumption that forms are the basis of this seminar; presentations, with their complex patterns of signifying relations, are of utmost importance as constitutive elements in the discursive field of art and its discourse, and as such, they effect the public sphere as well.
With this statement I do not mean to overestimate the importance of presentations in their effect as practices on both the discourse of art and the spheres beyond. But I would certainly refute the notion that they are to be regarded as merely the 'neutral' packaging of one, central, given of interest: the art object itself. This notion of the act of presentation as neutral, objective and disinterested, misrepresents the identity and the function of art, in our time. Although the historical avant-garde did not succeed in fulfilling its agenda, namely to break through the 'institution of art' as an ivory tower severing art from its social, economic and cultural conditions, and to reintegrate art into the praxis of life, it has changed our perception of the function of art within society - at least, it has been acknowledged that there is no such thing as an autonomous work of art or a neutral way of (re)presenting it. There is only the political choice of underlining its 'autonomy' which implies accepting an Art that can only exist within the realm of its Institution, thus serving its purposes and affirming its status quo.
To state, today, that the work of art has no other goal than being an autonomous and aesthetic object for contemplation, a notion that implicitly comes forward the idea of its presentation being 'neutral', is to conceal once again its ideological fundaments.
But let us return to the practice of presentation: as long as presenting presupposes ordering and selecting objects and subjects, both an interpretation of their identities and their relations with other objects/subjects is implied. Any presentation is thus a construction and therefore -in an extended sense- an act of appropriation. In reflecting upon the objects, ideas, and texts he or she has appropriated, the curator does not only present but represent them at the same time.
Every form of presentation is representation as well. As such these practices are far from neutral, objective or disinterested, although much effort is given to establishing the modernist myth that the opposite is true. Presentations /Representations are acts of appropriation, and even of colonization, by their very nature and the acknowledgment of this must form the basis of any discussion of its 'strategies'; this is the first step to demythologising the modernist notions mentioned above.
As I said in the beginning of this lecture, Strategies in Presentations is a seminar with which I intend not only to (re) construct an already existing history of exhibitions. I will also try to make adjustments by looking for omissions and exclusions; the silences that are also constitutive parts of this Grand Narrative. Moreover, I hope to be able to dismantle one of the first misconceptions that underlines this Master Narrative of Presentations: the notion of the so-called 'neutral' mode of exhibition-making as being the one essential and truthful method of presenting art.
Because of the powerful representations of these 'neutral' approaches, it has now become extremely difficult not to relapse into the binary thinking that is being advocated by the institutes which still reproduce this bourgeois concept of High Modernist Art. Either one must select art objects and present them in this 'neutral' way in order to emphasise their 'artistic quality'. The suggestion being that, in this manner, one can uncover the essential and at the same time universal element that relates this object to other aesthetic objects, or one does not. By accentuating the formal aesthetic characteristics of these works only, their identities are levelled to a point where all differences have vanished. In other words, these works are deprived of all meaning other than the ones underlined by the exhibitors/curators to prove their essential and universal quality (and truth). This totalitarian act of homogenisation even goes so far as to deny the differences between this work and the group of art works that were excluded from this monolithic institute in the first place. Every difference is reduced to the opposition of 'the same' and 'the other', with the understanding that 'the other' has only one face, the face of the object (subject) 'lacking' the essential that could make it part of 'the same'.
So within the sacred sphere of the museum/gallery not only are those voices of the art, which differ from the one that is represented, denied, but the voices of works that were excluded from this select group, in the first place, are also disavowed. This is a double act of expropriation which makes it even more difficult to 'speak for oneself' and develop new strategies in both producing art and presenting it. Needless to say, such generalisations deliberately diffuse the heterogeneity of art and its representation, which is the best strategy for marginalizing them altogether.
I needed to explain the falsity of this binary one-to-one opposition, because, for the sake of the argument, I will have to make use of more or less the same dichotomy as the one that I criticized before, I hope, not for long. The distinctions between the two artificial categories I am about to outline for you -models of exhibition-making- will gradually dissolve as I proceed my lectures. Instead, a great number of differences between several strategies of presentation will become visible. For now, I would like to describe two models in the art of exhibition-making on which I will elaborate further: 1) the object- and author-oriented, and 2) the context- and observer-oriented model.
In my scheme, the Object- and Author-oriented model refers to practices that focus on:
1 The aesthetic quality of the work of art as its essential characteristic. This notion of quality is generally based exclusively on the individual, authentic and personal diction of the artist, whether formalist theories are involved, or expressionistic ones. In addition, this aesthetic quality has a universal 'truth'-value that transcends all other, historically specific values ( for instance cult value, exhibition value, exchange value and sign-exchange value) (Benjamin, Buchloh).
2 The autonomous status of the art object. The work of art does not depend on its relation with other practices in order to legitimate itself.
This also applies to the author, the unified self standing above the objectified world and the average praxis of life, fulfilling the 'act of creation'. This Artist Hero not only fully masters the outcome of his efforts but has authority over the meaning of the product as well.
3 A 'neutral' and 'objective' presentation of the work of art, which is equivalent to the 'aesthetic approach' in the Kantian sense of the word. Nothing must distract the attention from contemplating the work of art. The walls are white, so is the light and the ceiling. The floor is usually grey. These museum- and gallery-spaces are like 'white cubes', carefully framing the objects/subjects within their realm, isolating them from the outside world. Further the different works are mostly installed/hanged on carefully measured distances from one another in order not to distract the objective and isolated gaze of the onlooker.
The Object- and Author-oriented model disregards:
1 The context, whether historical, cultural, social, political or economic. Even so-called 'historical presentations', that are based on the 'object-and author-oriented' model, are only 'historical' to a certain degree. They neglect to stress the historical conditions of the production, presentation and reception of the works in question, referring only to a history of the isolated object on a formalist/aesthetic level.
Within the presentation itself, other instruments are also used to create this 'ivory tower effect'. The labelling, the usage (or non-usage) of texts, the prescribed object- and subject-positions, up to and including the careful division between private and public spaces within the museum- and gallery.
2 The observer. Subject-positions are already fixed (as is the meaning of the work of art, and the way the object in question is to be (re)presented). The observer, as the third agent acting in the space, and relating with the object in question, is denied his/her own subjectivity. A fixed and unchanging subject-position is forced upon him/her: that of the ideal observer, developing an aesthetic judgement that is objective, disinterested and indifferent, thus reproducing the positions of both the artist/creator and the exhibitor. On the other hand: power relations are re-established by accentuating the difference between the artist as producer of High Culture and the observer as the mere consumer of it.
3 Finally, the role of the institution itself is disregarded. Although it is common knowledge that ever since the 18th century it it these very institutions of exhibition making that can legitimate any practice as art, and thus exclude other practices, there is no sign of any self-reflexivity on this account.
It is for precisely these reasons that presentations, based on the object-and author-oriented model, refuse to see their own practice as a strategy among other strategies. The principles of High Modernism that they adhere to ( the aesthetic, unified, universal and transcendent qualities of art), are not reflected critically and placed within their historical perspective.
This assumption that there has never been (and there will never be) any mode of presenting works of art that differs from this essential, 'neutral' approach, is facilitated by a collective form of amnesia which avoids self-reflection and a critical approach.
The context-and observer oriented model has totally different objectives:
1 The artistic/aesthetic quality of the artefact may play a role, but it will never be the unifying and essential principle, governing all the other interests or strategies that also form part of the presentation. The work first of all functions as a constitutive part of an critical approach. It is this critical quality that relates the work to other works. This, however, does not imply the works being subordinated to one, central aim. As there are different objectives, even within one presentation, so there are different levels at which these works function and signify. As such they have their relative autonomy in relation to the whole.
2 The autonomous status of the work of art is seen as relative. Its meaning and functioning cannot be identified beforehand, as these are dependent upon the very conditions in which the work (object/subject) is produced, presented and received. There can be no such thing as a disjunction between art and the praxis of life, there is only the 'Institution of Art' which radically severs itself from the social, political etc.
As far as the presentation is concerned: the art object is no longer the privileged signifier, whose meaning is fixed and stable. Moreover, the 'work of art' is only one point of reference within a complex, inter-relational network of other subject- and object positions, which constantly change directions as the process of signification goes on.
Together with the denial of the autonomy of the work of art, the notion of the artist as the one principle point of reference is also questioned. Artists are producing subjects, in a historically specific sense. Their role cannot be severed from the conditions in which the several stages of the processes of production, presentation and consummation take place. From this point of view the artist is no longer the unified subject that has full control over the work that comes into existence, and he has no final authority over its meaning of the product.
3 As to the presentation itself, there is no question of an approach that would claim to be 'neutral', 'objective', or disinterested. Besides the fact that from any alternative point of view no such mode of exhibition-making exists, it seems that the aim is to be explicit (or explicitly implicit) as to the objectives and strategies that constitute the presentation as a whole. This critical approach is reflected in the presentation.
4 Concerning the context, efforts are made to be as explicit as possible regarding the historical, social, political, economic and cultural circumstances, both the ones that are of special interest for the specific strategies and the ones that are not. Regarding the context in which the three agents (producer, curator, observer/participant, relating with the objects/subjects in question), are to play a role, the aim is not to come to stable subject- and object-positions, but, on the contrary, to enlarge the space in which they act and interrelate, thus enabling them to develop instruments of self-identification carried through object-signification.
5 The observer has an active role to play that is of equal importance to the contributions of the other two agents. Each of these subjects are free to take up positions, according to their specific subcultural backgrounds, experiences and value judgements. Thus engaged in the signifying process, their understanding of the complexity of these processes of signification will gradually deepen.
6 Following the critical objectives of these practices and their awareness of the contexts in which they are being produced, one might expect these 'context- and observer-oriented' strategies to be self-reflexive and self-critical of their institutional role.
To conclude: In contrast to the object- and author-oriented model the context- and observer-oriented strategies in presentation do not adhere to any essential principle. The only strategy the latter have in common is their critique on the notions of 'neutrality' and 'objectivity', mainly because of the (often deliberate) hidden ideologies and market-related sympathies that are implied. However, in much the same way as critical 'works of art', or interventions, are often excluded from these totalising and homologising exhibitions of High Art, so too are the practises of presentation that do not submit themselves to the established norm. They are pushed into marginal positions. And they are marginalized in many ways; silenced, omitted, disregarded, kept invisible, and excluded from the main discourse of art. Only, what if suddenly, as has happened before in the course of history, all these marginalized positions do get the chance to raise their voices? What if they deliberately choose their place in the margin, preparing themselves for the unavoidable point of no return: the moment at which the centre collapses, implodes and erases itself from our maps? Then the different voices come to the fore and demand their space. The object-and author-oriented mode of exhibition-making may still dominate the discourse on art and its presentation, but the many different 'others' have never stopped being the lively undercurrents that keep the stream going, and at specific times they do indeed become visible indeed.
Before I can actually start I need to make some other remarks. Besides making use of my own knowledge on this subject, I am indebted to two authors in particular: Brian O'Doherty (Inside the White Cube) and Peter Burger (Theory of the Avant-garde). Although the starting-points of these two theorists differ enormously - O"Doherty describing himself as a 'devoted empiricist' and Burger being a critical theorist within the Marxist tradition - their writings do have some arguments in common. Both analyse the history of modern art to be pre-eminently the history of the bourgeois 'institution of art' (the ivory tower), whether discussed in abstract terms (Burger) or, in the sense of O'Doherty, materialised in the form of the isolating and sanctifying 'white cube'. Both are able to point to those artistic strategies in the past that tried to attack this institution, in order to try and reintegrate art and the praxis of life. Where Burger speaks of the Avant-garde (referring to the historical avant-garde of the 20's: Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and the left avant-garde in Russia and Germany), O'Doherty refers to the so-called anti-formalist tradition within the formalist mainstream of modernist art.
Although I criticize the opposition formalist/anti-formalist which O'Doherty adheres to, the advocates of these anti-formalist undercurrents are more or less the same as the ones belonging to Burgers avant-garde.
After this long introduction I cane now almost begin to discuss the actual 'History-of-Exhibition-Making', including some of the most interesting events which caused sudden ruptures within the mainstream. The field I will discuss is however limited in clearly defined ways. For instance I will not go into the matter of how museums, and museum practises in general, came into existence in the second half of the 18th century, and how they, like their earlier prototypes (Wunderkammers, Cabinets of the World, Repositories), can be analysed in a historically effective way (Foucault). I have invited Jan van Toorn to lecture on this history as part of the seminar. There is nonetheless one conclusion of Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, author of the book Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, that seems to me of importance for this introductory lecture. In her study, Greenhill places the different 'museums' of the 15th century in the context of three different epistemes as developed by Foucault: the Renaissance, the Classical, and the Modern episteme. Using the instruments provided by Foucault Greenhill concludes with the following argument:
"There is no essential museum. The museum is not a pre-constituted entity that is produced in the same way at all times. No 'direct ancestors' or 'fundamental role' can be identified. Identities, targets, functions and subject-positions are variable and discontinuous. Not only is there no essential identity for museums, but such identities as they are constituted are subject to constant change as the play of dominations shifts and new relations of advantage and disadvantage emerge". It needs no explanation that for me, this argument holds true for the practice of exhibition-making in general. I suggest that we keep this view in mind, as we proceed with this seminar.
There is one more restriction; within the large field that is still left to be investigated, I chose to limit myself to the discussion of only those practices that deal with the presentation/representation of contemporary art. As such, purely historical, thematic, or educational exhibitions/ presentations are excluded from the field of interest, at least to the extent that distinctions can be made.
Many (re)constructions of the History of Exhibition-Making start with the early Salon Exhibitions of Living Masters of the late 19th century (dia 1,2). The Salon is a French notion that derives from the first developments of galleries as part of the Academy Royale in the 17th century. The first disruptions already occurred within the practices of these early salons. During the 18th century it was generally accepted that the salon-exhibitions presented the work exclusively of the academicians and their students, but after the French revolution, in 1791, the rules became less strict. There was no jury anymore, no prices, no hierarchical division between professors and their pupils, or between French artists and foreigners. It was the argument of 'quality' however, that led, in the course of the 19th century to a re-instalment of the jury. Rapidly, the Academy des Beaux Arts was re-established too (now as the 4th department of the Institut de France). Like an endlessly repeating story we can detect the rise and fall of these kinds of institutions, according to changes in the social, political and economical climate at specific times, subsequently leading to shifts in power relations. For example; the 19th century again saw only 'Membres de l'Institut' exhibiting at the Salons, and as a reaction to this kind of exclusion the pre avant-garde of the late 19th century came up with another alternative: the Salon des Refusees (1863).
The analysis of the hanging of paintings in these early days of the History of Exhibitions is interesting. As you can see (slide 1,2), the spaces were filled with paintings. They were hung frame to frame, from top to bottom and from left to right with no space in between the works at all. This form of presentation now seems to us chaotic and unnecessarily confusing. We reject this mode of presentation as irrational and un aesthetic. At that time, however, there was nothing problematic about this practice of hanging. The paintings had frames which were often large and gilded - and it had these frames that maintained the distinction between one painting and the next. Frames that literally limited the illusionist spaces of the various works, frames that functioned as edges. Each time you turned from one picture to another must have been as though you were looking into a different space. And we know that the history of the development of perspective, from the 14th century on, had its turning-point only at the end of the 19th century. It was with the introduction of photography, and through the artistic emphasis on the colour and flatness of the paintings surface, that paintings were looked at in new ways. It is O'Doherty who discusses this sudden change at the end of the 19th century at length with the story of the attack on the frame. In his view it was photography that not only put an end to the life of easel-painting containing as it did illusionist and by means of the frame isolated space in itself; but that challenged the idea of the absolute edge, severing the inside from the outside, as well. Early photography, O'Doherty argues, based as it was on 'framing', editing, cropping and establishing limits as the major acts of making a composition, softened the edge of the picture-plane that clearly distinguished it from the outside world.
It did not take long to complete this process, for, as we know, it was the impressionists, who began conceptualising their paintings as autonomous, self-sufficient, aesthetic entities. A real 'frame', to mark the difference between the depicted space and the space surrounding the picture, was no longer necessary. Once carrier of an illusionist space (image), the picture plane itself became the primary factor. After the impressionists, it was the expressionists (Fauves en Nabis), who began to emphasise the flatness of the image as such, which, in the end, led to the celebration of the autonomous picture plane as the ultimate form (l'art pour l'art). Its form became the content. But, and here comes O'Doherty's critique on 'formalist art' at play, "as the framing of the content becomes thinner and thinner", till the frame vanishes altogether, the composition, the subject and the metaphysics begin submerging the edge until "the emptying out is complete" ( ). What was left were "self-defining, autonomous pictures of which the content (when there was one) was to be found elsewhere". With this "literalization" of the picture plane, as O'Doherty calls it, another context, rightly framing the work and carrying its content (that was no longer within the picture itself), was required. And there it appears for the first time: the framing wall, the lightning cell, the white cube. Although one might find this story somewhat exaggerated (and in my view it is in its oppositional 'form-versus-content' approach), there is some truth in his analysis of how the white walls, increasingly indispensable as context, had to become rich in content to be able to subtly donate it to the Art within its realm. This narrative can be reread in Peter Burger's Theory of Avant-garde in a somewhat different way, especially if you see the white cube as the representative of the bourgeois 'institute of art' that came into existence from the 18th century on.
The fact was that at the end of the 19th century, around the time the impressionists became recognized, the predominant mode of presenting art was about to change radically - though it would take another 50 years to arrive at the point at which the traditional frame would literally 'fall off'. Before we come to some examples which illustrate this decisive change in the 'hanging of the paintings', I will show you another example of the traditional characteristics of art presenting (slide 3): The Exposition Universelle in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (1867) (the first global exhibitions of this kind were held in London (1851) and Paris (1855)). Here we witness a traditional 'hanging of the works', however, it seems to be more balanced than the previous examples.
The first changes occurred after 1855, the year in which Courbet was refused a place on the Exposition Universelle, and decided to organise his own show: "Pavillon du Realisme". As the first one-man-show with clear emphasis on the individuality of the artist and the autonomy of the work (and at that point a development towards a 'workable' autonomy was necessary), this 'self-presentation' of Courbet, and the ones organised by the impressionists shortly after, was of extreme importance to the change in the practices of presenting art in general.
As will be understood by now, these changes in the presentation of art were precipitated by developments in art practice itself. Some examples may be of interest here. The Impressionists first joint exhibitions were held around 1875. It was their show of 1877, which included Monet's famous 'Impression. Soleil Levant', that provided them with the term 'Impressionism'. During the period in which the Impressionists made their major attempts to 'become visible' it was the galleries that dealt with 'avant-garde' works of art, who, as the very first exhibition-spaces, took over their most advanced ideas concerning how they might be (re)presented. From 1883 on, when J.M. Whistler was showing in his gallery in London, and Monet and Pissaro had their first one-man-shows at Durand-Ruell in Paris, we have the first written records of some fundamental changes. I now quote a small part of the letter Pisarro received from his son (who lived in London) about an exhibition of J.M. Whistler: "I saw an exhibition of Whistler this Saturday. He pinched our idea of colouring the walls. His space was overall white with the edges lemon-yellow. The wallpaper was yellow, the chairs were yellow, with white reed. On the ground lies a yellow like Indian carpet, and also the vases are of yellow earthenware, with yellow dandelions. And finally the custodian was dressed in white and yellow" (p. 38 KvhT). In general, 'the colour of the walls shifted from dark browns, wine reds and bottle greens to bright- and even white-colours. The thick, often gilded frames vanished to make place for more subtle, narrower ones (mostly white), and the spaces between artworks grew larger and larger. Gradually, the function of the frame was taken over by the white space surrounding and separating the different pictures within the space. Even without slides, I suppose it is not really difficult to imagine how such spaces must have looked, especially since this 'aesthetic' way of presenting -based on the 'object- and author-oriented model'- is still used today.
Some early examples of this aesthetic approach as the first representatives of the 'object- and author-oriented' model:
1899 (slide 4) Bienniale of Venice (Lenbach-hall) (1ste in 1895).
1902 (slide 5) Wiener Secession (Org. by Hoffmann and decorated by J.M. Auchenthaller).
1903 (slide 6) Biennial of Venice (hall of the province Veneto).
1908 (slide 7) National Gallery of Berlin (hall with impressionists and French sculpture), organised by Hugo Von Tschudi, who was director from 1876-1909.
1912 Eerste Sonderbund tentoonstelling Cologne/ der Sturm Berlijn (1910-32).
It was probably due to this new fashionable mode of exhibition-making that, during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, artists became aware of its implications (just as they became aware of the 'institution of art' in which they were entangled). To cite Jochen Schulte-Sasse, who wrote the foreword in Burgers 'Theory of the Avant-garde': "Pre-avant-garde modernist art was of necessity caught in the web of its own institutionalisation, because the institution 'art' was not yet defined enough historically to come into the view of the artists who practiced it". To put it differently: it was the avant-garde artists who, as the very first, had the opportunity to recognize how art was caught within its own institution. The real work of art appeared to be the institution. It was this institution that had the power to identify works/objects as 'art', not the works themselves. And it was within the exhibition-space itself, the sanctifying, isolating 'white cube', that this transformation actually took place.
As Burger states, the historical avant-garde was beginning to realise how art was entangled within the 'Institution of Art', thus being separated from life itself. Not only in their isolated 'works', but especially in their manifestations (actions, interventions, presentations), these artists tried to attack 'Art as an institution' and created new possibilities for the integration of art and the praxis of life.
The first exhibitions of the expressionists and cubists followed more or less traditional paths for the presentation of their work. And, although the manifestations and presentations of the Futurists in and outside of Italy were certainly provocative, it is not their activities either, that I want to discuss here. The same goes for the early Constructivists, although I have some examples of the first cubist-futurist and constructivist shows in Moscow and Petrograd that clearly show signs of a new development (slides: Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10, Petrograd 1915/16, en first OBMOCH-exhibition (community of young artists)in Moscow 1920). The most influencing practices that exemplify the 'context- and observer-oriented model' (and even go beyond) can be attributed to the Dadaists and the Constructivists of the early 20's, followed by the Surrealists (30's).
I want to begin with pointing at some practices of Dadaism, the most notorious anti-art movement that has existed until today (although it wasn't directed at art in particular, only in so far as art, or the Institution of Art, was representing bourgeois ideology and its conventionality).
Although the Dadaists had already started their subversive activities before 1916 (with Dada-Zurich, Cabaret Voltaire, spreading out from there to Berlin, Cologne, Paris and New York), it was the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (1920) (slide 8) in Berlin (as part of Dada-Berlin) that can be seen as one of the most influential alternative Strategies in Presentations at that time. Dada, as we all know, was against everything that represented the 19th century means end rationality, which resulted in the first World War, killing and mutilating millions of people. As part of their strategy of disgust the dadaists developed a serious critique on the museum/gallery, as the 'Grande Parade' of the bourgeoisie. The Erste Internationale Dada-Messe mocked everything that could be interpreted as a sacred cow of the bourgeoisie and the 'Institution of Art'. For instance, its presentation of the work of art as a unique, aesthetic object, created by an artist whose genius is equally unique, original, and authentic. In this exhibition there were no white walls to give the works their aura. There was no hierarchical difference between 'works', photographs, texts, collages, newspapers, reproductions; between found material, 'accidental objects', political manifestations, nonsense gestures or just ordinary events. Here, no work could be isolated and thus honoured with an eternal sanctity. All the works, manifestations and happenings together formed one overall environment in which there was no hierarchical difference between its constituting elements, or between the different agents (producing subject, curator and observer/participant) that were to play a role. However, as was the case in many of these manifestations, whether performance-directed or with a more 'object-character', there was no such thing as a leading and unifying principle. As in the collage/montage-works of, for instance, Schwitters, Hanna Hoch, or John Heartfield, the different pieces/fragments that are montaged together (in sequences of time, space, or material) are not subordinated to one unified whole, one essential principle to which every detail is subject, the fragments were entitled to their own, relative 'autonomous' existence. It was impossible, though, to decode their meanings, as these fragments had been torn out of their original contexts and placed within other frameworks, in order to function allegorically without any clue as to the direction in which new meanings could be formed.
(For this interpretation I am in debt to Peter Burger, who described Walter Benjamin's concept of the allegory in relation to the avant-garde as: 1) essentially fragmental and as such the opposite of the organic (unified) symbol, 2) a montage of fragments, isolated from their original contexts (and meaning), and put into a new arrangement with a possible (not necessarily) new meaning, and 3) an expression of melancholy because of the sense of total loss of meaning, which can only acquire a possible significance through the intervention of the allegorist.
Of equal importance as an example of total denial of the every value that kept the 'Institute of Art' alive (ideas of style, consistency, authenticity, stability and invariability) was Schwitters' Merzbau, on which he worked in his studio in Hannover from 1924 till 1933 (slide 11). O'Doherty regards this 'work', based on the city as indispensable condition and context, as the first work that could actually turn a 'gallery' into a chamber of transformation. Schwitters worked on it for nine years (it was destroyed in 1942), and it is because of this extended working process of years that it cannot be remembered as fixed and static, as it looks in photographs. "Framed by metres and years, it was a mutating, polyphonic construct, with multiple subjects, functions, concepts of space and of art" (O'Doherty). And, because of its numerous dialectics -between Dadaism and Constructivism, structure and experience, the organic and the non-organic, the city outside and the space inside-, this work can in no way be colonised, not by its producer, nor by the observer; or even by the institution itself.
Other influences came from Constructivism. Although the movement (together with Suprematism) had already started before the revolution of 1917, it was only after 1920 that the avant-garde made decisive moves to strengthen their contacts or even come to the West (see the rapidly changing situation in their homeland). In 1922 the Berliners witnessed Die Erste Russische Kunstausstellung (slide 12) in galerie van Diemen (also in the S.M. in Amsterdam). El Lissitzsky designed the exhibition, which may be the reason he was invited to make his 'Prounenraum' in a space assigned to him as part of the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung in Berlin 1923 (slide 13 reconstructie Van Abbe). His Prouns (1919-1923) (slide14) can be described as representations of three-dimensionally conceptualised spatial constructions (he was a pupil of Malevitch), which looked practically impossible to realise without first getting rid of the law of gravity. Prounenraum is a three dimensional construct in which the observer/participant makes the organization/principle concrete by way of mentally (re)constructing the work while moving through the space. Here again we have an early example of a formal presentation which is concerned that its many fragments (of material) do not necessarily constitute one, unified whole, and in which the principle of construction does not refer exclusively to the organizing activity of the producing subject. The contribution of the observer/participant is equally important. The observer, while receiving information of all kinds, and experiencing intensively, is, within this space, obliged to 1) go into the various fragments -and their possible meanings and references (to modern reality)- without being able to focus on a given static, unified whole of which the different elements would be standardised parts, and 2) the observer needs to accept the challenge that meaning is no longer located in 'the object' itself, but only in the relation he or she is about to build up with the environment as the space is explored. The key notion of artistic experience does not emerge from the object or author, but is rather constituted in the context explored by the observer. Lissitzky's concept of arranging exhibitions gained considerable reputation in the mid twenties. In 1926 he was asked to construct a space in Dresden, for the exhibition Gegenstandslose Kunst (slide 15). In that same year he was invited by Alexander Dorner, director of the Landesmuseum in Hannover, to construct a space in which exhibitions of contemporary art could be organised. This is how the Abstraktes Kabinet (rekonstruktion) (slide 16) came into being. The organisation of the space had to be realised in such a way as to involve the visitor actively in the process of presentation. The observer was the in dismissible agent in the producing of meaning. Concrete: the space was constructed so that the observer/participant could place and replace the different moveable panels, and thus determine for him/herself which 'works' would be confronted with each other. Subject as well as object positions were not fixed and stable. The space where meanings could be formed was enlarged considerably. Besides this, the walls were covered with metal lamellae, painted black on the one side and white on the other, thus providing a background that constantly changed as one moved around.
The example of Lissitzky's activities as organiser of exhibitions and presentations brings us to a key notion in this lecture; that is the acknowledgement that radical changes in the modes of presenting art stem from artistic (=avant-garde) interventions, rather than from the institutions which present them. And although the examples of 'avant-garde' museum directors/curators are not numerous, its is nonetheless important to note the irrevocable influence these first avant-garde strategies had upon the changing of the basic concepts for the making of exhibitions. I will discuss two exemplary figures in this category: Alexander Dorner and, in my next lecture on Fbruar 16, Willem Sandberg (director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1945-1962).
Alexander Dorner (1893-1957) directed the Landesmuseum of Hannover from 1923 till 1936. As a result of his daily practice with the presentation of art (old and contemporary), his engagement with the avant-garde movement of his time and the experience of working together with artists such as El Lissitzky and Moholy Nagy, he developed a theory of the 'living museum'. This 'living museum' was to construct a way of transcending the old boundaries of the 'Institution of Art', in order to arrive at a reintegration of art and modern society, in which film and other techniques would play a role that would be as important as painting and sculpture were in former times.
Later, in his book Uberwindung der Kunst (1959), he made a carefully worked plan of how such a museum could be realised. Dorners view on presentations could be described as operational instead of reflexive, process-oriented instead of static; 'super individual-evolutionary' instead of 'individual-aesthetic' Leering). His experiments with Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy were essential in this respect.
The plans for a Raum der Gegenwart, developed by Moholy-Nagy, is exemplary (slide 17). In the sketches for this space there was no longer a place for the traditional disciplines of art. In the Centre was a light-machine by Moholy-Nagy, and at the walls on either side large photographs were to represent the importance of modern architectural development and industrial design. These disciplines, together with typography, film and photography, were to be the newest contributions to the visual language of modern society. Two projection screens would be constantly at ones disposal for simultaneous displays of short films, of which one would be documentary and the other abstract.
This elaborate plan, which unfortunately was not realised - at first - because of budgetary reasons, and after 1933 for political reasons (the Nazis taking over power), does give insight into the tremendously far-reaching consequences promised by a presentation such as this. To give you some visual clues; I have a slide of an exhibition organised by M. Nagy together with Walter Gropius (Bauhaus): The Werkbund-exhibition in Paris, 1930. It was this exhibition that inspired Dorner to invite Moholy-Nagy to make the Raum der Gegenwart (slide 18).
One conclusion can be drawn at this stage; it is an illusion to believe that only one mode of making exhibitions existed, or exists. Strategies in Presentations like those of Dorner testify to the fact that the 'object- and author-oriented' approach is just one among many. Other practices also exist within the field of exhibition making.
Of course it would be illuminating if I could show you some more examples, however, Lissitzky's 'Abstraktes Kabinet' in Hannover (1926) has disappeared (only a reconstruction is left), and Dorners last project - his plans for Raum der Gegenwart, together with Moholy-Nagy - did not actually take place. The material that is available is restricted to Dorners's theory of 'Modern Realism' and to some written descriptions of what actually happened during his directorship. The practices of Willem Sandberg (next lecture) re much better documented.
Before I turn to more examples of institutionalised strategies in presentations that aren't exclusively focussed on the 'object-and author-oriented' model, but prove to be more environmental, operational, and process-minded, I would like to show you some other examples of presentations that were the direct consequences of artistic processes.
Among the most influential avant-garde movements of the twenties that challenged the bourgeois values, including the 'Institution of Art', the Surrealists cannot remain unmentioned. Although their most astonishing achievements have were first made in the field of (experimental) literature (Lautreamont, Alfred Jarry, Rimbaud) and poetry (Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon), in the production of manifesto on current issues, publishing books and magazines, and organizing 'manifestations' (like Dada) (all within the framework of an overriding commitment to social revolution), it is their 'works of art' and their strategies in presentation that are of interest here. One can also speak of the heritage of Dada-experiments in this field (remember the presentations in Cologne and Berlin). It was as late as 1937 (first Surrealist exhibition was in 1925, Galerie Pierre) when the Surrealists decided to stage a major Surrealist Exhibition in which the objects -many of them large and freestanding- and the paintings would meld in a "total environment that would provide a theatrical experience for the spectator" - that such a presentation finally took place. This International Surrealist Exhibition opened in January 1938 in the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (dia 19 /20). Duchamp had accepted the task of designing/overseeing the entire exhibition. His own contribution was the hanging of 1200 Bags of Coal on the ceiling of the large central hall (slide 21/22) and to cover the floor with dead leaves and moss. In 1942 a similar intervention took place: Duchamp was asked to contribute to the First Papers of Surrealism show in New York, and for this occasion he installed a Mile of String (slide 23). Congruent with the Surrealist ' ideology of shock, Duchamp installed a kind of 'web' through the gallery-space which made it impossible for the visitors to really enter the room and have a close look at the several, individual works of art.
Brian O'Doherty sees these last two 'interventions' as the last concrete examples of the ultimate three dimensional consequence of the collage and assemblage-techniques that had been used strategically by the constructivists, dadaists and surrealists ever since the early twenties (even before by the cubists). Perhaps it is going too far to yet again link the theories of Burger and O'Doherty, but one thing must be said; when Burger refers to Walter Benjamins concept of the allegory as the theory of the avant-garde, non organic work of art that challenges the various myths underlining the 'Institution of Art' (like the intrinsic meaning of the material, the notion of the work of art as a whole, and the intention to create one, unified and living picture of the totality), O'Doherty reaches out for the three dimensional expansion of this montage- and collage-principle (the fragmentation), as the most decisive step towards total attack and transformation of the neutral 'white cube' with its presumed 'high content'. To put it in more simple words: with inversions like the 1200 Bags of Coal and the Mile of String Duchamp "exposed the effect of context on art, of the container on the contained". He inversed the gallery in one single gesture, thus creating the 'space' for the observer to become conscious of what, since the 18th century, had been complicity taken for granted; the 'Institution of Art' that has the power to transform any object into a work of art. However, one must still be critical in this respect. Alone with Burger one could question whether Duchamp interventions still had the effect of his earlier Dada-experiments (think of his Ready-mades). What happens with 'the shock' when you have to deal with a public who is waiting for 'the shock' to happen, in order to be satisfied in their expectation of 'what the shock (Art) might be like?'
To summarize: Whereas the 'object-and author-oriented' model of presenting/representing art, as it has been materialized in the ideology of the white cube, claimed universal validity, it was attacked by the avant-garde for severing art from the praxis of life. The so-called 'neutrality' of the museum- and gallery space was thoroughly questioned. Dadaist, constructivist, and surrealist manifestations and interventions proved the possibility of a wide range of different strategies. Unfortunately, however, due to reasons varying from repressive tolerance (the challenging of 'Art' gets accepted as 'Art'), to socio-economic and political circumstances, with subsequent shifts in power relations, these many alternative models were prevented from gaining ground as equal alternatives.
In my next lecture I will continue to discuss some interesting exhibitions/presentations that do not fit into the category of the 'object-and author-oriented' model. Rather they combine certain elements of this, and other models of exhibition-making (Sandberg). It was the Documenta show in Kassel (1955) that started reproducing the (still valid) 'object-and author-oriented' model again, without any reflection or self criticism. This precedent inaugurated a whole new era of "regressive, self-defining and institutionalised exhibitions" of the kind we are still accustomed to today. In the 1960's and 70's there have been attempts to "break out" again - I am thinking of neo avant-garde movements such as Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Arte Povera etc. But, as I will show next time, these did not really lead to fundamental changes. Different strategies are once again required.
The next lecture will conclude with the juxtaposition of three exhibitions which represent the 'object- and author-oriented' model, or the aesthetic approach (neutral, objective and indifferent), and three attempts that deliberately take up 'marginal positions', and, as such, work out complex strategies on different levels. Ine Gevers, lecture at the Jan van Eyck Academy in the series of Strategies in Presentation, January 1993.