Strategies in Presentations I, II, III, IV en V
Jean Leering, De Straat, 1972; Guy Debord, Naked City, 1957 Strategies in Presentations II
In the first part Strategies in Presentations I set out the arguments on which I based my theory about Strategies in Presentations. I proposed a schematic model with a distinction between two modes of exhibition-making: the object-and author-oriented model that embraces all values of bourgeois High Modernism, and the context- and observer-oriented model, that critically questions the assumptions on which the first model is based.
While doing so I made the explicit remark I was using this scheme of thinking in oppositions only for the sake of the argument. And, in addition, I predicted that, as I would proceed my lectures, the distinctions between these two artificial categories would gradually dissolve.
With this I mean: In reality it might be difficult to find examples of presentations that perfectly match the models as I sketched them. And, even more important: although this artificial scheme suggests a sharp distinction between the two models, no such clear borderline exists between them either. The reasons for starting my lecture with the 'object-and author oriented' model on the one side, and the 'context-and observer oriented' model on the other, are more strategic than truthful. The notion of a so-called 'neutral' and 'objective' mode of making presentations, which is the implicit assumption of the 'object-and author oriented' model, is, in my view, not only a false proposition, it is also falsely represented as the one and only practice of making exhibitions. The representation of this monolithic mode of exhibiting art, based on a formalist/aesthetic approach, has been (and still is) overwhelming. As such this mode of presenting art has pushed away alternative strategies into marginal positions, or has silenced them altogether. Even histories have been written and rewritten to prove the universal 'truth' of this 'neutral' and 'objective' methodology, having its ancestors far back in time. According to the institutions that practice this kind of exhibition-making, there has never been, and there never will be, any mode of presenting art other than this fundamental approach.
Last week I made a start to show that such a construction of (recent) history is incorrect. I showed that there have been many different strategies in presentations, co-existing next to each other, or even different strategies in one presentation at the same time. Many examples, especially those presentations that were the results or manifestations of avant-garde practice in the 20's and 30's ( The Futurist 0,10 show in Petersburg, 1915-16, The Erste Internationale Dada-Messe in Berlin, 1920, The first Constructivist show in Berlin, 1922, The exhibition-designs of El Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy (Abstraktes Kabinet van Lissitzky, 1926, Moholy-Nagy's plans for the Raum der Gegenwart, 1930), and the Surrealist shows of 1938 and 1942), gave insight in the plurality of the strategies in presentations. There is no essential mode. No fundamental truthful way to do it, and certainly there can be no question of any strategy being 'neutral', 'objective' or 'disinterested'.
The time has come to present alternative strategies. Therefore I decided not only to construct a history that would focus on these 'other' attempts, but to do so from a starting-point that seemed to me more 'balanced' than just speaking about the object-and author-oriented model, thus referring to context-and observer-oriented practices as its alternatives only. In the previous lecture I mentioned two museum directors, who, in direct contact with and influenced by the avant-garde, came to new formulations of concepts that can be described as Strategies in Presentations. Other examples could be mentioned here, for instance Pontus Hulten (director of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm). However, I think that Alexander Dorner, director of the Landesmuseum in Hannover from 1923-1936 (whose activities I dealth with last time), and Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from 1945-1962, are good representatives.
Alexander Dorner, influenced by El Lissitzky and Laslo Moholy-Nagy, developed an elaborate theory of presentation/representation under the title: "Modern Realism". Reflecting the avant-garde's agenda of his time, he looked for a possible function of the 'living museum' that would transcend its traditional, institutional borders, and create opportunities for modern art to relate to modern society as a continuously changing reality. Dorner developed far-reaching plans. Unfortunately much has been destroyed or lost, and his most progressive proposal (together with Moholy-Nagy) did not take place.
To place certain achievements into historical perspective, for instance the museum policy of Willem Sandberg, I will continue this second lecture with Western Europe's most 'infamous' exhibition. In 1937 an anti-Modernist exhibition was organised by Hitler's National Socialists, called Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). This 'salon-like' presentation consisted of more than 700 objects confiscated from museums and private collections. The artists were mocked under categorical titles such as: ' Vilification of the German Heroes of the World War', 'Destruction of the Last Vestiges of Race Consciousness' and 'Complete Madness'. This 'exhibition of Shame' included works by Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laslo Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso a.o.
It was in 1938 that Willem Sandberg, as curator of the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam under the directorship of Cornelis Roell, organised his first important experiment in terms of presenting art. According to Jean Leering, who describes the specific character of Abstrakte Kunst (1938) (slide 31) carefully in De Kunst van het Tentoonstellen, Sandbergs presentation can be regarded as an interesting mixture of two models of exhibition-making: the 'individual-aesthetic' approach and the 'super individual evolutionary approach. Although with slightly different accents, Leering's models do have characteristics in common with the two models I referred to earlier this lecture. At least, two aspects of these models, the 'object-and author oriented' and the 'context-and observer-oriented' one, seem to join hands here:
1) the aesthetical approach inherent in the exclusive attention for the art-object, as well as the interest for the artist that produced it, and 2) the concern for the context (both inside and outside the museum walls), and the observer. Biographers refer to his left-oriented political stance and his overall social engagement, strongly influenced by his training as a typographer and his educational skills, in order to account for Sandbergs' broad interest for 'visual culture' in general instead of the Art with a capital A only. However, and this is important, sharp divisions were still made between Art (with capital A), and other practices within the field of visual culture (design, architecture, film, graphics, vernacular culture etc.).
The exhibition Abstrakte Kunst was organised by Sandberg in collaboration with the architect Mart Stam. Stam had been working with Mies van der Rohe in Berlin, and was acquainted with El Lissitzky. Stam and Sandberg were aware of the position they took up in the discussion about museum-policies and strategies in presentations, a discussion on the historical versus the aesthetical approach that went on in Germany as well as in the Netherlands from the early years of this century on. Their exhibition was characterized by the 'asymmetrical scattering effect' (slide 31/32) as a result of the complex composition in which the paintings and models were hanged and placed on different heights and in various spatial relations. It must have looked like walking through a three dimensional version of a neo-plasticistic painting. In a way one could categorize this approach as 'observer-oriented' (much effort has been given to imagine how the visitor would enter the space, how his/her attention would be grasped by the different works of art scattered around, and how this movement, would ultimately effect the experience), but only within the limits set by the works of art as the privileged signs. The attention for the individual works themselves was first priority.
It was amazing that as late as 1938 exhibitions of this kind actually could be realised. Not only in Germany, where the Entartete Kunst -exhibition of 1937 inaugurated a period of strong regression and a return to traditional, even salon-like modes of presentations, but also in other European countries a period of low activity set in. Sandberg, at least after 1945, the end of World War II, was quite active. He followed a decisive path: taking interest in visual culture as a whole, although within the institutionalised hierarchy that existed between the various disciplines, combining historical overviews and homage's to classical artists with a celebrating the present, and keeping close contact with the avant-garde of his time, following their insights in how to present/represent their work.
Other exhibitions of Sandberg that deserve attention are the 1949 Cobra-exhibition (slide 34) he organised together with Aldo van Eyck. In contrast to the expressive and eruptive effects of most of the works presented, Van Eyck chose a presentation that again (like the one from 1938) was reminiscent of neo-plasticism (De Stijl). The result was even more extreme than Stam's exhibition, for instance the differences between the high and low hanging of the paintings. Large paintings were commissioned in order to reach the seize of the walls, while, on the other hand, the walls became almost 'works' themselves. These spaces were alternated by spaces that were turned into environments.
Another exhibition in this line is the Stijl-exhibition of 1951, designed by Gerrit Rietveld ( 35). The crown on Sandbergs' work were the two exhibitions he made during the very last years as museum director of the Stedelijk: Bewogen Beweging (1961) and Dylaby (Dynamisch Labyrinth) (1962) (slide 36/37). The most characteristic element in exhibitions like Bewogen Beweging and Dylaby was the environmental approach. Dylaby, for instance, was an exhibition, made on the spot by artists like Jean Tinguely (organisor), Daniel Spoerri, Martial Raysse, Ultvedt, Niki de St.Phalle, en Robert Rauschenberg. All kinds of material were collected, and with the help of the employees of the museum, installations and environments were created in a few weeks time, inviting the observer to participate and thus create workable and living contexts. The museum literally was turned into an experimental place for the arts, the artists, the curator, and the observers/participants.
However, although Sandberg clearly distanced himself from the 'art object' as the only serious point of reference, it was the 'artistic creativity' he celebrated instead. This artistic creativity was connected exclusively to the individual artist, and it was only at third instance that the public came into play. In this respect one could conclude that Sandberg ultimately did not engage himself with the 'context-and observer-oriented' model as much as one might expect at first instance. He must have valued the 'object and author-oriented' model even more.
There are more arguments that underline the suggestion that Sandberg might have been less avant-gardist. That is to say: he did follow the (neo)avant-gardist artists of his time closely, he gave them immediate visibility (Cobra and Nul), but at the same time there is clear evidence that, as soon at the 'Institution of Art' (in this case the Concept of Art as well as the Context in which it is presented) was questioned, his engagement had its limits.
Although this period wasn't as explosive as the early twenties, new activities did take place in avant-gardist circles. For instance the attempts of the Independant Group in Britain to form new channels that could connect art and society (Pop culture) again. It was the Independant Group, with Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, and the architects Alison & Peter Smithson, including theorists as Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham, that implanted the seeds for the early development of British Pop Art. Presentations of the Independant Group in the ICA in London, for instance Parallel of Life and Art (1953), Man Machine and Motion (1955), and This is Tomorrow (1956) were extremely unconventional and radical in terms of their environmental character and the non-hierarchical juxtaposition of all sorts of 'images', wether the source was pop or vernacular culture, or wether they had the status of Art.
Parallel of Life and Art (1953) (Paolozzi) for instance, was an explosion of more than 100 images that were blown up photographically and hung on the gallery walls, from the ceiling, as screens to surround the spectator environmentally. The maze form made it possible to create a non-hierarchic profusion of images from all sources (slide). Man Machine and Motion (1955) (Hamilton) similarly explored the visual explosion of the 20th century, this time in terms of the intimate contact between man and machines. The most famous presentation This is Tomorrow (1956) (Theo Crosby) (in the Whitechapel Art Gallery) explicitly made the creating of different environments as its objective. In the large gallery, areas were allocated to various groups to produce their own environments. The results ran a spectrum from architectural paviljons through department store displays to one ebullient carnival piece.
I do not know whether Sandberg was familiar with the IG and their radical activities, especially on the field of presentation/representation, but he did have contacts with artists/theorists and filmmakers who even went further in their utopian programs: The Situationists International.
The intentions of the Independant Group and the Situationists are not to be compared except for the striking coincidence in terms of the historical moments that these (neo)avant-garde movements emerged. As for the Situationists, and I am now referring to their spokesman Guy Debord, focussing on society and art and the relation between the two implied an underground position from the very start. It was the development of the technologies of mechanical reproduction, that is, the rise of the mass media, with its dramatic consequences for cultural production in general ( 'society of the spectacle'), that, as context, articulated the actual status of the art work at that period of time. Debord spoke of the age of capitalist alienation and technological mediation. Lived experience, he argued, had been transformed into spectacle, desire into consumption. By means of their underground 'artistic' practice (as the dadaists and Surrealists they did not think of art in terms of works, but rather as action), and theoretical contributions, the Situationists sought to change this condition in the most radical way. However, as they had learned from earlier avant-garde practices, this transformation could only take place outside of the 'Institution of Art', in the form of revitalizing art through the negation of its traditional values and in a subversive appropriation of dominant, mass-media representations, that were to be diverged and re contextualized. In the early stage of this international movement (1957-1962) these actions did have their material counterparts (books, paintings, drawings, models, maps), and in 1959 they even proposed to make a manifestation in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
The contact must have been the result of relations between Sandberg and Constant and Asger Jorn, both members of COBRA (remember the Cobra-exhibition in the S.M. in 1949) as well. The idea was to transform several spaces of the museum into a labyrinth at the very moment when three distinct, systematic journeys through the central agglomeration of Amsterdam by three equips situationists, operating simultaneously, would take place. Because Sandberg, two months before the actual day of the happening, did not take full consequences for this operation ( he did not allow the Situationsits to take full control/responsibility), the Situationists decided to refuse collectively any engagement with the Stedelijk Museum.
The idea of the labyrinth, though, might have inspired Sandberg for Dylaby (Dynamisch Labyrinth), which he organised some years later with artists as Jean Tinguely, Niki de SaintPhalle, among others. At that time, however, the idea of the labyrinth was reduced to the level of acceptability. That is: compared with the plans of the Situationists earlier, the institutional framework itself was this time not effected.
Sandbergs' Nul (Zero) exhibition, organised by Henk Peeters, can be analysed in rather the same way (slide 38). Nul/Zero, with artists like Armando, Peeters, Jan Schoonhoven, was related to an international movement of artists resisting the cultivation of the creative genius, the 'artistic act', and the 'unique work of art' as its result, with which again the myth of the individual and ruling subject was reproduced by regressive tendencies in the artistic field of the 40's and 50's (abstraction lyrique, art informel, abstract expressionism). The results of this mentality (repetition, seriel work, absence of personal hand) did not lead to radical innovative presentations or critical positions as to the Institution itself (although I saw some interesting publications).
To place the activities of Sandberg again in an international context, I would like to return to the year 1955, when Arnold Bode organised the first Documenta in Kassel. As I said earlier, it was already before the Second World War that the radicalism of the historical avant-gardes gradually diminished, both as a result of political and economical conditions and because of the repressive strategy of the Institution of Art itself. That is: as the means by which the avant-garde hoped to bring about the sublimation of art attained the status of works of art, they lost their critical potential. But around World War II and the years shortly after a general regression set in, both within artistic practice and in its representation.
After World War II, Germany took the initiative to re establish its contacts with the international art world, which had been quite strong in the years before Hitler gained power. Contemporary art had to be brought to post World War II Germany and the avant-garde traditions, which had been expelled from this country by the Nazis, were to be reintegrated. The first Documenta's were organised explicitly to serve this purpose. Much had to be restored. To begin with the rehabilitation of the artist hero's of the early twenties and thirties, the victims whose art had been ridiculed by the Nazi's in 1937 as 'Entartete Kunst' (slide 39).
But more strategies were implied. The first documenta's needed to re inscribe themselves into the master-narrative of modernism. Starting with Documenta I they charted the evolution of 20th century art from its Expressionist and Cubist beginnings to Abstract Expressionism and Tachism, interpreting this history as a consequent development which would ultimately lead to abstraction. This focus on abstract art (in formalistic terms) was to distinguish and distance the Documenta from both figurative Nazi art and contemporary socialist-realist painting in East Germany and the East Block.
From its inception Documenta had a political purpose. Modernist art (now the equivalent of abstract art), valued for its formal qualities rather than its content, had become a metaphor for all that was good in Germany as well as in the former Allied Nations. This restorative process in fact meant a revaluation of bourgeois High Modernist Art as purely aesthetic, autonomous, and unique, interpreting its artistic quality again only in terms of being recognizable of the individual artist.
With there inauguration of the object- and author oriented model the order was restored (slide 40/41). Unfortunately, the representation of this strategy of restoration, reproducing the old bourgeois values in terms of the unique work of art and its neutral and aesthetic presentation, was so overwhelming, as was its influence, that it silenced the voices of alternative strategies almost completely.
The object-and author oriented model became the privileged mode of presentation throughout the 1950's and 1960's. Or, to paraphrase Brian O'Doherty: the sanctifying and isolating white cube regained its ultimate power. A power that was even stronger than in the beginning of this century because of the increasing elasticity of its frames, thus enabling itself to incorporate even the most radical interventions into its realm by turning them into Art.
The 60's and early 70's could be valuated as the years in which new attempts were undertaken to "break out". I already mentioned the activities of the Independant Group and the Situationists that were both more or less 'underground', but that had considerable influence nonetheless. It is impossible to pay attention to all the important developments in this period. Around the magical year 1968, when the democratic and emancipator student and working class revolts broke out in Paris and similar critical voices were heard in other European cities as well, already a large number of these new avant-garde movements and counter-movements had gained ground.
The period after 1968 is not unjustly described as the period in which the practice of art manifested itself in its most extreme plurality. In the USA Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre had already developed a radical, phenomenological approach that caused tremendous ruptures in the traditional thinking on three-dimensional works of art and their spatial position (Minimal Art). Parallel to this development and due to renewed insights in the power of language as an all-governing, signifying system, Conceptual Art was the next critical attempt to re question the nature of art: was art to be addressed to as language only, or was it to be interpreted as concept?
In both Europe and the USA Fluxus, the most important anti-art movement since Dada, was probably the most widespread international movement that effected much of the mentality of the art produced in the 60's and 70's. Although some critics tend to pin down Fluxus activities to the years between 1962 and 1964 (work of George Macunias, Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell, George Brecht, Nam June Paik, and Robert Filliou), their anti-art and pro-life mentality is representative for a much larger group of artists, working around that time. Although it would be a false suggestion to try and give a kaleidoscopic overview of what happened in these years, I do want to mention other influencing movements that did not fit easily within the concept of High Modernism either: Art Povera, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art.
Of importance, is, again, how these different artistic explosions effected its presentations, and, if so, till what extend. Due to the enormity of information, the diversity of happenings in the various countries, I decided to look for examples closer at home.
Several important exhibitions took place in the Netherlands in a relative short period of time: Op losse Schroeven, 1969 S.M.Amsterdam (Beeren) (slide 42/43). In the same year When Attitudes become Form, 1969, Kunsthalle Bern was organised (Szeemann), Sonsbeek buiten de Perken, 1971 Sonsbeek (Beeren), Relativerend Realisme, 1972 V.A.M., Eindhoven (Leering) en Fundamentele Schilderkunst, 1975 Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (de Wilde). Many of these exhibitions can be characterised as attempts to register what was actually happening at that time. No or little effort was made to classify or categorize the many movements and mentalities, and theory seemed to have vanished from the screen altogether. The museums, galleries and other places for presentation, settled for making inventories only. This attitude is echoed in the (re)presentations of the works, interventions, manifestations and projects, both in the spaces that were traditionally intended for this purpose and other spaces. But also in catalogues or accompanying publications no attempt was made to go beyond merely signalling what happened. Artists are ordered alphabetically, represented with portraits of themselves and their work, and short statements and/or interviews.
When looking at some documentary photographs of the exhibitions themselves, we arrive at a similar impression. Many different attitudes, interventions, or actual 'works of art', demanding ever changing subject-positions from the producer, curator as from the observer/participant.
There is no 'right' position to take in anymore, no overall consensus to rely on, there is only a multitude of different options. This state of affairs is characteristic for the 60's and 70's and as such these were inspiring years, especially if compared with the static, conservative status quo of previous years, with its preference of traditional disciplines and formal aesthetics. Despite the enthusiasm and energy with which these new, divers 'works' were produced, presented and received there was however one common characteristic they could not (or would not) escape: these works were unquestionably 'works of art'. This was even the case with 'works' produced by artists who had an avant-gardist mentality, and, as such, were opposed to this kind of institutionalising of art. But the dilemma seems to be irreversible. Peter Burger already signals this problem in relation to Duchamp and his ready-mades : "this kind of provocation cannot be repeated indefinitely" (..)"Once the signed bottle drier has been accepted as an object that deserves a place in the museum, the provocation no longer provokes; it turns into its opposite". To refer to Burgers' critique on the neo avant-gardes of the 60's and 70's, his argument proceeds as follows: this neo-avantgardist art is autonomous (=institutional) art in the full sense of the term. Whether we fully agree with Burger here, or not, fact is that it is this (aesthetic/autonomous) quality that is accentuated over and over again in its (re)presentation.
Even in reference to environmental works one can end up with more or less the same conclusion. This is what Brian O'Doherty does when he analyses the installations of Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and Edward Kienholz and other Pop artists and Nouveaux Realistes. O'Doherty criticises these artists for their not being as radical as their predecessors (Duchamp, Schwitters), arguing that these environments have nothing in common with the subversive collage and montage principles of the Dadaists and Surrealists. On the contrary. These works are just 'projects', accepting the organic, unifying principle of the traditional easel-painting as emblem of the bourgeois concept of High Modern Art. And I quote O'Doherty: "These environmental collages and assemblages clarify themselves with the acceptance of the tableau as genre". They accept the gallery/museum space that literally quotes their environments (tableau's) and makes them Art, in the same way as their photographic representations have become Art as well.
Although this critique does not apply for all neo avant-garde works, whether environmental or with a more 'object'-character, there is a notion in this critique that puts the finger on the weak spot, which is: the institute of art that still succeeds in preventing art to engage with the praxis of life in its most radical way.
I will show you some more examples. Op Losse Schroeven in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1969). Inside (slide 42): when looking at these works, closed up (O'Doherty would say 'buried') in a perfect, white space with a neutral, grey floor, one has the strange feeling that these works do not belong here at all. They should be outside, in the open, free space, or in any other but this 'neutral', aesthetisizing context. On the other hand, what happens with 'works'/ interventions/actions that do occur outside of the museum? (dia 43). The problem is that it is only as 'Art' that they can become visible in the first place.
The Institution of Art (the concept of Art) has gained such an amount of magical power that 'works' do not even necessarily need to actually remain within the realm of the 'white cube' to be recognized as Art. This 'Institute of Art' becomes like an invisible shrine that accompanies the 'work' wherever it goes, keeping it isolated and 'protecting' it from every day life. As soon as one enters the realm of the white cube, to paraphrase O'Doherty once more, there is no way one can escape its annexing powers ever again.
I have the impression that Cor Blok was aware of this dilemma when he wrote his short paper in relation to the strategies of presentation of Sonsbeek buiten de Perken (slide 45) in 1971. In this paper Blok proposes to shape frames that differ from the already existing 'art-frames' to be able to come to the confrontation (between art and the praxis of life) one was looking for, knowing that the existing framework only protects art from such confrontations. He says: "It is not meant to, cunningly, offer art via the tradesmen's entrance door because we cannot get in trough the front door. The matter is more that the being Art of what is presented is not the most important aspect when it comes to reception of the work".
Knowing that it is quite easy to furiously attack achievements that happened in the past from a (time) distance, and being aware of the fact that there actually did happen things in this period, I want to invite Cor Blok to recall his experiences with Sonsbeek (and other exhibitions) at the time.
Artistic developments as described above lead to fundamental discussions during the 1970's. It was obvious that the 'object-and author oriented' model, with its implicit neutral and aesthetical approach, did not succeed in presenting/representing the art of that time adequately anymore. The gap between the 'art' and the institution that was to present it, grew till such an extend that a crisis of the museum/gallery as the materialised 'institution of art' was unavoidable. Due to the 68-revolts and the democratisation tendencies that followed, the museums were attacked from the outside as well. Many discussions and critical debates about the identity of the museum, its practices and its functioning, were the result (Museum in Motion 1976). (Zie ook Szeemann's first plans for Documenta 5).
In the Netherlands, one of the initiators of this museum-discussion was Jean Leering, director of the van Abbe Museum from 1964-1973). He criticised the extreme aesthetisizing of art as a museum practice that was not only anachronistic in relation to what actually was happening outside the 'white walls', but it was totally contradicting the artistic developments as well. Unfortunately, these museum-debates did not lead to fundamental changes or different strategies in presentations. Leering did organise some interesting presentations, among which De Straat (1972) unquestionably is the most famous example. He was convinced of the possibility to bring art outside the museum walls and clarify its relevance on a more general, social level. The exhibition focussed on 'collective creativity', but within it the art functioned only marginally.
And, although Leering made several other attempts to bridge the gap between art and the praxis of life, it is revealing that these exhibitions always functioned apart from the so-called art exhibitions(one of the few examples is the Bruce Nauman exhibition, where a reading-table was installed in the middle of a space, filled with carefully displayed art).
With few exceptions (De Nieuwe Realisten, 1964, The Hague), the division between Art with a capital A and other cultural products, as well as between the Art-Exhibition and other exhibitions (educational) was complete. The attempts of educational departments (as part of most museums since the 1960's) to recontextualise art and bring it within the realms of explicitly interpretative frameworks, only led to its total isolation and detachment from what was considered to be the 'real' museum practice. Which still was following the 'object and author oriented' model.
The 70's brought about a tremendous explosion of art exhibitions. As art was growing more important in terms of investments and market-strategies, so the presentations/ representations of art were to become openly instruments to both political and economical power. The institutionalised 'History of Modernist Art' (both formal and a-historical in relation to its political, social conditions) had become the most important affirmative strategy in terms of power relations and ideology. However, to keep in line with actuality, some radical modifications were necessary. To describe this tendency it is interesting to return to the practices of the Documenta's in Kassel once more.
In 1972 the concept of the Documenta had suddenly changed. It had become evident that the evolution of art could no longer be presented along the lines of the master-narratives of modernism. All pretensions that the exhibition was to show an 'objective' picture of contemporary production -which it was not of course- were suddenly given up and the selection was entrusted to a single curator. The Documenta of 1972 by Harald Szeemann, and all subsequent ones, became author documenta's.
That is: contemporary developments were no longer interpreted within a historical framework, but rather according to the subjective criteria of the individual curator. Next to the 'Art' and the 'Artist' as privileged signifiers, the curator was to become a 'good third' in the row. Another Hero to attract the attention to, thus distracting it from the hidden power structures behind these practices.
Interesting enough, however, this sudden change from historical 'objectiveness' to a-historical 'subjective' criteria did not really effect the way the works of art were presented. First: the subjective/aesthetical criteria of these curators were presented as being objective and universally applicable. As such the same old 'truth-values' of bourgeois High Modernism were reproduced again. No historical master narrative was needed anymore to prove the 'artistic quality' of the work of art, only the 'subjective taste' of the curator was needed, who, having an 'objective' eye (connoisseur), could immediately recognise the essential quality of a work of art. And second: As the historical (within formalistic limits) and aesthetical approach were welded together in terms of presentation of art ever since the end of the 19th century, it was no effort to reproduce this joining of hands again, this time between the a-historical and the aesthetic.
When Harald Szeemann started preparing the fifth Documenta the circumstances seemed ideal for changes (end 60s). For a short moment it even looked like he was going to 'break open' the institution of the Documenta. However, this state of excitement did not hold. After he first declared to fill the 100 days of the Documenta with 'happenings', he secondly started to develop a critical position towards the Documenta as institution in order to recontextualize visual culture (he talked about image instead of art) within the realm of the social, political etc. In the end he created another monument dedicated to art expressions pur sang. With his concept of the Individuelle Mythologieen Szeemann stood in line again with the institutionalised High Art and its creative Genius. Although, he must be credited for having organised the best Documenta since 1972.
The Documenta that perhaps succeeded best in representing the values of High Modernism in an a-historical way was the 7th Documenta organised by Rudi Fuchs (1982) (slide 47). I will not go into details here, for, to get a good impression of the critical debate that followed this exhibition, one can read the introduction Rudi Fuchs wrote in his catalogue, and the critique of Douglas Crimp in October. Fuchs made no secret of his aim to select only the greatest Master-Pieces and the subsequent Hero's that produced them, although, of course, there only could be one master of the exhibition, Fuchs himself.
Asked to reproduce the master narrative once more, Fuchs chose a personal and artistic way to fulfil his agenda. He composed a piece to which all works of art, selected on their 'universal quality', were to contribute in a prescribed way. No historical, social and political contexts: only a formalist/aesthetic arrangement of different works that were confronted with one another in order to affirm the basic principle of this Documenta. In comparison with the essential characteristics that brought these works together: their aesthetic quality, all other differences were neglected as just minor details. I again refer to the statue of Frederick II, whose representation functioned as emblem of Documenta 7 (see catalogue) and Daniel Buren's Guirlandes, a parody on the show's simplistic notions of history and of nationalism, a category that was then newly revived to foster stronger market competition. Because of Rudi Fuchs not being the only organizer of Documenta 7, he worked in a team with 4 other curators, he was obliged to accept some works that were critical towards the concept that implicated the complete return to conventional modes of painting and sculpture (1982!) and promised total isolation from the "world around them, (be it) customs and architecture (or) politics and cooking" (Crimp). Examples are Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren and Jenny Holzer, who presented, as part of her contribution, a collective venture with Fashion Modo, an alternative gallery situated in the South Bronx (with Louise Lawler, Christy Rupp), works that were quite the opposite of "Art (that) is gentle and discreet, (and that) aims for depths and passion, clarity and warmth" (Fuchs in letter for Documenta).
Although Fuchs' severely criticised Documenta was already one among many 'dinosaur' exhibitions, organised by 'one author' whose selection was based upon his highly valued 'subjective', though universally applicable criteria, we still are confronted with similar modes of exhibition-making today. The tremendous competition between this increasing amount of (self)promoting dinosaur exhibitions, based on central themes and funded by central institutions, gradually has overshadowed all other developments within the realm of artistic and presentational practice.
Besides the Documenta's in Kassel, the Biennales in Venice, Sao Paulo and Paris, it were exhibitions like A New Spirit in Painting (London 198?) (Rosenthal & Joachimides), Westkunst (Cologne 1981) (Kasper Konig), Zeitgeist (Berlin 1982) (Rosenthal & Joachimides), Von Hier Aus (Dusseldorf 1984) (Kasper Konig) en La Grande Parade (S.M. Amsterdam 1984) (E.de Wilde) (slide 50) and others, that, without exception, all celebrated the 'object- and author-oriented' model and its presupposed values of High Modernism, and for which goal any history was implicitly rewritten and falsified again and again. Because of the emergence dinosaur exhibitions of the sort as mentioned above, organised in the last ten years, and the difficulties to describe them fully, I decided to end this lecture with a choice of three examples of more recent date: Bilderstreit (Cologne 1989) (Siegfried Gohr and Johannes Gachnang), Les Magiciens de la Terre (Paris 1989) (J.H. Martin), and Documenta IX (Kassel 1992) (Jan Hoet).
Bilderstreit (1989) was announced as an exhibition of more than hundred artists, more then a thousand works, on more than 10.000 m2. As promotion of the global 'art' city Cologne and as a political instrument (writing a nationalistic history of art against a supposed hegemony of the U.S.A.), Bilderstreit was an easy subject to attack. And so it was (Judd in Kunstforum). It had not happened before in history that market related sympathies and political and economical power relations were so openly linked with the pseudo-aesthetics of the organisers. But more important, for the analysis in relation to Strategies in Presentations, was the implicit concept of art that shaped the 'subjective criteria' of Gohr and Gachnang, as well as the 'associative (dis)placement' of the different works within the exhibition as a whole.
That Bilderstreit is closely linked to the 'object- and author-oriented' model is without question. There is no concept, there are no (visual) arguments displayed, other than the implicit notion of a subjective and personal engagement leading to objective and universal standards of aesthetic quality. Under the label of freedom and dialogue, of open mindedness and contradiction, of multi-significance and subjective choice, history as well as actual developments are forced into a concept that has deliberately been kept implicit. It is their reference to the artwork as an autonomous and aesthetic object, to be experienced immediately, and the artist as the unique and unified self, that made the organisers interpret the whole history of art as a history of painting only. This is reflected in how the exhibition was organised. Even at those moments when sculpture or photography were included in the exhibition, it was presented according to the aesthetical norms developed within the discipline of painting (slide 58). In an attempt to reproduce the values of High Modernism, as they have been reshaped after WW II in order to affirm the status quo of democratic Western Europe, these are represented here in a new outfit: it is no longer abstract art that symbolises freedom and democracy, but figurative painting, referring to Germany's national heritage of myths and expressionism.
It is the immediate experience and the recognizability of the artists' hand, that stands for the exclusive high quality as was developed, according to Gohr and Gachnang, in Germany and Italy in the first place. How every work was subordinated to this central notion, is clearly reflected in the organisation of the different exhibition-spaces (dia 59).
Another aspect that is reproduced in Bilderstreit is the museum like aesthetic approach and the personal freedom the organisers took to confront the different works each time on different terms. Some confrontations of paintings and objects were clearly informed by formalistic interests (dia 60), while other variations were based on semantic correlations, and so on (some of these 'confrontations' were really quite banal, like the presentation of Polke's 'Carl Andre in Delft' next to a minimal sculpture on the floor). The problem here is that the works are not confronted with each other on the basis of visual arguments or logically imitable terms, but on subjective feeling and intuition, a subjective choice that turned out to be different in every new context that was created. In this sense one could call the 'Strategy of Presentation' inherent in Bilderstreit utterly post-modern (to claim multi-interpretational potentials of the works by putting them in ever changing contexts. As this exhibition began to look like creating confusion for the sake of confusion, the objective of this 'strategy' was not made explicit. The result was a Bedeutungsmonopol, denying difference, dissembling meaning, and reducing everything to a potpourri of random style. It was explicitly for this reason that artists like Anselm Kiefer, Axel Kassebohmer and Donald Judd tried to withdraw their work from the show (in which they did not succeed).
Les Magiciens de la Terre (1989, Paris, J.H. Martin)was an important initiative in relation to the emergence of a discussion on subjects as the 'globalisation of culture' and the necessity of 'cultural decentralization'. However, although one cannot say that Jean-Hubert Martin and his team did not attempt to situate their project in the present, including its political and cultural problematics, they did not succeed in doing so. To put it in one general remark: it is not enough to present art from all over the world, offering exhibition possibilities to artists from other cultures only. Not that Magiciens did not aim at more than just creating an opportunity, a place to present work, but, because of the questionable and implicit concept of art they adhered to, and the many different forms of presentations they applied without argumentation, the position of the exhibition remained too vague and unclear to signify more.
In order to avoid coming to terms with the relativity of the existence of an art concept in different parts of the world, the notion of the magician was used as a substitute for artist, and the concept of the spiritual replaced that of the aesthetic. Only, the effect of this exchange of terms is falling into the same traps as so many other dinosaur-exhibitions have entangled themselves in. Again, the concept of art ( spiritual), implicitly embracing the bourgeois values of High Modernist Art, was too unspecific and questionable to function as common denominator to which all different (social, political, cultural) works were to submit. As J.H. Martin did not go beyond "emphasizing an abstract, trans historical experience of spirituality" (Buchloh) (compare this with the a-historical notion of the universal, aesthetic quality of art), Magiciens was unable to include the political in a relevant manner, and had difficulties with contextualising the works altogether.
As for this important term: contextualising, the following must be added: Magiciens did want to break with the 'object-and- author-oriented' model, but did not succeed in doing so because it reproduced its parameters nonetheless. The notion of a 'visual quality' that transcends all other qualities or meanings of a work is revealing enough. For this reason the whole undertaking of contextualising the different contributions from all over the world became problematic.
Magiciens de la Terre is an exemplary exhibition when it comes to the many different forms of presentation that coincide with each other, from modes that reflect a museum like, aesthetic approach, till display methods that refer to an anthropological approach, till actually inviting the different magicians to come and work on the spot, thus contextualising their works themselves (the environmental approach). But exactly this arbitrariness in choosing different methods of presentation without explaining why, in preferring formal resemblances at the one hand and reflecting on their semantic relations on the other, or even confronting works that will never have a dialogue because of their fundamental different backgrounds in terms of culture and politics anyway, reveals the weakness of this exhibition. And, in addition: in sticking to visual/formal criteria when using their 'artistic intuition', the organisers overlooked the relationship between objects and politics in such a way that they even muddled their time category. In this sense, their objective to be actual was not fulfilled either.
Magiciens was an example of a presentation that could have been of importance if the organisers had chosen a more explicit and argumentative object of research which is contemporary with current politics, as well as a methodology which would have enabled them to open out the phenomenon of non-Western art to a new exhibition structure and more relevant topical analyses.
Documenta 9 (1992) was organised by Jan Hoet and his team, consisting of Luigi Tazzi, Dennis Zacharopoulis, and Bart De Baere. With Hoet the authorities of Kassel and the founders again found an exemplary curator, especially in terms of publicity. Hoet knew to attract the attention to his own personality already in the years before the Documenta actually took place, thus distracting critical curiosity from the actual power structure and its self promoting strategies, on which this undertaking was based since 1955.
Following the several press-conferences Jan Hoet organised in Gent and Kassel, one could foresee the pitfalls of this 9th Documenta clearly enough. No concept, no arguments. Only an 'intuitive approach', a 'subjective vision' that, however, did not prevent Hoet from looking for 'universal capacity' and 'universal dialogue'. Again a giant show, which would favour homogeneity over heterogeneity, unity over fragmentation, and universality over locality was to be expected. Another exhibition that did not bother to develop a contextual approach, but that took the institutionalised concept of art (High Modernist Art) for granted, and, as such, reproduced its parameters without critically reflecting on it.
Curiously enough, Hoet's intention was to construct a pattern that would tell the story about art and life. His little tower exhibition, in which he installed works he regarded as exemplary for the presentation as a whole. David's The Death of Marat, Gauguin's E Haere oe i hia, Ensor's Self-portrait with a Flowered Hat, Giacometti's Le Nez, Newmann's The Moment, Beuys' Wirtschaftswerke, un untitled painting of Rene Daniels, and White Figure by James Lee Byars, can be described as a manifesto that focussed on "a continuous argument between art and life".
A contradiction in terms, because Hoet, intending to examine the avant-garde, did so by aestheticising its practice beforehand. Insisting on art's autonomy, its total freedom of action and its demand for a particular, isolated space, he presumed a position of art that was totally distinct from life, thus denying any critical potential other than its aesthetical qualities. For Hoet art has lost its political voice. With this opinion he distances himself from Joseph Beuys, his artistic alter-ego, who, in his words: "still thought art could change the world". Instead Hoet preferred a playful, and as such, relatively harmless, story about 'art and life', which was carefully isolated from any 'real' contexts the artists might allude to. In this sense, Hoet saw the Documenta as an extension of the work of art and of the activity of the artist in particular, of whom he said: "If an artist looks too steadily at life, the result is a sudden loss of creative power".
Thus, again, the values of High Modernism (which have become institutionalised as the blueprint for European and American art making since WWII) were the reigning criteria that produced the selection of art and shaped the presentation of Documenta IX as a whole. And, in a sense, it were the works able to resist this open but at the same time monolithic concept to some extend, that I remember best:
The 'environmental' works of Louise Bourgeois, Precious Liquids and Gary Hill, Tall Ships, the installation of Cady Noland and the video-show of Matthew Barney, both in the parking-garage under the Documenta Halle. Further: critical works as to the Euro-centric exoticism and utter dismissal of the Third World, inherent in Documenta's implicit concept of art, for instance Jimmy Durham's self portrait as a parodied Christ figure and David Hammons' room size homage to his own hair, as well as the intervention of Zoe Leonard that reminded of sexual difference as the key notion to the placement of women as wives and mothers in traditional bourgeois lifestyle-paintings, as they are celebrated within any city museum over the world (slides).
Of course Hoet was not the only agent to blame for the impossible naive construct on which Documenta IX was based. He is, like Laura Cottingham rightly states, merely a symptom.
The question is, however, how many more of these (re)presentations we need to come to the conclusion that the values of High Modernism, inherent in the 'object- and author-oriented' model of exhibition-making, constitute a serious ideological obstacle to both the development of art and of its presentation?
I think, at this point in time, it is an illusion to believe we can ever dispose of the 'Institution of Art'. However, this must not keep us from developing strategies in presentations altogether. At this moment in time new instruments, and new interdisciplinary methodologies, are being developed, able to focus critically on the functioning of art on a multi-layered level, including its institutionalisation. Strategies that recontextualize visual products from various cultures in totally different ways as the sanctifying 'white cube' has done so far. Strategies in Presentations that chose objectives that are contemporary with current cultural politics, and that are argumentative and specific both in its visual and its theoretical approach. As there are no receipts for such practices, I have proposed to analyse three examples of such presentations, all three containing different objectives, and, subsequently, different strategies.
At March the 9th: Joseph Kosuth on the Wittgenstein-Exhibition (1990), March the 16th: Clemetine Deliss on Lotte-or-the-transformation-of-the-object (1991), March 23th: Leontine Coeleweye on Parler Femme (1992)
Next week: Jan van Toorn on museumpractices in the 18th, 19th and 20th century, analysed according to Foucaults method of effective history. Ine Gevers, lecture at the Jan van Eyck Academy from the series Strategies in Presentation, February 1993.