Reviews and Articles on the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy London

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photos from:

https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/anselm-kiefer-remembering-the-future/

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1981 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1983

Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1983

Anselm Kiefer retrospective - London

Ash Flower at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective (click image to enlarge)

 

Anselm Kiefer, The Paths of World Wisdom Hermann's Battle (1980)

Anselm Kiefer, The Paths of World Wisdom: Hermann’s Battle, 1980 (click to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974

Anselm Kiefer, Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974

Anselm Kiefer. For Paul Celan, Ash Flowers, 2006

Anselm Kiefer. For Paul Celan, Ash Flower, 2006

Anselm Kiefer Royal Academy of Arts

The Morgenthau Plan, 2012: part of the RA display

 

Ash Flower, a 26 foot painting by Anselm Kiefer

Ash Flower, a 26 foot painting by Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (2), 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (3), 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013

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Anselm’s alchemy

By Martin Gayford

Published 22 September 2014

Throughout his career, the German artist Anselm Kiefer has confronted the weight of the past and the power of myth on a monumental scale. As the RA stages a major retrospective, Martin Gayford chronicles the extraordinary vision and transformative force of this colossus of contemporary art.

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  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Walking down a hillside in the foothills of the Cévennes, we come across a group of massive towers. Multi-storeyed, irregular, almost tottering, these look at once old and new. The material they are made from – cast concrete – gives them the appearance of a contemporary shanty town or some haphazard industrial structure. Their form and presence, silhouetted against the clear southern French sky, suggest the architecture of Dante’s Italy or medieval Greece.

    These extraordinary objects – it is hard to know whether to call them sculpture, architecture or installation – are among the landmarks of La Ribaute, the estate near the town of Barjac on which the German artist Anselm Kiefer Hon RA has created perhaps the most ambitious and complex work of art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At La Ribaute’s centre is a disused silk factory, a rambling building in vernacular stone architecture containing a house and workshop. Around this, however, has accreted what can only be described as a Mediterranean landscape strewn with contemporary art spaces. The long, winding drive is lined with some 50 individual pavilions, each containing a group of paintings, sculptures or installations. Other works are housed in a maze of underground tunnels, and in glass structures of Kiefer’s own invention – part greenhouses, part vitrines.

    Just in scale, what Kiefer has done at Barjac is daunting. A day is scarcely sufficient to see everything. Asked how his retrospective at the RA would relate to this gesamtkunstwerk – this total work of art – at Barjac, Kiefer replied, “It will be a concentration of all this.”

  • Kiefer’s towers punctuate the parched landscape around Kiefer’s studio complex at Barjac in southern France, 2012.

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Charles Duprat.

  • When Kathleen Soriano, curator of the RA’s exhibition, first visited Kiefer’s studio, she found the experience overwhelming, but by her third visit she felt more reassured, because she had grasped that all of Kiefer’s works were connected.

    All of Kiefer’s art, she says, is concerned with “a handful of issues, themes, stories that he is constantly revisiting; at the heart of it are ideas about cosmology, the connection between heaven and earth”. Thus everything Kiefer makes is part of a whole that is always in the process of evolving. “He isn’t someone who thinks about time being linear,” as Soriano puts it. “He thinks about it being cyclical and everything being connected.” On the May morning when I saw those towers, Kiefer told me he had woken up with the idea for a new building in his mind, and an intuitive feeling – on which he did not elaborate – about what he would put inside it.

    Change and decay are built into his art, in the way that planned obsolescence was a feature of American cars. His paintings often contain materials that are bound to mutate: straw, lead that once flowed like a sluggish liquid. Some of his recent works were given a final touch by electrolysis – they were placed in a chemical bath with a cathode and an anode so that copper was deposited on its lead, which in turn became part of the surface of the painting. The copper turned green, but – and this was the point that delighted Kiefer – alterations carried on occurring. People who bought these works, he told me with glee, would have to be told that in six months they would have a different picture.

    Two of Kiefer’s towers, entitled Jericho, were exhibited in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard in 2007. Around the towers at Barjac is strewn the wreckage of similar mini-Babels that have come tumbling down. I asked his studio manager, Waltraud Forelli, whether Kiefer minded when his works collapsed in this way. “Oh no,” she replied, “Anselm loves it when they do that!” Rubble, indeed, is one of his favoured materials. In a glass gallery space nearby lies a lead battleship, perhaps 12 feet long, having foundered on the waves of a sea of smashed concrete.

  • Detail from Kiefer’s book work ‘For Jean Genet’, 1969, showing a photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute.

    Hall Collection. Photo Hall Collection. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Ruins, as a matter of fact, were exactly where Kiefer started. He was born on 8 March 1945, just two months before V.E day. His arrival in the world therefore corresponded with the beginning of the postwar era; and – equally relevant to his development as an artist – he grew up among the debris of saturation bombing. A few years ago, he told me how he had been powerfully affected by that beginning. “I was born in ruins. So as a child I played in ruins, it was the only place. A child accepts everything; he doesn’t ask if it’s good or bad. But I also like ruins because they are a starting point for something new.”

    This is Kiefer’s fundamental beginning, aesthetically and emotionally: his life started after a cataclysm. Unlike a German artist of a slightly older generation, Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who has memories of growing up in the Nazi era, Kiefer knew only the aftermath: a world which had been shattered by high explosives, and a society in which the immediate past was mentioned as little as possible because it held terrible secrets.

    Unearthing that hidden past was one of his first undertakings as an artist. In the ‘Occupations’ series of 1968-69, he was photographed in various places in France, Italy and Switzerland performing the Nazi salute, as seen in his book work For Jean Genet. At the time – and for some people still – it was an outrageous (and illegal) thing to do. When work, including these images, was submitted for his degree at Freiburg School of Fine Arts, some on the jury were appalled. But the point of this extreme gesture was, of course, not to extol Nazism, but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it. Only by doing so, he felt, would it be possible to reclaim the past – to start building again from the ruins. This was no doubt why the young Kiefer was supported by Joseph Beuys (1921-86), a leading figure in German art of the 1960s whose works, which took forms including sculpture and painting but centred around performances, often examined ideas of rebirth.

    Beuys was an occasional mentor of Kiefer’s, though not a formal teacher. Kiefer remembers how, as a young artist, he would take work to show to the older man. “I was working in the forest and I would roll up these huge paintings, put them on the roof of my VW Beetle and drive to Du?sseldorf to show him.” Of all the major postwar German artists, including Richter, Georg Baselitz Hon RA and Sigmar Polke, it is Beuys to whom Kiefer is closest. A profound interest in ritual and metaphysics is something Kiefer has in common with Beuys, as well as a deep sense of German Romantic heritage, in literature and philosophy as well as the visual arts. There is also a stylistic similarity between Beuys’s works on paper and Kiefer’s delicate and intimate watercolours, such as Winter Landscape (1970) – a counterpart to his massive paintings, sculptures and installations.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, 1970.

    © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • The artists also shared a ritualistic feeling for materials. Again and again in his art Beuys used felt and fat, both materials that are connected with a personal myth about his healing after being injured in an air crash during the war. In Kiefer’s case the signature substances, as well as lead and straw, include concrete and sunflowers. In his case, too, there are probably biographical associations. His affinity with concrete, for example, is perhaps the result not only of the pulverised townscapes of postwar Germany but also of a formative stay at the monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, outside Lyon, designed by Le Corbusier during the 1950s in starkly moulded concrete. There, Soriano notes, he was affected by “the combination of spirituality and scholarship that he saw in the monks”.

    Kiefer is both spiritual and extremely well read, as well as unexpectedly jolly. A conversation with him might begin with medieval philosophy, and progress, via alchemy, to architecture. In origin, he is a Catholic, from Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, near the border with France and Switzerland (in contrast to Richter and Baselitz, who come from the Protestant north-east, almost another country from southern Germany). You could not, he told me, “imagine anywhere more Catholic” as Donaueschingen. He was an altar boy: “I’ve forgotten a lot of the poems I learned by heart but I still know the mass in Latin.”

    As befits someone who once assisted at the mystery of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine become the body of Christ, Kiefer has a metaphysical approach to materials. No doubt he relishes lead for its physical attributes: its enormous weight and sombre matt-grey surface. But he likes it as much for its metaphorical qualities. As Soriano explains: “Lead is the basest of materials but also it is changeable. If you heat it up, it bubbles, it is constantly in flux. Above all, to Kiefer’s mind, there’s its weight: he considers it the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.”

    Kiefer uses lead paradoxically. He makes it into the kinds of objects you would least employ it for from a practical point of view: aeroplanes too heavy to fly, boats that would immediately sink, books whose pages would require huge effort to turn. At the entrance to the Royal Academy exhibition will stand a new sculpture, incarnating this paradox: lead books with wings (The Language of the Birds, 2013).

  • Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013.

    Lead, metal, wood and plaster. 325 x 474 x 150 cm. Private Collection. © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • In alchemy, lead was to be transmuted into gold, and Kiefer is intensely interested in alchemy – he admires the writings of the Jacobean English astrologer, cosmologist, cabbalist and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). His work, especially in the last two decades, has been fed by deep interests in many esoteric traditions, such as the Jewish Cabbala and ancient Egyptian religion. Just as Soriano felt overwhelmed by the volume of art in his studios, one can feel as if one is drowning in references and allusions when one reads about Kiefer’s work. But – this is a crucial point – it is not necessary to decode all those layers of meaning in order to appreciate his art. They are all compressed into a visual experience; you can just look, and sense the complexities.

    Kiefer also has a deep interest in poetry. He has said that when he “looks inside himself he finds poetry”, yet he thinks in images. Indeed, he is haunted by the German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-70), whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. Celan’s poem Death Fugue (1948) gives the titles and themes to Kiefer’s paintings Margarethe (1981) and Sulamith (1983). They refer, respectively, to a German guard and a Jewish prisoner in a death camp. Celan wrote of “your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith”. Each painting has their name inscribed onto the canvas. Kiefer’s works often contain words in this way and, as in these paintings, they affect the meaning of the work. Sulamith depicts the funerary crypt of the Soldier’s Hall built in Berlin in 1939 by the architect Wilhelm Kreis. It was a grim expression of the Nazi cult of the dead transformed by Kiefer into a memorial to the victims of Nazism, as art historian Daniel Arasse put it in his 2001 monograph on the artist.

    If one wanted to find a stylistic description for the earlier phase of Kiefer’s art, in the 1970s and early ’80s, far better than Neo-expressionism – which was tried, but doesn’t fit – would be postcataclysmic romanticism. The principle theme of Kiefer’s work at this time was, Arasse concluded: “How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?”

  • Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973.

    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer depicted, for example, a path through a forest merging with a railway line leading to the concentration camps. He painted the forests that had been a place of refuge and also fear for his family during the final stages of the war. He also painted primitive halls of wood, often based on his own studio in the upper storey of an old school house in the town of Buchen. In one, Nothung (1973), the magical sword of the mythical hero Siegfried sprouts from the floorboards. Others in the series were executed in a sinister, shamanistic combination of oil paint and blood. This attic, as Soriano says, was “a theatre, a space in which he could act out history”.

    A number of works took as their settings the starkly severe neoclassical monuments of Nazi architecture. Interior (1981) depicts the mosaic room in the New Reich Chancellery, designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, and virtually destroyed in 1945. In the foreground, flames flicker. Such paintings have the melancholy grandeur of the masters of 19th century German art and architecture – painter of northern landscapes Caspar David Friedrich, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect of Berlin – but are overlaid with a much darker mood. The vanished Nazi buildings, destroyed in or after the war, reappear like sombre ghosts, witnesses to a terrible history. Such paintings have a spectral, sinister magnificence.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Osiris and Isis, 1985-87.

    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Fire, destructive and transformative, was a presence in Kiefer’s work at this time. The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975), one of his many book works, documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.

    The ultimate purpose of Kiefer’s art in the 1970s and ’80s, Arasse argued, was “to perform an act of mourning for the whole of German culture and all of its finest and most ancient works”. But, he continued, the changes that took place in Kiefer’s work during the 1990s “seem to imply that the time of mourning is over”.

    In 1992, Kiefer moved to France and began to work at Barjac. From being an artist preoccupied by German history, he became, in the words of critic Matthew Biro, “a global artist”. He travelled the world and his art took on an international sweep. A series of works, including the earlier Osiris and Isis (1985-87), take as their central subject huge ruined pyramids of sand-coloured brick. These are based on structures he had seen in Egypt, Israel, Central America, southern India and the China of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Studio Anselm Kiefer, Croissy, 2014.

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer’s preoccupation with starry skies and sunflowers is both cosmographical and a response to his new environment in the south of France. Barjac, after all, is not far from Arles, where Van Gogh painted both the flowers and the sky at night. When Kiefer depicts wheat fields, however, as he has in his new series of paintings, ‘Morgenthau’, some of which go on show for the first time at the RA, he has in mind not only the cycle of life and death evoked by Van Gogh’s harvests with their yellow corn and black funereal crows. He is also thinking of the Morgenthau Plan, named after the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr, and proposed late in 1944 (around the time when Kiefer was conceived). Morgenthau’s idea was that after the war Germany should not just be demilitarised, but also deindustrialised, transformed into a peaceful bread basket: the European equivalent of the Prairies.

    This quixotic, historical might-have-been both amuses and inspires Kiefer. It also demonstrates that, no matter how far he ranges in time and space, in some way he remains rooted in his beginnings: the end of the Second World War and the start of the new era in which we are still living. A large space at Barjac is also devoted to work based on this scheme. It is an installation: a plantation of grain in the centre of the room, the ears gilded with gold-leaf and – nestling in the middle – a serpent.

  • Anselm Kiefer is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 27 September – 14 December 2014.

    Martin Gayford is a writer and artist critic.

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BBC ARTS

 

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Tim Marlow gets a guided tour of the German artist’s new retrospective.

The first major British retrospective of the work of painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer – widely considered to be one of the most important artists of his generation – opens this weekend.

The exhibition, which runs from 27 September to 14 December 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts, spans more than 40 years from Kiefer’s early career to the present day.

Kiefer at the RA

Born in Donaueschingen in 1945, Kiefer’s work often explores the darker episodes of German history, as he explains in an exclusive forthcoming short film for BBC Arts Online.

He tells Tim Marlow about his Occupations and Heroic Symbols (Heroische Sinnbilder) series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which record Kiefer’s re-enactment of the Nazi salute in locations across Europe, made in the belief that one must confront rather than suppress the experiences of history.

He also discusses his more recent work, including pieces made especially for the exhibition. You can see more of Kiefer’s work below.

Anselm Kiefer – Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970

Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm | Collection Würth | Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Interior (Innenraum), 1981

Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm | Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam | Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – The Orders of the Night (Die Orden der Nacht), 1996

Emulsion, acrylic and shellac on canvas, 356 x 463 cm | Seattle Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen | Photo © Seattle Art Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Black Flakes (Schwarze Flocken), 2006

Oil, emulsion, acrylic, charcoal, lead books, branches and plaster on canvas, 330 x 570 cm | Private collection, c/o Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst | Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970

Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm | Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) | Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource/ Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Nothung, 1973

Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm | Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam | Photo Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Palette on a Rope (Palette am Seil), 1977

Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas, 130 x 160 cm | Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich | Photo Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87

Oil and acrylic emulsion with additional three-dimensional media, 381 x 560.07 x 16.51 cm | San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Jean Stein by exchange, the Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund | Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe), 1975

Oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm | Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida | Photo Collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer’

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Anselm Kiefer: Inside a black hole

Anselm Kiefer: Nothung, 1973. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer

Things are always falling off Anselm Kiefer’s work. Straw, sunflower seeds, chunks of concrete, you name it. Curators at the museums to which he sends his work have fastidiously collected the fallen debris and returned it to him, presumably in the expectation that he might want to repair the damage. But Kiefer, whose work is the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts this autumn, just shrugs. He may be one of the great artists of our time; but he is not, it turns out, a preservationist. He’s keener on ruins.

Like many artists, when he is near to finishing a work, Kiefer will often get frustrated or succumb to a sense of dissatisfaction. He has learned to recognise this feeling and to respond, writes Richard Davey, the author of an essay in the show’s catalogue, by reintroducing “chaos”:

“He lets go of the work, deliberately withdrawing… so that his paintings and sculptures can take on a life of their own. He allows nature and chemical reactions to take over the creative process. Paintings in process are burnt, slashed, buried or exposed to the elements. Canvases are laid on the ground to have paint and diluted acid poured on them, while works on lead are placed into electrolytic baths and left to stand and corrode. Many paintings are put inside locked shipping containers, to await their moment of rebirth in the dark; when these voids are reopened later, it is as if Kiefer is seeing these works for the first time.”

At times he has gone even further. He has covered his works in earth, and has even been known to strafe his paintings with bullets. In a corner of his studio in Croissy, on the outskirts of Paris, he has a jet aircraft half-buried in sand.

Provocatively, but perhaps inevitably, book-burning is also in Kiefer’s repertoire: he has produced many weighty books, some from sheets of lead, many with carbonised pages, deliberately calling to mind the Nazi delirium, and Heinrich Heine’s prophecy: “Where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings.”

Kiefer was born in a town called Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest region on 8th March 1945. The town, which is just north of the Swiss border, was both a rail hub and the base of a military garrison. It came under intensified Allied bombing in the period prior to Kiefer’s birth, and the situation continued to deteriorate in the following months. “During the daytime when I was a baby,” Kiefer later said, “my grandparents and my mother had to go into the woods to protect us from the bombing.” His parents’ house remained intact. But their landlords, who lived next door, were not so lucky: their dwelling was blown to pieces.

The ruin next door turned into Kiefer’s playground. Before the age of six, when his family moved, he spent long stretches of his boyhood playing in the rubble. He would take loose bricks home to build new, multiple-storey structures, which became more ambitious by the month.

He was doing much the same thing decades later when—already a world-famous artist—he turned his sprawling, 35 hectare studio-estate in the south of France, formerly a silk factory, into a massive, constantly morphing artwork in its own right, replete with ruin-like concrete towers, freestanding staircases and an underground network of crypts and tunnels. But by this time Kiefer’s playfulness—like his absurdist sense of humour, which is a central but often overlooked aspect of his work—had taken on darker overtones.

Kiefer came to notoriety in 1969 with a series of photographs of himself dressed in his father’s army uniform performing the Nazi salute—which had been banned in Germany since the end of the war—in various historically-loaded locations around Europe: the Colosseum in Rome, Paestum, south of Naples, Arles in the south of France.

Kiefer has said that during his school years, mention of the Nazi era was scrupulously avoided. But this omission only fuelled his fascination. When he heard a recording of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering, it triggered something deep inside him. “The sound goes right through the skin,” he said. “Not only through the ears and the head. I was simply shocked. And that’s how it began.” For Kiefer, the two series of saluting photographs (called Occupations and Heroic Symbols) were “performances… acts of mourning” and—against the general inclination to forget—of remembering.

Hitler’s ruinous legacy, although far from being Kiefer’s only subject, has found its way into all corners of his work. Even as he draws on ancient history and mythology, 20th-century literature and philosophy, cosmology, physics, and alchemy, his work is always in dialogue with this more recent history.

 

Kiefer uses a vast panoply of materials in his art, each of which have intricate symbolic meanings. Studiously parsed, they trigger a kind of spiritual-historical giddiness. There is the straw, for instance, that symbolises the hair of the German prison guard Margarethe in Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.” There are the seven flames that represent Margarethe’s antagonist in the same poem, the concentration camp prisoner Shulamith, reduced to ashes in the furnaces. There is the lead Kiefer uses, again and again, to invoke the weight of history and the flux and potential of the human spirit. There are the sunflowers and crows that refer to specific paintings by Van Gogh, and the concrete that connects in his mind with spiritual striving, and with the modernist architect, Le Corbusier. On it goes. Sometimes, the allusions feel pointed, precise, and powerfully charged. At other times, it’s all quite bewildering.

Overwhelmed and confused, perhaps, by his work’s undisguised ambition, critics have occasionally accused Kiefer of getting into an uncomfortably intimate dance with Nazi tropes. When he showed his work, alongside his friend Georg Baselitz, in the West German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1980, one critic, Werner Spies, accused Kiefer of inflicting on the public “an overdose of the Teutonic.”

The accusation would have been offensive if it weren’t also true. An overdose of the Teutonic is exactly what Kiefer foists on us all. But he does so with his eyes wide open, and there is insight, empathy, and great moral energy in his approach. (Werner Spies would go on to become one of the artist’s great champions).

Kiefer’s efforts to get to grips with Nazism emerge most viscerally in two of his overriding obsessions: the aesthetics of the ruin and the motif of the forest. Much of Kiefer’s early work, as Christian Weikop points out in another of the Royal Academy catalogue’s essays, revolved around forests, trees and wood grain. In 1971, Kiefer had a studio in the Oden Forest. He made a painting, Man in Forest, which showed the artist himself in a nightshirt holding a flaming branch in the midst of a dense pine forest. “I think I illuminate the forest in such a way that it could ignite,” he said, comparing himself to Prometheus. A key Kiefer woodcut from 1978, Ways to Worldly Wisdom: Arminius’s Battle, alludes to the ancient Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which the German soldier Hermann (also known as Arminius) triumphed over three Roman legions. The battle was a nation-defining event, to which Hitler often referred.

Kiefer’s preoccupation with forests chimes uncomfortably with the Nazi valorisation of Germany’s landscape. Again and again, Hitler and his henchmen defined the rooted, forest-dwelling Aryan race against the “homeless, desert-roaming” Jews. In 1935, Heinrich Himmler commissioned research on the role of the forest in German culture and history. And the following year, Hitler presented winners at the Berlin Olympics with sapling oaks, a symbol of Aryan supremacy. (In a strange irony, one of the four oaks presented to the African-American athlete Jesse Owens now towers over the Cleveland high school where he trained.)

“Our stories begin in the forest,” Kiefer has said, echoing this rhetoric. His statement is made bitterly ironic not just by the Nazi associations, but also by his own beginnings: his family’s forced sanctuary in the forest as his nation collapsed around him under an onslaught of Allied fire-bombing.

Rubble also piles up relentlessly in Kiefer’s work. He has always been infatuated with the poetry of the ruin. It’s why he lets his sculptures and paintings degrade. It’s why he abandons them to chaos, subjects them to the elements, and lets them develop a patina in which colours and tones seem to merge into greys and pale yellows, so that they achieve the poetic unity of tint common to ruins and old, once-vivid fabrics.

Hitler, too, cherished the poetry of ruins. He commanded his architects to build in stone because he wanted his buildings to project beauty and power long after the society that built them had expired. Stone made for beautiful ruins. This idea—Ruinenwert, or “ruin value”—was pioneered by his favourite architect, Albert Speer.

What makes Kiefer so dizzying, and at times so profound, is that, although he is forever conscious of Nazi tropes and ideas, he is also involved in an endless attempt to recoup them, to salvage meaning and beauty and something even deeper—something frankly cosmic—from the black hole of Nazism.

Kiefer once described painting as “a ceaseless shuttling back and forth between nothing and something.” Ruins operate in his imagination as an analogue of that incessant movement. The idea of the ruin represents a kind of deeper human dispensation, far from the perverse logic of the Nazis. It is a notion that was beautifully articulated in 1911 by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in an essay called simply “The Ruin.”

The ruin, for Simmel, represented a deeper reality than the pristine work of art. If art or architecture represent “the most sublime victory of spirit over nature,” as he wrote, the ruin represents a shift in the balance of power between these two opposing forces—in which nature regains the upper hand. In the ruin, nature transforms the work of art “into material for her own expression, as she had previously served as material for art.”

Simmel was telling us something Kiefer has taken to heart. He believed that the ruin, for all its poetry, was a reminder of the limits of aesthetics (limits Hitler never recognised: he wanted his fascist aesthetics to enter into every field of endeavour, especially military endeavour). When we perceive aesthetically, claimed Simmel, we are effectively demanding that the contrary forces of existence—nature and spirit—be frozen in equilibrium. But such equilibrium is an illusion, because life is always in flux.

In the ruin, we see the bigger picture, not just the false aesthetic moment. And, although it is, in the end, art that Kiefer is making, I believe he aims for a similarly broad perspective in his work. In its embrace of decay, its toying with rubble, his work is a valiant attempt at solving the problem of the “merely” aesthetic—the feeling that, as Theordor Adorno famously put it, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” His work is an attempt at summoning, instead, that deeper reality perceived by Simmel, reclaiming the idea of “ruin value” from the perverted logic of Hitler and Speer.

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MUSEUMS

Epic Done Right: Anselm Kiefer in London

Installation view, 'Anselm Kiefer' at the Royal Academy of Arts (photo by Howard Sooley / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

LONDON — Anselm Kiefer’s retrospective comes at an odd cultural moment. Pop artist Nicki Minaj recently came out with a music video so steeped in offensive Nazi imagery that the Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913 to fight anti-semitism, was compelled to make a statement. A Middle Eastern collector beat out multiple interested parties to purchase a painting by Adolf Hitler for an unprecedented $161,000; demand for Hitler’s other works is predicted to increase. And after being briefly banned from the festival for something between a bad joke and an expression of Nazi sympathies, director Lars von Trier is no longer a persona non grata at Cannes Film Festival. Are the images and symbols of Nazism, after decades of embargo, making some sort of cultural comeback? Could they even be … in vogue? The notion is stomach churning.

Anselm Kiefer, "Nothung" (1973), charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (photo by Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) (click to enlarge)

Amid this problematic milieu comes theAnselm Kiefer retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition is a case study in epic, from the sheer number, size, and visual depth of the works on display to the breadth and weight of the topics with which this contemporary German painter grapples. We encounter a collection of illustrated books in which delicate cathedrals emerge from between the thighs of women; a horizontal swathe resembling a sandstorm that has been sprinkled with real diamond dust; a rusty bear trap embedded in canvas, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Courbet’s scandalizing “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World). Every carefully selected allusion is multilayered in a jaw-dropping tapestry of alchemy, poetry, history, mythology, theology, and philosophy. But in the thick intellectual web produced by the works on display, it’s Kiefer’s handling of Germany’s cultural memory of the Third Reich that is the most compelling strand.

The appropriation of blatant Nazi imagery is an artistic tactic Kiefer seems to have moved away from as of late. Throughout his career, though, the artist has reenacted the Nazi salute — banned in his native Germany since 1945 — in photographs throughout Europe, recreated the buildings of Nazi starchitect Albert Speer in thick lashes of paint, and suffused his canvases with the cultural language wielded by Nazi propaganda: the forests, the ruins, the Wagnerian heroes. Unlike Minaj, however, Kiefer exercises these taboo images carefully, to wide-ranging effects.

Anselm Kiefer, "Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe)" (1975), oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm, Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida (photo collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer)

Sometimes, as with his salutatory self-portraits, Kiefer plays the role of the provocative conceptual artist, mocking the representational prohibitions that give force to the tight-lipped fantasy of a national tabula rasa. Other times you can feel him genuinely mourning as he grapples with a cultural inheritance of shame, guilt, grief, and layers upon layers of loss: a sentiment so prevalent in postwar Germany that they developed a word for it,Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The exhibition’s most moving works in memoriam are a pair of paintings, “Margarethe” (1981) and “Sulamith” (1983). They reference a haunting poem reprinted on the gallery wall, “Death Fugue,” by concentration camp survivor Paul Celan. Each painting is scrawled with the name of its corresponding character from the poem: the ashen-haired Jewish girl Sulamith and the golden-haired German girl Margarethe. In “Margarethe,” the flaxen straw that stands in for the girl’s hair is matted on the canvas, a failed pastoralism caked with grey, black, and white paint. Depicting Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 design for a funeral hall honoring German soldiers, “Sulamith” scrapes at Third Reich monumentality to reveal what lies beneath: an ash-blackened vault reminiscent of an oven. With a little pyre, menorah-like, where a tomb would be, the vault is a memorial to Sulamith, to all of the Sulamiths.

Kiefer’s work asks the big, impossible, questions: How can Germany remember and represent the Holocaust? What is a German artist to do with the deluge of images and cultural reference points that were appropriated and exploited for such an unforgivable end? Kiefer’s work isn’t riding the wave of fascism’s fetishization (though it likely has and will reap the financial rewards of such a wave). Its earnest intentions are to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust stay fresh in our collective memory; to try to understand how the Nazis leveraged culture for killing; to parse through the artist’s role in the process of memory and memorialization.

Anselm Kiefer, "Ages of the World" (2014), private collection (photo by Howard Sooley / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

In “Ages of the World,” an installation piece that Kiefer made especially for this retrospective, a mass of stacked canvases pricked with leaden sunflowers creates a pylon-cum-pyre that attempts to capture not only decades of his artistic work but also a geological timeline of the world. The piece is an apt metaphor for the retrospective: the show at times seems to collapse under its own weight as it unapologetically — boldly, bravely, a bit foolishly — aims for the epic. Yes, it’s hubris. But if there’s anyone I trust to do hubris right, with intelligence and care, it’s Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through 14 December.

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TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION LONDON

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: cataclysmic, transformational, stupendous

Alex Danchev on the artist’s extraordinary and formidable work

Anselm Kiefer

Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy of Arts, London
27 September-14 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer
By Kathleen Soriano, Christian Weikop
and Richard Davey
Royal Academy of Arts
240pp, £48.00 and £28.00
ISBN 9781907533792 and 808

An original artist follows the path of the oculist, says Proust. Their art acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. “When it is over, the prac­titioner says to us: ‘Now look.’ And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear…Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a painter or writer with an original view of the world.”

That geological catastrophe has just opened at the Royal Academy in London. It has Anselm Kiefer’s name on it. Like all great artists, his work is his own, an untracked continent as yet unnamed. Contrary to popular belief, it is given to artists, not politicians, to create a new world order. The Kieferworld is rich and strange, boundless and immersive, elemental and metaphysical. This artist traffics in fundamental truths. “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth,” affirms Kiefer. “It never can, but it can get quite close.” At the same time, things are in flux. There is something cataclysmic about the Kieferworld. Heaven and earth take their chances in the rag and bone shop of the heart that is the artist’s studio. ­Kiefer’s studio is at once laboratory and crucible.

Perhaps the most striking quality of the cataclysm at the RA is the material. Kiefer sees artworks as actions, as he says, and not as consummate creations. The Kieferworld is in the process of perpetual transformation. Climate change has come indoors. The artworks slip and slide, corrode and erode. They age, and shed, and flake. They are weathered and distressed, scarred and mutilated. Violence is done to them, with a variety of weapons. Here are the survivors. They may or may not be happy in their skin. The dates of some of these works testify to an epic ­struggle: Ash Flower (1983-97), for example, a characteristic blend of oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas – a canvas of continental proportions (382.3cm x 761.4cm), practically covering one end wall of gallery 3.

Ages of the World by Anselm Kiefer

Ages of the World

An installation made specially for the RA brings home the sense of action and transformation, and the sheer physical presence of these stupendous works. Ages of the World (2014), summarised rather coyly in the catalogue as mixed media, is a kind of recapitulation; it seems to speak of last things. The installation fills a whole gallery. It is described there as part totem, part funeral pyre. One might add part pyramid, part tomb; part sacrifice, part pile of the artist’s signature stuff. Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment.

There is a place for belief in the Kieferworldview, belief in something above and beyond the featherless biped, but not a “salvator” or saviour. The artist’s outlook is perhaps more intellectual than spiritual. Kiefer is nothing if not a thinker-painter. Like Cézanne – another law student turned artist – he is a mighty reader. In an almost biblical sense the book is central to his practice. He makes books of his own (books of lead and books of words); he ransacks the pages of the poets for their wisdom. “I think in images,” he told the assembled company, accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2008. “Poems help me do this. They are like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost.”

He is a formidable intellectual. The lectures he delivered as chair of artistic creation at the Collège de France in 2010-11 are published under the title of Art Will Survive Its Ruins (2011), an apt title and an apt calling. Kiefer’s breadth and depth put common or garden professors to shame. His lectures are compelling, erudite, individual. As a thinker, he is both playful and profound. “Some artists wait all their life for the word of God, and it never comes. This is the case with K, who waits in vain in Kafka’s The Castle; and even more radically with Vladimir and Estragon in [Beckett’s]Waiting for Godot, who merely play at waiting. Like spoken words, a painting may happen to contradict itself. It is by nature an aporia. It feeds on chance, signifies everything but ordains nothing.”

Books and their authors are Kiefer’s interlocutors. He responds to them in his own idiom. This can produce surprising results. Invited recently to respond to The Cathedrals of France (1914), a book by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, Kiefer produced a book of his own with the same title (2013), combining studies of cathedrals with erotic watercolours: another speciality of the celebrated sculptor. One shameless sheet on view at the RA shows a lascivious nude with an erect cathedral in her lap – Rodin meets Magritte!

The Orders of the Night by Anselm Kiefer

The Orders of the Night

At once the most considered and the most sustained engagement is with the poems of Paul Celan (1920-70), entwined with those of Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73), his lover, regarded by Kiefer as the greatest poet of
the second half of the 20th century. Celan’s Death Fugue is now canonical; for Kiefer it is a foundational text, as this exhibition triumphantly demonstrates. Bachmann’s Darkness Spoken is perhaps less well known, but no less vital:

The string of silence
taut on the pulse of blood,
I grasped your beating heart.
Your curls were transformed
into the shadow hair of night,
black flakes of darkness
buried your face.

Celan and Bachmann deal in the same darkness, broker the same black flakes. Kiefer pays tribute to the poems and the poets in his meditation on their plight. His exploration – one might better say his excavation – honours theirs: he probes the limits of language and the possibilities of art. “With art,” said Celan, “you go into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free.” The Kieferworld is a free world, but a heavily burdened one, full of dead souls. Kiefer’s art is, among other things, an inquest and a reckoning – a reckoning with the history of the terrible 20th century.

Two vast canvases bracket that endeavour. For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night (1998-2013), with a Kiefer-figure lying in the foreground, is framed through a series of arches in gallery 8, as if the image of the artist himself were impregnated in his work. Looking back through the arches, at the other end of the galleries is The Orders of the Night (1996), with another Kiefer-figure lying at the foot of the giant sunflowers that are a recurring motif in his work, redolent of another insistent interlocutor: Vincent Van Gogh, a painter-­philosopher of heart-breaking eloquence.

There is lyric poetry after Auschwitz. The labours of Anselm Kiefer offer proof. Whatever else it may be, the Kieferworld is a challenge – an extraordinary feat of sustained creativity, an oeuvre that beggars belief. The result is monumental, inexhaustible, unmissable. Be brave. Go now. Think on.

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Anselm Kiefer at the RA

Enter into the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty and history.

Walk into the first room of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition and you are struck by Nazi salutes and bonfires, followed by derelict landscapes and decrepit sunflowers. You have entered the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty, horror and history.

Kiefer was born into ruins, in 1945, towards the end of the second world war and the end of the Nazi regime. His country’s past was hidden from him as a child, yet the taboo topic fascinated Kiefer and lead him to explore Germany’s willfully forgotten past in his work.

In one room an imposing pile of lead books and unfinished Kiefer paintings tower up towards the ceiling. The work crumbles at your feet, just like the art work which burned at the hands of the Nazis. The weight of history is represented by the lead books, stained by the erosion from reacting with the air. There is something intriguing about his choice of metal here. Lead is almost impenetrable, and yet it is also poisonous.

I found it unsettling to look at the crumbling pile of Kiefer paintings even before I came to understand the meaning behind it. Paintings worth millions of pounds crumbled and dismantled all for a metaphor. It seems the world’s richest living artist is not precious about his paintings. I read recently that he reportedly left some of his Royal Academy exhibited paintings out in the rain by accident, later claiming that ‘the rain won’t harm them, it might even make them better’.

With a vast amount of wealth and a 200-acre art studio in the South of France at his disposal, Kiefer’s mental playground has become a reality. As I wander into another room I confront dark and textured surfaces, hanging from the walls, like the surface of an unknown planet or the night sky on a clouded evening. I move closer I notice the paintings begin to twinkle as little stars appear. As I move closer still the alarm begins to scream and it becomes apparent that Kiefer has placed hundreds of little diamonds into the night sky.

My favourite room is a wash of serene blues and magnificent yellows, six different paintings, each on a vast scale, all reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. The decrepit sunflowers that feature in so much of Kiefer’s work are also present. Objects reach out from the paintings as you see into the landscape before you and not at it. The scale at times feels a bit overwhelming, but you soon come to appreciate the real beauty captured in these near-ephemeral paintings – they look as if I could break a piece off with the touch of my finger.

Just after the room of blues and yellows is a welcome transition to some works by Keifer that I had never seen before. Subtle and simple nudes, all of which are from sketch books. There are no lead books, or crumbling landscapes, just delicately painted bodies that look soft to the touch.

This exhibition is on until the 14th December at the Royal Academy or Arts.

 

 

Essays on Global Conceptualism

Terry Smith

One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art

Tactically, conceptualism is no doubt the strongest position of the three; for the tired nominalist can lapse into conceptualism and still allay his puritanic conscience with the reflection that he has not quite taken to eating lotus with the Platonists.

—Willard van Orman Quine1

Philosophers often add “-ism” to a term in order to highlight a distinct approach to a fundamental question, that is, to name a philosophical doctrine. For example, when it comes to universals, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that “Conceptualism is a doctrine in philosophy intermediate between nominalism and realism that says universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.”2 There are other definitions, but the point about the use of “-ism” to name a philosophical doctrine is clear. For art critics, curators, and historians, however, “-isms” have somewhat different purposes: they name movements in art, broadly shared approaches that have become styles or threaten to do so. During the heroic years of the modern movement, when critics, artists, or art historians first added “-ism” to a word, they usually meant what the suffix usually means in ordinary language: that x is like y, even excessively so. Often with ridicule as their aim, they highlighted a quality twice removed from the source of that particular art, from its authenticity. Thus “Impressionism” and “Cubism,” neither of which names what is really going on in the art to which it refers: each takes up a banal misdescription and then exaggerates it into a ludicrous delusion on the part of the artists. The success of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes led to a plethora of “-isms” that gradually lost these negative connotations and become almost normal descriptors. By mid-century, anyone could generate an “-ism,” and too many artists did so in their efforts to link their unique, often quite individual ways of making art to what they, or their promoters, hoped would be market success and art historical inevitability. When Willem de Kooning, at a meeting of artists in New York in 1951, said: “It is disastrous to name ourselves,” his was a lone voice, quickly silenced by the tide that named all present Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1960s this kind of naming had become so commonplace, so obvious a move, and such a sure pathway to premature institutionalization and incorporation, that many artists rejected it, to avoid being comfortably slotted into what they regarded as an ossified history of modernist avant-gardism. In the 1970s, for example, artists driven primarily by political concerns consciously blocked efforts to designate their work as belonging to a “political art” movement. Yet for some artists, long excluded from any kind of historical recognition, this was a risk worth taking: feminist artists emphasized their feminism, for instance, precisely because it connected their practice to the broader social movement to vindicate the rights of women.

As the artists most acutely aware of the powers and the pitfalls of exactly these processes, conceptual artists refused to embrace the term “conceptualism” during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They were, however, happy to use terms such as “conceptual” for their work, because questioning the concept of art was precisely the main point of their practice. As we shall see, they foresaw that the tag “Conceptual Art” would inevitably be associated with their work, and thus tie it too closely to art that had already resolved its problems. Their goal was to keep their art (practice) problematic to themselves by keeping it at a (critical) distance from Art (as an institution). They therefore sought to prevent the precipitous labeling of their art by adopting one or both of two strategies: insist that the term “conceptual” be applied so broadly (describing any art no longer governed by a traditional medium) as to be meaningless, or so narrowly (indicating only language-based art that dealt with Art per se) as to be offensive to almost everyone.

Art and Language, Art and Language Australia, 1975.

It is a nice paradox that the term “conceptualism” came into art world existence after the advent of Conceptual art in major centers such as New York and London—most prominently and programmatically in the exhibition “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999—mainly in order to highlight the fact that innovative, experimental art practices occurred in the Soviet Union, Japan, South America, and elsewhere prior to, at the same time as, and after the European and US initiatives that had come to seem paradigmatic, and to claim that these practices were more socially and politically engaged—and thus more relevant to their present, better models for today’s art, and, in these senses, better art—than the well-known Euro-American exemplars. I explored a variant of this idea—that conceptualism was an outcome of some artists’ increased global mobility—in my selections for the “Global Conceptualism” exhibition, and in my catalogue essay, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand.”3 Retrospection of this kind has also shone spotlights on what were once regarded as minor movements in Euro-American art (Fluxus, for example).

The question posed by the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980,” presented at the University of Toronto Art Galleries in 2010, is whether a similar valuing structure might be applied to certain strands in art made in Canada from the 1960s to the present. Even though Canadian artists were conspicuously absent from “Global Conceptualism,” certain artists have since been valued as contributors to the international tendency. Thus the exhibition asks us to look in more detail at work of the time made throughout the regions of Canada and consider whether perhaps this valuing can be extended to them. There is no suggestion that this art was nationalistic—on the contrary, it was everywhere based on skepticism about official national culture-construction. The implication is that regional conceptualisms existed—that is, that conceptualist developments (in the broadest sense) occurred differently in each of the distinct regions of Canada. Again, the implication is skeptical: in every case it is about regionality in transition, not a self-satisfied parochialism.

Triggered by remarks made by some of the key artists back in the day, I wish to revisit the terms “Conceptual art” and “conceptualism” as indications of what was at stake in the unraveling of late modern art during the 1960s and in art’s embrace of contemporaneity since. I will do so by asking what conceptualism was before, during, and after Conceptual art, and I will show that there were at least one, usually two, and sometimes three conceptions of conceptualism in play at each moment—and that these were in play, differently although connectedly, in various places, at each of these times.


Josef Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea (Meaning), 1967. Photostat on paper mounted on wood.

Pop or Conceptual? Or both and neither?

Let me begin with the question as seen from within orthodox art historical narratives, as a matter of the meaning of style, a concern of art historians. I start from before Conceptual art was named as a style, before the term “conceptualism” had any currency, to see what might count as Conceptual art in that circumstance.

Ian Burn, in conversation in late 1972, said of Joseph Kosuth’s Art as Idea works: “If they were made in 1965 like he claims, they are Pop Art. If they were made in 1967–8, when they were exhibited, then they are among the first conceptual works, strictly speaking.” In his 1970 essay “Conceptual Art as Art,” Burn gave these works this latter dating and characterized them as key examples of the “strict form of Conceptual Art” because they were analytic of the nature of art, their (minimal) appearance being of the most minimal relevance.4 Why did an artist with such a critical attitude toward orthodox art history’s puerile dependence on style terms apply such crude criteria to the work of a close colleague?5

Kosuth’s response was outrage at applying such anti-conceptual criteria to such work: he was an art student who had the ideas but not the resources to realize them; by the time he did have these resources a few years later, everyone (including Burn) was dating their work to the moment of conception—immediacy was the new currency.6

Josef Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

In one sense Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) is Pop-like in that its statement about what constitutes a sign is all there, all at once, and obvious, as in your face as Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, but without the fascinated irony that informs the British artist’s perspective. To an observer outside the US sphere of cultural influence—or, more accurately, at its waxing and waning borders—One and Three Chairs might seem to offer viewers an open choice as to which item seems the most attractive constituent of “chairness,” thereby reducing spectatorship to supermarketlike art consumption, and artmaking to the provision of competitive goods.7 To the extent that this is true, Conceptual art that turns on overt demonstration or the instantiation of an idea (as does much of the better known and easily illustrated work—think Baldessari, Acconci, or Huebler) shares something with what might be called ordinary language Pop art, that which recycles the visual codes of consumer culture.

But the matter does not end there. In my view, the invitation to look in One and Three Chairs is at least as subtle as it is in key works on this subject by Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol in its conceptual questioning of what it is to see, what an image might be, what an idea looks like. These artists regularly juxtaposed photographs and objects such as actual chairs (in Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim, for example), or evoked black-and-white photography and overtly displayed the tools that made them (Johns’s Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, for example). Warhol’s Dance Diagram (“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”), 1963, is an appropriation of an illustration, but it is also a demonstration of what constitutes a visual sign, especially when displayed, as he preferred, on the floor. Indeed, Warhol now seems the most nakedly conceptual of artists (in this pre-Conceptual art moment), precisely in his instinct for setting out one visual idea at a time, in showing an image as an idea, in making artworks that plainly demonstrated how visual ideas achieved appearance in the culture, in the visual culture, in popular imagination, in unArt, in America. The idea-image, for him, was in David Antin’s brilliant perception, a “deteriorated image.”8

There were of course many others striving to picture the many dichotomies afforded by the idea-image interplay that was taking shape at the time: a random list must include Guy Debord, with his films such as Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and his collaborations with Asger Jorn; concrete poets of all kinds; Jim Dine; Kaprow, with his early happenings; Ed Ruscha; and many others, all of whom converge with Pop in certain ways, although they, like the artists mentioned above, were on a track much more interesting than that which can be encompassed by that term. In Canada, Greg Curnoe’s work throughout the 1960s offers a fascinating instance of a figurative painter, alert to the stylistics of Pop and flat color abstraction, yet, like Kurt Schwitters, drawn irresistibly to the potency of words and texts as they occur in the flow and stuff of everyday life. Add to this a Wittgensteinian consciousness that we are all products of our language-worlds, and an interesting outcome is assured. Thus, in Westing House Workers (1962), the names of a group of laborers are stamped out on a sheet that seems taken from a factory cafeteria notice board, while Row of Words on My Mind #1 (1962) stamps out a set of names of people, things, promises, and so forth, that seem as random as anyone’s everyday ruminations. By 1967, however, Curnoe had evidently seen tautology-based conceptualism (either through reproductions or via the agency of Greg Ferguson): Front Center Windows (1967) is a blue vertical rectangle stamped with black letters that describe a façade in the language of a builder’s report, while Non-Figurative Picture (1968) is a vertical column stamped with the letters of the alphabet.

These examples tell us that the question “Is it Pop or Conceptual art?” is at best a provocation (as it was for Burn), and at worst a badly formulated misunderstanding of the deeper stakes of both kinds of work. Rather, we can see that various kinds of conceptualization inspired the most inventive artists of the late modern era, and that the conceptual qualities of their work were among its most important. This is the first, the most rooted, sense in which the three ideas of what it is for art to be conceptual could count as one idea: the term “conceptual” as an adjective is most fitting to this sense. Quite properly, this basic usage precedes any real usage of the terms “conceptualism” and “Conceptual art” in art discourse, as these are derivative from it. It permits us this proposition, the first part of a proposal that I advance—with full awareness of how paradoxical a gesture it is—as “a theory of conceptualism”:

1. At its various beginnings, conceptualism was a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible).9


Dan Graham, March 31, 1966.

A work of art becomes consequential when it counts as art

It is lazy-mindedness to say that all art that evidently reflects on its own medium, that does so in ways unusual enough to raise the question “Is this art?,” qualifies as conceptual. There is a widespread sense, in today’s sloppy art babble, that any art that has resulted from the artist having any kind of idea is “conceptual.” Not so. You have to show that particular works, or groups of works, or a set of protocols, or a practice did these things consciously as opposed to by instinct, intelligently as distinct from intuitively, and did so effectively, with impact, with consequence.

On a number of occasions in conversation, Joseph Kosuth has pooh-poohed as pure pedantry my referencing Henry Flynt’s use of the term “Concept Art” in 1961, despite the fact that it is the first documented usage in an art context.10 “Who was this Flynt? A nobody. Who heard him, who knew of him, who cared what he said? So what if some thirteenth-century Chinese painter threw ink around in ways that look Pollock-like, or that Max Ernst did?” To Kosuth, what counts is not who said what when as a matter of plain record, or what was done in some isolated, adventitious circumstance, but whether the utterance, the work, the proposition counted in the dominant art discourse of the time. This alerts us to the internal struggle, among artists, critics, and theorists—that is, within art discourse itself—as to what was at stake in Conceptual art and conceptualism as practices of art.

Thus Kosuth’s famous statement, in “Art After Philosophy,” that “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually” is not to be taken to mean that all art influenced by Duchampian strategies is conceptual, and that other art is some other kind of art. It means that only Duchampian art is truly art, and that other art is not art precisely because it does not take on the challenge of framing new propositions about art and as art.11

From this perspective, Robert Morris has a much stronger claim to consequence in works such as Card File (1962): these overtly pit the complexity of his actual life and self against the limited information contained in official descriptions of a person. Two Untitled works of 1962 (recently added to MoMA’s collection) are nothing more, but no less, than grey gouache painted over sheets of newspaper to the point of nearly obliterating the images and text. But did Morris go on with this particular line of inquiry? A short answer would be that it became one of the many lines that he has since pursued, but a longer answer is needed to do justice to such a profound oeuvre.12

Robert Morris, Card File, 1962.

In Poland, Roman Opałka began his “infinity” paintings in 1965, sizing them to his studio doorway, beside which he has had himself photographed as each one is completed. On Kawara began traveling the world and sending daily postcards in 1959, then started making a date painting every day in 1966, and two years later embarked on the production of hisOne-Hundred Year Calendar that lists everyone he meets each day. Examples of such total commitment to applying a routine to a life, knowing that the two are fundamentally incompatible, abound. They may be found all over the world during this period, and are constantly being taken up nowadays by young artists (Emese Benczúr, for example). I think that we are getting close to the core of conceptualism worthy of the name, and to the basis of its appeal to serious young artists today: it is something to do with rigor, without cause, and with implacable commitment in the face of meaninglessness. So, in retrospect, it is no surprise that such a spirit should emerge from within the conflicted confusions of the mid- and later 1960s.

Sol LeWitt’s statement, in his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” is famous:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.13

This seems clear to the point of being classical (indeed, the last sentence is one of the epigrams to “Art After Philosophy”). But we need to ask: what did LeWitt mean by “the idea or concept”? If one examines closely the nature of these paragraphs, as an artist’s statement—that is, if you put them back into the context of his own practice and see them as first and foremost a statement of the principles governing that practice (not all possible practice, not the practice most desired of all artists from now on)—then it becomes obvious that what LeWitt meant by an idea was a geometrical figure, and what he meant by a concept was a procedure for carrying out the realization of this idea, for example, as a singularity or as a specified sequence.

If, however, you read closely the 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” [copies of the handwritten and corrected versions of 1968 have recently come to light], you are immediately thrown into the paradox just mentioned:

1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.
3. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.14

The contrast between rationality and mysticism is weak, and soon disappears. More important is that here we can see awareness of the reach but also the limits of ideas and concepts narrowly defined. It is their potential to create chaos, disorder, and revolution that comes to be valued, thus the peculiar poignancy of the proposals from visiting artists—to be realized by students, and, occasionally, the artists themselves—in David Askevold’s Projects Class at NSCAD from 1969 forward. The postcards of the instructions, shown in the “Traffic” exhibition, are exquisite mementoes of each artist’s unique, distinctive mode of thought. More generally, objectivity was not the point: rather, rationality had to be shown to be crazy by being enacted literally; the Organization Man was nuts, viz. General Idea, Pilot (1977).

Let us return to One and Three Chairs and see whether it meets these deeper criteria—Kosuth’s own—of what counts as conceptual. In the most immediate sense, it looks like a simple demonstration. Signified + signifier = sign. All there, all at once. A rose is a rose is a rose. But there are two signifiers, after all, which open up a space of ambiguity (which may be closed again when we read the work as an illustration of Plato’s three stages of knowledge). The project becomes more interesting when we realize that other chairs could be used under the same title, and other objects—for example, a shovel, à la Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, an authorized replica of which is owned by Kosuth. The point is that One and Three Chairs is not a one-off, singular visual statement: it is an instantiation of a proposition that may be realized using any matching set of elements. Like many other works conceived at the time, it is an exemplification of an act of thought. Kosuth’s “Art as Idea” series seems to be a set of tautological objects: actually, they are visual propositions about themselves as signifying instances, presented as Art (or Art as Idea as Idea)—on the post–Ad Reinhardt grounds that that is all that art, in conscience, at this time, can be.15

A step forward was to take stated propositions as thesaural, which opens out their closure, their two-way tautology, as Kosuth did when he placed thesaural categories in newspapers in his Second Investigation (1968–9). In a parallel way Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting, made in 1967 in London en route to New York, becomes a comment on the limits of painting as a practice. Such questioning could be consequential: it released artists elsewhere in the world to begin an interrogative practice. For example, Robert MacPherson in the 1970s in Brisbane deployed this strategy to appropriate ordinary language use—in his case, roadside signs. So did Greg Curnoe, in his banner paintings of the 1980s.

Propositionality—its apparently categorical force, but also its materiality and its provisionality­­—is what language-based conceptualism recurs to: it is its core, from which it opens out again. First this is understood spatially (sculpture is residual here),  as in Dan Graham’s March 31, 1966, a description that evokes a spatial zooming beyond spatiality. (His Schema for Aspen magazine, and for the first issue of Art-Language, is his masterwork). Then it is understood as a phenomenon of perception (painting is residual here), as in Ian Burn’s No Object Implies the Existence of Any Other (1967). This is, in fact, a thought that is impossible to have in a literal sense: you cannot think the idea of an object not implying another object without thinking about at least two objects, one and an other; in front of an object made to be seen by an other (us), consisting of a statement on a mirror that cannot but show you yourself and other objects. (That is, it demonstrates the rest of Hobbes’s statement, “…that is, if we consider these objects in themselves and never look beyond the ideas that inform them.”) Yoko Ono was closer to Hobbes in her 1961 “proposal”: Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through. Burn’s Xerox Book (1968) is more resolute: it embodies the idea of a tautological process.

Yoko Ono, Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through, 1966.

LeWitt’s 35th and last sentence read: “These sentences comment on art, but are not art.” The editorial to the first issue of Art-Language, in which these sentences appeared in 1969, asked itself the question, “What would follow [for the art community of language users] if this editorial itself came up for the count as a work of art?”

It is these innovations that allow us to recognize the second proposition in my theory of conceptualism:

2. That, as well as being a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible), conceptualism was also a further integrated set of practices for interrogating the conditions under which the first interrogation becomes possible and necessary (that is, an inquiry into the maximal conditions for art to be thought).


Martha Wilson, Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971.

Conceptual Art Arrives

Conceptual Art arrives as a paradoxical supplement, and art-institutional instantiation, of the interaction between these two approaches. By 1970 we were well inside an art movement, as evidenced by the number of books, exhibitions, articles, and so forth, with Idea Art, Konzept Kunst, and so on, in their titles. This includes Lucy Lippard’s exhibitions and the Six Years book, as well as exhibitions such as “45°30′N-73°36′W + Inventory,” presented in Montreal in 1971 by Gary Coward with Arthur Bardo and Bill Vazan.

Common consensus now is that the full-glare moment of art-world and public recognition was the 1970 exhibition “Conceptual Art, Conceptual Aspects,” curated by Donald Karshan at the New York Cultural Center (with Kosuth and Burn as “ghost curators”). Note that the double has already appeared: yes, there is core Conceptual art, but there is also art that has some conceptual qualities (“aspects”), that is, there is also conceptualist art.

But there was, by 1971, a big shift under way within the movement itself, leading to the third element of my theory:

3. The conditions—social, languaged, cultural, and political—of practices (1) and (2) were problematized, as was communicative exchange as such (that is, inquiry became an active engagement in the pragmatic conditions that might generate a defeasible sociality).

Put more simply, if Art & Language’s self-critique was at the core of conceptualism at this time (as in the indexing projects such as Index 01, 1972, at documenta 5), other artists were taking up these analytical procedures and applying them to real-life situations. Obviously, this occurred differently in different places, and differently again for artists in transit between them. Well-known examples are Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et. al (1971) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–9). Less known are Martha Wilson’s Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971: these are an extraordinary application of nominative generalities to life situations so as to bring out the absurd gap between the two, and the power structures built into them. For instance, Unknown Piece has this instruction: “A woman is prevented from knowing the identity of her partner (sleeping pill, blindfold, total darkness) with certainty. On the evidence the child’s features give her, she guesses who she slept with.” Determined Piece: “A woman selects a couple for the genetic features she admires (good teeth, curly hair, green eyes, etc.) and raises their baby.” Chauvinistic Piece: “A man is injected with the hormones that produce symptoms of motherhood.” It is as if the 1960s, far from being the moment of free love and so forth, was already organized along the lines of Plato’sRepublic.16


Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé, It’s Still Privileged Art, 1976. Comic book.

Transformations occurred within Art & Language, such that its work joined the third sense I have identified. We realized that our extreme adoption of avant-garde strategies was belated, was infused with a sense that we were being avant-gardists after the death of the form. When Allan Kaprow invited me to lecture at CalArts in 1974, he introduced me as “a living dinosaur, an actual avant-gardist.” Thus we moved to embed our practice in the world, starting with ourselves as actors in the art world.17Blurting in A&L (1973) enables readers to enter a conversation and shape it according to their own preferences; Draft for an Anti-Textbook was a 1974 issue of Art-Language that, among other things, took on provincialism in theory; the exhibitions recorded in Art & Language Australia (1975) did so in practice. The three issues of The Fox (1975–6) constitute the group’s most direct assault on the modernist art world. Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, and I continued this kind of work in Australia when we returned in the mid-1970s, creating an Art & Working Life movement that persists, in a dispersed fashion, to this day.18 Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé’s comic book It’s Still Privileged Art (1976) was based on Maoist practices of constant self-criticism; the Cultural Revolution comes to the New York art world (we saw a lot of these publications in Chinatown).19 I cannot overstress how important critical conceptualism was for the success of work with trade unions and dissident groups in Australia, Toronto, and elsewhere, and how important this particular commitment to consequence remains for subsequent artists of major caliber (such as Jeff Wall and Allan Sekula), as well as for the hundreds of artist collectives that operate all over the world today with this kind of work as part of their inspirational armory.

Conceptualism Already Redux

Now we arrive at the moment after conceptual art, when “conceptualism” appeared as a term in art discourse. Let us examine it from the point of view of the “theory” I have advanced. The key question will be: are we looking at delayed, or belated, or simply particular, peculiar, and other instances of (1) and (2), a local instance of (3), or is this a fourth sense/term/proposition that must be added to the three so far advanced? My answer will be: yes, no, and yes. One and three ideas, non-contemporaneously and contemporaneously, again. I will explore two cases among the many that arose during these years all over the world.

When Boris Groys coined the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” in 1979, he created a verbal artifact that, I believe, attempted to stand at the same kind of critical (ironic yet implicated) distance from international art discourse, and to its own circumstances of production, as he understood the art itself to be. Writing for readers in Russia (knowing that the circulation of his essay there would be clandestine), and for readers in France, who would presumably read it in English, he wanted to draw attention to how deeply embedded this kind of work was in the specific conditions of what it was to make “apartment art” in Moscow, to the awkward, embattled, ironic inwardness of the work (the artists wished to be anywhere but Moscow, but could not be). Similarly, in a society that ignored or repressed them, and was condemned to the skeptical resignation that filled “the Russian soul” like a lead balloon, the artists could only dream of being regarded as paragons of heightened subjectivism like the German and English Romantics. But dream they did—and why not; dreams are cheap. Finally, their art stood at a deliberate distance from the concerns and character of US and European Conceptual art as we have discussed it. Thus, by “Conceptualism” Groys meant that this art was like such art in its self-reflective character, but in reverse, precisely in its deliberate effort to be intuitive, allusive, affective—that is, nonconceptual. In other words, each term within Groys’s label had its opposite built into it—thus its acuity, as an art critical artifact.

In the 1979 issue of A-YA, the English translation of Groys’s essay had some oddities. It offers two definitions, the first of which states that “The word ‘conceptualism’ may be understood in the narrower sense as designating a specific artistic movement clearly limited to place, time and origin.”20 The revised translation in History Becomes Form adds the phrase “and limited to a specific number of practitioners” to this sentence.21 The reference here is to US and European Conceptual art. The second definition is this:

Or, it may be interpreted more broadly, by referring to any attempt to withdraw from considering art works as material objects intended for contemplation and aesthetic evaluation. Instead, it could encourage solicitation and formation of the conditions that determine the viewer’s perception of the work of art, the process of its inception by the artist, its relation to factors in the environment, and its temporal status.22

The recent translation changes the last two ideas to “its positioning in a certain context, and its historical status.” This ties the description more closely to the Moscow group, and to art concerned with art, but it remains rather general.

“Romantic” got dropped from the term in the years after 1989, when this art (as distinct from the modernist, informal, protest art) began to be read as a prefiguration of the collapse of the Soviet system, and as the basis for all subsequent art in Russia of any seriousness. Groys’s pragmatism enables us to see other artists carrying on the spirit of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists, albeit in equally unorthodox ways. His key exemplars are Andrei Monastyrsky and the Collective Actions group, which dedicated itself to actions that heightened the specificity of everyday life while remaining, at the same time, scarcely distinguishable from it. The Medical Hermeneutics group made “work” from speculation about whether such actions were art or life.

To me, the real parallels in work such as Ilya Kabakov’s Answers of the Experimental Group(1971)—the originary moment of “Moscow Conceptualism,” according to Matthew Jesse Jackson—are with the interrogatory nature of the late 1950s / early 1960s work of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, which I have suggested is conceptual in the broad sense of the term.23 More precisely, it accords with my first proposition above, that conceptualism was, at its various beginnings, a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world, and the minimal situations in which art might be possible. Moscow Conceptualism is not consonant with my second proposition, exemplified by the Adornoesque negative criticality of Kosuth et al., yet it is in quite specific ways an instance of the third. The fact that it was produced after the institutionalization of Conceptual art means that one element in its makeup was a refusal of such art, a sense that adopting its modes would be irrelevant to local concerns and to local audiences. I do not see any artist working in the Soviet sphere as producing classical Conceptual art—indeed, there is no reason to expect that any one would wish to do so. On the other hand, groups such as Collective Actions and Medical Hermeneutics and a number of individual artists were, in the 1970s and 1980s, making art in a context where they were aware of conceptual art before and during Conceptual art, and were contemporaries with conceptualist art after it, so they made their choices accordingly. Again, the work emerges out of the concerns expressed in my third proposition. If parallels have to be found, it is closest to Fluxus in Europe.

In his otherwise excellent survey, Jackson never questions the term “Moscow Conceptualism.” There are, however, extensive discussions of it, along with a range of other terms that were in use at the time and that have been developed since, in the new book edited by Alla Rosenfeld, Moscow Conceptualism in Context.24 The most detailed account is “The Banner Without a Slogan: Definitions and Sources of Moscow Conceptualism” by Marek Bartelik, who concludes a useful survey by warning us against the danger of those who would manage the politics of memory:

It is crucial, therefore, to assure that the history of the movement not be reduced to a few textbook names of artists at the expense of others who for some reason or another fell out of the picture. In other words, our history of Moscow Conceptualism should be inclusive rather than exclusive of as many artists as possible. After all, it was Moscow Conceptualism’s ethereal, dispersed, and fragmentary nature—as opposed to the official, solid, and permanent nature of Socialist Realism and its correlates—that helped its development and survival for more than twenty years, and that constitutes its unique value for today’s audiences in both Russia and the West.25

This is well meant, but it does not tackle the point about consequence. A similar politics of hope drove the curatorial project that has been most influential in defining the term “conceptualism” in art discourse in recent decades. In their foreword to Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss distinguish two periods, “two relatively distinct waves of activity”: the late 1950s to around 1973, during which time worldwide political changes led artists to call into question the underlying ideas of art and its institutional systems, and the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, when artists mostly outside Euro-America abandoned formalist or traditional art practices for conceptualist art.26 As they write:

It is important to delineate a clear distinction between conceptual art as a term used to denote an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of minimalism, and conceptualism, which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art upon physical form and its visual appreciation. Conceptualism was a broader attitudinal expression that summarized a wide array of works and practices which, in radically reducing the role of the art object, reimagined the possibilities of art vis-à-vis the social, political and economic realities within which it was being made. Its informality and affinity for collectivity made conceptualism attractive to those artists who yearned for a more direct engagement with the public during those intense, transformative periods. For them, the de-emphasis—or the dematerialization—of the object allowed the artistic energies to move from the object to the conduct of art.27


Luis Camnitzer, Uruguayan Torture Series, 1983–4.

The implication is that Euro-American style Conceptual art—even as it came to dominate understandings of what counted as conceptual art—amounted to little more than an essentially formalist critique of minimalism. It was an internal art world style change, whereas conceptualist tendencies elsewhere were always broader, more social and political, and became more so as time went on, eventually eclipsing Euro-American tendencies. Works by Camnitzer, such as his Uruguayan Torture Series (1983–4), give some substance to this view.28 While in general I support this openness, especially as we come closer to the present, we must also be watchful that it does not lapse into a kind of reverse reductivism, one that downplays the internal complexities of Euro-American conceptualism and fails to see its progressive transformations, as suggested by my propositions.

The “Global Conceptualism” curators did espouse a critical geopolitics, noting that the changes within conceptualism occurred most significantly on local levels: “the reading of ‘globalism’ that informs this project is a highly differentiated one, in which localities are linked in crucial ways but not subsumed into a homogenized set of circumstances and responses to them. We mean to denote a multicentered map with various points of origin in which local events are crucial determinants.”29 A number of interesting alternative terms appear in the essays, including “Non-object art,” applied to Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés by Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar in 1959, and “Post-Object Art,” used by aesthetician and sculptor Donald Brook in Sydney in 1968–9. Curators from all over the world were invited to mount mini-exhibitions of art that would meet this understanding of conceptualism. Margarita Tupitsyn argued that in Russia two tendencies—Kabakovian “stylelessness” and Sots Art (Soviet kitsch into high art)—combined to generate a word-image interplay that was uniquely inflected by its peculiarly Soviet context.30

In some of these situations, it may be that “conceptualism” works as a substitute for what I believe the artists involved were—and remain—primarily concerned about: as Reiko Tomii demonstrates in the case of Japan, they sought recognition of their contemporaneity with the Euro-American artists, and even of their precedence in some cases.31 Given that Conceptual art was the most radical, avant-garde, innovative, and consequential-seeming art of the time and has retained much of that aura since, they wanted to expand its definition to include themselves. On the most obvious level of simple fairness, they want to be seen to have been contemporary. This, I suggest, is actually more important to many of those involved than whether or not their art was, or may now be seen to be, conceptual.

From the perspective of the broad historical account that I am developing in my work at the moment, I see these artists as wishing to be acknowledged as equally important innovators within the worldwide shift from late modern to contemporary art.32 In this sense, they are right to seek such acknowledgment. However, like all claims for consequence, it comes with responsibilities.

Contemporaneity

Mel Ramsden described Conceptual art as “like Modernism’s nervous breakdown.”33 A more parochial way of putting it was “Clement Greenberg’s nightmare” (although that had already happened, when Frank Stella showed his black paintings in 1959, and MoMA exhibited them soon after). Michael Fried’s nightmare, then. From my perspective, these intense disputations are all indicative of the moment in which late modern art became contemporary, that is, it was obliged to change fundamentally as part of the general transformation of modernity into our current condition, in which the contemporaneity of difference, not our declining modernity or passé postmodernity, is definitive of experience.

Clearly, there is a spirit of openhandedness in post-conceptual art uses of the term “Conceptualism.” We can now endow it with a capital letter because it has grown in scale from its initial designation of an avant-garde grouping, or various groups in various places, and has evolved in two further phases. It became something like a movement, on par with and evolving at the same time as Minimalism. Thus the sense it has in a book such as Tony Godfrey’s Conceptual Art.34 Beyond that, it has in recent years spread to become a tendency, a resonance within art practice that is nearly ubiquitous. Thus the widespread use of terms such as “postconceptual” as a prefix to painting such as that of Gerhard Richter and photography such as that of Andreas Gursky. And the appeal for inclusiveness cited earlier, as well as the nearly universal use of “conceptual” for any art based on any kind of idea (as distinct from it issuing from instinct, taste, or the materials).


Joseph Kosuth, Clock (One and Five), 1965. Clock, photograph and printed texts.

But inclusiveness, however desirable, does not mean that everyone was, and is, making the same kind of art, nor that they did so, or are doing so now, with the same degree of consequence. If we want to address critically the contemporary ubiquity of the idea that “After Conceptual art, all art is conceptual” (of course echoing Kosuth on Duchamp in 1969, but in a bland, generalizing fashion), we could do worse than contrast a piece by Kosuth,One and Five (Clock) (1965) (in the Tate collection, London), with a celebrated work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987–90). We can see in retrospect that Kosuth is searching for his “Art as Idea” format; he had not quite settled on the absolute tautology that drives it in the classic three-part presentations with which we are familiar. Instead, he lines up a photograph, an object, and a set of definitions that display the conceptual architecture of clock-time, arraying it across its pictorial, mechanical, and linguistic aspects. One thing after another, Judd-like, in a row, minimally. Five ways of shaping time are displayed. The printed definition of “time” is front and center, and is flanked on one side by an actual clock ticking time along and away, and by a photograph that will forever freeze the time shown on the clock it recorded but which will, being printed on paper, itself fade. On the other side are printed definitions of “mechanization” and of “object,” concepts that elaborate the contexts of both the clock and the camera. The idea world of clock-time is being probed, its relevant concepts being assembled almost spatially. This is conceptualism just before it becomes Conceptual art, the quest before the rigor sets in.

If, in regard to Pop art and Euro-American conceptualism, we are, as Boris Groys has remarked, looking at art that presumes a society built on freedom of choice (however apparent, spectacularized, and ultimately consumerist it may be), for the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists the very idea of having a choice was but a dream (yet impossibility is precisely what occasions dreams). This, too, but very differently, is the point of “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). The only “choice” for lovers in a time of AIDS was about the manner in which they died—including whether they died together, as comrades of a dying time.

Consequence counts differently at different times, in different places. This, above all, is what we need to keep in mind when we puzzle over what was at stake in art when it was made, and what we need to look for in art that is being made now.

×

These remarks combine elements from three recent lectures. The first was delivered on November 27, 2010, at the conference organized by Barbara Fischer, director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, in association with the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptualism in Canada,” shown at the University of Toronto Galleries during the preceding months. The second, dedicated to the memory of Charles Harrison, was delivered at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, on March 8, 2011, as part of a series on Global Conceptualism organized by Sarah Wilson and Boris Groys. The third was presented on April 14, 2011, as part of a conference titled “Revisiting Conceptual Art: The Russian Case in an International Context,” convened by Boris Groys and organized by the Stella Art Foundation, Moscow. I would like to thank all those concerned.

© 2011 e-flux and the author

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Boris Groys

Introduction—Global Conceptualism Revisited

By way of an introduction to this issue of e-flux journal, I would like to discuss the changes in our understanding and perception of art engendered by conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing not on the history of conceptual art or individual works, but rather on the ways in which the legacy of these practices remains relevant for us today.

I would argue that from today’s perspective, the biggest change that conceptualism brought about is this: after conceptualism we can no longer see art primarily as the production and exhibition of individual things—even readymades. However, this does not mean that conceptual or post-conceptual art became somehow “immaterial.” Conceptual artists shifted the emphasis of artmaking away from static, individual objects toward the presentation of new relationships in space and time. These relationships could be purely spatial, but also logical and political. They could be relationships among things, texts, and photo-documents, but could also involve performances, happenings, films, and videos—all of which were shown inside the same installation space. In other words, conceptual art can be characterized as installation art—as a shift from the exhibition space presenting individual, disconnected objects to a holistic exhibition space in which the relations between objects are the basis of the artwork.

One can say that objects and events are organized by an installation space like individual words and verbs are organized by a sentence. We all know the substantial role that the  “linguistic turn” played in the emergence and development of conceptual art. Among other currents, the influence of Wittgenstein and French Structuralism on conceptual art practice was decisive. This influence of philosophy and later of so-called theory on conceptual art cannot be reduced to the substitution of textual material for visual content—nor to the legitimations of particular artworks by theoretical discourses. Rather that the installation space itself was reconceived by conceptual artists as a sentence conveying a certain meaning—in ways analogous to the use of sentences in language. Following a certain period of the dominance of a formalist understanding of art, with the appearance of conceptual art, artistic practice became meaningful and communicative again. Art began to make theoretical statements again, to communicate empirical experiences, to formulate ethical and political attitudes and to tell stories. Thus, rather than art beginning to use language, it began to be used as language—with a communicative and even educative purpose.

But this new orientation toward meaning and communication does not mean that art became somehow immaterial, that its materiality lost its relevance, or that its medium dissolved into message. The contrary is the case. Every art is material—and can be only material. The possibility of using concepts, projects, ideas and political messages in art was opened by the philosophers of the “linguistic turn” precisely because they asserted the material character of thinking itself. Thinking was understood by these philosophers as the operation and manipulation of language. And language was understood by them as thoroughly material—a combination of sounds and visual signs. Now the real, epoch-making achievement of conceptual art becomes clear: it demonstrated the equivalence, or at least a parallelism, between language and image, between the order of words and the order of things, the grammar of language and the grammar of visual space.


Jean-François de Troy, Lecture dans un salon, ca. 1728.

Of course, art was always communicative: it communicated images of the external world, the attitudes and emotions of artists, the specific cultural dispositions of its time, its own materiality and mediality and so forth. However, the communicative function of art was traditionally subjugated to its aesthetic function. Past art was judged primarily according to the criteria of beauty, sensual pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction—or calculated displeasure and aesthetic shock. Conceptual art established its practices beyond the dichotomy of aesthetics and anti-aesthetics—beyond sensual pleasure and sensual shock. This does not mean that conceptual art ignored the notion of form and concentrated itself exclusively upon content and meaning. But a reflection on form does not necessarily mean the subjugation let alone the obliteration of the content. We can speak about the elegant formulation of an idea—but by doing so we mean precisely that this formulation helps the idea to find an adequate and persuasive linguistic or visual presentation. On the contrary, a formulation that is so brilliant that it obliterates the idea is experienced by us not as beautiful but as clumsy. That is why conceptual art prefers clear, sober, minimalist forms—such forms better serve the communication of ideas. Conceptual art is interested in the problem of form not from the traditional perspective of aesthetics but from the perspective of poetics and rhetoric.

It makes sense to reflect for a moment upon this shift from aesthetics to poetics and rhetoric. The aesthetic attitude is basically that of the spectator. Aesthetics as a philosophical tradition and a university discipline relates to art and reflects upon art from the perspective of the art spectator—or one could also say from the perspective of the art consumer. Spectators mostly expect an aesthetic experience from art. Since the time of Kant, we know that this experience can be one of beauty or of the sublime. It can be an experience of sensual pleasure. But it can also be an anti-aesthetic experience of displeasure, or of frustration provoked by an artwork that lacks all the qualities which an affirmative aesthetics expects it to possess. It can be the experience of a utopian vision that could lead away from present conditions to a new society in which beauty reigns. Or, to formulate this differently, it could be a redistribution of the sensible, one that refigures the spectator’s terms of vision by showing certain things and giving access to certain voices that were previously concealed or obscured. But, because the commercialization of art already undermines any possible utopian perspective, it can also be a demonstration of the impossibility of positive aesthetic experience within a society based on oppression and exploitation. As we know, these seemingly contradictory aesthetic experiences can be equally enjoyable. However, to experience aesthetic enjoyment of any kind, a spectator has to be aesthetically educated. This education necessarily reflects the social and cultural milieus into which the spectator was born and in which he or she lives. In other words, an aesthetic attitude presupposes the subordination of art production to art consumption—and likewise, the subordination of artistic theory and practice to a sociological perspective.


Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, Bauhaus Building Block Set, circa 1923.

Indeed, from the aesthetic point of view, the artist is a supplier of aesthetic experiences, including those produced with the goal to frustrate or modify the viewer’s aesthetic sensibility. The subject of the aesthetic attitude is the master—the artist is the servant. Of course, the servant can and does manipulate the master, as Hegel convincingly demonstrated in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, but nevertheless, the servant remains the servant. This situation did not change much when the artist became a servant to the public at large, instead of being a servant under the patronage regimes of the Church or traditional autocratic powers. In previous periods, the artist was obliged to present “contents,” for example subjects, motives, narratives and so forth, that were dictated by religious faith or the interests of political power. Today, the artist is required to treat topics of public interest. Just as the Church and autocratic powers of yesteryear wanted their beliefs and interests to be represented by the artist, so today’s democratic public wants to find in art representations of the issues, topics, political controversies and social aspirations by which it is moved in everyday life. The politicization of art is often seen as an antidote to the purely aesthetic attitude that allegedly requires art to be merely beautiful. But in fact, the politicization of art can be easily combined with its aesthetic function—as far as both are seen from the perspective of the spectator, of the consumer. Clement Greenberg remarked long ago that an artist is best able to demonstrate his or her mastery and taste when the content of the artwork is prescribed by an external authority. Being liberated from the question “What should I do?” the artist can concentrate on the purely formal side of art—on the question “How should I do it?” This means: “How should I do it in such a way that certain contents become attractive and appealing (or maybe non-attractive, repulsive) to the aesthetic sensibilities of the public?” If the politicization of art is interpreted as “making certain political attitudes attractive (or maybe unattractive) for the public”—as is usually the case—then the politicization of art becomes completely subjected to aesthetic attitude. At the end, the goal becomes the packaging of certain political contents in an aesthetically attractive form. But aesthetic form loses its relevance in any act of real political engagement—and is discarded in the name of direct political practice. Then art functions as a political advertisement that becomes superfluous once it has achieved its goal.

In fact, this is only one of many examples that demonstrate why an aesthetic attitude becomes problematic if applied to the arts. Actually the aesthetic attitude does not need art—and functions much better without it. It is an old truism that all the wonders of art pale in comparison with the wonders of nature. In terms of aesthetic experience, no work of art can bear comparison with an even average sunset. And of course, the sublime aspects of nature and politics can only be fully experienced by witnessing a natural catastrophe, revolution or war—not by reading a novel or looking at a picture. This was the opinion shared by Kant and the Romantics who launched modern aesthetic discourse. The real world, they claimed, is the legitimate object of an aesthetic attitude (as well as of scientific and ethical attitudes)—not art. According to Kant, an artwork can become a legitimate object of aesthetic contemplation only as a work of genius, e.g. only as a manifestation of natural force operating unconsciously in and through man. Fine art can serve only as a preliminary means of education in taste and aesthetic judgment. After this education is completed, art, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, can be thrown away—to confront the subject with the aesthetic experience of life itself. Seen from an aesthetic perspective, art reveals itself as something that can and should be overcome. All things can be seen from an aesthetic perspective; all things can serve as sources of aesthetic experience and become objects of aesthetic judgment. From the perspective of aesthetics, art has no privileged position. Rather, art is something that posits itself between the subject of the aesthetic attitude and the world. However, the mature subject does not need any aesthetic tutelage via art—being able to rely on personal sensibility and taste. Aesthetic discourse, if used to legitimize art, de factoundermines it.

How, then, should one explain the fact that the discourse of aesthetics acquired such a dominant position during the period of modernity? The main reason for this is a statistical one. Artists were a social minority during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the founding period of aesthetic discourse—and spectators were in the majority. The question of why one might make art seemed irrelevant—artists made art to earn their living. This seemed an adequate explanation for the existence of the arts. The problem was why other people should look at art. The answer was: to form their taste and develop their aesthetic sensibility. Art was a school for the gaze and other senses. The social division between artists and spectators seemed to be firmly established: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude—artworks produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century, this simple dichotomy began to collapse.

The picture phone.

Today, contemporary networks of communication like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer global populations the possibility of presenting their photos, videos and texts juxtaposed in ways that cannot be distinguished from those of many post-conceptualist artworks. The visual grammar of a website is not too different from the grammar of an installation space. Through the internet, conceptual art today has become a mass cultural practice. Walter Benjamin famously remarked that the masses easily accepted montage in film—even if they had difficulties accepting collage in Cubist paintings. The new medium of film made artistic devices acceptable that remained problematic in the old medium of painting. The same can be said for conceptual art: even people having difficulties accepting conceptual and post-conceptual installation art, have no difficulties in using the internet.

But is it legitimate to characterize self-presentation on the internet, involving hundreds of millions of people all around the world, as an artistic practice?


Cyberia, Britain’s first internet cafe. Photo: Andy Hall/Observer.

Conceptual art can be also characterized as an art that repeatedly asked the question “what is art?” Art and Language, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys and many others that we tend to situate today inside the frame of an expanded conceptualism asked and answered this question in very different ways. One can also ask this question from an aesthetic perspective. What now would we be ready to identify as art, and under which conditions; what kinds of objects do we recognize as artworks and what kinds of spaces are recognized by us as art spaces? But we could abandon this passive, contemplative attitude and ask a different question: what does it mean to become actively involved in art? Or in other words, what does it mean to become an artist?

Speaking in Hegelian terms, the traditional aesthetic attitude remains situated on the level of consciousness—on the level of our ability to see and appreciate the world aesthetically. But this attitude does not reach the level of self-consciousness. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel points out that self-consciousness does not emerge as an effect of passive self-observation. We become aware of our own existence, our own subjectivity, when we are endangered by another subjectivity—through struggle, in conflict, in the situation of existential risk taking that could lead to death. Now, analogously, we can speak of an “aesthetic self-consciousness” that emerges, not when we look at a world populated by others, but when we begin to reflect upon our own exposure to the gaze of others. Artistic, poetic, rhetorical practice is none other than self-presentation to the gaze of the other, presupposing danger, conflict and risk of failure.

The feeling of almost permanent exposure to the gaze of the other is a very modern one, famously described by Michel Foucault as an effect of being under the panoptical observation of an external power. Throughout the twentieth century, an ever growing number of humans became objects of surveillance to a degree that was unthinkable at any earlier period of history. And practices of omnipresent, panoptical surveillance are increasing in our time at an even greater pace—the internet becoming the central medium of this surveillance. At the same time, the emergence and rapid development of global networks of visual media are creating a new global agora for self-presentation, political discussions and actions.

Political discussions in the ancient Greek agora presupposed the immediate living presence and visibility of its participants. Today everyone has to establish their own image, their own visible persona in the context of global visual media. We’re not just talking about the game “Second Life:” now everyone has to create a virtual avatar, an artificial double to begin to communicate and to act. The “First Life” of contemporary media function in the same way. Everyone who wants to go public, to begin to act in today’s international political agora has to create an individualized public persona. This requirement is relevant not only for the political and cultural elites. Today, more people are getting involved in active image production than in passive image contemplation.

This  autopoietic practice can be easily be interpreted as a kind of commercial image making, brand development or trend-setting. There is no doubt that any public persona is also a commodity—and every gesture of going public serves the interests of numerous profiteers and potential shareholders. Following this line of argument, it’s easy to perceive any autopoietic gesture as a gesture of self-commodification—and, accordingly, to start a critique of autopoietic practice as a cover operation that is designed to conceal the social ambitions and economic interests of its protagonist. However the emergence of an aesthetic self-consciousness and autopoietic self-presentation is originally a reaction—a necessarily polemical and political reaction against the image that others, society, power have always already made of us. Every public persona is created primarily within a political battle and for this battle—for attack and protection, as sword and shield at the same time. Obviously, artists were always already professionals of self-exposure. But today the general population is also becoming more and more aesthetically self-conscious and getting more and more involved in this autopoietic practice.


General Idea, Light On, 1972.

Our contemporaneity is often characterized by the vague notion of an “aestheticization of life.” The commonplace usage of this notion is problematic in many ways. It suggests an attitude of aesthetic passivivity  toward our society of the spectacle. But who is the subject of this attitude? Who is the spectator of the society of spectacle? It is not an artist—because the artist practices polemical self-presentation. It is not the masses because they are also involved—consciously or unconsciously—in autopoietic practices and have no time for pure contemplation. Such a subject could be only God—or a theoretician who took a divine position of pure contemplation after God was proclaimed dead. The notion of aesthetic self-consciousness and poetic, artistic practice must now be be secularized, purified of any theological overtones. Every act of aestheticization has its author. We always can and should ask the question: who aestheticizes—and to what purpose? The aesthetic field is not a space of peaceful contemplation—but a battlefield on which gazes clash and fight. The notion of the “aestheticization of life” suggests the subjugation of life under a certain form. But as I’ve already suggested, conceptual art taught us to see form as a poetic instrument of communication rather than an object of contemplation.


Ilya Kabakov, Noma, 1993. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

So what is constituted and communicated in and through the artwork? It is not any objective, impersonal knowledge as constituted and communicated by science. In art  subjectivity comes to self-awareness through self-exposure and communicates itself. That is why the figure of the artist manifests the inner contradictions of modern subjectivation in a paradigmatic way. Indeed, the transition from the divine gaze to surveillance by secular powers has produced a set of contradictory desires and aspirations within the heart of modern subjects. Modern societies are haunted by visions of total control and exposure—anti-utopian visions of an Orwellian type. Accordingly, modern subjects try to protect their bodies from total exposure and defend their privacy against the danger of this totalitarian surveillance. Subjects operating in socio-political space struggle permanently for their right of privacy—the right to keep their bodies hidden. On the other hand, even the most panoptical and total exposure to secular power is still less total than the exposure to the divine gaze. In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra the proclamation of the “death of God” is followed by a long lamentation about the loss of this spectator of our souls. If modern exposure seems excessive,  it also seems insufficient. Of course, our culture makes great efforts to compensate for the loss of the divine spectator. But this compensation remains only partial. Every system of surveillance is too selective, it overlooks most of the things that it is supposed to see. Beyond that, the images that accumulate in such a system are mostly not really seen, analyzed or interpreted. The bureaucratic forms that register our identities are too primitive to produce interesting subjectivities. Accordingly, we remain only partially subjectified.

This condition of partial subjectivation engenders within us two contradictory aspirations: we are interested in retaining privacy, the reduction of surveillance, and the right to obscurity for our bodies and desires, but at the same time we aspire to a radicalized exposure that transgresses the limits of social control. I would argue that it is this radicalized subjectivation through acute self-exposure that is practiced by contemporary art. In this way exposure and subjectivation cease to be means of social control. Instead, self-exposure presupposes some degree of sovereignty over one’s own process of subjectivation. The arts of modernity have shown us different techniques of self-exposure, ones that exceed the usual practices of surveillance. They contain more self-discipline than  is socially necessary (Malevich, Mondrian, American minimalism); more confessions of the hidden, ugly, or the obscure than are sought by the public. But contemporary art confronts us with even more numerous and nuanced strategies of self-subjectivation, which of internal necessity situate the artist in a contemporary political field. These strategies include not only different forms of political engagement but also all the possible manifestations of private hesitation, uncertainty and even despair that usually remain hidden beneath the public personae of standard political protagonists. A belief in the social role of the artist is combined here with a deep skepticism concerning the effectiveness of that role. This erasure of the line dividing public commitment from personal vicissitudes has become an important element of contemporary art practice. Here again the private becomes public—without any external pressure and/or enhanced surveillance.

Among other things, this means that art should not be theorized in sociological terms. Reference to the naturally given, hidden, invisible subjectivity of the artist should not be substituted by reference to his or her socially constructed identity—even if artistic practice is understood as the deconstruction of this identity. The subjectivity and identity of the artist do not precede artistic practice: they are the results and the products of this practice. Of course, self-subjectivation is a not a fully autonomous process. Rather, it depends on many factors, one of them being the expectations of the public. The public also knows that the social exposure of human bodies can be only partial, and therefore unreliable and untrustworthy. That is why the public expects the artist to produce radicalized visibility and self-exposure. Thus, the artistic strategy of self-exposure never begins at a zero point. The artist has to take into consideration from the outset his or her already existing exposure to the public. However, the same human body can be submitted to very different processes of socially determined subjectivation, depending on the particular cultural contexts in which this body may become visualized. Every contemporary cultural migrant—and the international art scene is full of migrating artists, curators, art writers—has innumerable chances to experience how his or her body is situated and subjectified in and though different cultural, ethnic and political contexts.


Dmitri Prigov in his installation Russian Snow, 1990. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

But if so many people all around the world are involved in autopoietic activities why should we still speak about art as a specific practice? As I’ve already said, the emergence of the internet as the dominant medium of self-presentation seems to lead us to the conclusion that we don’t need any more institutional art spaces to produce art. And over the last two decades, institutional and private art spaces have been subject to a massive critique. This critique is completely legitimate. But one should not forget that the internet is also a space controlled primarily by corporate interests—not a celebrated space of anonymous and individual freedom as was often claimed in its early days. The standard internet user is, as a rule, concentrated on the computer screen and overlooks the corporate hardware of the internet—all those monitors, terminals and cables that inscribe it into contemporary industrial civilization. That is why the internet has conjured for some the dreamlike notions of immaterial work and the general intellect within a post-Fordist condition. But these are software notions. The reality of the internet is its hardware.

A traditional installation space offers a particularly appropriate arena to show the connectivity to hardware that is regularly overlooked during standard internet use.

As a computer user, one is immersed in solitary communication with the medium; one falls into a state of self-oblivion, potentially unaware of one’s own body. The purpose served by an installation that offers visitors an opportunity to make public use of computers and the internet now becomes apparent. One no longer concentrates upon a solitary screen but wanders from one screen to the next, from one computer installation to another. The itinerary performed by the viewer within the exhibition space undermines the traditional isolation of the internet user. At the same time, an exhibition utilizing the web and other digital media renders visible the material, physical side of these media—their hardware, the stuff from which they are made. All of the machinery that enters the visitor’s field of vision thus destroys the illusion that everything of any importance in the digital realm only takes place onscreen. More importantly, however, other visitors will stray into the viewer’s visual field. In this way the visitor becomes aware that he or she is also being observed by the others.

Thus one can say that neither the internet, nor institutional art spaces can be seen as privileged spaces of autopoietic self-presentation. But at the same time these spaces—among many others—can be used by an artist for his and her goals. Indeed, contemporary artists increasingly want to operate not so much inside specific art milieus and spaces but rather on the global political and social stage—proclaiming and pursuing certain political and social goals. At the same time they remain artists. What does this problematic title mean, within the extended, globalized, social-political context? One can perceive the title “artist” as a stigma that makes any political claim suspicious and any political activity inefficient—because inescapably co-opted by the art system. However, failures, uncertainties and frustrations are not the sole privilege of artists. Professional politicians and activists experience them to the same, if not to a greater degree. The only difference is this: professional politicians and activists conceal their frustrations and uncertainties behind their public personae. And accordingly, the failed political action remains final and unredeemed within political reality itself. But a failed political action can be a good work of art because it reveals the subjectivities operating behind this action even better than its possible success. By assuming the title “artist,” the subject of this action signals from the beginning that he or she aims at self-exposure rather than the self-concealment that is usual and even necessary in professional politics. Such self-exposure is bad politics but good art—herein lies the ultimate difference between artistic and non-artistic types of practice.

 

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FRIEZE MAGAZINE

Issue 48 September-October 1999 RSS

Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s

QUEENS MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, USA

‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ included work by well over 100 artists and artists’ collectives, many of them not widely familiar but deserving of interest. They were grouped regionally and by period: 1950s to circa 1973 included Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand; c. 1973 until the late 80s, the Soviet Union, Africa, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The breadth of material was intended to be seen in critical relation to the more conve-ntional account of Conceptual art as a North American and Western European export of the 60s. The exhibition might be seen as something of a riposte to Los Angeles MOCA’s ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965-1975’, a more cohesive but less challenging Conceptual art show.

The inclusiveness of ‘Global Conceptualism’ rested in part on a distinction emphasised by the project directors, Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss in the highly informative catalogue: a distinction between Conceptual art as ‘an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of Minimalism’ (though this may come as a surprise to some of its practitioners) and Conceptualism, ‘which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art on physical form and its visual apperception’ and was characterised by the de-emphasis of the object in favour of the ‘idea’ (a largely unexamined term in the discourse on Conceptual/ist art) and the conduct of art. This is perhaps too fine a distinction, which tends to separate good (political) from bad (formal) Conceptual artists.

The desire to valourise conceptualism as woven into moments of political and social upheaval yields plausible results, especially in Latin American contexts: Brazilian artist Cildo Mereiles stamped questions about political assassination onto money in circulation in her piece Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Banknote Project (Who Killed Herzog?) (1973) and the most radical example, the Argentinian mass-media art/guerrilla collective action, Tucam·n Arde (1968). But what are we to make of the relations between art, politics and history in the Hungarian Miklos ErdÈly’s metaphysical puzzle, a vacuum flask containing Snow of Last Year (1970)? (Let alone, say, the work of Joseph Kosuth.) If, as the exhibition demonstrates, many politically active artists have taken approaches that look a lot like Conceptual strategies – de-materialisation, engagement with institutional contexts, emphasis on relations between language and perception – those artists have also, clearly, been concerned with the form of their acts. (We might consider, for example, the Australian artist Ian Burn, an integral participant in North American/Western European Conceptual art and a committed leftist.)

The show opened with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965. This seemed auspicious, particularly in terms of centre/periphery arguments: Ono is a transcultural figure, and the first gallery, with works from Japan on one side and from Western Europe on the other, was the most successful illustration of one of the exhibition’s premises: a globalism which acknowledges global links, but which insists on the difference between conceptualist movements ‘spurred by urgent local conditions and histories’. There were a number of striking relationships, though not necessarily structured by relations to political events, but by relations to everyday experiences of Capitalism. Documentation of Akasegawa Genpei’s Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident (1965-7), in which Akasegawa was tried and convicted of currency fraud for making one-sided copies (‘models’) of bank notes, sat opposite Yves Klein’s Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: Sale to M. Blankfort (1962), in which the artist (who studied Judo in Tokyo in the 50s) ‘sold’ a zone in exchange for a quantity of gold supplied by the collector, which the artist then threw into the Seine.

Works which were confined to regionally-organised galleries made connections and parallels between ideas less clear. Upstairs – particularly, where Africa, the Soviet Union, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were located and where the focus shifted to work made in the 70s and 80s – multicentered globalism seemed to fall prey to a kind of uneven development argument, as though Conceptualism were the inevitable corollary to political and social oppression or upheaval. Here, unfortunately, no matter how interesting – and in many instances valid – the attempt had been, conceptualism became too baggy, temporally distended and leaky a category to make productive sense of the relations between works made not only under different, local conditions, but long after the global emergence of Conceptual/ist strategies. By the end, Conceptualism didn’t seem like a strong enough context in which to consider, for instance, the astringent irony of Komar and Melamid’s abstraction of the bureaucratic means of Soviet surveillance in the form of a red square (Documents: Ideal Document, 1975) or the reflection on meaning and freedom that underlies the Chinese artist Wenda Gu’s series of works using ‘pseudo characters’, fake Chinese characters (begun in 1985). But if ‘Global Conceptualism’ overreached itself, it was nonetheless compelling.

Frazer Ward

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Ethnographic Conceptualism: An Introduction

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov is the issue’s guest editor. He is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Address for correspondence: Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RF, UK. ns267@cam.ac.uk.

Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art. This article introduces this concept and contextualizes it in art and anthropology by focusing on the following questions: What is gained by anthropology by explicitly bringing conceptualism into it? And, the other way around, what is gained by conceptualism when it is qualified as “ethnographic”? What is “ethnographic” about this kind of conceptualism? What is “conceptualist” about this kind of ethnography?

In two essays of the mid-1970s, leading conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth identified his method as “anthropologized art.” This is a kind of art that, like anthropology, makes “social reality conceivable.” It comes out of artists’ deep immersion in cultures that are subjects of their reflection. Its aim is a “‘depiction’ of art’s (and thereby culture’s) operational infrastructure.” And, above all, anthropologized art is a “socially mediating activity.” It “‘depicts’ while it alters society” (Kosuth [1975] 1991:117–124, emphasis in the original; [1974] 1991).[1]

Figure 1
Figure 1. Telephone set in the form of the globe with receiver as a hammer and sickle. A gift to I. V. Stalin for his seventieth birthday from the workers of the aircraft workshop No. 1, Lodz, Polish Republic, 1949. Metal, enamel, plastic and wood; courtesy of State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia.

Ethnographic conceptualism invokes these formulations of “artist as anthropologist.” But its goal is to make this link with art wholly symmetrical. Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art.

I thought of the term “ethnographic conceptualism” when Olga Sosnina and I curated the exhibition Gifts to Soviet Leaders (Dary vozhdiam) (Kremlin Museum, Moscow, 2006). This was an exhibition of public gifts that Soviet leaders received from Soviet citizens and international leaders and movements. It was about a gift economy that was comparable in global scale and size to the one that the British monarchs, US presidents, or the Vatican has attracted but which was articulated through a distinct idiom of devotion to communist ideas, the inner working of Soviet leaders’ “personality cult,” and Cold War diplomacy (e.g., Figure 1). But as the exhibition of these gifts became an instant hit, it also revealed a political and cultural anxiety over post-Soviet identity as well as the ways in which museum projects articulate it. The term ethnographic conceptualism became for me a way to situate this project in anthropology and art and also between this exhibition as an end as well as a means: a presentation of research results on Soviet history but also a means of doing this research, a post-Soviet artifact and a tool in ethnography of post-Soviet Moscow.

A key example that conveys the concept of ethnographic conceptualism is a comment in this exhibition’s visitors’ book: “Thank you for the exhibition—we found the visitors’ book of comments particularly interesting and educating.” The book became a site of heated polemic about Soviet history. But this comment highlights a paradox of this polemic itself becoming an exhibition artifact on par with the exhibited gifts to Soviet leaders. It collapsed the distinction between commentary and the objects of commentary, between the visitors and the exhibits—and, for me, between an ethnographic notebook and a conceptualist means to produce an ethnographic situation.

But this comment also dramatizes the relationship between this exhibition project and its audience that extends beyond the exhibition site. It is visible, for instance, in the decision of the Kremlin Museum to gift the exhibition catalog to President Vladimir Putin for his fifty-fifth birthday in 2007. This unexpected reaction to the exhibition came from a peculiar kind of audience that included its host, the Kremlin Museum, and the host of this host, the Kremlin. This act interlinked the gift relations that this project charted and the gift relations in which it was immersed—including complex power relations that formed both the subject matter and the context of this study. It drew attention to the performative links between museums, academia, social memory, and politics—to how the Soviet past was debated in the early 2000s and how it was used politically and aesthetically. As a study in ethnographic conceptualism, Gifts to Soviet Leaders both performs and describes post-Soviet society from the vantage point of gift/knowledge relations (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). Ethnographic conceptualism is in this case an ethnographic research and a conceptualist depiction of this exhibition’s operational infrastructure—an “exhibition experiment” in the double sense of curatorial innovation and a laboratory that creates new knowledge (Macdonald and Basu 2007).

Anthropological Theory as Art

In the spirit of the title of this journal, this special issue is a Laboratorium manifesto of ethnographic conceptualism. The goal of this introduction is to situate it in conceptual art and anthropology as well as to situate individual contributions to this issue.

Conceptual art experiments with the reduction of art objects to concepts—with the so-called dematerialization of art—and with the reduction of artwork to the question of what is the concept of art in a given work and among a given audience. A work of art, from this point of view, equals questioning what art is, a depiction of how whatever is taken as art is framed and situated. It makes art out of its audiences and their reactions. In a narrow historical sense, it refers to a movement that took place roughly between 1966 and 1972. But its critical mood captures much of the twentieth-century artistic landscape, from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) to relational or situational aesthetics. Thus, an historical reading that traces conceptualism to Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) or some earlier formulations, such as that of “Concept-Art” by Henry Flynt in 1961 (cf. Buchloh 1990:107), can be contrasted with a broader philosophical perspective in which this chronology is not as important (Alberro and Stimson 1999; Beke et al. 1999; Goldie and Schellekens 2007). The replication of concept of art within art is also linked with an even longer durée in modern thinking and aesthetics, in particular, with the baroque technique of “theater within theater,” in which artwork contains a miniature replica of itself or its author, as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas (cf. Corsín Jiménez 2013).

But conceptual art is a declaration of the end of art as a distinct activity. Does ethnographic conceptualism similarly mean the end of the distinct activity of ethnography? How is it then related to a familiar narrative of the end of ethnography, as was implied by its literary turn and the postmodernism of the 1980s? Ethnographic conceptualism (EC thereafter) means not an end of ethnography as a method but its reconfiguration. It is an ethnography that does things—and not just by saying them, to use J. L. Austin’s (1962a) formulation of the performativity of language. It explicitly manufactures the social reality that it studies and in doing so goes well beyond a mere acknowledgement that we modify what we depict by the very means of this depiction.

EC uses art to generate ethnographic situations. But it is very far from a claim that ethnography is “in fact” art in that it works through “poetics” and persuasion, through aesthetics rather than analytics. What is meant by art in such claims looks too much like the “Western art” of textbook anthropology, that is, art as a distinct practice that has an affect because it is aesthetically compelling—about things that are “simply beautiful” (cf. Jarillo de la Torre, this issue). This kind of art is no longer there in Western art itself. The link with conceptual art that ethnographic conceptualism proposes is precisely to highlight the extent to which contemporary art is itself analytics rather than aesthetics.

But EC’s link with conceptual art is also useful for reformulating the theoretical debates from the 1980s onward from a new angle. The 1980s is an arbitrary date. It is not so much a ground zero for critical and reflexive anthropology, which it is not, but this is roughly when the anthropological critique of scientism begins. I agree with Kosuth’s acknowledgement that at the time of his thinking about “the artist as anthropologist” anthropology was quite different from the cultural critique that was at the heart of conceptual art. With the exception of the Marxist anthropological tradition and its notion of praxis, he admitted, anthropology had no interest in altering society by means of depicting it. It was “outside the culture” that it sought to describe and therefore akin to what he called the “modernism” and “scientism” of art criticism and art history (Kosuth [1975] 1991:117–124). However, what follows below is not a story of how anthropology “finally” caught up with Kosuth of 1974 and 1975. Nor it is a review of projects between anthropology and art, which has been abundantly done elsewhere (Enwezor et al. 2012; Marcus and Myers 1995; Foster 1995; Marcus 2010; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010). What I am interested in is what links with art are made within anthropological theory and what in these links can be further illuminated by parallels withconceptual art.

First, I read anthropology’s turn to artistic and literary tools in the 1980s as “not ‘Ethnography’ in itself but a means of creating it”—to paraphrase a conceptualist artwork title “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it.”[2] In other words, I approach the “writing culture” school as an intriguing attempt at substituting anthropology with a depiction of anthropology’s “operational infrastructure” (Kosuth [1974] 1991:121). There is an interesting question as to whether this depiction is indeed a departure form objectivism, as it was claimed at that time (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). But, second, what I would like to stress in this section is not whether this departure is from “science” to “art,” but what analogy with art was made in the depiction of anthropology as science.

Consider George Marcus and Fred Myers’s remark that the anthropology of the 1980s evinced a “critical ambivalence” of the desire for objectivity, which required distance as evidence that the subjects of study were “independently constituted,” and an awareness of the opposite: of existing relationships of power and histories of encounter, “which make anthropology itself already a part of such subjects of study” (Marcus and Myers 1995:2). It is this ambivalence that parallels developments in art. Anthropology’s objectivism, predicated on the autonomy of the observed cultural phenomena from the culture of the observer, shares Kantian foundations with the notion of the autonomy of aesthetics related to art’s “occupation of a separate cultural domain” (6, emphasis in the original) during modern European history. But the other side of anthropology’s objectivism is its holism, which implies that no dimension of cultural life can be considered in isolation. Thus anthropology is both enabled by and critiques these foundational distinctions, as does contemporary art. Anthropology’s critical reflection on its own objectivism can be viewed as an “ethnographic avant-garde” (20).

This analogy with avant-garde highlights that instead of “whole” cultures of extreme difference, anthropology deals with fragments of and crisscrossing lines, borders and cultural flows. But in suggesting a link with conceptual art, my goal is to illuminate not only what this anthropology looks at but how.

Anthropology’s reflexive turn has been associated with strategies of writing and the notion of culture as text. This was in contrast with the anthropology of the earlier part of the twentieth century that privileged vision—the camera-like presence of an ethnographic observer (Clifford 1983:118; 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The critique of vision is central to conceptualism too. As LeWitt put it, “[c]onceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions” (1967:84). It aims at a substitution of seeing with thinking and a material object with a concept. It “dematerializes art” to the point that material artwork becomes “wholly obsolete” (Lippard and Chandler 1968:46).[3] But textualization is the flip side of this dematerialization. Conceptual artwork often includes the commentary—such as in Keith Arnatt’s “I’m a Real Artist” (1972) that includes famous discussion of the ambiguity of the notion of the “real” from J. L. Austin’s (1962b) Sense and Sensibilia. I submit that the textualization of anthropology, the expansion of prefacing as commentary that sets the stage for ethnography, parallels conceptual art.

Now consider an example of this “linguistic turn”: Olga Sosnina’s exhibition The Dictionary of the Caucasus (Sosnina, this issue). This exhibition, held at the Tsaritsyno Museum (Moscow, 2012), arranges material objects, photography, and art from and about the Caucasus neither regionally nor historically but by “keywords.” Sosnina’s experiment alludes to the conceptualist function such as the The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić but also to Stéphane Mallarme’s Livre, an idea of the novel with interchangeable pages that can be read in any order (see discussion of open artwork below). Among her entries are the ones on the Caucasian War, the “bandit” (abrek), the “elder,” and the “feast”—but also on “archaeologist,” “ethnographer,” and “tourist” as a composite section for the outside scholar/visitor. If her point is that material objects are vehicles of translation and Orientalist imaginary of this region, this section focuses on the figure of the collector, interpreter, producer as well as consumer of this imaginary.

A “linguistic turn” in this kind of art refers not merely to the central role of language as a conceptualist tool or simply words appearing on the exhibited objects. If commentary was traditionally the domain of art criticism, conceptualism “annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary” (Kosuth 1991:38). Art making became art criticism (Goldie and Schellekens 2007:xi), and, furthermore, the commentary could easily and deliberately substitute the artwork that is the subject of commentary. If thinking itself approaches art as a form, then, as Terry Atkinson asks in his famous inaugural editorial of Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art (1969), “Can this editorial … [as] an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is … count as a work of conceptual art?” (quoted in Alberro and Stimpson 1999:xix).

These relations of substitution between the artwork and commentary become a subject of conceptualist art practice (see Carroll, this issue). Conceptualism treats the wall as a book page (Rorimer 1999); journal issues become forms of conceptual art—and not just in Eastern Europe where nonconformist exhibitions were impossible (Degot’ 2004); the term “artwriting” is coined (Carrier 1987). But “A Media Art (Manifesto)” by Eduardo Costa, Raul Escari, and Roberto Jacoby ([1966] 1999) goes further. It is an account of how these artists created “the written and photographic report of a happening that has not occurred” that included “the names of the participants, an indication of the time and location in which it took place and a description of the spectacle that is supposed to have happened” (Costa, Escari, and Jacoby [1966] 1999:2–3). Ilya Kabakov incorporates the history of art, as something that explains and situates a given artistic project, into the work of art. He created the work of three fictional artists to illustrate the historical stages of Soviet art in the transition from avant-garde to socialist realism and from the latter to conceptualism.[4]

But this raises a question of the status of this very piece of writing in relationship to conceptual art. This is, on the one hand, an academic argument about conceptual art and ethnographic conceptualism in a social science journal. But, on the other, if conceptualism substitutes objects with concepts, if an editorial that outlines an artistic view as to what conceptual art was could itself be seen as a work of conceptual art, and if conceptual art annexes the role of its critic and historian, can this textualization be extended to a theoretical argument? I suggest pushing the dematerialization of art (Lippard and Chandler 1968) to the point of including anthropological theory. Art as theory rather than theory as art.[5]

The Gaze at the Gaze

But if the gaze can be associated with an anthropology as “science” that reflects, and textuality with an interpretive hermeneutics of anthropology as “art” that manufactures, it is worth keeping in mind that, both in anthropology and art, textuality did not so much eliminate the gaze as redirect it. In conceptual art, the “linguistic turn” constituted new kinds of material objects (texts) that are open to view. They were often meant to achieve their performative effect when a momentary glance was cast at them. In this condensation of reading and viewing in conceptual art, there was a corresponding condensation of a work of art and the definition of art. But even the most nominalist statements of anthropology’s reflexive turn (cf. Rabinow 1996) stop short of declaring “I’m a real anthropologist.” The “writing culture” perspective invites us to view commentary on anthropology. It resituates the knowable social world from the reality under this scholar’s gaze to the relationships between this reality and the scholar. It is the ethnography of ethnographic framing and ethnography as the history of the ethnographic gaze (Asad 1991; Clifford 1983, 1988; Fabian 1983; Stocking 1968, 1993).

The artistic analogy to this second gaze—what I would call conceptualist realism—is the depiction of the viewer. Julia Secher’s 1988 project Security by Julia placed surveillance apparatus in exhibition venues, with the aim to depict the human flow of visitors, its regulation and self-regulation, and to view the impulse of the public to be seen and to see its own visibility. Hans Haacke’s Gallery Visitor’s Profile (1969–1973) accumulates and displays information about the statistical breakdown of museum visitors according to age, gender, religious belief, ethnicity, class, occupation, and so on. Privileged social groups constitute the art audience and frame the discourse of art. This project acts as a mirror that returns this frame to the viewer. But in this mirror reflection the frame becomes realistic in its depiction of this ideology of art and its audience.

But this realism itself could be performative. One of the methods of Michał Murawski’s (this issue) exploration of the meanings of Warsaw’s Stalinist skyscraper, the Palace of Culture and Science that still dominates Warsaw’s cityscape, is distributing a questionnaire and assembling a statistical breakdown and collective portrait of his respondents. But this is not simply a social science study of the attitudes of his audience but a performative deployment of the image of research and researcher. Indeed, a mirror that reflects an audience implies a corresponding reflection of this figure of the artist. For the purposes of this study, he designs “The Department of Issuing Anecdotes of the Palaceological Department of the Dramatic Theater” and at some point comes out to an audience of his interlocutors dressed as this office’s bureaucrat.

My second contribution to this special issue is also an exercise in conceptualist realism—the second gaze on the gaze and the depiction of its audience. I root it in anthropology’s “new empiricism” which is not an unreflected objectivism, but is the one that is mediated by the performativity theory—a description of how knowledge is situated and what are its performative affects in such fields as studies of science, gender, and economics. But I use ethnographic conceptualism to push performativity theory further and to consider how performative is the very distinction of the performative and the descriptive. “The performative” in this sense does not refer to one of the poles of the distinction between the performative and the descriptive but to the drawing of this distinction itself (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue).

The Anthropology of the Contemporary and Open Artwork

Gustav Metzger’s First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art in 1960 included a transparent garbage bag filled with newspapers and cardboard. When this installation was recreated at the Tate Britain in 2004, a cleaner accidentally binned it. The gallery subsequently retrieved the damaged bag, and the new one made by Metzger was covered over at night for the remaining time of the exhibition. In this section, I consider some of the artistic and anthropological uses of the unexpected.

This accident should have been invented if it had not actually happened. An unanticipated destruction, almost accomplished, illustrates the point of this kind of artwork perhaps as well as the artwork itself. This point is to highlight, first, temporality as art but also, second, something that is the opposite of literal destruction: a creative process that Helio Oiticica called “anti-art” in the sense of the artist being not the sole author of the work but “an instigator of creation—‘creation’ as such.” This process, he argued, “completes itself through the dynamic participation of the ‘spectator,’ now considered as ‘participator.’” The artist “activates” the creative activity which exists in society, albeit latently—it is as such a “social manifestation, incorporating an ethical (as well as political) position” (Oiticica [1966] 1999:9, emphases in the original).

James Oliver and Marnie Badham put it in their contribution (this issue, 157), “there is no object but the practice; the practice is the object(ive).” Their case in point is an art project/participatory ethnography aimed at development of a sense of home that they conducted among inhabitants of an underprivileged, stigmatized, and highly divided area of Melbourne. Their artwork is an ethnography—an “articulation of actually existing, or ‘lived (social) space,’ where people go to work or school and are potentially deskilled, made sick, deprived of benefits, are not permitted to withdraw their laboring bodies or not to participate” (Oliver and Badham, this issue, 156). But it is about making difference in this space. This articulation of space links ethnographic conceptualism with the “situationalism”[6] of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre, aimed at disruption of “the bourgeois life” by staging street events to jolt passersby from their “normal” ways of thinking. The movement’s key concept was dérive, a disruption of the expected.

But Internationale Situationniste is no avant-garde “International” that in the early twentieth century called for a total revolution in society and artistic signification. This and other art after the 1960s seeks difference but is suspicious of a radically different outside. It protests against inequality, elitism, consumerism. According to Kosuth, conceptualism was “art of the Vietnam war era” (quoted in Alberro and Stimson 1999:345); Metzger’s “auto-destructive art” was part of his antinuclear politics. But like Jacque Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s “tactics,” or the Gramscian “war of attrition” (hegemony), in this art “Social Utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies,” writes the theorist of relational aesthetics Bourriaud (2002:13). He calls plainly “futile” any more radically critical stance as based on the impossible, if not “regressive,” illusion of artists’ marginality (13).

A disruption of the expected was also one of the key points of the “reflexive turn” in anthropology. Opening up to view conventions of ethnographic description sets in motion the reality that is being described—by showing how it is contested, negotiated, and subject to change. Opening up aesthetics or the society under study inserts a break and is an important point of intervention. But in the “writing culture” perspective, radical difference is part of the modern macronarratives of progress that this school critiques. The anthropology of the contemporary posits “a type of remediation” as its goal, not “reform or revolution” (Rabinow 2008:3). Both stress the open-endedness of the processes under investigation; neither are radical calls for alterity.

The anthropology of the contemporary is built not merely on the explicit contrast with anthropology as a window to the past but also on the analogy with “contemporary art”. It replaces modernism (cf. Foster 2009; Smith 2009) in addition to being about what is “here and now” as opposed to “far-away” and “timeless” (Marcus 2003). “The contemporary” is open-ended, incomplete, and ultimately unknown. The emerging is a different state of being than what has emerged, however recently, and can be compared precisely with the old. The emergent may include novelty or may not, may hold a degree of repetition, and its contingency does not necessarily equal difference: the “problem for an anthropology of the contemporary is to inquire into what is taking place without deducing it beforehand” (Rabinow 2008:3).

This directly parallels the notion of the audience’s reaction in conceptual art, which works best when unexpected. But the status of repetition here is interesting. One of Rabinow’s most vivid examples of “the contemporary” as a method is the series of performances of Richard Wagner’s Rings, conducted in 1976–1980 in Bayreuth by Pierre Boulez. He sums this up with a quote from Foucault’s review of these performances:

Boulez took seriously the Wagnerian idea of [operatic] drama in which music and text do not repeat each other, [that is, which] are not saying each in its own way the same thing; but rather one in which the orchestra, the song and the play of the actor, the tempos of the music, the movement of the scene, the decors must be composed as partial elements so as to constitute, during the time of the performance, a unique form, a singular event. (in Rabinow 2011:201)

This unique form and singular event to some extent repeats the musical score or dramatic plot, but this repetition entails difference. It is a reworking of the original script by the means of performance. Rabinow calls this “remediation,” a creative transfer between different media that constitutes the key methodological device of the anthropology of the contemporary (2008:3). Boulez’s performance illustrates the notion of remediation for Rabinow. He uses this to remediate art for anthropological purposes. Boulez’s performance is “a contemporary solution” for Wagner (Rabinow 2011:201, emphasis in the original) which works as “a contemporary solution” for the anthropology of the contemporary—“the accompaniment of time” at a time when “no single sensibility—modernist or otherwise—dominates, overarches, or underlies current affairs” (Rabinow 2008:78; Rabinow et al. 2008).

I would like now to compare this with the uncertainty principle in physics. In this comparison, however, my point is not to root this conceptualization in the authority of science but, on the contrary, to extend the theoretical connection with art. Umberto Eco makes this link with physics in his discussion of “open work” ([1962] 1989), an artistic movement in which Boulez was one of the key practitioners and which goes back to Mallarme’s Livre that can be read in any order. Open work is not so much a “composition as a field of possibilities.” For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstiick XI presents the performer with a single sheet of music paper with a series of note groupings. The performer is to choose where to start and in which order to play. The performer is not merely free to interpret the composer—this happens, Eco says, in any performance of any music—but to decide on the sequence of the piece. The “instrumentalist’s freedom is a function of the ‘narrative’ structure of the piece.” These “mobile compositions” or “open artworks” generate “theoretical aesthetics” that are shared across cultural production but also make developments in art, from Eco’s point of view, akin to the general breakdown in the concept of causation in contemporary physics, with its principles of uncertainty and complementarity ([1962] 1989:13). The transition from compositional aesthetics to open artwork is akin for him to the move from Newton’s mechanics to particle physics. It is a move in scale from physical bodies to particles but also from mechanical determinism to indeterminacy and multiplicity of causations.

Via Boulez, let me link Rabinow’s remediation and Eco’s open work with the way artistic performance can be approached ethnographically. Sergio Jarillo de la Torre (this issue) explores two examples of contemporary art. One is the photography of Thomas Struth, who snaps how visitors of the Prado, the Hermitage, or the Louvre contemplate iconic artworks. These viewers and their unposed body language create relational possibilities between the artwork and the art world in the age of mass tourism—from appreciation and curiosity to boredom and fatigue, from art as fetish to a box to be ticked. This exemplifies an ethnographic archive of such performances of meanings of art. But second, Christoph Büchel’s installation Simply Botiful, in a large warehouse in East London, is an environment which is not marked explicitly as art. It is for the audience to explore and make—make into art or possibly not into art.

The uncertainty principle pervades these projects, much as Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll’s art and ethnography is an exercise in “performing viewers.” She created artwork out of public commentary on the former Yugoslavian monuments, “subtracted the physical monument from the acts of public writing on them” (Carroll, this issue, 101), made this into installation for the 52nd Venice Biennale and Škuc Gallery in Ljubljana in 2007, and presents here an ethnography of this commentary—an autoethnography of her project and a contextualization of socialist and nationalist monumental politics in the Balkans. Yet her study also warns of a flip side to the uncertainty principle that Eco celebrated. If observation influences what is observed and performance is not merely a repetition, the opposite is always a possibility too. Influencing and performing may entail repetition of more that we intend. With regard to Yugoslavian politics, Carroll sums this up with the saying “fight the dragon long, the dragon you become.” But there are also dragons in the shadows of Stalinism and empire that other cases in this special issue discuss (see Murawski; Sosnina; Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay; all in this issue).

Making the Unknown: The Laboratory of Ethnographic Conceptualism

Like conceptual art and the anthropology of the contemporary, EC reveals social and aesthetic potentialities. It elicits new responses and reactions, explicates unexpected links, points out unforeseen aesthetic figurations. But if it is no avant-garde as it does not posit a “new world” that it aims to achieve by artistic or research means, and if what it does then is add complexity and multiplicity to the existing world, what does it add to anthropology and art that deal with complexity and multiplicity? What difference does ethnographic conceptualism make/describe with regard to what was called in the 1980s the postmodern and now the emergent and open-ended?

Hirokazu Miyazaki and Annelise Riles observed that the focus on emergence, complexity, and assemblage “implicitly resigns to the fact that little can be known about the world except for the fact of complexity, indeterminacy and open-endedness.” In these “aesthetics of emergence” there is “a retreat from knowing.” Furthermore, this retreat avoids, from their point of view, the recognition of failure of our own knowledge, as the anthropology of the contemporary locates indeterminacy and complexity “out there” in the world (Miyazaki and Riles 2005:327), rather than within our own episteme. As a solution, they suggest that we observe this failure of knowledge in parallel between the ethnographic knowledge situation and the contexts that we explore. For instance, in the financial markets that Miyazaki and Riles study, they observe an analogous retreat from knowing and a replacement of knowledge with hope.

“The method of hope” is a valuable resource for ethnographic conceptualism that Felix Ringel (this issue) deploys by means of his conceptualist interventions in Hoyerswerda, a town which used to be a model of socialist modernity in the GDR but has undergone a steep decline following German reunification. But there his own “method of hope” is not merely analogous to his informants’ but mutually constitutive. The social reality that he depicts is partly a reaction to himself writing anthropological commentary in a local newspaper, engaging Hoyerswerda youth in ethnographic projects, and initiating an art project in what was once a model part of the “model city” that was soon to be demolished. Just before this block’s final deconstruction, it was painted all over, inside and outside, and filled with various artifacts—such as countless little purple figures, two inches tall and cut out of cardboard, that were installed throughout the staircases and flats, said to be “running around” and asking the tourist’s question, “Excuse me, what is the way to the city center?” (Ringel, this issue, 50).

But let me consider a different, but equally methodological, implication of the aesthetics of emergence. For me, the problem with acknowledging complexity and open-endedness is not only an implicit retreat from knowing (Miyazaki and Riles 2005) but also the opposite of this retreat. It is actually the repetition of what is already known. If we already know that things are complex, we do not really need ethnography, conceptualist or not, just to affirm that. Complexity is a good question but a bad answer.

But it is more interesting to approach complexity and open-endedness not as results but tools of highlighting what is unknown. It is in this quality that ethnographic conceptualism is useful in its performative stance. If it constructs the reality that it studies (“thesis four” above), this means that it actually fabricates the unknown. I suggest treating this complexity and open-endedness not as “fact” but anti-fact. Anti-facts identify areas of the unknown, although they are not, or at least not yet, “new results”; and they contain precisely the kind of unexpected that is central to contemporary art. The notion of anti-fact complements Helio Oiticica’s “anti-art.”

Anti-fact is different both from a fact and from the exposition of a fact as artifact. Facts already describe what is established (what “we know for a fact”). The anthropological critique of objectivism describes what procedures and arrangements and what taken for granted assumptions constitute the conditions of possibility for this knowing (Callon 1986; Latour 1999). But the vector of this description runs parallel to the vector of scientific discovery, although it renders discovery as manufacture. Artifacts are facts of sorts. They appear when the aura of complexity of science—and, as Kosuth puts it in his “Notes on the Anthropologized Art,” the “opacity” of the traditional language of art—began losing their “believability.” With that “began, through the sixties, an increased shift of locus from the ‘unbelievable’ object to what was believable and real: the context” (Kosuth [1974] 1991:99). Emergent as the context may be, in a way it is no surprise. To make it a surprise again, the anti-fact of ethnographic conceptualism is a move in the opposite direction. It defamiliarizes the context, and it is in this sense the opposite of the conceptual as in conceptual art and also in the anthropological theory as artwork that I suggested above. It is an “auto-destruction” (in Gustav Metzger sense) of concepts in the unknown.

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  • Schneider, Arnd and Christopher Wright. 2010. Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice. Oxford: Berg.
  • Smith, Terry. 2009. What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stocking, George W. 1968. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. New York: Free Press.
  • Stocking, George W., ed. 1993. Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  1. From avant-garde and surrealism onwards, anthropology has been a continuous source of inspiration for contemporary art. Kosuth’s perspective is distinct as it does not draw on the anthropological trope of otherness for artistic imagination. Kosuth in fact critiques this trope as it existed in the 1970s: “what may be interesting about the artist-as-anthropologist is that the artist’s activity is not outside, but a mapping of an internalizing cultural activity in his own society. The artist-as-anthropologist may be able to accomplish what the anthropologist has always failed at” ([1975] 1991:121). This is not “artist as ethnographer” who is “locating truth in terms of alterity” (Foster 1995:204).
  2. A man carried two full-length sandwich boards with “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it,” printed on them (graduation exhibition, School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University, UK, 2004 [Lamarque 2010:220]).
  3. An example of this questioning of object is Air Show/Air Conditioning, a proposal for a column of air as artwork by Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson (Baldwin 1967).
  4. The Alternative History of Art, Garazh, Moscow, 2008.
  5. See also Art as Idea as Idea by Joseph Kosuth, 1966 (http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/2362).
  6. This was a radical political and cultural movement, which centered around journals Internationale Situationniste (1957–1969) and Spur (1960–1961).

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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

Last updated: December 13, 2008 1:38 am

Indian art defies global conceptualism

Two London exhibitions, the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway and Aicon’sSigns Taken for Wonders, are the UK’s most ambitious attempts yet to distil coherence into the chaotic rush of art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.The marriage between the conceptually minded Serpentine and Indian art – whose overriding characteristics are narrative drive, flamboyant figuration and sensuous colour – is interesting because it is so unlikely. Recent memorable Indian installations have been sprawling, direct and often rooted in the animal motifs of folklore: Bharti Kher’s “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own”, a collapsed fibreglass elephant adorned with bindis (female forehead decorations) at Frank Cohen’s Passage to India, or Sudarshan Shetty’s bell-tolling aluminium cast of a pair of cows, now at the Royal Academy’s GSK Contemporary. Nothing like that is in Indian Highway; with conceptual aplomb, the Serpentine turns the accessibility and energy of Indian art into a taut cerebral game.

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JACKIE WULLSCHLAGER

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The highway of the title refers both to the literal road of migration and movement, and to the information superhighway, which together are propelling India to modernity. Dayanita Singh’s wallpaper-photographs of Mumbai’s central arteries illuminated at night introduce the theme in the first gallery, and a crowd of sober documentary films worthily continue it – but a pair of installations catch the symbolism best. One is Bose Krishnamachari’s celebrated “Ghost/Transmemoir”, a collection of a hundred tiffin boxes – widely used to convey home-cooked lunches to workers across cities – each inset with LCD monitors, DVD players and headphones, through which everyday Mumbaikars regale audiences with their stories, accompanied by soundtracks evoking the high-pitched jangle and screech of Mumbai street life.

The other, towering upwards to the North Gallery’s dome like a beating black heart at the core of the show, is Sheela Gowda’s “Darkroom”, consisting of metal tar-drums stacked or flattened into wrap-around sheets, evoking at once the grandeur of classical colonnades and the ad hoc shacks built by India’s road workers. Inside, the darkness is broken by tiny dots of light through holes punctured in the ceiling like a constellation of stars; yellow-gold paint enhances the lyric undertow in this harsh readymade.

Opposite is N S Harsha’s “Reversed Gaze”, a mural depicting a crowd behind a makeshift barricade who tilt out towards us – making us the spectacles at the exhibition. All Indian life is here in this comic whimsy: farmer, businessman, fundamentalist Hindu, anarchist with firebomb, pamphleteer, aristocrat in Nehruvian dress, south Indian in baggy trousers and vest, tourist clutching a miniature Taj Mahal, and an art collector holding a painting signed R Mutt – linking the entire parade to the urinal, signed R Mutt, with which Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1917.

Essential to the meaning of “Reversed Gaze” is that it will be erased when the exhibition closes – a slap in the face for the predatory art market. So will the pink and purple bindi wall painting “The Nemesis of Nations” by Bharti Kher, who recently joined expensive international gallery Hauser and Wirth. And a canvas of drawings greeting visitors as they enter is all that is left of Nikhil Chopra’s performance piece “Yog Raj Chitrakar”, in which the artist this week spent three days assuming the persona of his grandfather, an immaculately dressed gentleman of the Raj, and lived and slept in a tent in Kensington Gardens, entering the gallery only to daub the canvas that stands as an art of aftermath – a memory drawing.

Painting here is a vanishing act. Maqbool Fida Husain (aged 93) has made 13 bright poster-style works – red elephants, a tea ceremony after a tiger shooting, a satirical Last Supper with dapper businessman, umbrella, briefcase, body parts – to surround the exterior of the Serpentine. MF Husain is India’s most respected artist; with these billboards, executed in his standard style of forceful black contours, angular lines and bright palette, he returns to his career origins as a painter of cinema advertisements.

In the catalogue, curator Ranjit Hoskote argues that “transcultural experience is the only certain basis of contemporary practice” and that “the chimera of auto-Orientalism, with its valorisation of a spurious authenticity to be secured as the guarantee of an embattled local against an overwhelming global, has been swept away”.

But Husain, godfather to generations of Indian artists, and indeed every piece inIndian Highway – from feminist painter Nalini Malani’s looping fantasy figures intricately inked on bamboo paper in “Tales of Good and Evil” to Jitish Kallat’s photographic series “Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer)”, chronicling the demolition of slum dwellings – proves the opposite: however hard a western gallery tries to make Indian art talk a global conceptual language, its local strengths speak louder. Indian art, on this showing, is visually arresting and thoughtful, but nothing here is formally or conceptually innovative, or aesthetically provocative. We thus respond to its distinctive idiom and themes as cultural tourists.

This is the context in which Aicon, London’s leading commercial gallery of Indian art, opened last year. Signs Taken as Wonders is a Christmas selling show but is also intelligently structured around the perennial subject of India’s shifting identities, with misrecognition the trope: out-of-focus photographs of buildings and anonymous steel workers in RAQS Collective’s “Misregistration”; deconstruction of stereotypes in Vivek Vilasini’s “Vernacular Chants” prints; the contrast between questioning pose and expression and monumentality in Riyas Komu’s cropped, close-up “Borivali Boy II”.

This show complements the Serpentine’s by emphasising the painterly, such as the fragmented textures and touches of surrealism in Husain’s veiled “Women of Yemen”. In particular, the swirling abstract patterns and slabs of twisting colour in Krishnamachari’s “Stretched Bodies” – portraits of disintegration and change that deny the possibility of single truths, and the delicate ink-on-silk drawings of his “Mumbiya” depiction of a typical citizen, which seems to fade into elusiveness as you draw near – add layers to the vision of chaotic, vibrant Mumbai in the artist’s “Ghost” installation at the Serpentine. Krishnamachari describes the average Mumbaikar as “an ocean of anxieties that have arisen from the everyday question of acceptance”. Flitting between these shows, you feel most of all that uneasiness, both in the creation of Indian art and in our uncertain response to it.

‘Indian Highway’, Serpentine Gallery, London to February 22 . ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Aicon Gallery, London, to January 24

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GLOBAL CONCEPTUALISM: POINTS OF ORIGIN, 1950S–1980S

SHOWINGOctober 24, 2000 – December 31, 2000

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Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, featuring more than 200 works by over 130 international artists, offers snapshots of the diverse iterations of conceptual, or idea-based, art over the course of several generations.

The exhibition examines the contemporaneous burgeoning of art that draws its meaning primarily from its content rather than from its form, or appearance, across the world beginning in the 1950s. Grouped into regional sections the exhibition is organized in two chronological sections: the 1950s through around 1973 (Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand); and 1973 through the end of the 1980s (the Soviet Union [Russia], Africa, South Korea, and Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). These periods correspond to two waves of conceptualist activities that took place in various parts of the world as post-war social and political upheaval prompted among artists a re-examination of traditional forms of representation and a renewal of questions regarding art’s social utility. Much of the art in the exhibition, which takes the form of photographs, documentation, films, videos, postcards, posters, drawings, as well as paintings, mixed media objects, and installations, was made to provoke the viewer by disturbing previously accepted ideas about social, political, and cultural systems.

Global Conceptualism; Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s was organized by the Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, New York, by a curatorial team consisting of former QMA director of exhibitions Jane Farver, now director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center; artist, critic, and curator Luis Camnitzer; and Rachel Weiss, an independent curator and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The three primary organizers were joined by a corps of eleven international curators who provided intelligence on each of the regions examined. They include: László Beke (Eastern Europe), Chiba Shigeo and Reiko Tomii (Japan), Okwui Enwezor (Africa), Gao Minglu (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), Claude Gintz (Western Europe), Mari Carmen Ramírez (Latin America), Terry Smith (Australia and New Zealand), Sung Wan-Kyung (South Korea), Margarita Tupitsyn (Russia), and Peter Wollen (North America).

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How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?

Miguel A. López

Tags: Gerardo Mosquera, Luis Camnitzer

‘Tucumán Arde', 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

‘Tucumán Arde’, 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first Conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. – Eduardo Costa1

I

On 28 April 1999 the exhibition ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ opened at New York’s Queens Museum of Art. Organised by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, consisting of eleven geographically defined sections and curated by a large, international group of art historians and researchers, the exhibition formulated one of the riskiest and most controversial interpretations of so-called Conceptual art at an international level. The show was ambitious. Its structure created a geographical spill-over that called into question the lesser or secondary place to which certain critical productions had been consigned. The framework of analysis was the global set of social and political transformations that have taken place since 1950, and the emergence of new forms of political action that formed the backdrop to a renewed repertoire of visual language. Such a scope allowed the curators to gather aesthetic proposals not defined in the exhibition by a Conceptualist ‘aesthetics of immateriality’, but instead by their capacity for intervention.2This approach, without doubt, shifted the very rules according to which the history of Conceptual art had been written. Those radical changes of the modes of producing andgiving value to art exposed by ‘Global Conceptualism’ reveal complex processes in which political subjectivities oppose the consensual organisation of power and its distribution of places and roles, mobilising singular and collective resistances and dissenting energies.

Ten years on, the shockwaves can still be felt, perhaps even more intensely than at the time. In different ways, ‘Global Conceptualism’ updated some of the debates that had been attempting to raise the issue of subjectivity in social practices from a post-colonial perspective, disputing the geographical and temporal orders of a modern or colonial Occidentalism.3 Hence, it was no surprise that the show became one of the most quoted (and most questioned) referents of the revival of 1960s and 70s critical production that has taken place over the past decade in exhibitions, seminars and publications around the world.

While much has been said about the decentralising virtues of ‘Global Conceptualism’, in retrospect its most significant legacy appears not only to be the broadening of the Conceptual art map (a move that had a bearing on several subsequent curatorial projects), but the way in which the exhibition questioned the identity of a Conceptual art with universal aspirations. The curatorial operation of ‘Global Conceptualism’ started from a categorical distinction between ‘Conceptual art’ – understood as a North American and Western European aesthetic development associated with a formalist reduction inherited from abstraction and Minimalism – and ‘Conceptualism’, a term denoting a critical return to an ‘ordering of priorities’ that made visible certain aesthetic processes on a transnational level, allowing for diverse historical, cultural and political narratives to be set in place.4 Conceptualism was presented as a phenomenon that took place in a ‘federation of provinces’, with the ‘traditional hegemonic centre [being] one among many’, drawing a multiplicity of points of origin and questioning the privileged position claimed by Western modernity and its politics of representation.5 The exhibition seemed to work as a performative apparatus determined to re-politicise, reconfigure and rewrite the memory of those decades. As a result Conceptual art, which from the perspective of the United States and Western Europe had until then been an unavoidable prism for reading other critical productions, appeared fractured.

The shrewdness of the ‘Global Conceptualism’ gesture no doubt managed to effectively dominate the critical framework from which one would contemplate and validate those antagonistic practices. But more importantly, and perhaps without intending to, it allowed for the reconsideration of Conceptualism as the effect of a discourse (or multiplicity of discourses) that had itself caused breaks and a major questioning of the fabric of certain local memories – albeit in some cases at the expense of reinforcing lineages and typologies. These are complex manoeuvres, and their political implications must be addressed. What do we achieve today by reflecting on Conceptual art’s radical dimension from the perspective of the ways in which it has been historicised? How should we assess the political impact of such histories, and their effect on possible forms of recognition? Furthermore, how might we assess this effect on the production of certain forms of subjectivisation and sociability?6

II

The struggle of Latin American historiography to place local episodes within global narratives, in an attempt to counter the dominant geographies of art, has been successful. For some time now, artists such as Hélio Oiticica, León Ferrari, Lygia Clark, Alberto Greco, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Oscar Bony and Artur Barrio, or collective experiences such as ‘Tucumán Arde’ (‘Tucumán Burns’, 1968) and ‘Arte de los medios’ (‘Art of Media’, 1966), have become unavoidable references in virtually all recent accounts that trace the so-called inaugural landmarks of Conceptualism on a transcontinental scale. Today, however, this apparent expansion of discourse seems to demand renewed reflection, as it is no longer a matter of tirelessly continuing to accommodate events in the endless container we believe history to be, but of questioning the ways in which they reappear and the roles they play within it. Such reflection will enable us to examine the anachronisms and discontinuities of historical discourse – its fragments, snippets, shreds – and activate their ability to disrupt once again the logic of the ‘verified facts’.

In the recent essay ‘Cartografías Queer’ (2008),7 the theorist Beatriz Preciado discusses the formation of historiographic models of the so-called sexual difference from the perspective of a queer epistemological critique that could be very useful for us in this task. Considering the political scope of the historical exercise, Preciado avoids the taxonomy of places, situations or individuals and instead proposes, in direct dialogue with Félix Guattari’s ‘schizoanalytic cartographies’, a map that gives an account of the technologies of representation and modes of production of subjectivities.8 This map makes explicit how certain dominant diagrams of representation of sexual minorities come dangerously close to becoming mechanisms of social control and discipline. Can we envision a way of reading and representing that does not result in an illustrative exercise of description, but that instead allows for the perception of variations and displacements that appear as forms of subjectivisation, or even as machines of political transformation that disrupt previously established arrangements?

Preciado brings into play two antagonistic historiographic figures: the conventional model of ‘identity cartography’ (or ‘cartography of the lion’, as she terms it), concerned with seeking, defining and classifying the identities of bodies; and a ‘critical cartography’ (‘queer cartography’ or ‘cartography of the bitch’), which sidesteps writing as a topography of established representations in order instead to ‘sketch out a map of the modes of production of subjectivity’, observing the ‘technologies of representation, information and communication’ as genuine performative machines.9 These two models are divergent not only in their modes of producing visibility, but also in their ways of battling the technologies that mediate the political construction of knowledge. These issues are pervaded by the relationship between power and knowledge, and even to a greater extent by biopolitical modes of production linked to the codes of representation and the allocation of places in social space.10 Such crucial issues must be considered at a time when ‘dematerialised’ logic has begun to strike up an effective dialogue with the dynamics of global capitalism on immaterial goods.11

Following (or perhaps perverting) Preciado’s reflections, it may not be difficult to acknowledge that until recently most historiographies of modern and contemporary art have been ‘cartographies of identities’. Among these, ‘Conceptual art’ surfaced as a sanctionable identity, and the historiographic task resembled that of a detective tracking down the still unfound remains of Conceptualism in order to introduce them into the topography of the visible. It strives to offer a genealogy and geography of that which is totally representable – bringing those experiences into historical account, dispelling the mists that surrounded them, and clarifying a place apparently recovered.12

But let’s try the opposite exercise too. Let’s imagine a cartography not interested in seeking out the fragments of Conceptual art, one that even doubts the existence of such pieces. Let’s imagine a map that instead aims to explore the label itself, observing its uses and noting how it produces identities in different contexts; a map that, before attempting to function as a technique of representation, tries to expose power relations, ‘the architecture, displacement and spatialisation of power as a technology for the production of subjectivity’.13 Here it would no longer be a question of establishing formal resemblances between works, or of dating those that can effectively guide us in recognising the ‘Conceptual’ or ‘Conceptualist’ category (and its regional derivatives such as ‘Argentinean’, ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Latin American’) but, rather, of finding out how those narratives have determined the materiality and forms of visibility of what they hoped to describe, how they have negotiated their place within and without the institution and distributed it after having transformed these critical art forms into received knowledge.

Taking that tension between the cartographic models in their identitarian and queer versions as a starting point, I would like to pose a series of questions concerning some of the recent cartographical representations of Conceptual art: first, by revisiting one of the most influential accounts of so-called Latin American Conceptualism and the re-inscription of the ‘ideological’ as a category from which to consider aesthetic trends in the region; and second, by analysing a recent, almost unnoticed Argentinean exhibition that proposed a strategy for reflecting politically on how it is possible to reassess the ruptures triggered by 1960s avant-garde movements and the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. The show, notably, put forward an approach to the archive that refuses to treat this event as a chapter in the history of art and instead reactivates the anachronistic heterogeneity of meanings borne by the documentary remnants.

III

It was not until the early 1990s that one of the first programmatic essays of Latin American Conceptualism was published, and its ideological reverberations have accompanied many of the considerations on the subject since. Art historian Mari Carmen Ramírez wrote the essay ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ (1993) for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century’, curated by Waldo Rasmussen and organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1992.14The exhibition, which was first opened to the public in Seville and produced in the context of the celebrations commemorating the fifth centenary of the ‘discovery of America’ – a controversial exhibition on account of its perceived condescending and stereotyping discourse15 – was one of the culminating stages of the boom of Latin American art that began in the mid-1980s and fostered a depoliticised representation of Latin American culture and history, which was strongly associated with private promotional and funding interests both in the US and Latin America. The political landscape at that time included the re-establishment of democratic governments throughout the subcontinent, the internal crisis of the Left and the introduction of neo-liberal policies following the Washington Consensus.16 For several of the intellectuals who were symbolically mediating the cultural production between North and South America at the time, such as the Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera, the Chilean feminist cultural critic Nelly Richard or Ramírez herself, it was clear that what was at stake were the mechanisms of representation of the American continent at the end of the Cold War, and therefore a totally renewed political economy of signs catalysed by a sequence of exhibitions of Latin American art outside of Latin America – exhibitions that effectively were beginning to draw a new exotic, formalist and neo-colonial framework of interpretation.17

The very title of the text – ‘Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ – announced Ramírez’s focus on disruptive aesthetic forms and their socio-cultural conditions, something that was not in Rasmussen’s exhibition. The essay attempted to provide a unitary legibility to radical experiences that had until then been in large part unrelated (some of which not only had remained indifferent to the nomenclature but even rejected it),18 and by doing so it gave the label ‘Latin American Conceptualism’ one of its first major concrete manifestations. Ramírez’s intention was to challenge the then common assumption that Latin American Conceptual art was a poor, late imitation of Conceptual art ‘from the centre’, and hoped to politicise its readings by means of an argument that assigned positive value to an apparent Latin American difference. In opposition to the limited North American and British ‘analytical’ or ‘tautological’ model, the Latin American model was presented as ‘ideological Conceptualism’. Ramírez traced this binary distinction back to 1974, when it was discussed by the Spanish critic Simón Marchán Fiz, but did not go as far as to question it.19

Ramírez believed the dichotomy revealed the prominence of the ideas of a sadly self-referential Kosuth, heir apparent to the positivist legacy of Modernism. ‘In Kosuth’s model the artwork as conceptual proposition is reduced to a tautological or self-reflexive statement. He insisted that art consists of nothing other than the artist’s idea of it, and that art can claim no meaning outside itself,’20Ramírez says, echoing – voluntarily or not – some of the criticism that art historian Benjamin Buchloh had put forward fiercely just four years before,21 and indirectly playing down the political dimension implicit in the linguistic turn and its break with late-modern formalism. She thereby created an interpretative formula repeated almost to the letter in several of her subsequent essays, opposing, in general terms, a ‘depoliticised’ North American canon with a ‘political’ Latin American Conceptualism that subverts the structure of the former and actively intervenes in social space. The assertion, though somewhat provocative, traces a particularly narrow and dichotomous path of analysis, indebted to essentialist nuances that fail to establish a genuine antagonism.22

However, our intention here is not to denounce an ‘incorrect’ reading of Conceptualism, to dispute labels or to reduce Ramírez’s discourse to the use of such categories (conversely, her work puts forward noteworthy observations on the political use of communication and the ‘recovery’ of the mass-produced object in these processes). Rather, it instead is to note how that ‘difference’ shaped a specific visibility and morphology, making the distinction part of many of the debates surrounding the interpretations of the situation and, surprisingly or not, part of the ‘central’, dominant narratives, where it functions as a mystifying cliché in a process of categorisation and normalisation. Returning to some of Ramírez’s ideas, the philosopher and art theorist Peter Osborne observes:

‘Ideological content’ is the key term of Latin American Conceptual art. In distinction from the more formal ideational concerns of most US and European Conceptual art (the act/event, mathematical series, linguistic propositions or the structures of cultural forms), this was an art for which ‘ideology itself became the fundamental “material identity” of the conceptual proposition.’23

Along similar lines, though without circumscribing the ‘analytical-linguistic’ to North American Conceptualism, Alexander Alberro repeats the argument:

[T]he most extreme alternatives to models of analytic Conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 70s are those that developed in the deteriorating political and economic climate of a number of Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile.24

And in a more recent book, formulated as a Conceptualist ‘census’ of Spain with categories such as ‘poetic’, ‘political’ and ‘peripheral’, the historian Pilar Parcerisas revisits Ramírez’s thesis,25 scorning ‘the premises of the analytical orthodoxy of Conceptual art in English-speaking countries’ by attempting to elaborate on the political character of the ‘periphery’. From a range of perspectives in Latin America, that difference has been repeatedly recovered, with variations, in several recent accounts of the 1960s and 70s.26

Rather than objecting to the use of the term or any of its related epithets, what I am attempting to do is underline the need to deploy it as a diagram of power, to assess which meanings and distinctions, and which processes of normalisation and resistance are concealed in such consensual representations. This reconsideration demands a different articulation to the other concepts used by critics and artists when considering their own positions: minor expressions (to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari),27 the gradual erosion of which has contributed to the standardisation of radical experiences in order that they may establish an ‘appropriate’ exchange with centralist discourses.

For example, it would be provocative to consider the term ‘dematerialisation’ in the context of Argentina’s experimental art scene in the 1960s as the Argentinean theoretician Oscar Masotta proposed in 1967 – independently from Lucy Lippard – as deriving from El Lissitsky and his plan to integrate artists into the publishing industry of revolutionary Russia of the 1920s.28It also would be challenging to rethink a term such as ‘no-objetualismo‘ (non-object-based art), coined in Mexico by Peruvian critic Juan Acha around 1973, as part of a Marxist approach to counter-cultural protest and collective artistic experiences of the Mexican ‘grupos’ (Proceso Pentagono, Grupo Suma and No-Grupo, among others), but most significantly to indigenous aesthetic processes, such as popular art and design, that question Western art history.29 Or to re-examine concepts that artists employ to reflect on their own practice: Argentinean Ricardo Carreira uses the term ‘deshabituación‘ (‘dishabituation’) to refer to an aesthetic theory based on the political transformation of the environment through estrangement.30 In the early 1960s Alejandro Jodorowsky spoke of ‘efímeros‘ (‘ephemerals’) in reference to his series of improvised and provocative actions confronting conventional theatre, halfway between psychotropic mysticism and fantastic esotericism,31 while Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s ‘revulsive’ aesthetic agenda pledged to destabilise the roles of the artist – on other occasions Vigo defined himself as an ‘un-maker of objects’.32 These are but a few of the entries in the critical repertoire still in the shadow of the hegemonic rhetoric. Such subterranean theoretical constructs pose a latent conflict, a multitude of not-yetarticulated and potential genealogies. Beyond mere naming, these words appear as proof of the fact that there is something irreducible – a discordant crossing of stories that point to divergent ways of living and constructing the contemporary – its capacity to unfold other times.

IV

Forty years after ‘Tucumán Arde’, the exhibition ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, organised in 2008 in the Argentinean city of Rosario, offered one of the sharpest readings among the host of curatorial approaches that have explored the episodes of radicalism and rupture in Argentina in 1968.33 That year, several groups of artists, film-makers, journalists and intellectuals organised a series of experiences that connected cultural and artistic production with dissenting forms of political intervention – often with revolutionary claims – in collaboration with militant sectors of the workers’ movement. These collaborations dramatically modified artistic and cultural practices, resulting in progressively radicalised experiences in several contexts. In this context, a group of artists – invited to the exhibition ‘Experiencias ’68’ that was organised by the pre-eminent Instituto Di Tella – broke with the institution, exhibiting in ‘Experiencias’ politically critical artworks. When the police banned one of these – an installation of a public toilet, in which the public wrote slogans critical of the military dictatorship – the artists protested, destroying their works in the streets and distributing a text denouncing the increasing repression in the country. This incident became the trigger for a major rethinking of their commitment to the artistic avant-garde, formulating a new programme of action that comprises the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. Once outside of the institution, the artists began a process of documentation and social intervention aimed at generating counter-information about the causes and consequences of the crisis that was affecting the Tucumán province after the closure of several sugar mills, and then mounting two public displays in the labour unions in Rosario and in Buenos Aires, which was closed by the police. The project connected artists with sociologists, journalists, theorists, unions, the workers’ movement and others in a process of dispute and intervention in which aesthetic and political strategies were interchanged.34

The ‘Inventario’ exhibition tried to re-assess the celebrated entry of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into the canonical historiography of international art,35 as well as its recognition as a foundational episode of Latin American, even global, ‘ideological Conceptualism’ (or ‘the mother of all political works’, as artist and sociologist Roberto Jacoby has ironically called it).36 The project introduced itself as a questioning of the process of legitimisation and institutionalisation of ‘political art’ that in recent years had focused on the 1968 events, in particular on ‘Tucumán Arde’, and resulted in a global tour that took it, among other places, to documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007.37 What is won and what is lost in the process of ‘Tucumán Arde’ becoming a legend? How should we approach the complex and heterogeneous weft of political subjectivities inscribed in the rupture of the Argentinean avant-garde of the 1960s? Is ‘Tucumán Arde’, as a landmark, a watershed moment, capable of giving an account of the most intense and radical moments of that process?

The exhibition took the transformation of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into an artwork as its starting point, approached through a selection of photographs and documents from the Carnevale archive in an attempt to visually compose a chronological micro-narrative that would describe the events of 1968. The adoption of this origin not only implied returning to the several narratives in which the Argentinean event had been inscribed over the past decade, but also exploring the documentary framework, the material background from which those reconstructions seemed to appear and disappear. The archive was put forward as capable of disrupting all narrative certainty. The exhibition had four sections, and its focus was on the display of the Carnevale archive, the most comprehensive archive of Argentinean art in the 1960s. The installation made the archive freely available (providing desks and the possibility of consulting and copying documents), enabling the circulation of conflicting accounts coming from other people involved at the time. If the fetishising logic had managed to fix the image of ‘Tucumán Arde’, reducing its complexities to mere forms with seemingly immediate meaning, this exhibition attempted to suggest a totally different cartography based on the analysis of the processes of institutional legibility, their discursive production, exhibition formats, economic transformations and publishing products, uncovering their interrelations and tensions.

‘Inventario’ opened with a long, empty corridor in which beams of light were aimed at the walls and floor. At the end of the tunnel a large number of archival images (many of them photographs taken by the group of artists from Buenos Aires and Rosario in 1968) were projected, accompanied by audio fragments of interviews held in the 1990s with trade unionists, artists and student leaders, protagonists and witnesses of several of the actions.38The entrance thereby presented an empty architecture that both revealed its own modes of display and suggested the impossibility of establishing a single story, disrupting, implicitly, the idea of the singular official version.

A second corridor presented a substantial part of Carnevale’s archive on walls and tables: photographs, posters, catalogues, writings and manifestos of the various Argentinean avant-garde events, alongside graphic work, pictures and other documents of experiences that connected art and politics in other contexts (from silkscreen prints by Taller 4 Rojo in Colombia to posters of the Brigadas Ramona Parra made before or during Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and others of the Encuentros de Plástica Latinoamericana in Havana). A panel in a third corridor traced the numerous events and exhibitions in which ‘Tucumán Arde’ had been recovered, quoted, exhibited or referenced, including information about the political and economic protocols in place in each institution, and photographs of how it was installed on each occasion. Materials related to the exhibition venue of ‘Inventario’ and the catalogue of the project (a detailed inventory of all the material in Carnevale’s archive) were displayed on several of the tables, where each publication, catalogue and edition referenced in the gallery was made available. Finally, a space presented the contributions of two recent archives generated by Argentinean activist-artists more recently involved in local experiences, posing questions about the different ways of granting visibility to those practices in an exhibition space.

The show was constructed as a series of interludes that paradoxically reformulated the collisions that had initially configured the history of the archive. The passage between one space and another acted as a distancing effect that rejected any possible teleology of facts. While the first gallery had seemed to point out the impossibility of a narrative through the random polyphony of voices and images, the third gave an account of an ‘excess of narratives’ on ‘Tucumán Arde’ and on its own construction (historiographic, curatorial, institutional, economic and social) through its recognisable trajectories and the multiple ways in which it was activated.39 Conversely, in the second gallery, the archive appeared as a potential story, an exhibited archive in use that offered its own migratory movements, its excesses and absences, its revolutions to come.

Put to use, the archive not only attempted to misplace ‘Tucumán Arde’, but to question its simple narration, re-enacting its original misidentification (its initial refusal to describe its practice as art but also its dissolution as an event driven by urgency), opening and exposing the layers of sedimentation it had accumulated. Unlike some recent interpretations that have tried to make it legible as a work of art either by taking a small number of documents and images accompanied by comments, a system of marks and footnotes for illustration purposes, or else by a total lack of comments or stories (dangerously verging on aestheticisation, as in documenta 12), this mise en scène brought fragments together according to their differences, including everything that was usually excluded from the consensual art-historical configurations that repeated its name. The installation of this exhibition rejected from the start all ‘reasonable’ understanding, showing, as Georges Didi-Huberman would say, not only the direction of its movement but the locus of its agitations.40

By presenting the actual archive, ‘Inventario’ also fell into contradictions: in spite of an attempt to present a multiplicity of times and events, as reflected by the heterogeneous archival material presented in the second tunnel, the inclusion of images of some of the most recognisable actions within ‘Tucumán Arde’ contributed to a repetition of the excessive prominence that ‘Tucumán Arde’ had already been given in written accounts of the late 1960s experiences. The photographs displayed throughout the gallery space, which had been enlarged for previous exhibitions in which they had been shown, provided an imposing presence themselves, at times even offering an unwitting chronology, especially if compared to the assemblage of documents that pointed to the complexity and impossibility of offering full descriptions. And yet, is it possible to escape from this already constructed significance?

V

In his most recent book, Luis Camnitzer establishes two key events for the reading of Latin American Conceptualism: the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the late 1960s in Uruguay, and the experience of rupture that led to ‘Tucumán Arde’ in 1968.41 What is important for me here is the invocation of the Argentinean experience in relation to politics from the point of view of militants, or even armed conflict. Despite the possible good intentions behind its attempt to politicise historiographic accounts, we should ask ourselves whether the twosome Tupamaros/’Tucumán Arde’ and the idealised image of ‘resistance’ in which it places the Latin American Conceptual art history implies a pre-established consensus that reaffirms a certain stereotype of subversive art. If that is the case, does this point to a dead end for the politicisation of Conceptualism, and for its criticism? To what extent has an experience such as ‘Inventario’ managed to suggest an alternative representation of the usual story, to fracture narrative certainties or to dispute its stereotyped places? Is it possible to establish a topography of that which cannot yet be named, an index that refuses nomenclatures and stands alone, only to become disorder and pure unpredictability?

I have followed two clues in what I consider the cartographic or diagrammatic forms of critical reading that operate in tension with recent processes of historicisation of ‘Latin American Conceptualism’. The first is an open question that speculates on the interpretative categories stabilised and legitimised in a specific order of discourse, and other secondary notions subsumed in that particular configuration of the ‘Latin American’ which presents itself as a uniform fabric – decentred concepts that would otherwise distort the usual flows of meaning and expose us to dissenting testimonies. The second is the gap between the conventional exhibition formats of ‘Tucumán Arde’, between the individuation of a set of documents that present the chronology of what is considered the artistic ‘episode’, and the presentation of the archive that disrupts and dismantles the order of this appearance. Besides its obvious limitations, the return to the archive is also a misidentification of an event countless times named – classified, arranged, defined – and whose name and materiality are repeatedly questioned in an attempt to bring difference to the surface. On display are merely temporary installations that enable us to return to those operations as a potential space from which to redefine relations between spaces, words and bodies.42

Forty years ago the Argentinean artist Eduardo Costa made a piece in which he proposed a counter-history of Latin American Conceptualism, one based on mixing up the dates: A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. In this short text, written for the exhibition ‘Art in the Mind’, Costa suggested stealing history as a political activation of Conceptual practice, challenging ‘reasonable’ consolidations by historical narrative – a historiographic practice deliberately formulated around error.43 His work seemed to insist on the possibility of thinking that rationalist history has been permanently mistaken – that there is no possible story, but merely a circumstantial sum of paradoxes, trades and sleights of hand, and that an erratic alteration in its diagram of successions simply adds to its most joyous (in)coherence, celebrating its impossibility.

Costa’s work reminds us that history is never neutral, and if there should be any pending task it is precisely to be unfaithful to it, to betray it. This does not mean giving up on historical reflection, but rather corrupting whatever degree of Christian fidelity and Calvinist obedience history still inspires, unravelling its destiny and ultimate causes. Looking back at those events consigned to oblivion should allow us to recover their salutary force, their emancipatory thrill and at the same time to activate a nostalgia for the future. We do not recover the past in order to make it exist as a bundle of skeletons, but to disturb the orders and assurances of the present. The task of reintegrating the subversive component of whatever we happen to be historicising can’t be resolved by communicating as truth what we apparently know. It is neither a question of producing exhibitions or books on a certain theme, nor of drawing up lists, directories or summaries. It is a question of making the event spill over and break down established modes of thinking about the past and the future, and generating ways of allowing for whatever is excluded to eventually challenge the consensus and bring back the parts of an unresolved conflict.

Footnotes
  1. Eduardo Costa, quoted in Athena T. Spear (ed.), Art in the Mind (exh. cat.), Oberlin, OH: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1970, n.p.
  2. The term ‘dematerialisation’, introduced by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, for a long time was used as the key term to identify Conceptual art in North America and Western Europe. See Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’,Art International, vol.12, no.2, February 1968, pp.31-36 and Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, 1973.
  3. In Latin America those discussions happened around the Bienal de La Habana, which, since its creation in 1984, has become an important forum of discussion disengaged from the international art market. Another significant moment at an international scale is the coinciding in 1997 of documenta X, curated by Catherine David, and the second Johannesburg Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor.
  4. Luis Camnitzer points out that ‘while “conceptual art” is an anecdotal little label in the history of universal art, “conceptualism” as a strategy created a rupture in the appreciation of all art and in the behaviour of artists, regardless of their location’. Fernando Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer: “Global Conceptualism fue algo intestinal e incontrolable, al mismo tiempo que presuntuoso y utópico”‘, Ramona, no.86, November 2008, p.29. See also Rachel Weiss, ‘Re-writing Conceptual Art’, Papers d’Art, no.93, 2007, pp.198-202. Translation the author’s.
  5. F. Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer’, op. cit., p.26.
  6. This last question was put forward by theoretician José Luis Brea in his considerations of the political effects of visuality. See J.L. Brea, ‘Los estudios visuales: por una epistemología política de la visualidad’, in J.L. Brea (ed.), Los estudios visuales: La epistemología de la visualidad en la era de la globalización, Madrid: Akal, 2005, pp.5-14.
  7. Beatriz Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer: El flâneur perverso, la lesbiana topofóbica y la puta multicartográfica, o cómo hacer una cartografía “zorra” con Annie Sprinkle’, in José Miguel Cortés (ed.), Cartografías disidentes, Madrid: SEACEX, 2008, n.p.
  8. See Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1989.
  9. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  10. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt remind us, these biopolitical modes of production do not only involve the production of tangible goods in a purely economic sense, but ‘affect all spheres of social, economic, cultural and political life, at the same time as they produce them’. A. Negri and M. Hardt, ‘Preface’, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.xi.
  11. Boris Groys has clearly expressed some of the effects of this paradox in art: ‘If life is no longer understood as a natural event, as fate, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicised, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these new conditions of biopolitics – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. Now, however, time, duration and thus life too cannot be shown directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact-finding reports, statistical inquiries and project plans. It is no coincidence that art also uses the same medium of documentation when it wants to refer to itself as life.’ Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’, Documenta 11_ Platform 5: Exhibition (exh. cat.), 2002, p.109.
  12. The issue also involves the critical modes of working around the concepts that sustain these historiographic exercises. It is possible to say, for instance, that to a certain extent ‘Global Conceptualism’ adopted the task of the ethnologist, raking up experiences in different geographies and marking its affinities and Conceptualist identities, and yet, paradoxically, its strategy facilitated the mise-en-critique of identity itself. An acritical example of the identity discourse is provided by Álvaro Barrios’s book Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1999), which offers a narrative made up of interviews in which several leading figures of the 1960s and 70s guide the story’s main character (Barrios himself), who appears increasingly convinced of his ability to truly recover the unrecognised Conceptualist element. Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1968-1978), Bogotá: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 1999.
  13. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  14. Mari Carmen Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’, in Waldo Rasmussen, Fatima Bercht and Elizabeth Ferrer (ed.), Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, pp.156-67.
  15. The exhibition presented Latin American art production as a tame continuation of modern Western aesthetic movements, avoiding any type of political reflection on the colonial history of the subcontinent. Most critics agreed in characterising it as a blatant attempt to ‘maintain a total control of the ideological and aesthetic premises […] and of their interpretation’ from categories projected from the outside. Shifra M. Goldman, ‘Artistas latinoamericanos del siglo XX, MoMA’ (trans. Magdalena Holguín), ArtNexus, no.10, September-December 1993, pp.84-89.
  16. Drawn up in 1989 and promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury Department, the Washington Consensus is a list of measures for economic reform that presented itself as the ‘best’ programme to face the crisis and ‘underdevelopment’ of Latin America, among which were liberalisation of trade and investment, deregulation and a general withdrawal of the state from economic matters.
  17. Some of these debates, from a Latin American cultural perspective opposed to European and North American dominance, can be found in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: The Institute of International Visual Arts, 1995.
  18. Juan Pablo Renzi, a driving force in ‘Tucumán Arde’, was emphatic about this. In a work titled Panfleto no.3. La nueva moda (Pamphlet no.3. The New Fashion, 1971), which he contributed to the ‘Arte de Sistemas’ exhibition organised by the Museo de Arte Moderno/Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires in 1971, he stated: ‘What is in fashion now is Conceptual art […] and it turns out that (at least for some critics like Lucy Lippard and Jorge Glusberg) I am one of those responsible for the onset of this phenomenon (together with my colleagues from the ex-groups of revolutionary artists in Rosario and Buenos Aires from ’67 to ’68). This assertion is mistaken. Just as any intention of linking us to that aesthetic speculation is mistaken.’ And he concludes: ‘REGARDING OUR MESSAGES: 1. We are not interested in them being considered aesthetic. 2. We structure them according to their contents. 3. They are always political and are not always transmitted by official channels like this one. 4. We are not interested in them as works but as a means of denouncing exploitation.’
  19. The same reference to Marchán Fiz’s ‘ideological Conceptualism’ had already been made one year earlier by the North American critic Jacqueline Barnitz in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Encounters/ Displacements. Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles’, curated by Ramírez and Beverly Adams. However, Ramírez’s voice was the one that consolidated and furthered the argument most effectively, making it an indispensable reference for many subsequent interpretations. A decisive factor in this consolidation was the repetition of the line of argument in the catalogue of ‘Global Conceptualism’ and later on in two large-scale international surveys of Latin American art she was also in charge of: ‘Heterotopías. Medio siglo sin lugar 1918-1968′ at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in 2000; and ‘Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America’ at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2004. Marchán Fiz doesn’t quite completely confine the ‘ideologisation’ to Conceptual art from Latin American nor self-referentiality to European/North American work. See J. Barnitz, ‘Conceptual Art in Latin America: A Natural Alliance’, in M.C. Ramírez and B. Adams (ed.), Encounters/Displacements: Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles (exh. cat.), Austin: Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, 1992, pp.35-47; M.C. Ramírez, ‘Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980′, in L. Camnitzer, J. Farver and R. Weiss (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (exh. cat.), op. cit., pp.53-71; Simón Marchán Fiz, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Madrid: Alberto Corazón Editor, 1974 [1972].
  20. M.C. Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits’, op. cit., p.156.
  21. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art, 1962-1969)’, in l’art conceptuel, une perspective (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, pp.41-53.
  22. Historian Jaime Vindel has also noted the contradictions in responding to the centre/periphery relationship through an equally binary opposition: ‘By basing their position on an antagonist with no real voice, these discourses run the risk of making their publicity dependent on the centre/periphery logic against which they declare they stand and to which they are still yielding.’ J. Vindel, ‘A propósito [de la memoria] del arte político: Consideraciones en torno a “Tucumán Arde” como emblema del conceptualismo latinoamericano’, lecture given at the 5th International Conference of Theory and History of the Arts – 13th CAIA Symposium, Buenos Aires, October 2009.
  23. Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2002, p.37.
  24. Alexander Alberro, ‘Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977, in A. Alberro and Blake Stimson (ed.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, pp.xxv-xxvi.
  25. Pilar Parcerisas, Conceptualismo(s) Poéticos, Políticos, Periféricos: En torno al arte conceptual en España. 1964-1980, Madrid: Akal, 2007, p.27.
  26. In a 1997 text Camnitzer celebrated Ramírez’s argument, which he found enlightening for its understanding of the regional differences of Conceptualism, which emphasised the relationship between Duchamp and the modern tradition of Mexican muralism, starting from its foray into the social sphere with communicative goals. Broadly speaking, however, Camnitzer shares Ramírez’s view of North American Conceptual art, which he brands ‘a quasi-mystical search for the imponderable’. L. Camnitzer, ‘Una genealogía del arte conceptual latino-americano’, Continente Sul Sur, no.6, November 1997, p.187. Other historians who have used the expression ‘ideological Conceptualism’ more or less critically over the past few years include Andrea Giunta, Ana Longoni, María José Herrera, Ivonne Pini, Miguel González, Cristina Freire and Alberto Giudici. Due to problems of space, this text will not compare the conflicting meanings and the implications inscribed in their uses.
  27. ‘A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. […] The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. Minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. […] We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (trans. Dana B. Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp.16-18.
  28. See Oscar Masotta, ‘Después del pop, nosotros desmaterializamos’ (1967), in O. Masotta,Revolución en el arte: Pop-art, happenings y arte de los medios en la década del sesenta, Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2004, pp.335-76. For Lucy Lippard’s use of the term, see L.R. Lippard, Six Years, op. cit.
  29. As yet, there is no study dealing with Juan Acha’s critical thinking of the 1960s and 70s, and the political process that led to the emergence of ‘no-objetualismo‘. For a first, partial attempt, see Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, ‘Juan Acha y la Revolución Cultural. La transformación de la vanguardia artística en el Perú a fines de los Sesenta’, in Juan Acha, Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass-media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos [1969], Lima: IIMA – Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008, pp.1-17.
  30. Ana Longoni, ‘El Deshabituador: Ricardo Carreira in the Beginnings of Conceptualism’, in Viviana Usubiaga and A. Longoni, Arte y literatura en la Argentina del siglo XX, Buenos Aires: Fundación Telefónica, Fundación Espigas and FIAAR, 2006, pp.159-203.
  31. See Cuauhtémoc Medina, ‘Recovering Panic’, in Olivier Debroise (ed.), The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997, Mexico DF: UNAM, 2007, pp.97-103.
  32. In October 1968, in a newspaper and on local radio Vigo made the surprising call for his first ‘señalamiento‘ (‘appointment’) titled Manojo de Semáforos (A Handful of Traffic Lights). The proposal called for people to look at an ordinary object for its aesthetic potential to cause ‘revulsion’. See F. Davis, ‘Prácticas “revulsivas”: Edgardo Antonio Vigo en los márgenes del conceptualismo’, in C. Freire and A. Longoni (ed.), Conceitualismos do Sul/Sur, São Paulo: Annablume, USP-MAC and AECID, 2009, pp.283-98.
  33. ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, Centro Cultural Parque de España, Rosario (3 October-9 November 2008). The team working on the show was made up of the artist Graciela Carnevale, historians Ana Longoni and Fernando Davis, and Ana Wandzik, an artist from Rosario. This project constituted the first curatorial experiment in political activation by the Red Conceptualismos del Sur group.
  34. For further discussion of the experiences of 1968 in Argentina, see G. Carnevale et al. (ed.), Tucumán Arde. Eine Erfahrung: Aus dem Archiv von Graciela Carnevale, Berlin: b_books, 2004.
  35. While its earliest mentions date back to the late 1960s, its incorporation within the canon since the late 1990s, through a series of essays, exhibitions and publications, quickly multiplied its visibility. International exhibitions include I Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 1997; ‘Global Conceptualism’ in 1999 and ‘Heterotopías’ in 2000; ‘Ambulantes. Cultura Portátil’ curated by Rosa Pera at CAAC, Seville; ‘Inverted Utopias’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2004; and ‘Be what you want but stay where you are’, curated by Ruth Noack and Roger M. Buergel at Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2005.
  36. Roberto Jacoby, ‘Tucucu mama nana arara dede dada’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.86-91.
  37. Even though the most prevalent reading of ‘Tucumán Arde’ places it within the ‘Conceptual’ genealogy, others have tried to relate it to a history of political intervention, collective production or militant research. Examples of this are the dossier ‘Les fils de Marx et Mondrian: Dossier argentine’, published in Robho magazine (nos.5-6, 1971, pp.16-22) or anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s discussion of ‘Tucumán Arde’ in the context of the process of integration of artistic avant-gardes with popular organisations. See N. García Canclini, ‘Vanguardias artísticas y cultura popular’, Transformaciones, no.90, 1973, pp.273-75. More recently, Brian Holmes has noted the impact this experience had on several activist groups operating in Europe in the late 1990s. See A. Longoni, Daniela Lucena et al., ‘”Un sentido como el de Tucumán Arde lo encontramos hoy en el zapatismo”: Entrevista colectiva a Brian Holmes’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.7-22. Similar readings are proposed by exhibitions such as ‘Antagonismes. Casos d’estudi’, curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and José Lebrero at MACBA, Barcelona, 2001; ‘Collective Creativity: Common Ideas for Life and Politics’, curated by What, How and for Whom at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel in 2005 and the project ExArgentina, organised by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmman.
  38. The interviews were conducted by Mariano Mestman and A. Longoni; some of them were eventually published in their book Del Di Tella a ‘Tucumán Arde’. Vanguardia artística y política en el ’68 argentino, Buenos Aires: El cielo por asalto, 2000.
  39. See F. Davis and A. Longoni, ‘Apuntes para un balance difícil: Historia mínima de “Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale”‘, unpublished text presented at the 2nd Red Conceptualismos del Sur Reunion, Rosario, October 2008.
  40. ‘Politics are only displayed by exposing the conflicts, the paradoxes, the reciprocal clashes that weave history,’ says Didi-Huberman in his considerations of the Brechtian notion of montage. ‘[M]ontage appears as the procedure par excellence in this exposition: its objects are not revealed when taking position but once they have been taken apart, as is said in French to describe the violence of a “unbridled” storm, wave against wave, or as is said of a watch “dismantled”, i.e. analysed, explored and therefore spread by the passion of knowing applied by a philosopher or a Baudelairian child.’ G. Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes toman posición, Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2008, p.153. Editors’ translation.
  41. See L. Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp.44-72. Camnitzer, however, points at alternative coordinates, such as the writings of nineteenth-century Venezuelan writer and educator Simón Rodríguez, who taught Simón Bolívar. For Camnitzer, the Tupamaros’s use of ‘aestheticised military operations’ and Rodríguez’s ‘ideological aphorisms’ contribute to what he calls a ‘didactics of liberation': communication process aimed at generating actual changes in society.
  42. ‘Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche. It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions “proper” to such classifications.’ Jacques Rancière, ‘Dix thèses sur la politique’, Aux Bords du Politique, Paris: Gallimard, p.229.
  43. A.T. Spear, Art in the Mind, op. cit. Translated by Josephine Watson.

Five Essays by Hal Foster on Painting

==

Hal Foster

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named ‘geometrical abstract art’ and ‘non-geometrical abstract art’. In effect the diagram was a confident projection of a history that the museum would move, strategically, to display and to define. If modernist art was first made in Europe, it was first narrated in the US, and abstraction was its Geist.

Flash forward 77 years. For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 (until 15 April), the curator Leah Dickerman offers a different diagram: not a diachronic chart of tributary movements but a synchronic network of charismatic ‘connectors’, such as Vasily Kandinsky, F.T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Theo van Doesburg and Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom were polemicists (critics, editors, exhibition-makers) as much as they were artists. Like the diagram, the exhibition looks back to the period when abstraction emerged, not forward to its eventual triumph; rather than project a telos to come, it historicises a moment a century ago. In doing so, the show suggests, perhaps involuntarily, a closure to this practice. Is abstraction ‘a thing of the past’, a form of art that, however world-historical once, is well behind us now?

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Inventing Abstraction opens with a complicated Cubist figure by Picasso. It is a conventional enough beginning (recall the title of the Barr show), yet there is no way around it, nor should there be: even if Picasso never went abstract (neither did Matisse, for that matter), Cubism was the fountainhead of abstraction, and key protagonists like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich felt they had to work through it. Dickerman features Kandinsky next, but she does not present abstraction as having a simple origin. Its sources are transhistorical and multicultural (modernist inspirations include African art, Byzantine icons, and Islamic ornament): abstraction is always discovered as much as it is invented. That said, the purview of the show is strictly European (including Russia and Britain), though the selection is broad and various within this frame, with many provocative juxtapositions and far more women than in past shows (Sonia Terk and Sophie Taeuber, for example, get equal billing with their husbands, Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp). At long last such movements as Italian Futurism and Polish Constructivism are given their due, and lesser figures like the Britons Lawrence Atkinson and Duncan Grant, and the Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, have their day too. Given the cost of insurance, conservation concerns and political problems (Russia has an embargo on loans), we are not likely to see such an extraordinary gathering of abstract art from this period ever again.

Although Inventing Abstraction includes sculpture, photography and film, it runs heavy on painting. It wasn’t obvious how absolute abstraction was to be achieved in those other media, and the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting in any case. At the same time, many painters needed the aid or at least the analogy of the other arts, music and poetry above all. Music had long been seen as the most abstract (‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ Walter Pater had said), and Dickerman points out the importance not only of Wagner’s chromaticism and Schoenberg’s atonality for Kandinsky (a Schoenberg concert in Munich on 2 January 1911 was an epiphany for the artist) but also of the structural reflexivity of Bach for Paul Klee (who was a gifted musician). As for poetry, Mallarmé had already announced a crisis, and the next generation took the attack on conventional sense to an extreme in Futurist parole in libertà (‘words in freedom’), Russian zaum (transrational) texts, and sound poems (Kandinsky, Arp, van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters all produced important examples).

The tension between medium-specific and cross-media impulses was generative for early abstraction. Against formalist critics, from Roger Fry through to Clement Greenberg, who stressed the decorous ideal of painting as strictly visual and spatial,Inventing Abstraction shows how abstract artists were concerned often with the tactility of materials (faktura or ‘texture’ was a watchword of the Russians) and sometimes with the temporality of animation (alongside abstract films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and László Moholy-Nagy, there are unexpected projects by Grant and by Léopold Survage, an artist of Finnish descent active in Paris). ‘Tested by abstraction, the boundaries of painting and other media began to dissolve,’ Dickerman argues in a riposte to the medium-specific position. For one thing, abstract painting prompted a loosening of the ground under the viewer: Malevich suggested aerial perspectives in some of his early abstractions, and El Lissitzky rotated his diagrammatic Prouns as he painted them in order to confound any sense of orientation. Such experiments led some painters – Kandinsky, Lissitzky, van Doesburg – to abstract interiors, both actual and projected, and there were other crossings as well. Dickerman opposes medium-specificity and cross-media exchange, but the two principles are not in complete contradiction: however opposed in method, the Gesamtkunstwerk and the pure painting are both committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy.

Artists were on the verge of abstraction well before the breakthrough year of 1912: why was it such a difficult concept to accept, even for champions like Kandinsky? The principal reason was that it seemed to expose art to the arbitrary, the decorative, the subjective. If art was no longer rooted in the world, what might ground it? If it was no longer governed by the referent, what might motivate it? By and large artists sought a basis for abstraction at the two extremes, in the transcendental realm of the Idea (usually Platonic, Hegelian or theosophist) or in the material register of the medium; in this respect abstraction provided an aesthetic resolution to the philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism, either of which it could serve. Against the arbitrary, artists like Kandinsky also asserted the ‘necessity’ of abstraction – history demanded it, art required it – and such assertions in turn prompted a flood of words: individual proclamations, group manifestos, lectures, treatises, journals. Dickerman views this visual-verbal relation as a symptomatic ‘split’, even a dissociation of sensibility: ‘This structure – of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance – suggests a division in modernism.’ Yet one might also see it as a relation of supplementarity, and deconstruct it accordingly: which term in the binary truly determines the other in each instance? However parsed, the insight that practice and theory (or, for that matter, performance and publicity) would thereafter compensate for one another in 20th-century art is an important one.

Abstraction had recourse not only to artistic analogies and textual reinforcements but also to radical developments in the sciences of the time, such as the theory of relativity, quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry; yet more germane, Dickerman argues, were new philosophical paradigms like phenomenology and semiotics. According to phenomenology, perception is not detached and objective – not ‘realist’ in this sense – but subjective and embodied and thus to an extent ‘abstract’. So, too, semiotics discarded the belief that language referred directly to the world (here the intimacy of the linguist Roman Jakobson with Malevich is very telling). Although Dickerman alludes to the impact of new technologies and culture on abstraction, one would like to hear more on this score. The exhibition offers a strong sense of the ambiguous attractions of the abstract world of the industrial machine, as differently evoked by the Futurists, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, but little sense of the abstractive force of the mass-produced commodity, the becoming-abstract of capitalist life, as variously explored by Georg Simmel, György Lukács and Alfred Sohn-Rethel. After Greenberg (not to mention Theodor Adorno), we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world became too abstract to represent in the old ways.

Dickerman revises Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, in which MoMA is still very invested. ‘The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other,’ she concludes, ‘but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.’ But was abstract painting as absolute a rupture as this makes out? Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation. Yet for others it was the purification of painting, not its end but its epitome (this is an essential meaning of ‘pure painting’). Given the Hegelian cast of some theorists, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So, too, even as these artists broke with representational painting, they often did so in a way that continued the tradition of the tableau, reaffirming its criteria of compositional unity for the artwork and epiphanic experience for the viewer. In this respect the glorious Windows of Delaunay reflects on picturing in a way that rivals any self-aware painting by Velázquez or Vermeer.

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

So if ‘the demise of painting in its traditional form’ was not total, what about the ‘opening to the practices of the century to come’? Inventing Abstraction contains examples of avant-garde inventions nearly coeval with abstract painting, such as non-objective collage, relief and construction (an impressive model of the unbuiltMonument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin dominates one gallery). For Dickerman, abstraction prepares these devices and others too, including all that we comprehend by the name ‘Duchamp’: the readymade, experiments with chance, the artwork as idea and so on. Yet this strong claim is open to argument: already in the chart drawn up by Barr for MoMA, and later in the theory of ‘modernist painting’ promulgated by Greenberg, abstraction comes to displace these other strategies, and it would not be until after the dominance of abstract expressionism, in the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s, that they returned with any force. Abstraction was a break, to be sure, but it was also used to defend against other breaks that were perhaps more radical.

The final gallery of the show suggests the mixed fortunes of abstraction: there is a testament to abstraction as the necessary future not only of modernist art but of modern life tout court in the form of experimental pieces by Moholy-Nagy, a near travesty of abstraction as a kind of Dadaist nonsense in ornamental objects by Taeuber and Arp, and a set of essays in abstract form by Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński which, however exquisite, also appear stunted, with nowhere to go historically. And what about abstraction today? It does not pretend to the great ambitions – revolutionary, utopian, transcendental – of this early period; that is obviously not our mode. Many artists treat abstraction as a distant archive to cite more than as a continuous tradition to develop – but then nothing can be world-historical twice.

==

SIGMAR POLKE

At MoMA

Hal Foster

For some, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and the American Mike Kelley. Appropriately, the Polke retrospective currently on view at MoMA is called Alibis (it will open at Tate Modern in October and move to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne early next year).

Born in Silesia in 1941, Polke fled west with his family twice, first to Thuringia in 1945 and then to Düsseldorf in 1953, where he attended the art academy in the early 1960s. Among his fellow students was another displaced East German, Gerhard Richter, who was close to Polke at the time. Today the two are bound together art-historically in a way that recalls the pairing of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with Polke, like Rauschenberg, cast as the restless experimenter – the vast retrospective includes about three hundred works executed in all sorts of materials and media – and Richter, like Johns, as his restrained counterpart. After all the adulation given to Richter in recent years, there was bound to be a swing in the direction of Polke; this impressive show is that swing.

If Rauschenberg and Johns prepared the way for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Polke and Richter quickly adapted American Pop, which they first encountered in magazines, to German ends. In 1963, along with Konrad Lueg (who soon metamorphosed into the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke and Richter claimed the title ‘German Pop artists’ and, with an ironic nod to both Pop in the West and Socialist Realism in the East, contrived the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. Inspired by Warhol’s early silkscreens, Richter developed his famous blur to underscore the mediated nature of his source images. Polke meanwhile riffed on the faux Ben-Day dots devised by Lichtenstein: although they are hand painted, his ‘raster’ spots (Raster is German for ‘screen’) also indicate that his paintings derive from photographic images in newspapers and magazines. However, unlike their Pop predecessors (among whom Richard Hamilton must also be counted), Polke and Richter did not delight in mass media or commercial culture; they had fled East Germany, but were sceptical about the ‘economic miracle’ of West Germany. In two deadpan paintings from 1963-64, for example, Polke presents three support socks and three white shirts for men, crisply folded on blank grounds, in a serial manner that suggests both white-collar well-being and bureaucratic uniformity. His immaculate images of mass-produced chocolates and biscuits from the same years depict these new products of plenty as both perfect and null, and his young man in a tennis sweater is beautiful and bland in a similar way: the good life of the postwar period as the unexamined life of leisure and sport. Might the doubt raised in such paintings about a reconstructed West Germany extend to its quick embrace of American imports like Pop art? It seems so, and this makes German Pop cut critically against its artistic source as well.

In his best works of the 1960s Polke is thus double-edged, equally biting about the vulgar lows and the arty highs of the consumer culture then new to West Germany. He was also harsh at the time about the institutional fate of modernist abstraction, though his sarcasm about it betrays a love for it too. In a watercolour from 1963, Polke reduces the pure abstraction of Mondrian, with the utopian ambition of its primary colours, to a decorative sheet of polka dots, and in a painting from 1969 he turns the transcendental abstraction of Malevich into a mock-totalitarian order from on high: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! His best jibe is a painting simply titled Moderne Kunst (1968), an array of modernist tokens – Expressionist gestures, Suprematist geometries, Bauhausian angles – presented as so many inert signs in a one-image résumé of early 20th-century art history. These works debunk international modernism, to be sure, but they also question the West German celebration of it as a display of distance from the Nazi condemnation of modernism in particular and from the Nazi past in general – as though one could believe, as Polke once put it, in a nasty twist on the motto at Auschwitz, that ‘Kunst macht frei.’ In this respect his most acerbic piece is another painting from 1968, Constructivist, which presents, in faux-Lichtenstein dots, a faux-Mondrian composition resembling a backwards swastika. In front of an overdetermined travesty like this, which is also a well-made artwork, one hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?

I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, a structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same … [It is] the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardised, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialised.

Early on, Polke and Richter shared mundane sources such as the family snapshot, but soon Richter made banality his own, and Polke focused on the related subject of kitsch, that volatile compound of mass-produced decoration and petit-bourgeois aspiration otherwise known as bad taste. Often he used patterned fabric as the support for his paintings, on which he might screen or daub an image of a beach, a tropical palm or a heron, all tokens in the middle-class imaginary of happy relaxation, exotic travel and gemütlich decor. This anthropological expedition into the West German petite bourgeoisie is often hilarious, but it is sometimes also cruel, with a hint of snobbery about it.

Perhaps Polke sensed the problem, for in the 1970s he ditched this cool distance. With Fluxus rather than Pop as his prompt, his work became more immersive, performative and chaotic. He drew on popular forms like comics and caricature, deployed forms of amateur and outsider art, and relied on photography and film to document his antics in the studio and beyond. At this time too, with the aid of projectors, Polke adapted from the Dadaist Francis Picabia a particular way of layered picturing, which was soon appropriated by the Americans David Salle and Julian Schnabel. At its best this hallucinatory mélange suggests not a dream space so much as a media overload, a kind of Surrealism without an unconscious in which the subject, no longer home, is dispersed among images in the world at large. At its worst it becomes a matter of rote juxtaposition to which the artist seems as indifferent as the viewer. Drugs were involved here, and that is part of the problem: although psychedelia might feel like freedom, it often looks like conventionality (as any number of rock album covers attest); sad to say, the stoned mind tends to be a factory of readymade images.

In the later 1970s Polke went south: literally, as he travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Brazil, among other places, and figuratively, as his work became uneven. His experiments with chemicals, which extended to his paintings and photographs, issued in mixed results: at times the images point to realms of occult experience that came to preoccupy him, while at others they are simply hermetic; for the most part the process concerned him more than the product. In the 1980s his paintings tended to go big, often too big, as if the point were to keep up with the other boys in this time of Neo-Expressionist bluster. In some instances the scale is effective, as it is in a series of concentration-camp watchtowers from 1984. Yet even here opinion is divided: for some critics these paintings are chilling reminders of the Nazi past, ‘Death in Germany’ in the early 1940s to match the ‘Death in America’ of the early 1960s captured by Warhol with his electric chairs and the like; for others they begin to turn ‘Never Forget’ into its own kind of kitsch.

An acclaimed artist of the same generation as Polke recently remarked to me that Polke was ‘too creative’: there wasn’t enough concentration in his ideas or constraint in his materials to produce a logic that sustained the work over time – in short, he had too many ‘alibis’. But it might also be that his prime devices, parody and pastiche (devices that are often associated with postmodernist art of which he is an important progenitor), refuse precisely these expectations of stylistic consistency and subjective stability, and that the very point of his practice was to resist art-historical inscription and social recuperation: to show, as Benjamin Buchloh puts it in the catalogue, that any secure selfhood ‘rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal’. Yet there is a touch of the adolescent avant-garde-of-one in this position, and isn’t advanced capitalist life an effective enough auto-da-fé of the subject in its own right?

==

THE PAINTING OF MODER LIFE

At the Hayward

Hal Foster

The Painting of Modern Life, the first show at the Hayward Gallery curated by its American director, Ralph Rugoff, is an ambitious attempt to see how this artistic project stands nearly 150 years after Charles Baudelaire proposed it in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). There the poet called for a shift in subject matter – already begun in the practice of Manet and others – away from the grand themes of myth and history, and towards the everyday activities of urban life, especially of middle-class leisure. Such a shift in content implied a shift in form, even in medium; for example, to capture the mobility of bourgeois types on the town, the sketch might be more useful than other means (the exemplar in the essay is not the great Manet but Constantin Guys, who was then known for his quick studies). What better vehicle to convey ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ – key qualities of the metropolitan kaleidoscope, according to Baudelaire – than the photograph? Yet the poet remained suspicious of the new medium, in part because he did not see its potential for imaginative invention, in part because he did not deem it suited to the ‘other half’ of his mandate for art, which was to extract ‘the eternal and the immutable’ from this protean modernity. The other half was still the province of painting, and so painting – perhaps pressured by photographic attributes – remained the essential medium.

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

The Hayward show picks up the representation of modern life a century later. In the interim, Rugoff suggests in the catalogue, the tense relationship between painting and photography slackened, as painting withdrew into abstraction (a comment on modernity in its own right), and photography became the favoured means of modern imaging (there are many exceptions, of course, but the curator should be allowed his premise). However, as the 1960s began, Rugoff continues, artists associated with Pop and photorealism – Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Richard Artschwager, Vija Celmins and Malcolm Morley – turned again to photography, not only as a source of images but as a way to convey the look of consumer society, already processed as so much of it was through photographic media: that is, through the ads, news photos, amateur snapshots and postcards that the painters had begun to adapt.

The exhibition begins here, and the early work looks superb still, fresh to the eye, however familiar the artists are now, and incisive about its times. In the first galleries Rugoff offers a nice range of photographic effects translated into painting in this initial moment: Hamilton capturing the tabloid glare of celebrity visibility in a lurid image of Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser after a drugs bust; Warhol eliciting shock cut with indifference with a newswire photo of a car crash silk-screened 11 times across a rust-orange canvas; Richter producing an empathic response in his blurred representation of a pretty woman distorted by grief (we learn it is Jackie Kennedy after the assassination); and so on – so many visions of a world more and more mediated by images, which painting, because of its remove and its delay, is able to explore in ways that photography cannot.

Yet the great interest of the show is the uncertainty – the epistemological ambiguity, the historical instability – visited on both photography and painting over the last four decades. The two media partake of different sign systems: photography is conventionally seen as indexical, a photochemical impression of the world, and (representational) painting as iconic, with a resemblance to the world that is less direct, more mediated by material, touch and tradition. A painting is also worked up over time, and usually taken in over time too; Rugoff writes well about the ‘slowness’ of painting, which in this instance allows us to review and to reflect on its photographic sources. Yet even in the 1960s these different attributes are not easily assigned to one medium or the other.

Take the vaunted reality effect of photography, affirmed by theorists from André Bazin to Roland Barthes. Some of the artists in the show are not so sure. Richter remarks that photography is ‘a crutch to help me get to reality’, yet that he can approximate this goal only through painting; this leaves him with the paradoxical formulation, ‘I am practising photography by other means.’ For Celmins, whose meticulous translations of a Timemagazine cover, military craft and a Los Angeles freeway are on display, it is also painting, and not photography, that puts the image ‘back into the real world – in real time … the here and now’. Moreover, as the show proceeds, the source images become less photochemical, more electronic, less analogue, more digital (they often derive from television, video and the internet), and so what counts as the photographic gets stretched – stretched, in fact, towards painterly manipulations. Hamilton explored this complication early on; as early as 1969 he noted the proliferation of ‘lens-formulated images whatever the chemistry or electronics involved.’

Consider, too, the question of spectatorial distance: is this a photographic quality or a painterly one? For Rugoff, it seems, it is painting that builds such detachment into the work, yet for others this distance is associated with photography: Richter speaks of his photographic blur as a ‘protection’, and Warhol of his photographic repetition as an anaesthesia (‘meaning goes away’). Or consider, conversely, our proximity to the image, as with the photorealist canvases of Morley, who describes his painting as a ‘hallucination’, or of the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch (a welcome rediscovery), whose huge scenes of hippy life loom towards us with garish details: neither strictly photographic nor strictly painterly, this visual intensity is effected through a combination of properties of both media. Indeed, some of the best works in the show mix effects of distance and proximity, the detached and the insistent, through a precise complication of painting and photography. Rugoff describes this mixed quality as ‘uncanny’ or ‘absurd’, but little seems repressed here, and nothing nonsensical; his impression of a ‘denatured’ world is more exact. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Foucault once argued, did away with resemblance, but still affirmed the real; they simply located it elsewhere, in a transcendental beyond. Surrealist painters like Magritte performed a stranger trick: they held on to resemblance, but allowed the real to slip away; similitude remained while reference vanished. For some of the artists here this appearance without substance is the odd nature of the postwar world, and they bring us back compelling probes of it – of where the real looks lost and where it erupts again.

A divide opens in the show as one moves through it. Is its principal concern the photo-painting relation or the representation of modern life? Some works lean to one side, others to the other, but only the best hold the two subjects together, and they are able to do so precisely because the photographic and the painterly charge each other, and burn the image into its moment (and vice versa). Often in the more recent paintings this tension slackens, and purchase on the world slips as a result (the loose categories – looser than in Baudelaire – don’t help much here: ‘History & Politics’, ‘Leisure & Everyday Life’ etc). Sometimes, too, even as the category of the photographic expands, the use of the photographic contracts; it becomes more traditional, mostly a matter of sources again, with the result that little pressure is put on painting, which in turn can scarcely push back on photography. How different from Warhol, who places nasty news photos in the space of exalted abstraction, or Hamilton, who tests the great tradition of the tableau with the slick devices of advertisements. In short, many of the younger artists allow painting to trump photography too easily. Painting gets the victory, but it is Pyrrhic, and for all its advocacy the show might make some viewers feel less sanguine, not more, about the current state of the art.

The reason this issue is more than academic is that the representation of social existence is at stake here. If, for Baudelaire and company, modernity was a great fiction to celebrate, it was also a terrific myth to interrogate – and how much more so is it for us today. As art historians such as T.J. Clark and Thomas Crow have helped us to see, the great painters of modern life – from Manet to Hamilton – are also its great dialecticians; they are able to celebrate and interrogate it by turns. Hamilton uses the Duchampian phrase ‘ironism of affirmation’ to convey his edgy position on this score. Too many of the artists in this show are neither affirmative nor critical enough – of painting, photography, electronic images or modern life. In 1865 Baudelaire wrote to Manet that he was the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art; it was meant as a compliment.

Letters

Vol. 29 No. 23 · 29 November 2007

Hal Foster’s review of The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery is illustrated with a reproduction of a painting by Liu Xiaodong bearing the title A Transsexual Getting Downstairs (LRB, 1 November). Without knowing anything about Chinese, I suspect a better translation would be Transsexual Descending a Staircase: the subject matter and the colour scheme (if not the figuration) suggest an explicit allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s work which has always been known in English as Nude Descending a Staircase.

Benjamin Friedman
New York

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New Left Review 19, January-February 2003

If Britain rather than the US, in the fifties rather than the sixties, originated Pop Art, what ingredients made it possible, and how did its pre-eminent painter Richard Hamilton tabulate the arrival of a new ‘super-fetishism’?

HAL FOSTER

ON THE FIRST POP AGE

An epic poem of early Pop by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, in an essay published in November 1956, three months after the landmark Independent Group exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ opens at the Whitechapel Gallery: ‘Gropius wrote a book on grain silos, Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes, and Charlotte Perriand brought a new object to the office every morning; but today we collect ads.’ Forget that Gropius, Corbusier and Perriand were also media-savvy; the point is polemical: they, the protagonists of modernist design, were cued by functional structures, vehicles, things, but we, the celebrants of Pop culture, look to ‘the throw-away object and the pop-package’ for our models. This is done partly in delight, the Smithsons suggest, and partly in desperation: ‘Today we are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomenon of the popular arts—advertising . . . We must somehow get the measure of this intervention if we are to match its powerful and exciting impulses with our own.’ [1] Others in the IG, Reyner Banham and Richard Hamilton above all, share this urgency.

1

Who are the prophets of this epic shift? The first we to ‘collect ads’ is Eduardo Paolozzi, who calls the collages made from his collection ‘Bunk’ (an ambivalent homage to Henry Ford?). Although this ‘pinboard aesthetic’ is also practised by Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull and John McHale, it is Paolozzi who, one night in April 1952, projects his ads, magazine clippings, postcards and diagrams at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in a demonstration that underwrites the distinctive method of the IG, an anti-hierarchical juxtaposition of archival images disparate, connected, or both at once. The ‘Bunk’ idea is developed in such shows as ‘Parallel of Life and Art’, directed by Paolozzi, the Smithsons and Henderson in 1953, ‘Man, Machine and Motion’, produced by Hamilton in 1955, and ‘This is Tomorrow’, which grouped artists, architects and designers in twelve teams in 1956; it is also elaborated in such practices as the ‘tabular image’ of Hamilton, as I will discuss.

Click here to open a larger version of this picture in a new window

If Paolozzi suggests an aesthetic paradigm that is at once collagist and curatorial, it is Banham, the great animateur of the IG, who provides the theoretical arguments for a Pop Age. ‘We have already entered the Second Machine Age,’ he writes in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), ‘and can look back on the First as a period of the past.’ [2] In this dissertation, conceived in the midst of the IG, Banham exploits his distance, both historical and ideological, from the framers of modern architecture (including his advisor Nikolaus Pevsner) in order to redefine its meaning. He challenges the functionalist and rationalist biases of Gropius and Corbusier, Giedion and Pevsner—that form follow function and technique—and recovers the Expressionist and Futurist imperatives of modern architecture that they neglected. In so doing Banham also advances the imaging of technology as the principal criterion for design—for design of the Second Machine Age, or the First Pop Age, as well.

Might we operate a similar parallax today, and do onto Banham, Hamilton and colleagues what they did onto the modernists? That is, if the IG detected a shift in conditions from the Machine Age, might we trace a similar displacement vis-à-vis the Pop moment? As we frame our questions of Pop—concerning the phenomenology of the screened image, the formation of the subject in a mediated world, the representability of technologies that often appear immaterial—might we also refine our questions about art, architecture and design today? No doubt if we pursue this line of inquiry, related mistakes in self-understanding will be made: if the Pop moment showed the Machine Age to be charmed by an instrumental reason, and we see the Pop moment as taken over by a media euphoria, what might our dominant ideology be revealed to be? Or are we still too suspicious of all such epic poems, all such period fictions, to permit these questions in the first place? (Obviously I am not; I think we default on cultural narratives at great cost—one counted in, among other ways, the slack relativism of much contemporary art and the indifferent thematicism of much exhibition practice.) [3]

2

If Banham is to be our model of revisionism, we need to know more about his project. First and foremost, he is committed to modern architecture, but again not to the canon of Gropius, Corbusier and Mies laid down by Pevsner, Giedion, Hitchcock and others. Banham challenges this edited version of modernism, however, according to its own criterion of how best to express the Machine Age (he too scorns all historical revivalism, including, later, the postmodern version). According to Banham, Gropius and company imitate only the superficial image of the machine, not its energistic principles: they mistake the simple forms and smooth surfaces of the machine for the dynamic operation of technology. This vision is too ‘selective’; it is also too orderly—a ‘classical’ aesthetic dressed up in the guise of the machine. Corbusier all but confesses this classicism-through-the-machine when he juxtaposes a 1921 Delage sports car with the Parthenon in his Vers une architecture (1923). For Banham this is absurd: cars are Futurist ‘vehicles of desire’, not Platonic type-objects, and only a subject who thrills to the machine as ‘a source of personal fulfilment and gratification’ can embody its spirit. [4]

In this regard Banham the Pop prophet is not so at odds with Banham the revisionary modernist. Like others in the IG, he is raised on the popular culture of American comics and movies before the war; this is what ‘Pop’ means after the war as well, not folk in the old sense or Pop in the current sense: the former no longer exists for them, the latter does not yet exist for anyone. The IG is near enough to this American culture to know it well, but far away enough to desire it still, especially in an austere Britain short on attractive alternatives (the lofty civilization of Kenneth Clark, the mealy modernism of Herbert Read, the worker folk world of Richard Hoggart). The result is that the IG doesn’t question this culture much: hence the apparent paradox of a group that is pro-Left and pro-American at once. At this time a second, consumerist Americanism supplants the first, Fordist Americanism that swept through Europe in the 1920s—an Americanism of imagistic impact, sexy packaging, speedy turnover. These become the design criteria of the Pop Age for Banham, and they lead him to celebrate the ‘plug-in’ architecture of Cedric Price and Archigram in the 1960s.

His revision of modern architecture is thus not only academic; it is also a way to reclaim an ‘aesthetic of expendability’, first proposed in Futurism, for the Pop Age, where ‘standards hitched to permanency’ are no longer relevant. [5] In this experiment Banham has two laboratories: the IG, both its discussions and its exhibitions, and his prolific essays where he applies to commercial products the iconographic methods that he learns for high culture at the Courtauld Institute. More than any other figure, Banham leads design theory away from a modernist concern with abstract forms to a Pop semiotics of cultural images, in a way that follows the shift from the architect as arbiter of machine production to the stylist as instigator of consumerist desire. ‘The foundation stone of the previous intellectual structure of Design Theory has crumbled,’ Banham writes in 1961, ‘there is no longer universal acceptance of Architecture as the universal analogy of design.’ [6] In this scheme the Book doesn’t kill Architecture; the chrome fender and the plastic gizmo do. In different ways the Smithsons and Price and Archigram take ‘the measure of this intervention’ in architecture; Hamilton does the same in painting.

3

Hamilton shares many of the Pop-Futurist enthusiasms of Banham. He too sees the machine as exemplary by dint not of its functional ‘fitness’ but of its fantasmatic power, its mythic force. In his introduction to ‘Man, Machine and Motion’ of 1955, a gridded display of over 200 images of mechanomorphs under sea, on land, in the sky and in outer space, Hamilton even recycles the old Marinetti trope of a man-machine ‘centaur’ from the first Manifesto of Futurism. [7] Yet his archive of images is largely obsolete, his mechanical centaurs are almost campy, and this cannot but render the techno-futurism on offer here somewhat absurd. Never as ‘gonzo’ as Banham, Hamilton practises an ‘ironism of affirmation’ toward Pop culture (he borrows the phrase from his mentor Duchamp) or, in his own words, a ‘peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism’. [8]

In ‘This is Tomorrow’ of 1956 Hamilton is grouped with John Voelcker and John McHale, and ‘ironism of affirmation’ is again in play. His team decides that new kinds of ‘imagery and perception’ require new strategies of representation, and Hamilton constructs his little collage,Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, to the first end—to tabulate the emergent Pop iconography of ‘Man, Woman, Humanity, History, Food, Newspapers, Cinema, TV, Telephone, Comics (picture information), Words (textual information), Tape recording (aural information), Cars, Domestic appliances, Space.’ Although indebted to Paolozzi’s ‘Bunk’, Just what is it? initiates his distinctive version of the Pop image, a space of pumped or primped figures, commodity images and media emblems that, in his own description, is ‘tabular as well as pictorial’. [9]

Two months later, in a January 1957 letter to the Smithsons, Hamilton sums up IG research to date: ‘technological imagery’ (explored in ‘Man, Machine and Motion’), ‘automobile styling’ (discussed by Banham), ‘ad images’ (credited to Paolozzi, McHale and the Smithsons), ‘Pop attitudes in industrial design’ (exemplified by the House of the Future of the Smithsons), and ‘the Pop Art/Technology background’ (the entire IG, ‘This is Tomorrow’). [10] These interests will inform his tabular pictures to come, in particular a suite of three, Hommage à Chrysler Corp.(1957), Hers is a lush situation (1958), and $he (1958–61). I want to review them briefly now—to come to terms with this type of picture and to speculate about some of its implications.

4

Hommage à Chrysler Corp. begins his intrigue with the automobile as core commodity and design-object of the 20th century (that is, until the PC), and for Hamilton it is more metamorphic ‘vehicle of desire’ à la Banham than Platonic type-object à la Corbusier. ‘It adopts its symbols from many fields and contributes to the stylistic language of all consumer goods’, he writes in 1962. ‘It is presented to us by the ad-man in a rounded picture of urban living: a dream world, but the dream is deep and true—the collective desire of a culture translated into an image of fulfilment. Can it be assimilated into the fine art consciousness?’ [11] Hommage is his first attempt to meet this IG mandate, and here his ironism of affirmation is not paradoxical, for Hamilton is so affirmative of automobile imaging at mid-century, so mimetic of its moves, that he is led to ironize its fetishistic logic: that is, to expose the break-up of each body on display—the new Chrysler in the foreground and the vestigial showgirl behind it—into sexy details whose production is obscure. Not only does Hamilton associate the body parts of each by analogy (the breast, say, with the headlight), but in so doing he demonstrates a conflation of commodity fetishism with sexual fetishism, as the two bodies exchange properties, even parts (à la Marx) in a way that invests them with erotic force (à la Freud). Perhaps this conflation of fetishisms is historically new to this moment: though foreseen in Surrealism, it is only foregrounded in Pop, which acts out this super-fetishism in ways that are excessive but demonstrative.

Signal characteristics of the tabular picture are already apparent in Hommage. First, the composition is, in his own words, ‘a compilation of themes derived from the glossies’—several images for the car, the woman, and the showroom each. [12] Fragmented, the body of the car is also rotated for display (this happens to female figures in other pictures like $he, as if the skill of Old Master drawing had become a technique of semi-pornographic surveying). I read the headlight and bumper as the front, the fin and fender as the rear. Fetishistically specific (like Banham, Hamilton is a detail buff: ‘pieces are taken from Chrysler’s Plymouth and Imperial ads; there is some General Motors material and a bit of Pontiac’), these parts are also smoothened into near abstraction: if the woman caresses the car in the painting, so too does Hamilton caress its image in paint. The woman is also reduced to charged parts within a curvaceous outline, to breast and lips, which Freud counted among ‘the secondary sexual characteristics’—here represented by an ‘Exquisite Form Bra’ and the pout of one ‘Volupta’, a star of a late-night American TV show of the time. This is representation as fetishization, an almost campy version of what Benjamin called ‘the sex appeal of the inorganic’. [13] Such is the fetishistic chiasmus of this tabulation—a car is (like) a female body, a body is (like) a car—and the two commingle in this chiasmus as if naturally. (This is also borne out by the sexist lingo of the day: ‘nice chassis’, ‘great headlights’, and so on.)

Everything here is already mediated for display: ‘The main motif, the vehicle, breaks down into an anthology of presentation techniques’, Hamilton tells us, and he does highlight in paint the print versions of glossy colour and shiny chrome, all previously screened by the lens, as if there were no other mode of appearance. Space is also thus transformed: it has become display-space tout court, here a showroom based on ‘the International Style represented by a token suggestion of Mondrian and Saarinen’. [14] Foucault remarks that with Manet the art museum becomes the frame of painting, and Benjamin that its primary value becomes exhibition value; with Hamilton this frame is more purely one of exhibition—the showroom—and exhibition value is pushed toward consumption value. [15]

Hamilton also speaks elliptically of ‘a quotation from Marcel Duchamp’, whose Green Box of notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass, 1915–23) already obsesses him at the time of Hommage (he publishes his typographic translation of the Green Box in 1960). Perhaps he has in mind another note that speaks of ‘the interrogation of the shop window’ and ‘the coition through the glass pane’. [16] If so, this interrogation is now the enticement of the showroom where not only have traditional line, colour and modeling become means of product display, but aspects of modernist art and architecture—‘Mondrian and Saarinen’, diagrammatic signs and geometric bands—have also become devices of commercial exhibition. (This is another distinctive insight of Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, who shows us modernism mediated through comics.) Or perhaps the allusion to Duchamp is more general—that, like the Large Glass, this conjunction of Chrysler and showgirl is a kind of Bachelor Machine. But which is the bachelor and which the bride? Unlike Duchamp, Hamilton lets the two meet; the shop window is dissolved, desire is transformed.

5

In his next tabular picture, Hers is a lush situation (1958), Hamilton pushes the association of body parts of car and woman beyond formal analogy to actual commingling: the lines of bumper, headlight, fin, windshield, and wheel become one with the curves of the implicit driver. Another tabulation of images from the glossies, the painting is generated from a line in anIndustrial Design review of a recent Buick: ‘The driver sits at the dead calm center of all this motion: hers is a lush situation’. [17] Perhaps this is the next stage in his Pop evolution of the Bachelor Machine, one that brings Hamilton into the Bataillean orbit of Hans Bellmer: Hers is a lush situation as a graphic updating of Machine Gunneress in a State of Grace (1937), where Bellmer renders woman and weapon one. But what is still perverse, even obscene in Bellmer has become somehow normative, almost beautiful here: a lush situation, not a surreal threat. Although Hamilton worked to assimilate design into ‘fine art consciousness’, here the flow is in the opposite direction, and it is far along: the genre of the Odalisque is subsumed in an ad for a Buick (all that remains of the nude, as with the Cheshire cat, is her smile); or, better, a De Kooning drawing is not erased by Rauschenberg but reworked by an automobile stylist. In the process, line, which is still individual and expressive in De Kooning, a medium of contact between artist and model (or nature), appears for all its lushness almost engineered and statistical: ‘line’ becomes ‘the right line’ for ‘the new line’ of Buick—a suturing device between ad-man and consumer. And if line is revalued here, so is plasticity, in a way that makes animation and reification difficult to distinguish. This old Futurist dream, which first came true in fascist culture, comes true again, in a different way, in consumerist culture. ‘More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation’, Barthes writes in Mythologiesjust a year or two before Hers is a lush situation is painted—‘the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself . . .’ [18]

6

‘Sex is everywhere,’ Hamilton writes in 1962, ‘symbolized in the glamour of mass-produced luxury—the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal’. [19] This erotic plasticity is not only fetishistic, a matter of charged details, but also sublimatory, a matter of abstractive displacements—it is as if Hamilton tracks the desirous eye in its saccadic jumps across associated forms. Together these two operations, fetishistic detailing and sublimatory sliding, inform the hybrid space of his tabular pictures—at once specific and sketchy in content, broken and seamless in facture, collagist and painterly in medium.

This combination is also at work in $he (1958–61), his tabular summa, which Hamilton describes as another ‘sieved reflection of the ad-man’s paraphrase of the consumer’s dream’. [20] If the magazine image of a Chrysler provides the layout of Hommage, here it is a shot of a Frigidaire—apparently there is no end of the showroom, not even (especially not) at home. Hamilton lists no less than ten sources, all credited to particular designers and brands, for the fridge, the woman, and the hybrid of toaster and vacuum cleaner below: like Banham he is a mad iconographer of Pop representations of everyday life—that is, in this case, of domestic work. Like Hommage, $he exploits the advertising genre of the woman-wife caressing the vehicle-appliance, yet here it is the commodity that seems to offer the human for sale (this is also signalled by the dollar-sign in the title). Once more the woman is reduced to an erotic ‘essence’, not breast and lips as in Hommage, but eye and hips. As in Hers is a lush situation, the hips are in whitened relief, while the eye is a plastic one taped into position: like painting, relief and collage are exploited for fetishistic effect, not the opposite. The eye opens and closes like the fridge, turns on and off like the toaster. Apparently in the Pop world of animated things it is not only sardine cans that look back at us; and far from a threat as in Lacan, this gaze is a winking come-on. [21]

7

Maybe now I can spell out, however telegraphically, a few implications of the tabular picture. To start with the word (Hamilton is as particular about terms as he is about images), ‘tabular’ derives from tabula, Latin for table, but also for writing-tablet, in which, in ancient use, both painting and printing figure as modes of inscription. Surely this association appeals to Hamilton, who uses both techniques in his own practice in large part because he finds them, already so imbricated, in the media. ‘Tabular’ also invokes writing, which Hamilton involves through his generative lists and descriptive titles; moreover, his pictures register the traces of the visual-verbal hybrid characteristic of the magazine spread or the tabloid layout (perhaps ‘tabular’ connotes ‘tabloid’ as well), a hybrid that anticipates the visual-verbal sign (call it a bit or a bite) that dominates electronic media space today, an often lush image that carries an often insistent directive (‘click here’, ‘buy this’, ‘don’t worry be happy’). [22]

Again, some of his pictures are tabular in another sense: generated by a table of terms, as withJust what is it?; or of images, as in Hommage and $he; or of journalistic jingles, as in Hers is a lush situation or Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in men’s wear and accessories (1962–3; the title derives from a Playboy review of male fashion). More directly, ‘to tabulate’ is ‘to set down in a systematic form’, and Hamilton is often concerned, as he says, with an ‘overlapping of presentation styles and methods’: styles and methods that are commercial (as in the various display techniques that he evokes); modernist (as in the various abstract signs that he cites); and modernist-turned-commercial. (The last is most suggestive: Pop receives the ‘reconciliation’ of avant-garde and mass as given.) In his own words, ‘photograph becomes diagram, diagram flows into text’, and all is transformed by painting. At the same time he wants ‘the plastic entities [to] retain their identity as tokens’, and so uses ‘different plastic dialects’, such as photography, relief, collage, ‘within the unified whole’ of painting. [23] Like an ad-man, then, Hamilton tabulates—as in correlates—different media and messages, and tabulates—as in calculates—this correlation in terms of visual appeal and psychological effect.

In Pop it is not often clear when this redoubling is analytical and when it is charmed; this is especially so in Hamilton. Yet one thing seems clear enough: his pastiche (which is not a negative term for him) is not disruptively random, as it is, say, in many collages of Berlin Dada. Another insight of Pop—or ‘Son of Dada’ as Hamilton calls it—is that ‘randomizing’ has become a feature of the media, print and otherwise; a logic within the repertoire of the culture industry.[24] Sometimes he pushes this logic of the random to a demonstrative extreme. At other times his tabular pictures are logical in another sense, that is, almost typological, as in the suite of images Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends . . . Hamilton describes them as a ‘preliminary investigation into specific concepts of masculinity’, here typified by President Kennedy, a Wall Street broker cum football player, a weightlifter cum track athlete, and astronaut John Glenn, each shown wired to a particular mechanism of sport, entertainment or media—that is, to a spectacle-device. [25] Perhaps more than any of his images, these recall the mediated collages of Rauschenberg; yet the tabular picture should not be confused with the ‘flat-bed picture plane’ of his American contemporary (as Leo Steinberg named it in ‘Other Criteria’). [26] Both are ‘horizontal’ operations, it is true, maybe in the practical sense of how they are assembled in the studio, sometimes tabulated on the floor, certainly in the cultural sense that they both scan across ‘the fine/pop art continuum’. [27] Nevertheless, as Hamilton states as early as Just what is it?, the tabular image is also pictorial: for all its horizontal tabulation of semi-found images, it remains a vertical picture of a semi-illusionistic space—even though this orientation is associated with the magazine layout or the media screen as much as the painting rectangle; Benjamin once called it ‘the dictatorial perpendicular’. [28] The tabular picture is also iconographic in a way that Rauschenberg is not (despite the attempts of art historians to track his sources as if he were Hieronymus Bosch); and in keeping with the IG, let alone the design industry, it is also communicative, almost pedagogical—again as Rauschenberg is not. The tabular picture is also more a research model than an ‘anomic archive’ as suggested with regard to Gerhard Richter. [29] There is no American or European equivalent that I know.

8

In the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin once remarked, ‘literacy’ must include the decoding of captioned photographs. [30] Additionally in the Pop age, Hamilton suggests, it must entail a deconstructing of the mediated image-word bite that hails us from magazines, billboards, television, and now computers too. This ‘literacy’ is fundamental to postwar self-fashioning, which has to do far less with any canon of art and literature than with a host of media-apparitions and commodity-signs. (The recent Canon Wars in the academy obscured the fact that the primary canon today consists of television shows, blockbuster movies, sports trivia, celebrity gossip.) Suggestively, the word ‘tabular’ refers not only to graphic inscription; in ancient use it also connotes ‘a body of laws inscribed on a tablet’. Might these tabular pictures be construed as pedagogical investigations of a ‘new body of laws’, a new subjective inscription, a new symbolic order, of Pop society?

Hamilton is self-aware about the preconditions of this new order (if that is what it is). As an artist he is committed to nature, but knows that it is ‘second-hand’: ‘In the 50s we became aware of the possibility of seeing the whole world, at once, through the great visual matrix that surrounds us; a synthetic, “instant” view. Cinema, television, magazines, newspapers immersed the artist in a total environment and this new visual ambience was photographic’. He is also committed to the figure—his Collected Words ends with this statement: ‘I have never made a painting which does not show an intense awareness of the human figure’—but knows that it too is transformed, not only rearticulated by machines and confused with commodities (this is not news) but also now designed-and-redesigned as an image-product. [31]

Consumer society, Hamilton writes in ‘Persuading Image’, a paper first delivered in 1959, depends on the manufacturing of desire through design, on an artificial, accelerated obsolescence of image, form and style. In the process (which he assumes, not critically but also not moralistically) the consumer is also ‘manufactured’, designed to the product. ‘Is it me?’, he remarks of the commodities in $he, miming the ad-man miming the buyer: ‘the appliance is “designed with you in mind”’. [32] It is this condition that his tabular pictures work over: not only the fetishistic conflation of different objects and aims, but also the interpellation of the subject in the image, as an image. Today this process has become internal to the subject, who serves as designer and designed in one, a kind of servomechanism of consummated consumption. When Hamilton turns to his version of the great Pop icon in My Marilyn (1965), he adapts, in painting, a negative sheet from a photo shoot with her own editorial marks: which images to cut (she is merciless), where to crop—in short, how to look, to appear, to be. His Marilyn is still a star, but less as an erotic object than as a model designer, as the master artist of her own powerful iconicity. How different, perhaps more pointed, than the anxiety of a de Kooning or the thraldom of a Warhol. [33]

9

Just as the product is in excess of function, Hamilton suggests in ‘Persuading Image’, so demand is in excess of need. In effect he sketches a consumerist formula of Demand minus Need equals Desire that is not too distant from the formula of desire that Lacan also develops in the 1950s.[34] Lacanians will scorn this speculation, but might his definition of desire be historically grounded as well, a theory of desire inflected by consumerism? Certainly the tabular pictures seem to share the Lacanian sense of desire as a metonymic slippage, at once fetishistic and sublimatory, from image to image, a refinding of the same object in ever new guises. Again, they seem to (re)trace the saccadic jumps of the scopophilic subject.

Thus the tabular picture not only anthologizes ‘presentation techniques’, it also mimes the distracted attention of the desirous viewer-consumer. In this light its painterly subsumption of photography, relief and collage seems warranted not regressive—regressive, say, in relation to a transgressive standard of Dada (about which Hamilton is sceptical in any case, especially when it comes to readings of Duchamp). Again, he assumes the fetishistic effects of painting (condemned long ago by the Russian Constructivists), not to mention of other devices, both modernist (relief and collage) and commercial (the magazine layout). He recognizes that all these forms are now reworked in the image of a general fetishism (commodity, sexual and semiotic), and he moves to exploit this new order—which is one of semblance as well as of exchange—and, in so doing, sometimes to deconstruct it too. [35] Painting allows for the requisite mixing not only of charged details with blended anatomies, but also of the optical jumpiness of the subject with the erotic smoothness of the object; it is this unresolved combination that makes his early paintings both pull apart and hold together.

How does this effect jibe with traditional painting; that is, how does the tabular relate to the tableau? ‘In the mainstream of Western painting (since the Greeks, anyway),’ Hamilton writes in 1970, ‘it has been taken for granted that a painting is to be experienced as a totality seen and understood all at once before its components are examined’. ‘Some twentieth-century artists questioned this premise’, he adds, with the heteroglossic pictures of Klee and the proto-tabularLarge Glass of Duchamp in mind. [36] Clearly Hamilton is affined with this minor line. Yet by his own time the dominant line of the tableau—which runs perhaps from the Greeks, as he says, but certainly from Renaissance perspective through the neoclassical tableau to modernist painting as defined by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried; that is, painting ‘as a totality seen and understood all at once’—has crossed with his own genealogy. The tableau and the tabular can no longer be held apart as distinctive forms. In ‘Other Criteria’ Steinberg argues that, for all its claim to autonomy, late-modernist abstraction (e.g., the stripe paintings of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella) appears driven by a logic of design, in fact by the very logic of Detroit styling so admired by Banham and Hamilton: imagistic impact, fast lines, speedy turnover. In other words, he suggests that an ironic identity is forged, under the historical pressure of consumer society, between modernist painting and its other, whether this other is called ‘kitsch’ (Greenberg), ‘theatricality’ (Fried), or ‘design’.

In this regard what Greenberg and Fried theorize as a ‘strictly optical’ space of pure painting, Hamilton pictures as a strictly scopophilic space of pure design; and what Greenberg and Fried theorize as a modernist subject, fully autonomous and ‘morally alert’, Hamilton projects as its apparent opposite, a fetishistic subject openly desirous. [37] This is another Pop insight that Hamilton shares with Lichtenstein in particular: that today, in both compositional order and subjective effect, there is often no great difference between a good comic or ad and a grand painting. Importantly, however, this demonstration of the decay of a totality unique to painting is made within painting (perhaps only there is it fully articulate). Paradoxically, then, this demonstration sustains painting even as it shows painting to be deconstructed, within and without, by historical forces. In 1865 Baudelaire writes to Manet, in an ambiguous compliment, that he is the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art. [38] Over one hundred years later (and counting) Hamilton carries this fine tradition of popular decrepitude along.


[1] Alison and Peter Smithson, ‘But Today We Collect Ads’, Ark, no. 18, November 1956. On modern architecture and mass media see Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Cambridge, MA 1994. This paper was written for a conference at Princeton University, ‘Art, Architecture, and Film in the First Pop Age’, 16 November 2002, and appears here as given then. It is also an hommage to Richard Hamilton on the occasion of his retrospective in Barcelona and Cologne.

[2] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London 1960, p. 11.

[3] See Franco Moretti, ‘MoMA 2000: The Capitulation’, NLR 4, July–August 2000.

[4] Reyner Banham, ‘Vehicles of Desire’, Art, no. 1, 1 September 1955, p. 3. Also see Nigel Whiteley,Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Cambridge, MA 2002.

[5] Banham, ‘Vehicles of Desire’.

[6] Banham, ‘Design by Choice’, The Architectural Review 130, July 1961, p. 44. Whiteley is again instructive on this point.

[7] Richard Hamilton, Collected Words 1953–82, London 1982, p. 19; hereafter abbreviated cw. The Hamilton literature is large and various; I have benefited most from the texts in the 1992 Tate Gallery catalogue and in the special issue of October 94, devoted to the Independent Group, especially Julian Myers, ‘The Future as Fetish’, and William R. Kaizen, ‘Richard Hamilton’s Tabular Image’.

[8] CW, p. 78.

[9] CW, p. 24.

[10] CW, p. 28.

[11] CW, p. 35.

[12] CW, p. 31.

[13] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’ (1935), in The Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA 1999, p. 8.

[14] CW, p. 32.

[15] Michel Foucault, ‘Fantasia of the Library’ (1967), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca 1977, p. 92. Benjamin writes of ‘exhibition value’, of course, in the Artwork Essay, and alludes to ‘consumption value’ in other notes.

[16] Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London 1975, p. 74. ‘When one undergoes the examination of the shop window, one also pronounces one’s own sentence. In fact, one’s choice is “round trip” . . . No obstinacy, ad absurdum, of hiding the coition through a glass pane with one or many objects of the shop window. The penalty consists in cutting the pane and in feeling regret as soon as possession is consummated. QED.’

[17] CW, p. 32.

[18] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), New York 1972, p. 99.

[19] CW, p. 36.

[20] CW, p. 36.

[21] I refer to the famous anecdote in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1973), New York 1981.

[22] See T. J. Clark, ‘Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam’, October 100, Winter 2002. Early on Hamilton calls this hybrid ‘a poster’: CW, p. 104.

[23] CW, p. 38.

[24] As William Turnbull recalls in 1983: ‘Magazines were an incredible way of randomizing one’s thinking (one thing the Independent Group was interested in was breaking down logical thinking)—food on one page, pyramids in the desert on the next, a good-looking girl on the next; they were like collages’; in David Robbins, ed., The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, Cambridge, MA 1989, p. 21.

[25] CW, p. 46.

[26] Included in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972. In this shift to the horizontal site of cultural images Steinberg saw a break with traditional paradigms of the window and the mirror as well as the modernist model of the abstract surface, all oriented to the vertical and still associated with the natural—a break that he termed ‘postmodernist’.

[27] This is a term advanced by Lawrence Alloway in ‘The Long Front of Culture’, Cambridge Opinion, no. 17, 1959, and adopted by Hamilton.

[28] See Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’ (1928), in Selected Writings Volume 1, Cambridge, MA 1996, p. 456. Benjamin writes here of script: ‘If centuries ago it began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.’ I recall this term here to complicate the overvaluation, in much contemporary art and criticism, of the horizontal and the base—as if they could somehow overwhelm the dictatorial perpendicular on their own.

[29] See Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’, October 88, Spring 1999.

[30] See Walter Benjamin, ‘A Little History of Photography’ (1931), in Selected Writings Volume 2, Cambridge, MA 1999.

[31] CW, pp. 64, 269.

[32] CW, p. 36.

[33] On this iconicity see my ‘Death in America’, in Annette Michelson, ed., Warhol, Cambridge, MA 2001; and on consumerist interpellation see my Design and Crime (and other diatribes), London 2002.

[34] See, for example, ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud’ (1957), in Ecrits, New York 1977.

[35] On semiotic fetishism see Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis 1973.

[36] CW, p. 104.

[37] See especially Michael Fried, ‘Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella’ (1965), in Art and Objecthood, Chicago 1998.

[38] Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance, Paris 1973, vol. 2, p. 497.

 

Sigmar Polke’s Mad Alchemy – Reviews of the MoMA and Tate Modern retrospectives

Photo: AKG Images/Brigitte Hellgoth
ARTJUNE 12, 2014
The Art World Has Stopped Distinguishing Between Greatness and Fraudulence
And it’s costing us
By Jed Perl

If there were any art fever, or any intellectual fever, left in New York City, I am certain that “Alibis: Sigmar Polke: 1963–2010,” the immense retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art, would be receiving a thunderously complicated response. Polke specializes in the glamour of bewilderment, a confusion provoked by work that ranges from anemic and presumably ironic little doodles to wildly voluptuous canvases created with pours and washes of synthetic resin, mixed with pigments, silver bromide, and sundry other exotic materials. If you respond to the fascinations of slacker chic, then Polke is for you. This artist, who died in 2010 at the age of 69, is a cross between a slob-provocateur and a brutish aesthete. His outlier art-star style is just right for a moment when everybody is tired of art stars but most people have no idea where else to turn.

Compared with Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, the two other postwar German painters with enormous international reputations, Polke remains, despite his many appearances in the United States (including a drawing show at MoMA in 1999), something of an artist’s artist. His influence is now at flood tide, the mingling of gadabout hedonism and ostentatious disaffection in paintings, drawings, assemblages, photographs, and films echoed in countless little gallery shows on the ultra-hip Lower East Side. There is a princely arrogance in Polke’s down-and-dirty games, a sporadic visual avidity that complicates the self-congratulatory anomie. When he layers painted images on cheap printed textiles, the results, although ultimately little more than artsy attitudinizing, can seduce the eye. And when Polke borrows calligraphic devices from Dürer and allows them to hover over expanses of smoke-gray paint, he engineers something that at least echoes the elegant effects of the best of Cy Twombly. I find myself succumbing to the seductions of Polke’s tastiest visual play without really feeling moved. He is an egomanical seducer—an artistic Lothario.

The Polke retrospective is an event, no question about it. What I fear is that it is going to come and go without inspiring the heated debate that it deserves. In terms of exhibition space, the Museum of Modern Art and Kathy Halbreich, the curator in charge, have been extraordinarily generous; the show sprawls through much of the museum’s second floor. There are some 250 works, ranging from the comic neurasthenia of early Polke, when this man who had been born in Silesia was coming of age in Düsseldorf, through the layered paintings on printed fabrics from his drug-taking period in the 1970s and the more conventionally eye-filling paintings of the 1980s and 1990s. There are plenty of drawings, sketchbooks, assemblages, photographs, and films. The show even has audio elements, collages of live and recorded music, sounds from radio and television, and voices of friends, much of this material collected by Polke in the 1970s.

What is missing at MoMA—the absence is felt intensely in Halbreich’s catalogue text—is the intellectual firepower that used to turn MoMA shows into megawatt debates. In place of the brainy, rambunctious advocacy, however wrongheaded, that William Rubin brought to Frank Stella in the 1980s and Robert Storr brought to Gerhard Richter in 2002, Halbreich’s essay opens with the confession that the work “often confuses me” and “sometimes scares me.” I can feel her backing away from the bulldozer event she has organized, and the effect of the catalogue, with well over a dozen essays by different writers, suggests a collective hedging of bets.

In place of artistic judgments, we now have sociological observations. The contributors to the Polke catalogue gnaw on the history of twentieth-century Germany as if it were an old bone. And if this institutional pedantry were not troubling enough, it is echoed in the bland adulation and downed energies of the critical establishment, where shrinking word counts have left reviewers with little opportunity to do much more than go thumbs up or thumbs down—and online sensibilities all too often demand little more. The result is that a show that should have people arguing in the galleries and continuing those arguments over coffee, drinks, and dinner has all the force of a rapidly deflating balloon.

Among the critics, art stars on the order of Polke have become anthills to be bolstered and fortified, but without any particular enthusiasm. Even kudos are awarded with a certain weary caution. What is now all the rage is the romance of the outsider and the outlier; each critic, curator, and collector has his or her own special pets. Of course we all know what fuels this new attitude, given the ridiculous over-inflation purveyed by mega-galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth, the wall-to-wall marketing marathon of the art fairs, and the seven- and eight-figure prices for some contemporary art. What is so troubling about this critical quasi-Quakerism, with its prayerful consideration of the little guy or gal and its ineffectual moral outrage, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with questions of taste, quality, or artistic judgment as applied to specific works of art.

After going along with the Pop-ification of culture that produced the current crop of creative and institutional Goliaths, the arts community has decided to side with the Davids. The trouble is that by now everybody is so entrenched in their Pop sensibilities that they are incapable of distinguishing between the acres of bombast and the flashes of poetry in the work of a Sigmar Polke or a Matthew Barney—or for that matter in any of the little people they are so eager to endorse. Not long ago I was fascinated by the paltry response to the premiere of Barney’s enormous new movie extravaganza, River of Fundament, which has passages of considerable beauty but was dismissed almost before anybody had seen it as nothing but another case of art-star swagger. And of course the Museum of Modern Art currently finds itself playing Goliath to the American Folk Art Museum’s David, with MoMA, despite widespread protests, determined to tear down the sliver of a building put up a decade ago by the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street and purchased by MoMA when the smaller institution nearly went bankrupt. While I agree with most observers that MoMA ought to have found a way to save the American Folk Art Museum’s admittedly quirky former home, the fact that the structure by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is a very bad piece of architecture seems to get lost in the paroxysms of small-is-beautiful self-righteousness.

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Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sigmar Polke, Watchtower, 1984

Behind the altogether human fascination with power games that turns the visual arts into journalistic cotton candy, ancient debates still percolate and shape what we are seeing and what we understand. In the arts, as in geopolitics, there is no end to history despite all the talk we have heard about the end of history. Sigmar Polke takes us right back to debates that raged in the last third of the nineteenth century and lingered well into the twentieth century, between the avant-garde and the artists whom they mockingly labeled the pompiers—literally, firefighters. Pompier (used either as a noun or an adjective) became an avant-garde term of derision for the slick tricks of painters who were the popular hits in the nineteenth century’s enormous public exhibitions. I found myself thinking about the pompiers as I sat in a large room toward the end of MoMA’s Polke show, where the compositions, many with a motif of a watchtower (which strongly suggests the Holocaust and the camps), have a perfervid-chic look, with cloudbanks of purplish pigment and showers of glinting silver. In the Larousse, pompier is said to have characterized work that was “over-emphatic” and “pretentious.” What better way to describe Sigmar Polke? So now—in a sort of reversal of fortune gleefully predicted half a century ago by none other than Salvador Dalí—Sigmar Polke, though championed as an inheritor of the avant-garde strategies of the Dadaists and the Abstract Expressionists, turns out to be the new pompier.

The origins of the term pompier remain unclear, although the most popular theory focuses on a resemblance that avant-garde artists saw between the helmets worn by classical heroes in the work of academic painters and the helmets firefighters wore. But the artists who specialized in Greco-Roman history were not the only ones who came to be regarded as pompiers. The term was applied to Bouguereau’s seductive recapitulations of Raphael Madonnas and to the photographic realism of Gérôme, Detaille, and Meissonier. It is certainly not irrelevant that pompier brings to mind pompeux, or pompous. The thing about the pompiers was that however knowledgeable and skilled they were—and many were close students not only of the art of the past but also of the art of their own day—to avant-garde eyes, their effects remained on the surface, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. Virtuosity was detached from authenticity. If the pompier’s style was classicizing, then Raphael’s risky arabesques were turned into rote compositional curves and arcs. By the late nineteenth century, when the pompiers were adapting the lighter palette the Impressionists had pioneered in the 1870s, the blue and purple shadows and roiling brushwork of Monet were reinterpreted without their anxious edge. For decades, then, the word was a much beloved term of derision, as when Degas, no doubt thinking of the academy’s tendency to turn virtuosity into nothing but a show of hubris, observed, “C’est les pompiers qui se mettent en feu,” or “The firefighters are setting fire to themselves.”

If I am right, a great deal of what we are now seeing in the blue-chip galleries, the art fairs, and the auction houses is a new kind of pompier, with avant-garde attitudes that are by now venerable traditions turned into surface effects, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. John Currin’s figure paintings, with their blunt-force recapitulations of Boucher and Courbet, are almost textbook pompier. So is the figurative work of Lisa Yuskavage, seen in 2011 at Zwirner, and Glenn Brown, currently at Gagosian. Pompier painting was all about a kind of knowingness. Technique was marshaled not for deep experience but for immediate goals. When the painter Bonnat showed Degas a work by one of his students representing a warrior drawing his bow and said, “Just see how well he aims,” Degas is said to have responded, “Aiming at a prize, isn’t he?” Jeff Koons, always aiming for the prize of a bigger paycheck and this summer receiving the prize of an enormous Whitney retrospective, could be said to be a pompier version of Duchamp, with the master’s uncomfortable ironies smoothed out into easy seductions. A history of the new pompiers would wind back to the 1980s, when the Musée d’Orsay opened in Paris, giving institutional legitimacy to what had already been a growing interest in the original pompiers, and the Neo-Expressionists—especially Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl—inaugurated an era of visual ostentation characterized by brash perplexities, by difficulty reimagined as a form of salesmanship. As it happens, Schnabel is having something of a revival just now, with a big show at Gagosian in Chelsea.
Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Wolfgang Morell
Sigmar Polke, Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963

Among the late modern and postmodern pompiers, Polke is distinguished by the verve that he brings to his painterly concoctions. The fascination of his strongest compositions is in the way he works us over, titillating with special effects, enveloping us in the big hug of his visual mood music. That is certainly how I felt as I looked at Polke’s more than sixteen-foot-wide Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters (1991), with its Abstract Expressionist torrent of white paint over which Polke has cleverly layered an engraving of nineteenth-century figures from Grandville’s book Un Autre Monde, the allegorical figure of Autumn making snow that her daughters toss across the surface. The painting is almost crushingly lovely—a Neo-Dadaist romantic stage set, a Walt Disney-ized version of what might have been a Robert Motherwell idea. Equally beguiling, near the end of the show, is the nearly ten-foot-wide The Illusionist (2007), filled with figures derived from nineteenth-century engravings and executed in gel medium and acrylic on fabric, so that everything is as if seen through a sheet of old handblown glass. At the heart of this magical kingdom framed in faux curtains is a man who must be the illusionist and a woman blindfolded in a chair who must be his prime subject. Here is one of Joseph Cornell’s dream worlds, only on steroids. These pictures represent the gentler side of Polke. Amid his work in so many media, manners, and modes, there are also quite a few that aim to repel and maybe even revolt us, but even early in the show, where Polke’s faux-naïf paintings of a chocolate bar and a trio of biscuits are crudely forthright, there is a feeling for the cuisine of painting, even if it is an anti-cuisine cuisine.

Polke’s work, with its careening diversity, reminds us how close a link there is between virtuosity and parody, for virtuosity, when detached from some deep sympathy with an idea or ideal, almost inevitably becomes a joke of one sort or another. In 1968, in a series of paintings that fill much of a room at MoMA, Polke served up self-consciously flat-footed parodies of classic modern styles, including a “primitivist” painting with a rendering of an African statue, a Constructivist composition of strict verticals and horizontals, and a Color Field painting with a quartet of casually inscribed stripes. The knowingness of these paintings suggests a con artist you quite understandably find distasteful but whose cons for some reason fascinate as well. Compared with the iciness of Roy Lichtenstein’s satires of classic modern styles, there is something almost engaged about Polke, albeit in a sniggering way. When Polke incorporates in his paintings patterns of dots derived from commercial halftone printing, he gives them more life than Lichtenstein ever does, especially in Flying Saucers (1966), where the delicacy in the coloring of a yellowish sky spins a bit of magic above a toylike skyline.

Polke’s feeling for the romance of photomechanical reproduction was what first set me to thinking about his relationship with Dalí, who also took an interest in the halftone’s dot screen. Although discussions of Polke’s use of commercial styles and kitsch motifs generally focus on a connection with the work of Francis Picabia—this was the subject of a well-known essay in Artforum in 1982 by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh—at the Museum of Modern Art, it was Dalí I found coming to mind. Polke is a far more rough-hewn character than the dandified Dalí, but they do share a voracious eclecticism. Like Polke, Dalí had a sweet tooth when it came to optical tricks and regarded avant-garde experimentalism as a dumb-ass joyride; he riffed on Yves Klein’s blue body prints by slathering models in red paint to make his own body prints. Dalí not only mimicked the academic realism of artists such as Gérôme and Meissonier, he also enjoyed parodying the splattered paint of Pollock and Matthieu, the once famous exemplar of art informel,the French parallel to Abstract Expressionism.

With Polke, as with Dalí, style is a put-on job, an act—but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority. What has been referred to as the confusion or chaos of MoMA’s Polke show is so much a matter of spectacular dissonances and layerings that it produces no real disquietude in a gallerygoer, but rather what might be called a pompier disquietude—a confusion that is an academic rerun of the old Dadaist confusions. Since there is some authentic pictorial feeling in Polke, the conflicts are more interesting than they are in some other artists, but this self-congratulatory confusion characterizes many of the more outré art stars of recent years, among them Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley.

I realize that calling an artist a pompier can degenerate into little more than name-calling. To some it will seem far-fetched to refer to Polke as a pompier, when he was so interested in de-skilling—the de-skilling that was one of the avant-garde’s prime tools to counteract conventional ideas of finish or polish associated with the academy. In an interview in the MoMA catalogue, Benjamin Buchloh, who in 1976 in Germany mounted the first survey of Polke’s work, argues that the slapdash look of Polke’s drawings, which he admires enormously, is grounded in a self-consciously avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh wonders, “How do you de-skill drawing and still draw?” He asserts that Polke had to be “extremely good at drawing, to generate that degree of refined brutishness.” Although I do not agree with Buchloch that Polke is a “supreme draftsman”—I fail to see the depths in these doodles—what interests me is that Buchloh cannot avoid the whole question of virtuosity and its conscious denial, which brings us back to the great debate between the pompiers and the avant-garde. For Buchloh, the early Polke is the real virtuoso because he is a stealth virtuoso, or so Buchloh imagines. Buchloh explains that “Polke’s manner of de-skilling drawing by pushing it over to the threshold of the manifestly incompetent or deranged is always sustained in the last moment by its lyrical line.”

Buchloh’s argument about Polke’s drawings sounds like some of the arguments made on behalf of Matisse’s most daring experiments in the years leading up to World War I. And this argument about the virtues of de-skilling can be found even earlier, for example in Renoir’s comment that “some of Rembrandt’s finest etchings look as if they had been done with a stick of wood or the point of a nail.” Which is all to say that what Buchloh is making is an argument for the anarchic anti-virtuosity of Polke as being grounded in a version of old-fashioned artistic virtuosity. This is probably how the curators at the Museum of Modern Art would like us to regard the entirety of “Alibis,” although Halbreich’s admission that the work sometimes confuses or scares her may suggest that she has some worries on this count.

The retrospective presents Polke as a megalomaniacal show-off, the dystopian and utopian aspects of his personality mingled and clashed. For a time Polke was close friends with Gerhard Richter. Much as Richter’s shifts from representation to abstraction and back have been seen as an attempt to trump the old modern debates but actually only mimic them, so Polke’s Neo-Dada permissiveness ultimately feels stale and second-hand—no, third-hand. If the pompiers of the nineteenth century were condemned to reenact the old polemics of classicists, romantics, and realists as mere poses and posturings, who can doubt that Polke is reenacting as poses and posturings the old polemics of the Dadaists and the abstractionists?

A good percentage of the art world is now dominated by pompier reenactments of one variety or another; many call it postmodern, but pompier is more to the point. Of course all art is in some sense a reenactment: that is one definition of tradition. But the reenactment, to elude parody and pompier, must involve a discovery or a disclosure of what is most personal in the process of reenactment. That is what makes the old new. The Museum of Modern Art has just announced that it will host a retrospective of work by Robert Gober this fall, and although his work is in large measure a reenactment of Duchamp and Dada, Gober is anything but a pompier: his curious objects are created with a willful intentness, a finicky artisanal refinement that gives them, whether one ultimately cares for them or not, a rootedness, an authority. Robert Gober and Jeff Koons draw on more or less the same sources, but the results could not be more different. Pompier is not a style or a set of conventions but an attitude that short-circuits and trivializes a style or a set of conventions.
State of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Jonathan Muzikarvg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Wolfgang Morell
Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters and other paintings in “Alibis”

The pompier artist has a shallow understanding of virtuosity, but of course it is in the very nature of virtuosity, which at its best is technique that expresses emotion, that it is almost always in danger of degenerating into an empty display of technique. That may be what Buchloh sees happening in Polke’s later work, which he apparently does not care for. It is certainly how many observers used to regard the later work of de Kooning. Nowadays, de Kooning’s canvases of the 1970s and 1980s, with their swashbuckling brushwork and vertiginous color, are often praised as Rubensesque (or even Titianesque!), but I think they are most accurately described as a pompier version of Abstract Expressionist painterliness—an unfortunate case of an artist parodying himself, and not, I think, in full control or much of any control of the joke, if that is what some imagine it to be.

Of course one person’s hard-won virtuosity is another person’s competent conventionality. A case in point is the paintings of little crowds gathered by the edges of lakes in Richard La Presti’s show at the Bowery Gallery this spring. La Presti, who was born the year after Polke, is an artist whose work I have admired for decades, and after a number of exhibitions that focused on densely wooded landscapes and struck me as overly deferential in their relationship with the prismatic naturalism of Cézanne, I am delighted to report that La Presti’s broad but exact brushwork has achieved a new depth of poetic feeling. La Presti’s paintings, with their gently comic vignettes of figures in leisure-time mode, are so far from the spirit of parody and pompier that is now the art world’s default position that it may be difficult for most gallerygoers to grasp their subtle excellence. La Presti, despite his bravura brushwork, is the anti-pompier. Setting varied physiques against the glimmerings of water, sand, and sky, he makes of each brushstroke a double drama, embodying both the reality of the paint and the reality of nature, the two in a tango. This is an old modern or even a premodern tango, but who ever said there was anything wrong with another turn around the dance floor?

I see echoes of Baudelaire’s beloved Constantin Guys in the exactitude with which La Presti observes a skinny or overweight bather or a mother with a child. And there is originality in the way his full-bodied colors are marshaled to achieve a silvery wistfulness. But in the merciless calculus of the art world, Polke, whether you love him or hate him, looms very large, whereas La Presti counts not at all. It hardly matters that La Presti’s work has been written about in the art magazines from time to time, and that in recent years he has exhibited around the country with a group called Zeuxis, which brings distinguished exhibitions of still-life painting (which La Presti does when it is too cold to paint outside) to college and university galleries. La Presti, who was trained at a famous art school, Pratt Institute, by teachers who matter or at least once upon a time were thought to matter, is neither an outsider nor an outlier. He knows the museums and the history of art, so he cannot be a beneficiary of the new quasi-Quakerism, which favors the incoherent and the ill-informed, nor does his virtuosity entitle him to find favor among the new pompiers, from whose circle he is barred by his sincerity. How good do I think La Presti’s work really is? It quite naturally makes one think of Boudin, that serenely incisive painter of nineteenth-century beaches. If Boudin’s work has turned out to live, which it certainly has, I see no reason why the same should not be true of La Presti’s.

La Presti’s paintings bring to mind a phrase that I believe was coined by the painter Leland Bell, whom La Presti admires, when Bell, half a century ago, described the work of a painter he admired, André Derain. Bell wrote that Derain exemplified “virtuosity without self-interest—virtuosity conquered.” It occurs to me that Bell, who died in 1991, was probably the last person I ever heard use the term pompier in casual conversation. He was a Francophile who had spent time in Paris in the 1950s, when he must have found the word still in currency among the city’s artists. Bell clearly meant “virtuosity without self-interest” as a riposte to the self-interested virtuosity that defined pompier painting. And his phrase still bears close consideration today, when it is the challenge of a virtuosity without self-interest that artists desperately need to embrace.

The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity—or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity—as any exhibition I have ever seen. The answer to self-interest, of course, is not disinterest (a word frequently misused today), which suggests impartiality, the value of remaining above the fray. Virtuosity must be a kind of vitality, but also a kind of virtue, in the sense of being tied to honesty, to authenticity, to style as a disclosure of personality. Pompier—and certainly the pompier of Polke—is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances. There are rooms in the wildly jam-packed Sigmar Polke retrospective where I feel that I am being sucked in by the acts of a man who is in equal parts singular, fascinating, and overbearing. I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).

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Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

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Sigmar Polke at MOMA
by Michael Pepi
Posted: Jun 04, 2014 12:01 PM

Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
There are precious few artists whose work critics truly fear. And it’s not always the ones you might expect. Categories fail to do justice to the agile nature with which the German artist Sigmar Polke moved through his career. From the first capitalist realist exhibition in 1963 to the lenticular archival drawings of the past decade, Polke flirted with charged iconography, courted amnesia, and remained suspicious of good taste.
For the variability of his source material, the diversity of his formal strategies, and the multiplicity of meanings that implicate fraught histories, Polke has garnered much scholarly and institutional attention. The latest show to take on his work is “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” in which the Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern have co-organized the first retrospective to include all of his mediums. The genius of this exhibition is that you risk leaving confused about Polke’s messages. Is he remembering or forgetting? Warning or celebrating? Representing or obscuring? Then somewhere amidst Polke’s impressive dexterity you see the objects unfolding before you as artistic realizations of the vexing problems of late twentieth-century art.
If these questions now have a detached, academic air, they were perhaps more urgent in postwar Germany. Depending on how you look at it, German artists of Polke’s generation were either doomed to historical impotence or blessed with a tortuous legacy that fed an ever-evolving cycle of veiled meanings. Luckily, Polke departed from many of his contemporaries by exploiting the latter.
Born in 1941, Polke originally apprenticed with a glass painter and travelled extensively, though he was active primarily in the Federal Republic of Germany, where he wasted few opportunities to situate his work clearly within his geo-political surroundings. While the exhibition shows such links to be inextricable, MOMA and the Tate Modern’s extensive catalogue points out that he often rejected readings of his work as a mere reflection of recent history or contemporary politics. The exhibition’s roughly chronological orientation provides ample space for this tension to play out. As nearly every work on view attests, postwar Germany goaded him out of conformity.

Sigmar Polke, The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, 21′ 4 5⁄16″ x 16′ 1 1⁄8″ (651 x 490.5 cm), Private Collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
The exhibition opens in the Museum’s second floor atrium. The glorious diversity of Polke’s work is all here, neatly (as possible) packed into a whiplash tour of some of his largest works. The atrium contains a recent lenticular piece, Seeing Rays (Strahlen Sehen) (2007); a tarpaulin work depicting an Al-Qaeda-hunting unmanned drone The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida) (2002); and several examples of his signature raster technique—an often manually executed variation of the Ben-Day dots that transfixed American Pop art. This process is typified by one of the show’s highlights: Girlfriends (Freundinnen) (1965/1966), for which Polke copied a tabloid-like image of two swimwear-clad women by purposefully disrupting the offset printing process used in newsprint.
The works in the atrium are big, bold, and risky. Polke had a knack—a predilection, even—for making statements at inopportune times. For example, one is likely to be struck by just how prescient The Hunt for the Taliban looks today. In 2002, Polke was among the earliest to have tapped the aesthetic capacity of the unmanned drone, that emblematic object of post-9/11 counterterrorism.

Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
But we should expect nothing less. The Federal Republic of Germany’s politics, bureaucracy, policing of terror groups, and Cold War divisions of the most literal kind are present throughout the show. Nearby in the atrium is Police Pig (Polizeischwein) (1986), a raster painting depicting a real German drug-sniffing police pig, but, of course, the title also references the double entendre often aimed at authority. This and other political works are never within precise reach, though, as Polke is a virtuoso at contrasting these with formal elements that make their surface iconography ever more idiosyncratic. Polke made Untitled (Dr. Bonn) (1978) at the height of the bloody events known as Deutscher Herbst, in which imprisoned members of the left-wing terrorist group known as the Baader–Meinhof Gang inspired a spate of kidnappings and assassinations. A cartoonish scene of statecraft and dissent executed on a grid-patterned fabric support, the work depicts a faceless bureaucrat seated below the gang leaders’ wanted posters and pointing a slingshot at his own head. (Bonn was also the name of West Germany’s then de facto capital). This use of the rather loud fabric is essential to Polke’s work in general. Not only in the materiality and politics of its employment, but also for its ability to tie together subjects across radically abrupt shifts in visual strategy.
Season’s Hottest Trend (2003) also hangs in the atrium. It’s a later example of Polke’s Stoffbilders, the fabric works that he and Blinky Palermo became known for in the 1960s. The work is significant in its striking use of three different material bands: a transparent bottom, fake pink “fur,” and a blue monochrome section. This massive work stands as symbol of, among other things, Polke’s longtime willingness to make use of commercial materials, at first out of art student necessity, and then as improvisations that evoke his relationship to modernism and German ideologies.

Sigmar Polke, Modern Art (Moderne Kunst), 1968; Acrylic and lacquer on canvas, 59 1/16 x 49 3/16″ (150 x 125 cm), Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
We see here again that Polke had an irreverent attitude toward the generic abstraction on the 1960s. This is foregrounded by the recent history of Germany’s official opposition to Entartete Kunst as well as the political uses of modernist style as a symbol of the capitalist West’s freedom. This was best summarized by works like Moderne Kunst (1968) and Constructivist (Konstruktivistisch) (1968), in which Polke overtly quotes modernist elements in prototypical compositions. For Polke abstraction was, in this sense, a cliché worthy of parody, but also a tool that points to the difficulties presented by any such direct worship of modernist forbearers.
Everywhere he worked he exposed danger. In Cardboardology (Pappologie) (1968–69), he traces the fictional lineage of cardboard from box to box, pace eugenics. In later photographs entitled Uranium (Pink) (Urangestein [Rosa]) (1992) he captured the effects of the radioactive element Uranium on photographic paper, this right in the wake of major protests of nuclear power in Europe in the 1980s.

Installation view of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur. From disturbing appropriation of Nazi symbols (reminders of nationalism as much as they were purposely incendiary gestures) to his routine mockery of rational scientific thought, to outright references to the barbed wire of labor camps, the current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display.
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through August 3, 2014.

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“The Palm Painting” (1964). Polke could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase.

 

“The Palm Painting” (1964). Polke could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase.CREDITCOURTESY ESTATE OF SIGMAR POLKE / ARS, NY / VG BILD-KUNST, BONN, GERMANY; PHOTO: ALISTAIR OVERBRUCK

The Art World APRIL 28, 2014 ISSUE

Shock Artist
A Sigmar Polke retrospective.

BY PETER SCHJELDAHL
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010,” a wondrous retrospective of the late German artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, is the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed. I fancy that young artists will feel put to a test. Even longtime Polke fans may be amazed by the cumulative power of the two hundred and sixty-five works on view, in painting, sculpture, graphic art, photography, and film. The modes range from the cartoonishly figurative to the augustly abstract, and the mediums from paint and pencil to toxic chemicals and meteorite dust. There is no Polke style, but only a distinctive force of talent and mind. With caustic humor and cultivated mystery, he could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase, and even from piece to piece, and he regularly frustrated the efforts that curators, dealers, and critics made on his behalf, in ways that blurred his public image and hobbled his sales. He would still be at it, if he had lived to finish collaborating on “Alibis” with Kathy Halbreich, MOMA’s associate director. (Polke died, of cancer, in 2010, at the age of sixty-nine.) Halbreich says that Polke rejected a chronological arrangement of the work. There’s no telling what sort of unnerving layout he would have demanded. Mercifully for viewers, Halbreich has imposed a conventional order, except for an olio of big works, from different periods, in the museum’s atrium. The effect is intensive and intense. We may now begin to understand an artist who, like a fugitive throwing dust in the eyes of pursuers, took pains not to be understood.

Polke was of a generation of Germans who inherited a defiled national culture. The “alibis” in the show’s title start, in Halbreich’s telling, with a postwar German mantra: “I didn’t see anything.” Polke came from the East, like Gerhard Richter, his peer and, for several years in the nineteen-sixties, his close friend. (It’s a bit distorting, but irresistible, to deem Richter the cunning Apollo, and Polke the rampaging Dionysus, of the period’s renaissance in German art.) Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, Silesia, the seventh of eight children of a father who trained to be an architect. In 1945, the family fled to Soviet-occupied Thuringia, during an expulsion of Germans from Silesia, which became part of Poland. In 1953, abandoning nearly all their possessions, they escaped to the West on a train, with young Polke ordered to feign sleep, to deflect suspicion. They settled in Düsseldorf, where Polke apprenticed to a stained-glass manufacturer and entered the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1961. Modern art was then enjoying a lofty prestige in West Germany, as a counterweight to the scalding memories of the Reich and to the menacing ideology of the East. Polke embraced the art but scorned the piety, resisting even the utopianism of the academy’s charismatic guide and teacher, Joseph Beuys. Polke quickly became a galvanic presence in a cohort that included Richter, who, nine years older, and living on refugee assistance, had recently escaped the East after having been schooled unhappily in Socialist Realism.
Young German artists were stirred by the emerging Pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Polke took to painting proletarian consumer goods—chocolate bars, soap, plastic buckets—and ordinary news and magazine photographs, in a rugged variant of Lichtenstein’s Benday dots. The first was a scrappy image of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1963, Polke, Richter, and two artist friends, unable to interest galleries in their work, mounted a group show, in a former butcher shop, of what they termed “Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism.” The last two words resonate with an exquisite ambivalence, skewering both parties to the Cold War: the commercial West and the dogmatic East. Polke and Richter, like Warhol, conveyed underclass perspectives on popular spectacles of commerce and glamour—“outdoing each other in terms of the lowest forms of banality,” according to the German art historian and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who knew both men at the time, and is interviewed in the show’s catalogue. But they did so with lacerating skepticism, which, in Polke’s case, abided no distinction between the vulgarities of mass culture and the pretenses of fine art. What Polke didn’t raise up he brought down, as in a work of 1968 that might qualify as the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of postmodernist sensibility: “Moderne Kunst,” a painting of generic abstract shapes, lines, squiggles, and splashes, with a white border like that surrounding a reproduction in a book. It is both savagely sarcastic and seductively lovely. Time and again, Polke projects the unlikely comic figure of a would-be destroyer of art who keeps being ambushed by onsets of beauty and charm. He is angry, but his anger makes him cheerful. His lunges become dances.
Polke was a big man with the twinkle of a gamin. I met him a few times and found him dazzlingly intelligent, funny, and exhausting. As Buchloh says, “You could not have a conversation with Polke without his continuously destabilizing your sense of self, without his suggesting that it rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal.” In 2008, I sat through much of an afternoon in his chaotic warehouse studio and home in Cologne while, pulling books from the shelves of his immense library, he discoursed on ancient philosophical and technical sources for a suite of stained-glass windows, in the Protestant cathedral of Zürich, which became his last major project. I felt awash in a sea of exotic erudition and ungraspable logic, listening to Polke as, with absorption and course-correcting irony, he listened to himself. My profit was an inkling of how he made art, monitoring an internal crossfire—or a chorus—of ideas.

There was a fearless, spooky otherness to his cast of mind, in key with an attraction to mysticism. “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!” is the title of a canvas in the show from 1969; the corner is black. In the early seventies, he shared a farmhouse with many friends and indulged heavily in hallucinogenic drugs, which caused a dip in his career, but, in contrast to the more commonly dicey toll of such a regimen, plainly nourished the brainstorms of his later work. These include: huge atmospheric abstractions, incorporating details of the signature of Dürer; pink photographic prints, made by exposing film to uranium; majestic panels of glass, smudged with soot; paintings that orchestrate antic images from nineteenth-century engravings; and, in a slide show, the beautiful Zürich windows, some of them made of slices of agate and other stones. The Christological symbol of the scapegoat, seen both arriving in the frame and leaving it, hints at a spiritual crisis without end.

Polke trashed the conventions of painting throughout his career—overlaying images on printed fabric in lieu of canvas, for instance, or using resins that rendered cloth semi-transparent—and in the process revitalized a medium that was discounted, in the sixties, by iconoclastic minimalism and Conceptual art. His influence was slow to cross the Atlantic, though, owing partly to his principled elusiveness, and largely to the insularity of the New York art world. But by the early eighties young Americans were plundering his inventions to feed the resurgence in painting that was known as Neo-Expressionism. The belated discovery of Polke’s work came as a shock. I remember my first look at “Paganini” (1981-83), a riotous painting, more than sixteen feet long, in which the musician, on his deathbed, and the Devil, playing a violin, are accompanied by swirls of skulls and tiny swastikas. It struck me then as a one-upping of Neo-Expressionism. Here it is again, at MOMA, in a room that Halbreich has brilliantly crowded with tours de force from the artist’s middle period. Now I see it as an acrid burlesque of the movement, purging Polke of paternal responsibility for it and, by sheer excess, mocking his own virtuosity. Nearly everything he did reacted, somehow, against something. Celebrity was only one of the threats to the probity of his independence which required an emergency response. He was, and he remains, heroic. ♦

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peter schjeldahl
Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic.

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Sigmar Polke's Aesthetic Escape Velocity on View at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Acquired through the generosity of Edgar Wachenheim III and Ronald S. Lauder
Polke takes off: Untitled (1975)

Sigmar Polke was a prisoner of his childhood, as are most of us. Born in 1941, when the Nazis were at their apogee, he suffered an impoverished youth in communist East Germany after the Third Reich‘s collapse, followed by a disorienting exodus, in 1953, to Düsseldorf and the comparative riches of the West. “It wasn’t really heaven,” Polke later said of his family’s move when he was 12. “That early painting of mine, The Sausage Eater from 1963, was critical in a way; you can eat too much and blow up too big.” The 22-year-old artist may have been reacting to gluttonous capitalism when he depicted a mouth set in chubby cheeks gobbling up 61 brown links, but he was also embarking on a voracious — not to say insatiable — search for provocatively altered states that would renew the ancient art of painting.
In 1964, Polke scripted a fake interview featuring his friend and fellow painter Gerhard Richter, in which his satiric version of Richter brags, “The big death camps in Eastern Europe worked with my pictures. The inmates dropped dead at mere sight. . . . Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.” In a 1976 exhibition, Polke erected a fence topped with wooden letters spelling out “Art Makes You Free,” parodying the sardonic “Work Makes You Free” that the Nazis had emblazoned over the gates of Auschwitz. As art historian Christine Mehringhas pointed out, Polke was employing bad — OK, atrocious — taste in an attempt to pierce his countrymen’s alibi of blindness.Polke was a one-man group show. He worked with a staggering array of materials, including paint of every formulation, photographic emulsion, lacquer, uranium, Xerox, resins, film, meteoric granulate, silver leaf, and other concoctions that he marshaled into mélanges of abstraction, figuration, mechanical reproduction, cosmic charts, dreamscapes, porn, comics, and pretty much everything else in creation’s kaleidoscope. His vision quest didn’t shy away from the most horrible specter his generation of Germans faced: the sins of their fathers, including the big lie muttered by the many perpetrators of the war and the Holocaust who later held positions of power in West Germany: “I didn’t see anything.”

Details

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010′
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
Through August 3

See November 5, 2014

The tendrils of the horrendous past that clawed at Polke’s generation inform a striking 1978 painting displayed halfway through MOMA‘s appropriately sprawling retrospective: A blank-faced cartoon bureaucrat aims a slingshot at his forehead as “Wanted” posters for members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang watch over his clumsy antics. (Unlike the literally faceless functionary, the terrorists have their eyes wide open.) In the ’70s, posters of these glowering Marxist revolutionaries, who blasted their way through West Germany while railing against its fascist past, were plastered across the nation. You can feel in this powerful composition — the action takes place within a cone of white light that mimics the “V” of the taut slingshot — Polke’s desire to create as visceral an impact through art as terrorists have with violence.

Polke generated the aesthetic escape velocity he needed for such titanic ambition through the unbridled combinations of scale, materials, and content he deployed in his alchemical confabulations of history and fantasy. In a 10-foot-high depiction of a watchtower, painted on bubble wrap, the semi-transparent ground and the runnels and eddies of yellow, pink, and acidic green enamel cast ephemeral shadows that echo the grayish silhouette of the observation post, a chilling yet undeniably gorgeous vision of limbo infused with menace. In another version, the ghostly white outlines of the tower float above fabric printed with flowers and partially blackened with pigment, the sooty pall harkening back to the concentration camps but also commenting on the surveillance of the entire populace of East Germany at the time these huge paintings were created (in that auspicious year of 1984).

Polke’s flair for historical hurly-burly matches that of Veronese, who, when hauled before the Inquisition in 1573 because of the licentious liberties he took in his sumptuous biblical murals, nonchalantly informed the court, “We painters take the same license the poets and the jesters take.” It was Polke’s unfettered license that helped him strike those chords of incongruous beauty over and over again, sometimes through the visual noise of the patterned fabrics he often preferred. In one small painting he contrasts a pair of wavy green palm trees against a gray-and-orange-striped fabric; in another piece, he bounces painted green circles off a rose pattern on a dun field, the brushed colors exquisitely tuned to the hues of the preprinted surfaces. Swiftly rendered herons in a trio of paintings are reminiscent of Matisse’s corporeal draftsmanship; the checkered pastel grounds channel that master’s chromatic virtuosity.

Ultimately, Polke left his past behind, pulling painting into the future with his uninhibited amalgams of concept and medium. According to a cogent essay by curator Kathy Halbreich, Polke pursued an “encyclopedic and not entirely recreational study of hallucinogens from various cultures, including mushrooms and frog urine.” One gallery brings together entrancing collages, paintings, and photos of tree-size toadstools; music from Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, The Residents, and Captain Beefheart drifts from overhead speakers, inducing an aesthetic contact high. (Beefheart, whose real name was Don Van Vliet, also lived from 1941 to 2010, and was a notoriously free-spirited painter himself.) Adding to the party vibe is a nearby print of a man gazing in wonder at the palm-tree–like penis erupting from his loins, while a gaggle of cartoon nudes giggle appreciatively. A painting covered with iron mica reflects light from a nearby film documenting one of Polke’s massive canvases as it is lifted and lowered, powdered pigment and resins mixing and wriggling across the surface like some primordial landscape shuddering into being. The metallic pigments Polke experimented with are capable of tugging a viewer’s hazy reflection deep into the voluptuous depths of his layered, densely intermingled surfaces.

In another series, Polke slid old-school engravings around on the glass of a copy machine as it was scanning in order to drag the illustrated figures out like brushstrokes; in the last gallery, a four-screen slide show of these distorted, ecstatic bodies becomes a graphic rave set to the rhythmic clacking of old-fashioned carousels.

This powerful show pays witness not only to Polke’s conceptual brilliance and technical virtuosity but also to the perverse ego that drove him. In 1969, he filmed himself attached to ropes arranged in the shape of a heart as Chet Baker crooned, in “My Funny Valentine,” “Your looks are laughable/Un-photographable/Yet, you’re my favorite work of art.”

No denying that Polke, who died too young at age 69, fits the bill.

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Hal Foster

For some, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and the American Mike Kelley. Appropriately, the Polke retrospective currently on view at MoMA is called Alibis (it will open at Tate Modern in October and move to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne early next year).

‘Moderne Kunst’ (1968)

Born in Silesia in 1941, Polke fled west with his family twice, first to Thuringia in 1945 and then to Düsseldorf in 1953, where he attended the art academy in the early 1960s. Among his fellow students was another displaced East German, Gerhard Richter, who was close to Polke at the time. Today the two are bound together art-historically in a way that recalls the pairing of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with Polke, like Rauschenberg, cast as the restless experimenter – the vast retrospective includes about three hundred works executed in all sorts of materials and media – and Richter, like Johns, as his restrained counterpart. After all the adulation given to Richter in recent years, there was bound to be a swing in the direction of Polke; this impressive show is that swing.

If Rauschenberg and Johns prepared the way for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Polke and Richter quickly adapted American Pop, which they first encountered in magazines, to German ends. In 1963, along with Konrad Lueg (who soon metamorphosed into the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke and Richter claimed the title ‘German Pop artists’ and, with an ironic nod to both Pop in the West and Socialist Realism in the East, contrived the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. Inspired by Warhol’s early silkscreens, Richter developed his famous blur to underscore the mediated nature of his source images. Polke meanwhile riffed on the faux Ben-Day dots devised by Lichtenstein: although they are hand painted, his ‘raster’ spots (Raster is German for ‘screen’) also indicate that his paintings derive from photographic images in newspapers and magazines. However, unlike their Pop predecessors (among whom Richard Hamilton must also be counted), Polke and Richter did not delight in mass media or commercial culture; they had fled East Germany, but were sceptical about the ‘economic miracle’ of West Germany. In two deadpan paintings from 1963-64, for example, Polke presents three support socks and three white shirts for men, crisply folded on blank grounds, in a serial manner that suggests both white-collar well-being and bureaucratic uniformity. His immaculate images of mass-produced chocolates and biscuits from the same years depict these new products of plenty as both perfect and null, and his young man in a tennis sweater is beautiful and bland in a similar way: the good life of the postwar period as the unexamined life of leisure and sport. Might the doubt raised in such paintings about a reconstructed West Germany extend to its quick embrace of American imports like Pop art? It seems so, and this makes German Pop cut critically against its artistic source as well.

In his best works of the 1960s Polke is thus double-edged, equally biting about the vulgar lows and the arty highs of the consumer culture then new to West Germany. He was also harsh at the time about the institutional fate of modernist abstraction, though his sarcasm about it betrays a love for it too. In a watercolour from 1963, Polke reduces the pure abstraction of Mondrian, with the utopian ambition of its primary colours, to a decorative sheet of polka dots, and in a painting from 1969 he turns the transcendental abstraction of Malevich into a mock-totalitarian order from on high: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! His best jibe is a painting simply titled Moderne Kunst (1968), an array of modernist tokens – Expressionist gestures, Suprematist geometries, Bauhausian angles – presented as so many inert signs in a one-image résumé of early 20th-century art history. These works debunk international modernism, to be sure, but they also question the West German celebration of it as a display of distance from the Nazi condemnation of modernism in particular and from the Nazi past in general – as though one could believe, as Polke once put it, in a nasty twist on the motto at Auschwitz, that ‘Kunst macht frei.’ In this respect his most acerbic piece is another painting from 1968, Constructivist, which presents, in faux-Lichtenstein dots, a faux-Mondrian composition resembling a backwards swastika. In front of an overdetermined travesty like this, which is also a well-made artwork, one hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?

I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, a structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same … [It is] the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardised, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialised.

Early on, Polke and Richter shared mundane sources such as the family snapshot, but soon Richter made banality his own, and Polke focused on the related subject of kitsch, that volatile compound of mass-produced decoration and petit-bourgeois aspiration otherwise known as bad taste. Often he used patterned fabric as the support for his paintings, on which he might screen or daub an image of a beach, a tropical palm or a heron, all tokens in the middle-class imaginary of happy relaxation, exotic travel and gemütlich decor. This anthropological expedition into the West German petite bourgeoisie is often hilarious, but it is sometimes also cruel, with a hint of snobbery about it.

Perhaps Polke sensed the problem, for in the 1970s he ditched this cool distance. With Fluxus rather than Pop as his prompt, his work became more immersive, performative and chaotic. He drew on popular forms like comics and caricature, deployed forms of amateur and outsider art, and relied on photography and film to document his antics in the studio and beyond. At this time too, with the aid of projectors, Polke adapted from the Dadaist Francis Picabia a particular way of layered picturing, which was soon appropriated by the Americans David Salle and Julian Schnabel. At its best this hallucinatory mélange suggests not a dream space so much as a media overload, a kind of Surrealism without an unconscious in which the subject, no longer home, is dispersed among images in the world at large. At its worst it becomes a matter of rote juxtaposition to which the artist seems as indifferent as the viewer. Drugs were involved here, and that is part of the problem: although psychedelia might feel like freedom, it often looks like conventionality (as any number of rock album covers attest); sad to say, the stoned mind tends to be a factory of readymade images.

In the later 1970s Polke went south: literally, as he travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Brazil, among other places, and figuratively, as his work became uneven. His experiments with chemicals, which extended to his paintings and photographs, issued in mixed results: at times the images point to realms of occult experience that came to preoccupy him, while at others they are simply hermetic; for the most part the process concerned him more than the product. In the 1980s his paintings tended to go big, often too big, as if the point were to keep up with the other boys in this time of Neo-Expressionist bluster. In some instances the scale is effective, as it is in a series of concentration-camp watchtowers from 1984. Yet even here opinion is divided: for some critics these paintings are chilling reminders of the Nazi past, ‘Death in Germany’ in the early 1940s to match the ‘Death in America’ of the early 1960s captured by Warhol with his electric chairs and the like; for others they begin to turn ‘Never Forget’ into its own kind of kitsch.

An acclaimed artist of the same generation as Polke recently remarked to me that Polke was ‘too creative’: there wasn’t enough concentration in his ideas or constraint in his materials to produce a logic that sustained the work over time – in short, he had too many ‘alibis’. But it might also be that his prime devices, parody and pastiche (devices that are often associated with postmodernist art of which he is an important progenitor), refuse precisely these expectations of stylistic consistency and subjective stability, and that the very point of his practice was to resist art-historical inscription and social recuperation: to show, as Benjamin Buchloh puts it in the catalogue, that any secure selfhood ‘rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal’. Yet there is a touch of the adolescent avant-garde-of-one in this position, and isn’t advanced capitalist life an effective enough auto-da-fé of the subject in its own right?

 

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WSJOURNAL

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010′ at the Museum of Modern Art

  • By
  • April 23, 2014 5:16 p.m. ET
    New York

    In gallery six of the Museum of Modern Art’s enormous and noisy Sigmar Polke retrospective, one woman said to another: “Let’s get out of here. I’ve hit my saturation point.” Surrounded by work from the 1970s, she was only about halfway through the chronological survey, “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010.” Yet I understood and envied her premature exit.

    Watchtower’ (1984). Estate of Sigmar Polke/ ARS/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

    The two women had been dividing their attention between Polke’s large-scale illustrative drawing “Untitled” (1973), a comically exaggerated psychedelic rendition of pornography; and the 35-minute documentary film “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky / Afghanistan-Pakistan” (c. 1974-76). Distorted by the artist, it features men smoking cannabis; a costumed monkey performing acrobatic tricks; and a long, vicious bout in which dogs are pitted against a reluctant bear.

    Like all of the 11 exhibition spaces in “Alibis,” gallery six is hung salon-style—cheek-to-jowl. But it’s especially trying. Polke (pronounced POLL-ka) was known to have made extensive use of recreational drugs. He also had a tendency, according to a gallery director who worked with him, to use his provocative artwork “to torture his friends.”

    Gallery six is crammed with about 40 artworks from 1969 to 1978, including films with clashing soundtracks. Wall text informs us that because these artworks were created during “a time of great social, political and artistic unrest, as well as widespread experimentation with countercultural lifestyles and drugs,” MoMA’s “dense constellation” is intended to “evoke the stimulation of all the senses that occurs during a hallucination.” This is wishful-thinking. Let’s just call this portion of the show the worst leg of a bad trip.

    Comprising more than 250 artworks amounting to roughly 370 individual paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, collages, sculptures, installations, soundworks and video screens, which loop more than nine hours of film, “Alibis” is one of the largest exhibitions ever at MoMA. It also ranks among the most repetitive and impenetrable. But according to the museum, bewilderment and nihilism are precisely the point of Polke’s art.

    Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010

    The Museum of Modern Art

    Through Aug. 3

    Polke (1941-2010) was born in the Silesian region of eastern Germany, what is now western Poland. He and his family fled Silesia in 1945, just before the end of the war, for what would soon be Soviet-occupied East Germany. In 1953, they escaped to West Germany, where the artist lived until the end of his life.

    “Alibis” refers in part to postwar Germany where, to deflect blame for Nazi atrocities, the common line was “I didn’t see anything.” Yet here it has at least a double meaning. The show offers little of aesthetic value to “see.” (“It’s the processes in and for themselves that interest me,” Polke said. “The picture isn’t really necessary.”) The title also refers to Polke’s antiauthoritarian antics: He grew up trusting no one and nothing, which becomes an alibi for his gamesmanship and mistrust of art.

    Polke was a postmodernist—he mocked and lampooned all artistic styles (figuration, abstraction, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism) and mediums (painting, film, sculpture, photography, craft, performance art). Jester-of-all-trades, he was actually, according to the show’s curators, “masquerading as many different artists.” But instead of variety we get the same joke—dressed up here as a photograph; over there as a painting—played out over and over again.

    Organized by Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall, at MoMA, and Mark Godfrey, at London’s Tate Modern (where the show will open in October), “Alibis” celebrates Polke’s embrace of accident and chance; his distrust, exploitation and undermining of—as well as his irreverence toward—all things authoritative. Yet his primary target was art.

    Deliberately disingenuous and ambiguous, Polke courted randomness through his appropriations and derisions. He riffed on Paul Gauguin, lifting and belittling his Polynesian women; and Albrecht Dürer, whose classic “Hare” Polke reduced to mere cartoon. He also played with Francisco de Goya, Roy Lichtenstein, Kazimir Malevich and Jackson Pollock. He noodled with comic books, magazine advertising, Rorschach tests, pornography and Victorian children’s books; atomic energy, the Berlin Wall, Nazi death camps and post-9/11 drone attacks. Often, Polke mixed artistic styles and political positions in a single soupy, seemingly unfinished artwork, as if—gunning for everyone—his position was: “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

    This sometimes meant killing the artworks themselves. Polke had a penchant for working in unorthodox materials such as soot, goofy printed fabrics, unprimed substrates and Bubble Wrap. A large yellow-orange canvas is dusted with meteorite granulite. A series of hot-pink chromogenic color prints have white halos, which have been made with radioactive uranium. He also embraced errors and accidents—blurring and overlaying negatives in the darkroom and moving images on the copy machine—as well as planned disintegration. Polke diluted photographic chemicals with coffee and dishwashing liquid. In one large painting in a series depicting concentration-camp watchtowers, he treated the finished picture with a light-sensitive silver oxide that eventually will darken completely black.

    On the cover of the show’s catalog is a photo of Polke as a boy, controlling a marionette. The point, of course, is that he’s an artist working behind, above and beyond the scene—a master-prankster, a master-puppeteer. We—no less than art—are mere playthings for Polke; and we should be pleased to let him dangle us by the strings.

    The great fallacy of this exhibition, however—and of Polke’s oeuvre—is especially apparent in the final gallery, which shifts to a more somber and reverent tone. After the show has pummeled visitors with the artist’s shenanigans, it suddenly want us to take Polke seriously as a craftsman with the aesthetic ability to handle the 2006 commission of a dozen stained-glass windows for Zurich’s Grossmünster cathedral.

    Granted, a slideshow of the finished project is the best thing on view here. But you can’t have it both ways. Polke apprenticed early on as a painter at a stained-glass factory. His seven abstract windows exploring Genesis are made of translucent, thinly sliced, artificially colored agate. Naturally attractive, they conjure cellular growth and medieval illustrations of Creation. Yet, like a boy laughing in church, Polke can’t help himself. His windows work doggedly against the established metaphoric, geometric program of the cathedral. They betray Polke’s fundamental irreverence and subversiveness in a show where nothing is sacred.

    Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

     

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    NYTIMES

    SLIDE SHOW|13 Photos

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’

    CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

    Get confused is the first and last message of“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at the Museum of Modern Art. And if you think, as I do, that some degree of continuing bafflement is a healthy reaction to art, this disorienting contact high of a show is for you.

    Polke, who died in 2010 at 69, is usually mentioned in the same breath with two German near-contemporaries, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, as one of the great European male artists of the postwar years. Of the three, though, he was the most resistant to branding, and is still the hardest to get a handle on.

    In media, he was all over the map: painting (abstract and figurative), drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, installation, performance, sound art; he did them all, often messy, counterintuitive combinations. Stylistically, he brushed up against Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism, only to lift their moves and mock them.

    He had a thing about making art from weird materials: tawdry fabrics, radioactive pigments, liquid detergent, soot. He put the discipline in interdisciplinary under stress. His work can be daintily detailed and virtuosic, but it can also look polish-aversive and incomplete. Sometimes he seems to start a painting or a drawing, then stop, as if to say: You get the idea.

    For a long time, museums and galleries didn’t know how to deal with him; that is, with all of him. The standard procedure was to isolate a slice of work that had some visual and thematic coherence: pictures sharing a color, say, or ones with lots of the hand-applied, Benday-style dots that the market pushed as a Polke signature. The prospect of a survey that brought the full range of his multifarious output together under one roof must have seemed daunting even to Polke himself. But that’s what MoMA has done in a show that fills all of its second-floor contemporary galleries, including the atrium, and then some.

    The arrangement is mostly by date, though because Polke was an accumulator, a recycler and a mix-master of styles, that doesn’t give viewers a visual narrative line to follow. Nor have the curators — Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall of MoMA, and Mark Godfrey of the Tate Modern — provided object labels. Instead, and this an excellent idea, they’ve designed a free, gallery-by-gallery, work-by-work checklist, a kind of Baedeker for the perplexed that incorporates some useful commentary. (Ms. Halbreich’s catalog essay, by the way, is superb.)

    Even with that, the show throws you right in at the deep end. The opening installation, in the atrium and first gallery, spans 40 years of Polke’s career, looks like a multiartist group show, and just says: Deal with it. And so, without a compass, you do, taking in at one sweep 1960s drawings of flying saucers and swastikas; jumpy films shot in Zurich and Papua New Guinea; a big, fluffy 2003 fabric collage titled “Season’s Hottest Trend”; a giant digital print tracing the routes of United States Predator drones after Sept. 11.

    From this array, you learn that Polke’s art was sometimes antagonistically political, though its politics could be hard to decipher outside a very specific cultural context. A Pop-ish-looking 1960s painting of neatly folded dress shirts refers to the “economic miracle” that was restoring a defeated Germany to bourgeois prosperity. A companion picture in the same style — “Capitalist Realism,” Polke called it — of a minute figure sucking in sausages nails the new consumerism as a form of binge-eating-till-you-black-out, designed to induce amnesia about the wartime past.

    That past was Polke’s past. He was born in 1941 into a German bourgeois family that was forced to move from German Silesia (now part of Poland) to Soviet-occupied East Germany before escaping to West Germany in 1953. As a teenager, he apprenticed in a stained-glass factory, then from 1961 to 1967 studied at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf. There he befriended Mr. Richter, who, like many other students, was under the spell of Joseph Beuys. At once attracted by, and skeptical of, Beuys’s charisma, Polke pulled back and went his own way, which became the pattern of his life.

    “Fathers are depressing,” Gertrude Stein said. Polke seemed to agree. So did the antiauthoritarian era during which he came into his own as an artist, and in which he immersed himself, living and working communally, engaging in love fests and drug fests, traveling, cameras always in hand, through the Middle East, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. He remained, in certain ways, an unreconstructed 1960s person to the end of his life, fascinated with esoteric philosophies, paranormal phenomena, alchemy and psychochemical exploration. These elements contributed to his outsider identity within the international art world and shaped his art.

    A couple of galleries into the show, you come upon a kind of cosmopolitan hippie encampment. Films Polke shot in Pakistan and Brazil are playing. Hazy pictures he took of men on the Bowery line a wall. And there are some fantastic paintings and drawings that layer 19th-century engravings; fabrics printed with Gauguin’s South Seas beauties; references to “higher beings” (Blake, Goya, Dürer); and images of mushrooms and skulls.

    In a show that has the variety and novelty of a souk, hierarchies of “value” evaporate. High versus low, modern versus traditional, art versus craft, genuine versus inauthentic: None of these, Polke suggests, are really opposites. And even art he derides he takes seriously. He lampoons the pretensions of painterly abstraction — its egocentricity, its political escapism — but he also sticks up for it. How could you not defend an art that the Third Reich condemned as “degenerate”?

    Abstraction also gave Polke a pretext to go wild with the alchemic outré: Arsenic, meteorite dust, coffee and soap were precious work materials. And even in his abstraction, politics was never far away. A series of auralike photographs made by placing radioactive uranium on photographic plates had to have a loaded meaning for someone raised in the shadow of the Cold War. Semiabstract depictions of wooden watchtowers, traditional German hunting perches, take on inescapable associations with death camp architecture.

    Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.

    Accident, serendipitous or engineered, became the foundation for much of Polke’s late work: paintings based on commercial printing errors or on images the artist dragged across screens of copying machines. And in 2006, he went back to his beginnings with a commission for stained-glass window design from the Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich, home church to Huldrych Zwingli, an iconoclastic force in the Protestant Reformation.

    Seven of Polke’s windows are devoted to the theme of the Creation, and he turned them into the equivalent of a 1960s light show: abstract compositions made from clusters of thin-sliced, odd-shaped, color-dyed agates that suggest cellular forms. You see them in a video at the end of the show, images of primal slime with a sunlit, mescaline glow.

    Unlike Mr. Richter and Mr. Kiefer, Polke remains something of a puzzle when taken piece by piece. There are powerful things at MoMA, but also scraps, doodles, studies, toss-offs that can make you think, “Why am I looking at this?” It’s easy to envision a more tightly edited take on this artist, one that would make him look more ordinarily Great. But it turns out that his career is more interesting and unusual when seen episodically, mixed up, en masse. He has this, and other things, in common with Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose survey at MoMA PS 1 last fall feels, in retrospect, like a bookend to the Polke show.

    Both artists are perplexing in similar ways. Their art is both protean and of a piece, riddled with weaknesses — fussbudgety viewers can have a field day with Polke; they did with Kelley — that add up to a strength. Museums want masterpieces, but Polke, though he produced some, was into process, not perfection. Art history wants wrap-ups, final accounts. The Polke retrospective is such an account, written with commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, parentheses, but no periods, no full stops.

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    Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 review – voraciously off-the-wall pop
    4 / 5 stars
    Tate Modern’s retrospective takes up 14 rooms. And it’s barely enough to contain the messy, druggy, unfathomably elusive and wondrous art of Sigmar Polke

    ‘He was nothing but wayward’ … Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. Photograph: Estate of Sigmar Polke/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/PR
    Adrian Searle/GUARDIAN LONDON
    Monday 6 October 2014 12.13 EDT

    Entire artistic careers might be made from small aspects of Sigmar Polke’s multifarious art, which now fills 14 rooms at Tate Modern. The third Tate show devoted to Polke in 20 years, Alibis is a compendious and at times bewildering romp through a career that began in the early 1960s and ended with Polke’s death in 2010.

    Dealing with Polke’s legacy has only just begun. There is a lot of messy unfinished business, and much of it is here. As well as paintings, there are films of early performances and games with potatoes, weirdly exposed and manipulated photographs, a slide-show room of photocopy experiments, tables of sketchbook drawings reproduced and flicked-through on iPad tablets.
    Beginning in the early 1960s with a perverse German pop art celebrating sorry and unglamorous foodstuffs, plastic buckets, socks and sausages, Polke was from the beginning (and as one of Joseph Beuys’s favourite students in Düsseldorf) as critical as he was playful. Even Beuys’s shamanism and pseudo-mysticism became a butt for later parody, even though Polke was as much attracted as repelled by the other-worldly.

    Contaminating errant abstractions with half-hidden swastikas and dizzy, cartoonish swipes and spirals, Polke went on to conduct beyond-the-grave séances with William Blake and to commune with higher beings, who, one painting famously tells us, commanded Polke to “Paint the right-hand corner black”. Fanciful arabesques copied from Albrecht Dürer engravings, Goya’s Caprichos and hippy-trail home movies all played their part in Polke’s art.

    “My mind cracked like custard,” sings the late Captain Beefheart, in the concert soundtrack Polke used for a film which captures the artist fooling around in the countryside commune where he lived during the 1970s, and aiming a camera at a TV documentary about imprisoned Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. Another film takes us to an opium den in Pakistan, and to scenes featuring a performing monkey, and a bear being baited by dogs for public entertainment. Polke sees it all, while the Grateful Dead limber up and play along.
    Girlfriends (Freundinnen), 1965/66. Photograph: Estate of Sigmar Polke/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    As with everything he did, there are layers of subtext, even in these little films. The exhibition does at time wander between retrospective and visual biography. A slightly reduced version of a show that began at MoMA in New York, the Tate’s version is more coherently arranged, though a degree of incoherence was integral to Polke’s strategy. It did, perhaps, reflect the man. Polke himself collaborated in the very early planning stages of this exhibition, which he devised as being based not on a chronological approach, but on what he called the “problematics” of his art, and proposed what curator Kathy Halbreich describes as a “slightly diabolical” mix of works. Without the problematics, and his diabolic interests in painting’s alchemy and in drugs, the anarchy and order of painting, there is no Polke.

    Polke was nothing but wayward. He played-up the part, in early, hilarious films (one has him up to his well-shod shins in a bowl of water, with cucumbers floating around his trousers), and in photographs of the artist emerging from a giant snakeskin, as though he has been regurgitated, reborn.

    But like the drugs, I feel that Polke’s art is better in somewhat smaller, condensed doses, even if the derangment of the senses, both chemically and optically, were always part of his game. All this could be tiresome, were not Polke’s restless energies capable of throwing up series and groups and individual works of such sublety, unexpected pleasures and ruminative, dark complexities.
    The great Watchtower series from the 198Os, with their structures recalling border posts, concentration camps and hunters’ lookouts, and the huge, resinous paintings with their yawing, curdled images derived from old engravings, seem to be messages from a past that refuses to go away.

    This unfathomable artist was much more than just another painter. His difficulty is also what is so tantalising. Like many of the unstable, fugitive and light-sensitive pigments he sometimes used, and those layers of brown, resinous murk, as soon as you think you see him clearly, his art takes a turn and eludes you once again. His elusiveness was deliberate, a way to stay free.

    Polke’s paintings could be cantankerous and awkward and weirdly ugly, and could also leave you standing on the brink of beauty, wallowing in gorgeous colour. There were surfaces as delicate and ephemeral as scent (using, in one work, a purple dye derived from slugs, painted on silk), and others gloopy with thick polyester resin, which revealed and obscured layers of buried and overpainted imagery, depending on where you stand and how the light falls.

    Experiment and play were at the heart of his art, but were backed up by an encyclopedic and inquiring mind and a curiosity about how paintings have been and might be made. Even his later near-monochromes and a painting of a lump of gold edge towards a kind of magisterial abstraction (it has a grandeur that Robert Motherwell or Helen Frankenthaler could dream of, but never quite achieve). But he never bought into the kitsch of the latter-day sublime.

    Polke reveled in mistakes and imperfections, sudden lurches in tempo or the shearing of material and image, the places where something unexpected breaks in. This was real magic. He knew painting was laughable and exhausted, and that that was as the place he had to begin. Polke was never only a painter, even when, and perhaps especially when, he was only painting. It was all a magnificent folly.

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    FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

    October 10, 2014 5:20 pm

    Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

    A retrospective of the maverick German artist seeks to pin down an original, destabilising presence

    Germany and its discontents produced many postwar artists who could have been predicted – Anselm Kiefer with his scorching historical pictures, Georg Baselitz with his angry upside-down figuration, Gerhard Richter with his cool, shape-shifting ironies – and one wild card: the offhand, inconsistent, messy trickster Sigmar Polke.

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    Polke died in 2010 and Alibis, his Tate Modern retrospective, attempts to pin down an original, destabilising presence who was always somewhere else: hiding behind the double exposure of his experimental films; out of his mind on hallucinogenic drugs; or, in a series of vibrant photographs here, posing in swaths of python skin. Thus Polke shed skins, identities and artistic approaches, making style a performative act not an expression of inner necessity.

    Like his fellow German artists in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities, Polke distrusted everything – including his own virtuosity. In the five-metre “Paganini”, based on a 19th-century print of a composer dreaming of the Devil playing to him while he sleeps, Polke considers the relationship between genius and evil: swastikas swarm the surface and a fool juggles skulls that turn into radioactive signs. Polke’s build-up of images overlaid with cartoonish doodles and bravura brushwork collapses figurative into abstract, narrative into chaos.

    Polke made art to fight “the madness of facts”, says his friend, critic Bice Curiger. Born in Silesia in 1941 into a large poor family who migrated to the Rhineland, Polke was initially apprenticed to a Düsseldorf glassmaker, and transparency is really the single leitmotif of his art. The earliest works here such as “Apparition of the Swastika” (1963) feature the Nazi insignia bursting from painterly gouaches, while proto-pop ballpoint pen drawing “Soap” alludes to desires to wash away the past.

    “The Sausage Eater”, from the same year, punctures consumer complacency at Germany’s economic recovery: a tiny anaemic face guzzles, without pleasure, a never-ending line of thin brown links. In Tate’s excellent catalogue, curator Kathy Halbreich compares Polke’s lean, mean sausages to Roy Lichtenstein’s plump, triumphalist “Hot Dog”.

    Polke’s 1960s “raster dot” compositions, painted freehand with perforated metal stencils to transform newspaper snaps into matrices of magnified swimming dots, paralleled Richter’s deadpan blur: both artists aped photomechanical processes to question the reliability of the image. In “Girlfriends” (“Freundinnen”, 1966), “Family”, “Doughnuts” and “Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald)”, the dots, vibrating as if in constant motion, were a perfect model for Polke’s oscillating vision of reality and refusal to finalise image or idea.

    His next target was the fixed platitudes of modernism: the parodic minimalist paintings “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black”, “Constructivist”, which mocks his own raster dots, and the irreverent squiggles and loops in “Modern Art”. But it was only when he and Richter went their separate ways at the end of the 1960s (“Polke drifted away into the psychedelic direction and I into the classical,” according to Richter) that Polke truly took flight, almost literally in his first film “The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly” (1969), where he attaches strings to his limbs and, giggling, stretches out like Spider-Man.

    Anyone who remembers 1970s Germany, caught between bourgeois boredom and hippy hedonism, will find Tate’s central gallery brilliantly evocative. Resonating throughout are competing soundtracks, featuring the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart from Polke’s weird films “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan”, shot on a road trip and focused on a performing monkey watched by an opium-addled crowd, and “How Long We Are Hesst/Looser”, where footage of Polke clowning about eating eggs is juxtaposed with TV debates on war criminal Rudolf Hess.

    Paintings, too, turn anarchic: paint poured, dripped, scrawled on to fabrics or dot backgrounds and veiled with metallic spray animates the graffiti-like portrait “Dr Berlin” (1969-74) and the hookah-smoking caterpillar and luminous mushrooms in “Alice in Wonderland” (1972), while in “Bowery”, images of the homeless are obscured by folding photographic paper wet with chemicals to produce random spilled abstractions.

    “Poison just crept into my pictures,” Polke said of the 1980s, when the spills enlarged into experiments with meteor dust and purple dye extracted from boiling snails, uranium and arsenic. In the “Watchtower” series, painted with silver nitrate, resin and enamel, Polke appropriated a doubly troubled image – the towers reference the camps as well as the border between East and West Germany – and subjected it to flux and degradation by replacing paint with photographic chemicals. A subtext of the title Alibis is deflection of blame, denial of history. How to paint the unseen? The show’s most extravagantly beautiful paintings, a pair of abstractions where resin combined with silver leaf or meteoric granulate glows gold, are called “The Spirits that Lend Strength are Invisible” (1988).

    I am less persuaded by Polke’s digital works and 1990s use of photocopiers to distort compositions but, in the 2000s, he came full-circle, back to his training with glass, and began creating handmade lenses to overlay painted fabric surfaces. In the masterly “The Illusionist” (2007), semi-transparent layers disrupt overlapping images of a pair of illusionists and a blindfolded woman to produce theatrical enchantment.

    It is a valedictory invitation into the bizarre looking-glass world of an artist who resisted all belief systems, but brought a consistent magic to disaffection and dissonance, and a lightness of being to conceptual painting, which over the decades liberated artists as varied as Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Rudolf Stingel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Brown, and makes this show essential viewing for young painters today.

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’, Tate Modern, London, to February 8 2015tate.org.uk

    Images: The Estate of SigmarPolke/ DACS, London/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

    ==

    NYMagazine

    Seeing Out Loud: Saltz on MoMA’s Frustratingly Near-Great Sigmar Polke Retrospective

    People look at artworks displayed at a major retrospective of German artist Sigmar Polke entitled 'Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010' during a preview of the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York, USA, 09 April 2014. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art.

    The Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling extravagant “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” is really good. How could it not be, with more than 260 works by a great artist on hand? When Polke died at 69 in 2010, John Baldessari observed that “Any one [Polke] move can provide a career for a lesser artist.” The Whitney curator Chrissie Iles said, “I don’t like using terms like ‘master,’ but Polke is a master; he knows it, and we know it.” I think of him as a Rosetta Stone for young artists, one whose material glee, anarchic inventiveness, and hallucinogenic Blakean imagination puts him in the same influential postwar class with Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and his old friend and nemesis Gerhard Richter. He created his own ravishingly visual, impish blends of Pop, Conceptualism, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Constructivism, and Process Art, all replete with philosophical heft, social bite, and an extraordinary combination of chaos and control.

    It’s a godsend to be able to see all this work he made. Yet “Alibis” is that bitter thing: a show of a great artist with great work that fails to be great. Certainly it’s not nearly as large, focused, or well selected as he deserves. Billed as the first Polke survey to contain all of the media he tackled, “Alibis” takes a rapid-fire, cocktail-shaker, look-how-much-he-did, glance-and-move-on approach. At MoMA we’re set upon by a barrage of art, jam-packed into ten galleries on the second floor. It does deliver the mad atmosphere, breakneck industriousness, and frenetic vortices of Polke’s artistic talent and all that it generated. But when you really stand still in “Alibis,” get quiet within yourself, and look around, there are far too few moments when you’re overcome with the sheer strange acidic gorgeousness of his art.

    Why? Only a little over a third of what’s on hand is painting, and most of it is hung cheek-by-jowl. I love Polke in all the media that he worked in, but without painting as the clear foundational cornerstone of a major retrospective, his accomplishment is shortchanged, and audiences are denied the art’s full brunt and cosmic beauty. MoMA’s lack of curatorial vision and awkward architecture conspire against visual experience. The show needed more space, even if it meant spilling onto another floor, as the Gerhard Richter and Martin Kippenberger shows did. This season, MoMA gave all of PS1 to Mike Kelley, and a Polke show there would have been tremendous. I suspect that the museum is banking on the art world’s deep admiration for Polke to ensure that there won’t be a negative word written about this show.

    The museum is also making gestures toward his kind of anarchy. For example, there are no wall labels*. I eventually adjusted to that, and to relying on the free newsprint guide for details. The uninitiated, however, will find it impossible to follow his development or get any sense of how prescient Polke was throughout his career. Oh, MoMA, your ideas about the language of exhibitions stagger.

    Still, as insufficient as “Alibis” is, nobody should skip it. This is Polke we’re talking about, after all. There are sound pieces, videos, a slide show of old illustrations transformed into bleary beings, and films that let us see the tall grinning bespectacled German doing antic things. (His nearsightedness was exacerbated by his close-in hand-painting of hundreds of thousands of “raster dots” — his gritty, undulating answer to Roy Lichtenstein’s regular mechanical Ben-Day dots.) One huge yellowish beauty is coated in what looks like grime floating in syrupy albumen but that turns out to be meteorite granules floating in resin. Painting as stardust made visible. A nearby dazzler has silver leaf and Neolithic tools in an abstract field of synthetic resin. These doozies are modern cave paintings, abstract nebulas. Don’t miss the best-titled painting in recent art history, Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! — a perfect comment on the absurdity of making art, and on the uncanny feeling artists often have that they aren’t doing it entirely on their own.

    There are scores of prints, drawings, and works on paper including the 1968 watercolor Polke as Drug — Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe, an apt equivalent of what an artist does at work. Nearby is the cartoony Malevich Looks Down on Pollock, a ballpoint-pen sketch of a plain square above a bunch of squiggles on the floor beneath it that offers a wry comment about Polke’s preference for Constructivism over Abstract Expressionism. Polke was among the most innovative photographers ever, and the show includes scores of photos that have been dripped-on, worked-over, cut-up, reprinted, Xeroxed, or otherwise messed with. Near the exhibition’s end are 21 color prints that look like sunbursts on pink grounds. These works were made by exposing the paper to a chunk of uranium that Polke kept in a lead box in his studio. There are weird mechanisms, like Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another, which consists of a wooden stool with a motor that does just what the title says, as if a lost testicle is perpetually circling its mate, trying to create a spark or break away from its gravitational field.

    If you want to avoid being bombarded, I recommend standing in front of the wall with three of the Heron paintings from 1968 and 1969. Beautiful birds in arabesque lines with kinetic reeds and lyrical water, salmon-colored outlines and pale-blue hues: They all merge with the grids of patterned fabric that they’re painted on. This is kitsch as exquisiteness, wallpaper as tour de force, a shattering of molds about what is decoratively cliché and what is painterly grace. One of the five mid-’80s paintings of watch towers is done in enamel on bubble wrap, so the image floats free, the stretcher bars show through, and the painting takes on an entirely new material and spiritual presence somewhere between ectoplasmic apparition and UFO or Roman wall painting. Other paintings of towers, which could depict concentration camps or just forest-ranger stations, are rendered in either silver oxide, polymer, dry pigment, silver nitrate, or natural resins, and show us a colorist as melodious as the great Veronese, one who is as pictorially complex as Rubens.

    In fact, Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

    The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world.

    Which is one reason that every artist needs to see and spend time in this show. Not just to bask in the baffling ecstasies and polymorphous crucible of his art. They need to realize how many young painters now suffer from what I call the Polke Effect, ignorantly or mindlessly repeating his gestures without transforming them into anything remotely original. Perhaps this show will school a few of them, and make them take off their water wings and go into the deep end of art’s ocean, where Polke spent his entire career developing a beautiful, gigantic new Boschian cosmography.

    *This sentence has been corrected.

    Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Contemporary Artworld’s Curatorial King – articles and interviews

    “Pythagoras saw the cosmos similarly” – Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Björk

    May 27, 2013 in Interviews
    by Hans-Ulrich Obrist about
    Björk © Carsten Windhorst

    In this cover interview from the Fall 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, Björk speaks to Hans Ulrich Obrist about her then-revolutionary interactive album Biophilia, why record industry pessimism regarding the disappearance of the physical is unwarranted and, importantly, the difference between European and American nature documentaries.

    In the past, being an ambitious band or musician meant coming up with new and exciting concepts for albums. With Biophilia, Björk has decided to reinvent the concept of the album itself. Her seventh longplayer, available both in classic album format as well as in a bundle of specially designed apps, is an interactive nature- and science-themed extravaganza of grand technological proportions. Hans Ulrich Obrist caught up with Björk to find out how the touchscreen has permanently altered the way the Icelandic singer creates and hears music.

    Main photo: Björk during the rehearsals for the premier of Biophilia in Manchester, photographed by Carsten Windhorst.

     

    Björk, your new album Biophilia took three years to make. Both musically and conceptually it stands out from the rest of your oeuvre as part of a larger multimedia project including specially designed apps. Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea to transgress the borders of putting out a conventional album.

    More than anything else, touchscreen technology has completely transformed the way I think about writing music. For the past few years, I’d been using touchscreens exclusively to perform, until one day I decided I wanted to explore the world of touch more deeply, because it’s so intuitive. That’s when I actually started writing music with them as well. I had been feeling limited by conventional computer programs with sequencing grids for a while; I felt like I was being forced into conventional time signatures against my will—even though you can do anything with computers, of course. But I needed to be able to both see and manipulate something that was the opposite of a grid. That’s also when I began writing and developing programs together with programmer and sound engineer Damian Taylor back in 2008. The touchscreen immediately offered solutions to  issues I’ve wanted to solve since my music school days.

    When did you attend music school? 

    When I was a child in Iceland, from the age of five until I was around fifteen. At the time, I felt like the teachers didn’t try enough to tap into my intuitive tactile sensibility. When I first saw the touchscreen, it brought me back to my childhood and my experiences with my own music. I was so excited to reenter a place where I could map things out compositionally as I experience them . . . while at the same time drawing a connection to nature.

    So the touchscreen also inspired you to explore biological and cosmological themes?

    Yes, strangely enough. The applications we designed connect a musical element to a natural one, like the shape of lightning being similar to an arpeggio, or double pendulums inspiring the relationship between counterpoint and melody. I was thinking about how somebody without a background in music would want to create music, how a child would explore the basic elements of composition.

    Last time I was in Iceland I met up with the composer Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, who passed away not too long ago. He was a real pioneer for electronic music—much adored by people like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Was he at all a role model for you in terms of experimentation?

    No, but he was brilliant. Growing up, my formal musical education was much more conservative. I mean, I’m happy I had it, but the focus was on performance, not necessarily on creating. It was about picking an instrument, practicing for ten hours a day, and then maybe in fifteen years, if you’re lucky, becoming part of a symphony orchestra. It certainly wasn’t empowering in the creative sense.

    And what about performing Biophilia? The project combines so many different types of media that live, it would seem to extend far beyond the conventional concert context. How do you present that in all of its complexity?

    A normal concert venue will work, but to show everything we’ve done, a museum might be better. We’ve actually gotten offers from a bunch of different museums after our premier in Manchester. There we did a small, stage-bound version of something that’s actually much bigger and more encompassing, spatially speaking. Since then, we’ve gotten offers from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, The National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo… which would all be great fits, I imagine.

    It all sounds very educational…

    Nothing’s been confirmed yet, but the idea is to use the nature-related apps and instruments we’ve developed as educational tools for children, and then develop exhibits together with biologists, physicists and astronomers. I’m fascinated by the idea of providing the kids with both the technology and the actual objects being discussed. As you know, the umbrella app for Biophilia contains individual apps for each song. I keep imagining the children getting to hold and play with real crystals, and then working with the app from “Crystalline”. The Exploratorium in San Francisco actually talked about developing a ten-room exhibit—one room for each song. San Francisco has one of the largest collections of natural crystals in the world.

    So the project would be transformed into more of an exhibition? 

    Yes, in collaboration with scientists.

    The transformation that you describe from one form of presentation to another seems so natural; it’s an almost organic evolution; an organic integrated learning system. Biophilia seems to be less about exact replication and more about changing and adapting to a host environment.  

    Very much so. I remember about a year into the project I had to stop myself from trying to control the direction the whole thing was taking and just let it start growing naturally. That’s when the best ideas started to take form. Of course, when we met all of the app developers and designers, the project took an entirely different spin.

    Six years ago, you and I had a discussion about how to introduce your work into a museum context. The plans were approaching an advanced phase, but had to be put on hold because you were coming out with your album Medúlla. Now things seem to be moving again in that direction. What’s changed? 

    When we met up, I had been really excited about the museum idea, but I think wasn’t really ready for it; I hadn’t thought enough about how to present things in the museum context. But I would say our conversations from back then planted the seed for what I’m doing today—certainly in terms of how to “show” music and how to make it interactive. This is the first album I’ve done that really allows the listeners to actively immerse themselves in it. The touchscreen and the applications encourage a threefold interaction: between myself and nature, between the listener and the music, and between the listener and nature. The algorithms for the Biophilia apps allow you to not only to alter and rearrange the songs superficially, but also to completely mess with the song structure… while still maintaining the connection to the natural elements the songs deal with. The connection to nature, biology and the cosmos is a constant.

    I remember from our conversations about interactive music that you were interested in doing an exhibition together with the French director Michel Gondry. He was supposed to do the projections for an installation with singers who line a long, dark corridor, I think. 

    That’s right—it was going to be a labyrinth lined with singers performing songs from Medúlla. The idea came about because, compositionally, the songs and melodies off the album are so interwoven. I was imagining the exhibition-goers wandering around and singing as well. I think that if I had conceived Medúlla as interactive from the very beginning, then it would have been easier to follow through with the exhibition. I’m convinced Biophilia has become what it is because the entire project is predicated on being interactive.

    After the live premier of Biophilia in Manchester, half the people I spoke to thought they had seen a concert and the other half thought they had seen something else. 

    I would say that whatever it was, it was a compromise. We maxed out our budget a long time ago and didn’t have the funding to do all the stuff we had originally planned. I wanted the event to be really intimate and have people be more involved, and that’s why we set up the stage in the middle of the venue. Children who came by to test the applications when we had days off of performing were actually using the same touchscreens we were—the ones connected to the instruments. I suppose that made the actual performance area something other than a conventional stage.

    Did you imagine lots of movement and mobility in the interaction with the audience? Was the performance supposed to take place throughout the entire venue? 

    No, more via the touchscreens. This is actually the first time in my life that I wrote songs sitting down, as opposed to being in motion. It used to always happen while I was walking, with the exception of Sugarcubes songs, which were more collaborative. I only realized recently how uncommon it is to not write songs or melodies with a guitar or piano. In the past, I always relied on the sounds of nature as a form of musical accompaniment for my singing. That’s why combining the songs with elements of nature felt totally natural. It wasn’t a utopian vision or some bizarre experimentation; it was perfectly normal for me to work with these sounds. And live, the touchscreen has allowed me to be able to focus completely on my singing, because the rest of the sounds I’m making are purely intuitive movements and gestures. It’s freed things up for me enormously.

    I’ve had a chance to play around some with the Biophilia app and was struck by its multi-functionality; it’s an instrument, a game, an educational tool…

    Don’t forget the animation. This was definitely a collaborative effort, but I would say most of the collaboration was for the visuals and programming. The music I did almost entirely by myself. I think the older I get, the more idiosyncratic I become in the studio and end up wanting to do the music on my own. I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.

    You’re still continuing to work with programmers, right?

    You mean app builders? Of course. But this entire project was interspersed with some pretty big breaks, because I was so intensely involved with environmental issues in Iceland. Also, shortly before the bank crash, there was a good four-month period where I was over there petitioning against investment in the aluminum industry—which still continues to destroy Iceland’s geothermal resources, by the way. I was working together with a group called Náttúra on developing job alternatives in rural areas where the aluminum smelting plants would otherwise employ entire towns. We encouraged the people to start small businesses to promote a green economy. We also wrote a manifesto, which I gave to the Prime Minister.

    I’d love to read that. Where can I get a copy? 

    It’s online, but it’s in Icelandic. The whole thing is really functional and straightforward. We wanted to avoid doing anything utopian or unrealistic, because people were already calling us idealists and accusing us of being clueless hippies.

    Were you promoting a micro-credit system, like in India? 

    Not exactly. We were coming up with viable employment alternatives and amendments to Icelandic law in order to make it easier for people to start small businesses. For example, it was our idea to have smaller green business owners be allowed to hire people who were collecting unemployment and would continue collect unemployment even though they technically had jobs. This was actually made legal, back in autumn of 2008…

    I remember all the international press coverage and how you set into motion some pretty big changes in Iceland. 

    I really wanted to go for it, you know? I felt like it was now or never… and then the bank crash happened, which was strange because this was the first time in my life that I’d been hanging out a lot with economists. All around us, people were losing their jobs, their houses, their pensions… It was very dramatic. There were all these abandoned buildings at the time because everything had gone bankrupt. And that’s when I had the idea of setting up a kind of music school. It was supposed to have ten rooms, which were to correspond to ten elements of nature. These would then help kids learn music theory and composition…

    Each room would be like a chapter in an interactive textbook?  

    I suppose that’s one way to think about it… it was really about using one of those abandoned or unfinished buildings. Then the economic situation took a turn for the worse, and everybody who’d lost their savings gathered outside the Icelandic parliament demanding for the government to step down—which they did. People smashed pots and pans until all the ministers resigned. It was like 1968 in Paris. This happened to be at the same time that I realized that I was free from all of my contractual obligations with record companies, which was very exciting. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Internet and the endless possibilities of releasing my own work… in whatever form I pleased.

    And that’s when the apps were developed? 

    No, first I was contacted by National Geographic, who were starting a record label and wanted me to be their first artist, which I immediately said yes to. At first, I was imagining an unconventional partnership; I wanted them to help me build the music school! But they don’t build buildings, so they suggested we do a 3D movie, which I thought was a brilliant idea. I ended up meeting all sorts of directors and film producers, but at some point the project became so huge and expensive that I retreated in a way. I started doing a lot of the work on my own, really DIY. I moved to Puerto Rico for eight months with my sound engineer and that’s when I really started writing the songs for Biophilia. At first, I was using a cheap little organ, as well as some midi stuff I got off of eBay—cheap touchscreens and a couple of Nintendo game controllers. Eventually, sometime in 2010, it became clear the 3D film wasn’t going to get made…

    But you had already done so much work. 

    Yes, loads of it. In two years I finished all ten songs, including the application ideas for all of the natural elements.

    What are the different elements featured on the album? 

    Let’s see if I can name them all… There’s gravity, tectonic plates, the human relationship to nature, viruses…

    Crystals…

    Yes—crystals, DNA, dark matter, cosmogony, lightning, and lunar cycles. Creation myths play a key role, too… What was incredible is that right after I finished all of the songs in the spring of 2010, the iPad came out. It was perfect timing.

    So technology caught up with you! 

    Something like that… That’s when we started contacting some of my favorite app creators.

    From what I understand, you sought out a lot of younger developers and programmers who were working on DIY music programs, is that right? 

    They were all different ages actually. But I contacted programmers who’d done some of my favorite apps—some musical but most not. I was in regular contact with the app designers, explaining the concepts behind each element and what needed to be included. These were then integrated into the “mother app” on “Cosmogony”, where each verse of the song is about a different creation myth: Native American, Sanskrit, Aboriginal, and modern science—which would be the Big Bang theory. After talking to a bunch of scientists I found out that many of them feel the Big Bang, at least as it’s taught in schools, is pretty outdated, very “twentieth century”.

    The designer and developer Scott Snibbe was also involved, right?

    He was the project manager. He oversaw the app development.

    Were you in constant contact with scientists while you were writing the individual songs? 

    Not exactly. I wrote the songs first and then eventually contacted some of the experts for details. Most of the research came from watching university-level educational DVDs and reading books on my own.

    So there was a huge amount of research involved?  

    Yes, but it was more fun than anything else.

    I heard you collaborated with Drew Berry for the animation of DNA. He does such incredible visualizations of molecular biology. How was it working with him?  

    He’s quite an animator. I think our collaboration for the DNA app is the thing that comes closest to a music video. We actually have tentative plans to put together an animated video on brain functions—specifically, what happens in the brain neurologically when people sing.

    It’s always fascinated me how important science is for art and vice versa. Lots of scientists utilize artistic renderings in order to better understand or visualize certain processes. 

    That’s true. But I would say that this whole project is about taking things that are kind of academic and transforming them into a three-dimensional, non-academic interactive experience. I’m sure the app descriptions sound complex and esoteric, but when you actually see and use these things, it becomes much clearer.

    When I saw the premier in Manchester, it was the lightning that really grabbed my attention, but I’ve always been fascinated by Tesla. How did you come up with the idea of writing a song about electrical currents? 

    It happened during my research. At one point I was YouTubing non-stop and eventually stumbled on all these videos of people making music with Tesla coils. That was the beginning. More than anything, it struck me as something a child would enjoy, because it’s so dramatic-looking. When we did the week-long course in Manchester, showing children the instruments and asking them about their favorites, the Tesla coil was always at the very top of their list. It’s because it’s the most visceral and spectacular visualization of the sound, I think. It brings the listener inside the sound by bringing the sound outside in the form of visualization.

    That reminds me so much of our discussions in Paris from a few years ago—having the listener not be an external entity but rather completely immersed in the music itself; an active, not a passive, part of the aural experience.

    I think that’s why this current project had gone through so many different manifestations, from music school to 3D film to what it is today… At its core, the project is about inclusion.

    Some people have the impression that the digital world creates only virtual connections and discourages live experience. But I think that couldn’t be further from the truth, and this project shows just that. Having seen the premier, it was clear that the live component is more important than ever when there is an increased emphasis on the visual. 

    I think people who download music have even greater interest in experiencing it live, because the physical process of going to a record shop to buy a physical object has been made more or less obsolete. That’s why seeing live music becomes the primary way to experience the music non-virtually. But the very idea of what’s physical needs to be redefined. All the record industry pessimism towards the disappearance of the physical is unwarranted, if you ask me. The meanings are merely shifting. You know, people will always hunger for physical experiences. Future generations will all be born with two arms, two legs and a sense of touch.

    You mentioned before that you felt inspired when you realized that you were out of your contractual obligations for your record company. What kind of freedoms have the Internet and applications provided you with? Has it made you more independent? 

    Creatively, I can do so much more. Instruments in the form of applications are far less expensive and reach exponentially more people than the physical object. With apps, it feels like anything’s possible. I’ve experienced at least three different album formats, and the app and digital download is by far the least dependent on the music industry. It’s reintroduced something very punk back into music. After we finished the entire project we were able to pick and choose who we wanted to offer it to. All of the major labels were scared out of their wits—they didn’t want to touch something so different from a “normal” album. Then we thought about how welcoming Apple had been to us technologically, allowing us to release an app album in their store without “signing” to any label. They haven’t sponsored me and I’m not advertising them—they simply have a set-up which can distribute Biophilia; they combine all of the technology necessary to explore what we had created. Also, in 2010, the iPad was the only proper touchscreen on the market. But I’ve now decided to work with Universal and Nonesuch to distribute the physical CD. In the beginning I thought that no one would be interested in that anymore, but that’s not so.

    Your inventions remind me of the work of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles. She’s been creating incredible musical contraptions since the sixties, and they’re all about exploring sound perception outside of an exclusively aural context…

    Sound is experienced in so many different ways. That’s why I wanted to make both apps and acoustic instruments. It was important for me to emphasize the use of air, water, wind and oxygen to create sound. People shouldn’t perceive this project merely as a virtual phantasy world. They should see it as an exploration of the crossroads of electronic and acoustic sound—but from a different angle.

    How do you fully realize this in a live context?

    Live, the music is played on touchscreens connected to acoustic instruments that read digital information. In order to give people a better idea of how the instruments work, we’d actually like to create some short films for the crowd to watch before the concert.

    Is it true that David Attenborough did the narration for the introduction to the umbrella app?

    Yes. The BBC was doing a documentary on the making of Biophilia, which David will probably be involved in. We asked him at the very last minute about the app and he said yes on the spot. We immediately gave him the introduction and then recorded it the very same day—it was all very spontaneous.

    He has a very calming presence.

    Indeed. It always makes me think of the difference between American and British nature documentaries: American nature documentaries are usually much scarier, and the music is much more dramatic—even if the animals are totally harmless and unthreatening. An American documentary on bees would start out with a narrator exclaiming, “If one thousand bees were to sting you at the same time, you’d die!”

    Do you think that European nature documentaries are generally more benign?

    Less threatening, for sure. And David Attenborough always makes the situation seem hopeful and positive—at least regarding the relationship between humans and nature.

    How did you come up with the title for the project?

    I’d been reading a book by Oliver Sacks called Musicophilia, which is a collection of anecdotes about his experiences as a neurologist with sound and treating patients. I felt really inspired, and I then had the chance to meet him personally. But as a general matter, I’m fascinated by the visualization of sound, and how sound waves travel—even though my visualizations tend towards particle, not wave movement. On a macro level, sound moves like billiard balls; or even planets and solar systems. Pythagoras saw the cosmos similarly; he ascribed a note to each planet. There’s a long history of connecting our solar system to sound, because the music of the spheres is all about equilibrium and vibration. That’s why I wanted the website and Biophilia app to be set up like a galaxy. It’s the easiest way to explain how sound behaves in space. ~

    http://e.issuu.com/embed.html#0/2558495

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    Behind every great artist is a great curator. But what do they actually do? Serpentine superstar Hans Ulrich Obrist reveals the delights and dangers of his craft – while Yoko Ono, David Shrigley and more pick their all-time favourite show

    Interviews by Stuart Jeffries and Nancy Groves, The Guardian, Sunday 23 March 2014

       Do it

    ‘One of my favourites’ … Adrian Piper’s The Humming Room, part of Do It

    Hans Ulrich Obrist

    One of my childhood heroes was Sergei Diaghilev. He didn’t dance. He wasn’t a choreographer. He didn’t compose. He didn’t direct. But he was, to use a term the writer JG Ballard said to me in an interview, a junction-maker. Diaghilev was the founder of the Ballets Russes: he brought Stravinsky together with choreographers, with Picasso, Braque, and Cocteau. He made art meet theatre meet dance.

    Diaghilev and Cocteau tried to explain what they did with the words: “Etonnez moi!” Astonish me. I’ve never had an art practice, and I’ve never thought of the curator as a creative rival to the artist. When I became a curator, I wanted to be helpful to artists. I think of my work as that of a catalyst – and sparring partner.

    It’s worth thinking about the etymology of curating. It comes from the Latin word curare, meaning to take care. In Roman times, it meant to take care of the bath houses. In medieval times, it designated the priest who cared for souls. Later, in the 18th century, it meant looking after collections of art and artifacts.

    There’s a hangover of all those things in modern curating. When I curated my first exhibition – which followed discussions with the artists Fischli/Weiss (Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss), Richard WentworthChristian Boltanski and Hans Peter Feldmann in the kitchen of my apartment in St Gallen, Switzerland – I had a productive misunderstanding with my parents. They thought I was going into medicine because curating means caring. I don’t think they thought it was to do with art.

    Today, curating as a profession means at least four things. It means to preserve, in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art. It means to be the selector of new work. It means to connect to art history. And it means displaying or arranging the work. But it’s more than that. Before 1800, few people went to exhibitions. Now hundreds of millions of people visit them every year. It’s a mass medium and a ritual. The curator sets it up so that it becomes an extraordinary experience and not just illustrations or spatialised books.

    I started going to exhibitions in Switzerland when I was 10 or 11. As a schoolboy, I would go every afternoon to see the long, thin figures of Giacometti. I’d just look and look. As Gilbert & George told me: “To be with art is all we ask.” But the first epiphany I had in terms of curating came when I saw Harald Szeemann’s Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk (The Tendency Towards the Total Work of Art) in 1983. Szeemann had the idea of the exhibition as a toolbox, or of an archaeology of knowledge, like Michel Foucault. That is how Szeemann displayed works by Gaudi, Beuys, Schwitters and others: the idea was that these artists had created all-embracing environments. I went to see that exhibition 41 times.

    Later, I was inspired by how philosopher Jean-François Lyotard curated the 1985 exhibition Les Immatériaux at the Pompidou in Paris. It dealt with how new information technologies shape the human condition, but what interested me was that, rather than writing a book, Lyotard made his philosophical ideas into a labyrinth in the exhibition. It’s difficult to describe because he was producing the idea rather than illustrating it, but it influenced me and lots of other artists – like Philippe Parreno, who I worked with later.

    But there are dangers with curating. The Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition was very dense, very inspiring and interesting because of the danger that it became the Gesamtkunstwerk of the curator rather than of the artists. But for me, it was important to be close to artists and not subordinate their work to the curator’s vision. I’ve realised that the curator’s role is more that of enabler. The Italian conceptual artist Boetti told me to pay attention to artists’ unrealised projects. Many artists have not been able to realise their fondest projects. My role is to help them.

    One of my favourite exhibitions is called Do It, which I co-curated with the artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier 21 years ago. It is still going. It was inspired by Marcel Duchamp sending instructions from Argentina to his sister to assemble one of his readymades, and by John Cage’s music of change, and by Yoko Ono’s work. Lots of artists contributed how-to instructions to do things in the gallery or elsewhere. It’s been to more than 120 cities, often to places where there isn’t otherwise much of a contemporary art scene. Right now, it’s in Salt Lake City. It can continue for the next 100 years.

    Joseph Beuys talked about expanding the notion of art. I’m trying to expand the notion of curating. Exhibitions need not only take place in galleries, need not only involve displaying objects. Art can appear where we expect it least. • Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of the Serpentine Galleries. His Ways of Curating is published by Allen Lane.


    David Shrigley

    curate1
    Sonic Youth’s art show in Malmo.

    The exhibition that really sticks in my mind was the Sonic Youth show from maybe two or three years ago that toured. It was curated by Sonic Youth and Robert Groenenboom. I had a piece of work in it and caught it in Malmö. What struck me was the fact that there was a lot of bad art in it, yet it was still fantastic. A lot of stuff wasn’t art, or was art but by dilettante artists, but somehow it fitted together well.

    It was all about Sonic Youth, their relationships with other artists and with art. There were so many different types of work. Some exhibits were more like artefacts. In fact, the magic was in the blurring of art and artefacts, of artists and musicians. Their journey, that was the premise. So they had the Sonic Youth album covers made by some seminal artists: Gerhard RichterChristopher WoolMike Kelley. They even had their final album cover, which was designed by John Fahey. He was the quintessential folk revivalist. He made these paintings that he’d sell at his gigs.

    The show made you realise that that’s what curating is: it isn’t necessarily about showing good art to its best advantage. It’s about making an exhibition that’s really good. You can make a good show without having good art in it. That’s not to say you can’t have both, just that it’s possible without both.

    My eyes glaze over when people want to talk about curating. I think good curation is working with someone who can do something you can’t. That goes for any good collaboration. The best is when you’re making a show together and finding it all out as you go along. Some curators are academics, but artists aren’t – or at least I’m not.


    Yoko Ono

    curate22
    Apple by Yoko Ono Photograph: Tony Cox

    When I do a show, I’m hands on. I almost do the whole thing myself. Over the course of my career I’ve been lucky to work with many creative curators. Their role is to give me protection and encouragement. Not in the sense of changing what I do, but allowing me to do what I want to do. They have helped me to understand what I like.

    Alexandra Monroe gave so much love to me and my work that she made YES [Ono’s first major retrospective] very easy for me. I would sometimes wonder why she would select a particular work – but she says: “Look at this – it’s important, Yoko.” And she is often right.

    Jon Hendricks [curator of Ono’s current Bilbao show] has also been very supportive – just by going to places on my behalf and saying: “Yoko doesn’t like that.”

    Hans Ulrich is one of those people who jump around a lot. He flies around in his mind, just as he is always flying around the world. And when you meet that mind in transit it’s very exciting. It gives me a sense of my own power. My feeling is that Hans is not just a curator. His duty is to nurture his own knowledge and tastes as much as the artists he works with.


    John Baldessari

    curate3
    Yves Klein in the late 50s Photograph: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

    The collector Virginia Dwan had a remarkable gallery in LA, which later moved to New York. She was instrumental in exhibiting many European and New York artists who had never shown on the west coast before. The show I most remember was Yves Klein at Dwan Gallery in the late 60s: it was all blue paintings. It made me rethink what I was doing. Virginia had to close the gallery in the end. She wasn’t making a profit. The message is that it wasn’t about selling art.

    I think a good curator is like a good chef. They understand the city’s needs – and fulfil and challenge them. How do curators and artists work with each other? Ideally, it’s a collaboration in which one inspires and challenges the other. The best thing a curator can do is elicit the response, “I didn’t know you could do that,” from the public. The worst thing is to present a show that is no longer relevant.


    Mark Wallinger

    curate4
    Tue Greenfort’s Diffuse Eintraege, part of the Münster Sculpture Project in 2007 Photograph: Roman Mensing

    The Münster Sculpture project was founded by Klaus Bussmann and Kasper König in 1977 and happens every 10 years. Kasper has been the curator throughout. It’s an amazing project and I was lucky enough to be part of it in 2007 – one of 33 artists that year.

    My work was to encircle the city with this thin line that was barely visible. I remember having a meeting in a Münster cafe with Kasper where I said: “I want the circle to go around here but I need a set of compasses or something.” Kasper just lobbed a saucer across the table, I drew around it and half an hour later we were in the town council office with the chief surveyor asking me how many metres above sea level I wanted it.

    Kasper is a sounding board and an enabler and an enthusiast for all the artists he works with. Münster is a personal place for him. It’s not like those shows where international curators get dropped in. His relationship to the city is critical to the whole venture.


    Taryn Simon

    curate5
    Untitled by Horst Ademeit

    The exhibition that stands out for me is Horst Ademeit at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, 2011. In a small, often overlooked area of the museum was an overwhelming amount of meticulously ordered material by an artist I’d never heard of before. After being rejected by his parents, his wife, his school, and even his teacher –Joseph Beuys – Ademeit abandoned drawing and painting for photography and writing. He shot more than 6,000 Polaroids in isolation over a 14-year period, which engulfed the room.

    In the margins of the Polaroids, and in seemingly endless calendars and booklets, he handwrote notations at a scale that borders on indecipherable. He was studying the impact of cold rays, earth rays, electromagnetic waves and other forms of radiation on his health and safety. He protected himself with magnets and herbs from what he perceived to be dangerous invisible forces, while obsessively creating this trove of records and evidence. The exhibition felt almost like an invasion of privacy — as if you were seeing somebody’s secret world.


    Philippe Parreno

    curate6
    Les Immateriaux. Photograph: Centre Pompidou

    I was really influenced by early shows at the Pompidou, particularly Les Immatériaux, curated by Jean-François Lyotard in 1985. One of the first to imagine our digital future avant la lettre, it was enormously influential, its title reflecting not just a shift in the materials we use, but also in the very meaning of the term “material”.

    Lyotard created an open structure, a maze with one entrance and one exit, but multiple pathways through it. Walls were not solid structures but grey webs stretching from floor to ceiling. Visitors wore headphones and listened to radio transmissions that faded in and out as they moved through the exhibition. Such fluid non-linearity exemplified the very conditions of immateriality central to the show’s argument.

    What makes for a good curator? Passion, curiosity, intelligence. Hans, Daniel Birnbaum (director of the museum of modern art in Stockholm) and I are working on a project: the sequel Lyotard planned to Les Immatériaux, which never took place. Ours is called Resistances. Humans want to simplify events in the world in order to understand them. For example, it’s easier to say that the force of gravity is stable but actually it’s not. It oscillates. Lyotard believed that art was about that, about resistant forces that make things not totally how we think they are. That’s a really beautiful way to define art and art curating.


    Gilbert and George

    curate7
    Gilbert and George Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe
    Crucify curators.

    (“Crucify a curator” is one of the many one-liners from Gilbert & George’s latest triptych Scapegoating, at the Bermondsey St White Cube, London, in July.)

    ==

    A: I find it easy to get both optimistic and pessimistic when in conversation with artists about the role of art in a time when it is so easily absorbed into popular culture. It is a very exciting time to be making work because of unstable political climates, new technology, and a welcoming public. What sort of subversive role can art take in this?

    H: Yeah, I think that’s a complex question, which I think is difficult to answer quickly, but I think when there is no more priests and philosophers says Gerhard Richter, the artists will be the most important people in the world. I have always felt it’s a very important moment where the art world is magnetic and there is a lot of other disciplines that are interested in the art world, I think it has a lot to do with the former. There is I think within the art world, a high degree of flexibility also of the formats and the possibility to invent new rules of the game, new formats. I very often think through the medium of exhibition we can show artists, architects, scientists, philosophers and all kinds of practitioners, it would be very difficult to do this in another field right now, so I think there is a great possibility right now to bring the different disciplines together in the art world as the formats are open. Obviously the art world has gained a lot of territory, and I think in this sense, it’s much broader than it used to be and much bigger. Maria Merz is always telling me that he loves this quote by General Giap who said, “When you gain territory, you lose concentration and when you gain concentration you lose territory”, and obviously the challenge right now is how the art world doesn’t lose the concentration, so for me it’s important to always not forget that, so every now and then, besides the big exhibitions I put on, I do very intimate, small exhibitions which are really concentrated moments with artists, they are focused shows a bit like the Kitchen. The Kitchen always stayed with me and it was the poet Cavafy who said, “the city you are born with, you always carry it with you wherever you go” and for me there is always the Kitchen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where I grew up and studied and this kitchen is always with me, and so like besides all the very public shows in the big museums and biennales and stuff I always very regularly find a little exhibition like in the Barragan House in Mexico or now soon in Brazil or in the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London about ten years ago, these sort of house museum exhibitions in very intimate small houses concentrate and develop projects that are important, so I hope it’s both, it’s both trying to reach out and bridge the gap between other disciplines, but also remain concentrated.

     

    A: Thanks Hans

    H: Pleasure to talk to you.

     

    A: Yes, you too.

    Interview: Adam O’Reilly
    Photos: Jonnie Craig

     

    ==

    THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE

    Profiles DECEMBER 8, 2014 ISSUE

    The Art of Conversation
    The curator who talked his way to the top.

    BY D. T. MAX

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    2014-12-08
    TABLE OF CONTENTS

    Hans Ulrich Obrist has conducted twenty-four hundred hours of interviews with creative people: “salons of the twenty-first century.”

    Hans Ulrich Obrist has conducted twenty-four hundred hours of interviews with creative people: “salons of the twenty-first century.”CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY ROE ETHRIDGE
    CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY ROE ETHRIDGE
    Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator at the Serpentine, a gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens that was once a teahouse and is now firmly established as a center for contemporary art. A few years ago, ArtReview named him the most powerful figure in the field, but Obrist, a forty-six-year-old Swiss, seems less to stand atop the art world than to race around, up, over, and through it. On weekdays, he works at the Serpentine offices; there are meetings over budgets and fund-raising, and Obrist, with his fellow-director, Julia Peyton-Jones, selects artists to exhibit and helps them shape their shows. When I visited him in London in late August, two exhibitions that he had organized were up: “512 hours,” a “durational performance” piece by Marina Abramović, and a show of computer-generated video art by Ed Atkins. But on weekends Obrist becomes who he truly is: a traveller. By his count, he has made roughly two thousand trips in the past twenty years, and while in London I discovered that he had been away fifty of the previous fifty-two weekends. He goes to meet emerging artists and check in with old ones, to see shows small and large. The kind of culture he cares about is mobile and far-flung and can be grasped better on the move. He likes to quote J. G. Ballard’s claim that the most beautiful building in London is the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow Airport, and the postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha’s observation that “in-betweenness is a fundamental condition of our times.” Obrist is enormously fond of quoting.

    On the twelve weekends before I saw him in London, H.U.O., as Obrist is known, had been in Basel, for the art fair; Ronchamp, France, for a wedding, in the chapel designed by Le Corbusier; Munich, for a talk with Matthew Barney; Berlin, where he maintains an apartment primarily to house ten thousand books, for an interview with Rosemarie Trockel; Frankfurt, for a panel with Peter Fischli; Arles, where he is helping to design a new museum; Singapore, to meet emerging artists; Munich again, to interview the young Estonian artist Katja Novitskova; Los Angeles, for a panel on art and Instagram; Vienna, to guest-curate an exhibit of unrealized design projects; Majorca, to see Miquel Barceló’s ceramic murals in the cathedral; Edinburgh, where Obrist’s new memoir, “Ways of Curating,” was featured at the book fair; and Vancouver, where he appeared onstage with the novelist and futurist Douglas Coupland. In all these locales, he saw as much art as he could, but he also visited scientists and historians. He believes that, because culture is becoming more interconnected across geography and across disciplines, his knowledge must expand far beyond the visual arts: to technology, literature, anthropology, cultural criticism, philosophy. These disciplines, in turn, become tools in Obrist’s attempt to fertilize the arts with fresh ideas.
    Another thing that Obrist loves to do is talk. His favorite word is “urgent,” to which he gives an elongated Mitteleuropean pronunciation. His words come out in an almost comical torrent, citations bobbing up and ideas colliding. Again quoting Ballard, he describes his curatorial work as “junction-making”—between objects, between people, and between people and objects. Words help Obrist process what he’s seeing, and he often channels this energy into interviews with artists and cultural figures, which he calls “salons of the twenty-first century.” He has conducted twenty-four hundred hours of interviews to date, talking to artists in their studios, on planes, or as they walk. Ideally, he records them using three digital recorders, to make sure that nothing gets lost.

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    In interviews, Obrist’s volubility is paired with a deep deference. The architect Rem Koolhaas, in a preface to the Obrist compendium “dontstopdontstopdontstop,” writes, “Usually those afflicted with logorrhea do not stimulate others to communicate; in his case, he rushes to let others do the talking.” Obrist respects the art-world compact that though the work may be shocking, the conversation should be supportive. His questions are rarely personal, and when he is being interviewed himself he is similarly guarded: at one point, when I asked him to explain his manic personality, he said, “Maybe I’m in a permanent state of Pessoa’s intranquillity.” The interviews, over time, become books. He has published forty volumes of them, records of interactions with everyone from Doris Lessing to the video artist Ryan Trecartin. In all, they represent Obrist’s best claim to being an artist in his own right. He likes to say that he models himself on the impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

    Obrist is not interested in all art equally. He can be skeptical about painting, because at this point, he told me, it’s difficult to do meaningful work in that medium. For him, art, even old art, must be speaking to something current. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think about Franz Kline,” he said. The art he is most passionate about doesn’t hang on walls and often doesn’t have a permanent emanation. It can take the form of a dance or a game or a science experiment, and often leaves nothing behind but memories and an exhibition catalogue. (Obrist has published more than two hundred catalogues.) He looks for work that responds to the current moment or anticipates the moment after this one—Obrist is obsessed with the not-yet-done. His favorite question is “Do you have any unfinished or unrealized projects?”
    Much of the work that fits Obrist’s ephemeral aesthetic could be called relational art, a term coined by the Parisian curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the nineteen-nineties to describe work whose content cannot be separated from its communal reception. (Obrist avoids using the term “relational” himself, in part because the artists never used it.) Abramović’s “512 hours” is a good example of relational art. There were few props, no script, and no installation; patrons were asked simply to join Abramović in an unadorned gallery space and conjoin their psychic energy. Another example of Obrist’s taste is a work by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist, whom Obrist helped discover. Obrist was one of a team of curators who invited Eliasson to contribute to a multi-authored opera called “Il Tempo del Postino,” first staged at the Manchester International Festival, in 2007. Eliasson created a piece, “Echo House,” in which a reflective curtain dropped in front of the audience, showing audience members their every gesture. Each sound they made—from coughs to claps—was mimicked sonically by the orchestra. Soon the audience took the lead, improvising a score of shouts and ring tones.

    These works feel modern, in part, because they mirror the group decision-making found online; at the same time, they foster interactivity without leaving people isolated in front of screens. The Internet is always on Obrist’s mind, as he scans for signs of cultural shifts. Although his shows often playfully elevate the non-artistic to the curatorial—Duchamp is a key figure—they also have a sadness to them. He clearly believes that art offers a refuge at a time when dark beasts, from capitalism to climate change, roam the earth. His friend the artist Liam Gillick sees Obrist’s taste in art as made up in equal measure of “the melancholic sublime and the idea of the productive machine.”

    Obrist, for his part, notes that his exhibits often demonstrate what he has called a “quality of unfinishedness and incompleteness.” He doesn’t like art to have temporal, spatial, or intellectual limits. The white cube of the gallery irks him; closing dates bother him. He prefers to think of exhibitions as seeds that can grow. For one of Obrist’s early shows, “do it,” which débuted in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1994, twelve artists created “instructions” rather than finished work. Alison Knowles, a New York artist associated with the Fluxus movement, invited visitors to bring something red and fill one of dozens of squares in the gallery space with it. The exhibition never looked the same from day to day. Other venues soon took it on, and, over the years, artists have dropped in and the instructions have changed. The exhibition, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary, is one of the most widely produced art shows in the world. “Do it” is the signature effort of a curator who has followed his own algorithm: see art, meet the artists, produce their shows, use these shows to meet more artists, produce their shows in turn. (In “Ways of Curating,” Obrist calls social interactions “the lifeblood of any curator’s metabolism.”)

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    Every year, the Serpentine holds a Marathon—a festival that coalesces what Obrist has learned from his travels and his reading and his interviewing. It is a combination of exhibitions, performances, and panels, with writers, visual artists, and cultural historians mixed in freely. The first Marathon, in 2006, was a twenty-four-hour rolling interview session that Obrist co-hosted with Koolhaas. Afterward, Obrist was so exhausted that he had to check himself into the hospital. Koolhaas, who was then sixty-one, did not. “He was better trained, because he did a lot of sports,” Obrist remembered. (Obrist now jogs every morning in Hyde Park.)

    Last year’s Marathon, which Obrist conceived with the French curator Simon Castets, was called “89plus,” and focussed on people born that year or later. Obrist explained, “1989 was the year the Berlin Wall came down, and it was the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. This is the first generation to live its life entirely on the Internet.” Ryan Trecartin and some sixty others participated. Of course, two days were not enough to explore such a subject, and in Obrist’s mind the exhibit never really ended. He and Castets are now planning an “89plus” event, dedicated to poetry, in Stockholm next year. In October, Obrist travelled to New York, and while he was there he held a planning meeting about “89plus” at a café in Greenwich Village. Surrounded by young poets and editors of alternative presses, he asked, “Do you know any poets who use Snapchat?” His voice was full of hope—what poetry could be more to Obrist’s liking than poetry that vanishes?
    Afterward, we toured art galleries. Obrist was in and out remarkably quickly, like a man with a plane to catch. If a gallery representative took more than twenty seconds to explain a work, Obrist turned his attention to his iPhone. Though he likes to learn, he doesn’t like to be told what to pay attention to. But when he saw something he really liked he paused, and a light smile crossed his lips. This happened at the New Museum, which had on display the Lebanese artist Etel Adnan’s quietly bold abstract landscape paintings, along with a typescript of her book-length poem “The Arab Apocalypse.” He said, “This has something of the Gesamtkunstwerk”—a complete, or all-encompassing, art work. The term is often associated with the sprawling operas of Richard Wagner, but for Obrist it can be something much more nimble—a protean creation that is remade over time, absorbing fresh influences from people who engage with it. Something, in other words, much like himself.

    Obrist was born in Zurich and grew up in a small town near Lake Constance. His father was a comptroller in the construction industry, his mother a grade-school teacher. An only child, he found school “too slow,” and other Swiss found his vitality off-putting. “People would always say that I should go to Germany,” he remembered. His parents were not particularly interested in art, but on several occasions they took him to a monastery library in the nearby city of St. Gallen. He admired the antiquity of the books, the silence, the felt shoes. “You could make an appointment and, with white cloths, touch the books,” he said. “That’s one of my deepest childhood memories.”

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    When he was around twelve, he took the train to Zurich, where he fell in love with “the long thin figures” at a Giacometti exhibition. Soon he was collecting postcards of famous paintings—“my musée imaginaire,” he calls it. “I would organize them according to criteria: by period, by style, by color.” One day, when he was seventeen, he went to see a show by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at a Basel museum. He was engrossed by their “Equilibrium” sculptures—delicately balanced metal-and-rubber constructions. He had been reading Vasari’s biographical sketches of the artists of the Renaissance, and it struck Obrist that he could try to meet creators, too. He reached out to Fischli and Weiss with this rap: “I’m a high-school pupil and I’m really, really obsessed by your work and I’d love to visit you.” He told me, “I really didn’t know what I wanted. It was just this desire to find out more.” Fischli and Weiss were amused by the precocious Obrist, and welcomed him to their Zurich studio. They were filming their now famous short film “The Way Things Go,” in which an old tire rolls down a ramp, knocking over a ladder and setting off a chain reaction. On his visit, Obrist discovered a sheet of brown wrapping paper on the floor with the entire Rube Goldberg schema drawn on it. “It was almost like a mind map,” he said.

    Soon afterward, Obrist was entranced by a Gerhard Richter exhibition in Bern, and asked Richter if he could visit his studio, in Cologne. “That took courage,” he said. He travelled on the night train from Zurich. “When I arrived, he was working on one of his amazing cycles of abstract paintings,” Obrist said. They talked for ninety minutes. Richter was astonished by Obrist’s passion: “ ‘Possessed’ is the word for Hans Ulrich,” he told me. Richter recommended the music of John Cage. “We discussed chance in paintings and he said he liked playing boules,” Obrist recalled. A few months later, Obrist was in a Cologne park, playing boules with Richter and his friends.

    Obrist doggedly arranged to meet other artists whose work he admired. He went to see Alighiero Boetti in Rome. The feverish Boetti may be the only person ever to complain that Obrist didn’t talk fast enough. (In his new book, Obrist writes with delight, “Here was someone with whom I had to struggle to keep up.”) When Obrist asked him how he could be “useful to art,” Boetti pointed out the obvious: that he was born to be a curator.
    Obrist wasn’t sure what the job entailed, but he was intuitively drawn to the power of organizing art. As a teen-ager, he visited an exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich: “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “Tendency Toward the Total Work of Art.” It highlighted four selections from the past hundred years of modernism: Duchamp’s enigmatic glass construction “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” and one painting each by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. The works had been placed at the center of the Kunsthaus, heightening their effect. Obrist was struck by the intelligence of the man who had organized it: Harald Szeemann. Also a Swiss, Szeemann was one of several curators who had begun to bring a new inventiveness to the age-old job of selecting art to illustrate a theme. Obrist saw the show forty-one times. (Later, of course, he interviewed Szeemann.)

    Obrist did not yet feel qualified to put his stamp on the art world. He had the autodidact’s anxiety about not knowing enough. For all his energy, he was not a revolutionary; he was an accumulator of information. But how to find out what artists were doing? “There wasn’t then a place to study,” he said. “I knew of no curator schools.” So he designed his own education. He enrolled at the University of St. Gallen, and majored in economics and social sciences. When not in class, he set out to see as many shows as he could.

    Switzerland is well situated if you want to make impulsive trips around Europe. Obrist spoke five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. (His English was given a boost by Roget’s Thesaurus, and he still keeps a vocabulary list in a blue notebook that he takes with him—among the latest words are “forage” and “hue.”) He took the night train to avoid hotel bills and arrived in a city the next morning. “I would go to every museum and look and look again,” he remembered. Then he visited local artists. He found that he could improve his welcome if he brought news of what he had seen, plus other artists’ gossip and opinions. “I would go from one city to the next, inspired by the monks in the Middle Ages, who would carry knowledge from one monastery to the next monastery,” he said. At Boetti’s suggestion, he also inquired about unrealized projects, as every artist had some and felt passionate about them. Above all, he listened. “I was what the French call être à l’écoute,” he told me. His youthful intensity sometimes raised concern. Louise Bourgeois, after meeting the teen-age Hans Ulrich, sleep-deprived and suffering from a cold, called his mother in Switzerland and urged her to take better care of her son.

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    In 1991, Obrist, in his early twenties, finally felt ready. By then, he estimates, he had visited tens of thousands of exhibitions and knew more artists than most professional curators. He chose to hold his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. “The kitchen was just another place I kept stacks of books and papers,” he recalled. The minimalist gesture seemed appropriate, both as a reaction to the engorged art market of the eighties and as a reflection of the economic slump across Europe. It was also a playful homage: Harald Szeemann had done an exhibit in an apartment.

    The idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special. Among the friends he included was the French painter and sculptor Christian Boltanski. Under the sink, Boltanski projected a film of a lit candle; the flickering could be seen through the gap in the cabinet doors. “It was like a little miracle where you expect it least,” Obrist remembered. He publicized the exhibit through small cards and word of mouth; still, he was relieved that only thirty people came over the three months it was open. “I was still studying and couldn’t have coped with much more,” he said. Among those attending was a curator from the Cartier Foundation, a contemporary-art museum in Paris. Soon afterward, Cartier offered Obrist a three-month fellowship. Obrist took it, leaving Switzerland for good.

    Obrist quickly became a figure on the European art circuit. He was a clearing house for news and relationships, and he was generous—no sooner had he met someone than he helped that person connect with others in his widening circle. If he stayed in a hotel, he cleaned out the postcards in the lobby and mailed them to everyone he could think of. “He had these big plastic bags,” Marina Abramović, who met him in Hamburg in 1993, recalled. “I always wanted him to empty them and list all that was inside. . . . He would have information of every single human being—every artist living in a favela!” She remembered him as astonishingly innocent, an adjective that many still use for him. Many artists saw his unchecked commitment as a counterpart to their own. The French artist Philippe Parreno said, “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” Obrist once conducted an interview with Parreno while driving him from the Dublin airport to Connemara, and became so deeply absorbed that he didn’t realize he was on the wrong side of the street.
    Obrist continued to set up shows in unusual locations. He put on an exhibit of Richter’s paintings in the country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and a show in a hotel restaurant where Robert Walser, the Swiss writer, used to stop during long walks through the mountains. A third took place in Room 763 at the Hotel Carlton Palace, in Paris, where Obrist was then staying. In one part of the exhibit, called “The Armoire Show,” nine artists created clothes for the closet. With Fischli and Weiss, he toured the Zurich sewer museum. “They had toilets and urinals on plinths and had never heard of Duchamp,” he marvelled. This inspired him to put together “Cloaca Maxima,” which featured art about lavatories and digestion. The show opened in 1994, in and around the Zurich sewers.

    During much of the nineties, Obrist held a part-time position at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He was the museum’s “head of Migratory Curation”—a whimsical title that was, essentially, an invitation to travel and find new talent. In 1995, Julia Peyton-Jones, the director of the Serpentine, invited Obrist to put on a show there. He proposed an exhibition called “Take Me (I’m Yours),” in which visitors were asked to leave with an object from the exhibit. It was a huge success, and many felt that Obrist had subverted the passive expectations of a museum visit: fill up on culture and leave. He had injected a note of interactivity into staid Britain. (Frieze was less impressed: “The viewers’ participation is rewarded with some worthless gesture or rubbish souvenir.”)

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    While working on the Serpentine show, Obrist rented a three-bedroom flat on Crampton Street in Elephant and Castle, then a marginal neighborhood. He had fifty copies of his house keys made and handed them out to artists and curators passing through London. Conversations with his guests often lasted through the night; then, at six in the morning, Obrist went with whoever was still awake to a nearby McDonald’s—the only place around that was open at that hour. Klaus Biesenbach, who is now the director of MOMA PS 1, in Queens, stayed with Obrist for a time. One day, Biesenbach told me, a Korean artist named Koo Jeong-A arrived. Koo, then in her mid-twenties, made delicate installations: heaps of domestic dust, an arrangement of leaves, piles of coins. Her work was ephemeral, and she hated to be interviewed. Obrist had shown some of her efforts in Paris and had invited her to set up an installation in the Crampton Street flat. In the morning, the three would meet for discussions, Biesenbach recalled. “And one morning, I remember, they came out of one room. Wow, I thought, they must have had a meeting before. Why didn’t they invite me to the meeting? And the next morning they came again out of the room.” Obrist and Koo have been together ever since.

    The sharp-tongued English press continued to poke at Obrist. Adrian Searle, an art critic for the Guardian, wrote in 1999 that he often found Obrist’s curating “deeply irritating.” But Obrist’s coterie is less reviewers than artists, collectors, and other curators, who are almost always interested in his projects. Perhaps his greatest triumph was “Cities on the Move,” a collaboration with the Chinese curator Hou Hanru, which débuted in Vienna in 1997. It was a timely exploration of the artistic and demographic landscape of Asia—a look at what Koolhaas, a participant, called “cities of exacerbated difference.” Scaffolding permeated the installation; there were rickshaw taxis festooned with fabulous colors. Conventional art work peeked out from corners. In a 1999 London incarnation of the show, Koo set up a bedroom in the gallery while finishing an installation; visitors got to see the blankets and clothes that she had left behind. This time, Searle praised Obrist: “His strengths as a kind of cross-disciplinary impresario have found their subject. He knows not only how to create chaos, but also how to curate it.”

    In 2000, Obrist began to tire. He and Koo wanted a more stable base for their lives and he wanted to curate solo shows. “There is nothing deeper than to work for a year with the same artist,” he said. So he accepted an offer from the Musée de la Ville de Paris to be a full-time curator. He remained in France until 2006, when Julia Peyton-Jones made him her co-director at the Serpentine. Koo and Obrist now share a small apartment in Kensington, near the gallery. When I visited Obrist there, the closest thing to food in the kitchen was Diet Coke. The walls were almost bare. Fluorescent lights drenched a living room filled with books arranged on industrial shelving. Among the titles were Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel “10:04” and Jacques Derrida’s monograph on “the sense of touch.” I was bemused that a person who lived by his eyes lived in such a nondescript place, but Obrist’s interest in anything outside high culture is fitful. I never heard him talk about sports or favorite restaurants or how much something costs. He has never made a cup of coffee, and tried cooking only once; the phone rang and he forgot the saucepan, which caught fire.
    Sleep has always seemed extraneous to Obrist. During the early nineties, he tried Balzac’s caffeine regime, drinking dozens of cups of coffee a day. Then he switched to the Da Vinci method, limiting himself to a fifteen-minute nap every three hours. Now he tries to get four or five hours every night. He has an assistant who comes to his apartment at midnight to help him with his interviews and books. “That way, when I’m out, I know it’s time to go home,” he said. Obrist sleeps while the assistant works, then wakes up and takes over. He still likes to meet people at dawn for conversation: in 2006, he founded the Brutally Early Club, which meets at 6:30 A.M., at various sites around London. (Another of Obrist’s conceits is that modern life is characterized by a decline in ritual. He ascribes the idea to Margaret Mead.)

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    Obrist first appeared on ArtReview’s most-powerful list in 2002, and by 2009 he had risen to the top. His rolling-suitcase approach to life seemed to reflect signal changes in the art world, which was becoming faster, bigger, and vastly more international. London alone has about eight times as many galleries as it had in 1980, and Beijing and Baku and Mexico City compete for attention with Paris and New York. Increasingly, the most powerful curators are those who have the stamina (and the budget) to see enormous amounts of art and distill it into themes and movements. Among the frequent fliers are Biesenbach, of PS 1; Daniel Birnbaum, of the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm; and Massimiliano Gioni, of the New Museum, in New York. Obrist and Biesenbach first met, by chance, on a night train to Venice in 1993, on the way to the Biennale. Biesenbach, who was putting on shows in Berlin, was trying to sleep, and Obrist plunged into his compartment and kept him up the whole night. “We discussed how it’s urgent to capture the Berlin moment,” Obrist recalled. Five years later, they helped put together the first Berlin Biennial, and they have been close collaborators ever since. Birnbaum, who started out as a critic and then became a dean at an art academy, was spurred to become the sort of roving international curator Obrist is after years of conversation with him. “Hans is enthusiastic, and somehow he can make other people enthusiastic,” Birnbaum said. Obrist was also one of Gioni’s original guideposts. As a university student at Bologna, Gioni began a correspondence with Obrist that informed his practice when he entered the art world. “He really established curating as a term, a discipline, an M.O.” Gioni said, adding, “The Dadaists had Tzara, the Surrealists Breton, the futurists Marinetti, and now the international global art world has Hans Ulrich Obrist.”

    In many ways, an Obrist generation is running the nonprofit art world. In 2010, Jens Hoffmann, the top curator at the Jewish Museum, who considers Obrist his mentor, wrote in the magazine Mousse: “Almost all of the innovative work done by exhibition makers in mainstream art institutions over the last decade owes much to ideas that Obrist first introduced.” Not everyone considers this a good thing. Claire Bishop, an art historian at CUNY, told me, “The world of contemporary art is fast-moving and superficial and demands constant feeding, and he’s a prime example.”

    Though Obrist is often assumed to be the kind of megalomaniac who is more prominent than the artists he shows—and who is willing to crush the heterogeneity of artists’ work in order to extract coherent themes—that assumption doesn’t properly capture him. He seems as egoless as he is guileless and stateless. Liam Gillick said, “When you work with him, he absolutely protects you and creates enormous space for what you need to do—and yet no one knows he’s done it.” Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that Obrist is a domineering superstar with the fact that nearly all his shows are collaborations with other curators. As Gillick puts it, “He stands against a certain sort of very assertive, very authored curating that was prominent when we were young. He has a real anti-authoritarian streak.”
    I first met Obrist in Los Angeles, in July. He was there to conduct one of his periodic checks on the city’s art galleries. He also planned to visit the studios of John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and Chris Burden, and attend the L.A. Biennial, at the Hammer Museum. Finally, there was the panel on Instagram to host. Obrist is an avid user of the medium, and has more than a hundred thousand followers.

    The story of how he discovered Instagram is typical. During a breakfast in 2012 with Ryan Trecartin, the video artist downloaded the app onto Obrist’s phone (without asking). Next, Trecartin posted to his Instagram followers that H.U.O. had signed up. Obrist was curious, but he wondered what to do with the new tool. Inspiration was sparked by other well-known friends. On a visit to Normandy, he went for a walk with Etel Adnan, the Lebanese artist. During a rainstorm, they stopped at a café, and she wrote him a poem, by hand. This made Obrist remember Umberto Eco’s comments on how handwriting was vanishing; he also thought of marvellous faxes he had received, all handwritten, from J. G. Ballard, when he interviewed him, in 2003. Adnan’s handwritten poem became one of Obrist’s first Instagram posts. Soon afterward, he remembered that another friend, the artist Joseph Grigely, who is deaf, uses Post-It notes to communicate; they are often incorporated into his art. H.U.O. began asking dozens of artists to write something on a Post-It. He posted the scrawlings on Instagram. Yoko Ono wrote, in soft black ink, “Time to Tell your love.” Richter filled a dun-colored Post-It in his jagged hand: “Art as part of our insane capacity for hope makes it possible that we cope with our permanent madness and our boundless brutality.” Obrist just surpassed eight hundred posts. “Maybe the iPhone is the new nanomuseum,” he told me, hopefully.

    Cartoon
    NOVEMBER 8, 2010
    “Did Jesus create these locally?”
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    Obrist’s first stop in L.A. was at Baldessari’s studio, in Venice. He arrived there at one o’clock, in a black S.U.V. with a driver. He was wearing a three-button suit, a white shirt, and blue tennis sneakers. An old photograph of Obrist, which can be found on the Internet, shows a vigorous young man with tousled hair and intense eyes, but the Da Vinci regimen and air travel have been punishing. He is now nearly bald, and the remaining tufts of hair are white. He had chosen not to sleep the previous night in London, so that he could sleep on the flight. That, in tandem with a hood that he puts on for quick naps at his office, is his current sleep-minimizing technique. He had with him two enormously heavy pieces of luggage. “It is my exercise,” he explained. The suitcases were filled mostly with his publications, which he planned to hand out.

    We entered the studio through a gate. “Every visit to Los Angeles begins with John, and has for twenty years,” Obrist told me. Baldessari, eighty-three, tall and shambly, greeted us. Baldessari has contributed work to various Obrist exhibitions, and would happily do so again. “He’s like a good mom,” he told me. “ ‘Everything my son has done is good.’ ” He took us to a room where new work lined the walls. The Städel Museum, in Frankfurt, had commissioned him to reinterpret paintings from its collection; he had responded by creating large panels that juxtaposed fragments of text from screenplays with visual details scanned from works at the Städel. In one panel, movie dialogue in which two lovers discuss money was paired with a gorgeous closeup of a leg from Cranach the Elder’s 1532 painting “Venus.” Did the words and image create a plot? Or had Baldessari merely made a surreal juxtaposition? The ambiguity delighted Obrist, who pointed out that Baldessari had restored context that Cranach had deliberately stripped out. “When you have a Venus, you usually have a Cupid,” he explained. He told Baldessari, “This is amazing. So exciting!” He drew out the syllables: eg-zi-tink! Obrist has a gummy, soft smile, and a Brunelleschi dome of a forehead. He carries his shoulders back when he stands, and the effect is to shorten his arms, making him look like a boy.

    Afterward, we sat in Baldessari’s study, amid tables on casters stacked neatly with art magazines. “Well, that’s what I’ve been up to,” Baldessari said.
    “Congratulations,” Obrist said. “None of this work was here six months ago!”

    Soon, Obrist was back in the S.U.V. Baldessari’s work had prompted an idea: it was wise not to “isolate contemporary art” but to “create a continuum with history.” Baldessari’s project not only enlisted the spectator in making meaning; it created a junction between the living and the dead. Just as old art must look forward, new art should look back.

    Obrist’s next visit was to Ruscha, whose studio is a low unmarked building in Culver City, five miles away. Baldessari and Obrist have a rapport: they are both impersonally personable. Ruscha has a cooler nature, and though he recognizes Obrist’s centrality in the art world—“I see his name pretty much constantly”—he is also skeptical of him. “His telephone is continually tinging and leaving twicks and tweets and all that,” he told me, adding, “I’m like one little fragment of his interest.”

    Ruscha took Obrist out back to an open-air studio to show him new works in his “Psycho Spaghetti Western” series, which was inspired by roadside debris. Ruscha did not seem like Obrist’s kind of artist: his paintings have a deeply American irony that seemed destined to elude the earnest Swiss. But Obrist sought, as always, to make a connection. The strewn objects on Ruscha’s canvases, he declared, reminded him of “In the Country of Last Things,” a dystopian novel by Paul Auster.

    The tour finished. Ruscha took a seat behind a cherrywood desk, and fixed Obrist with his blue eyes, a dog at his feet. Obrist asked where the new paintings would be exhibited, but it was not as easy to gain traction with Ruscha as it had been with Baldessari.

    “In Rome. At the Gagosian gallery.”

    Obrist, name-dropping, said that he’d once visited Cy Twombly at his studio in Rome. Ruscha didn’t seem to care. Obrist then expressed admiration for “Guacamole Airlines,” a book of drawings that Ruscha had made.

    “That was forty years ago,” Ruscha said.

    This must have been what it was like when Obrist was a youth, surrounded by taciturn Swiss. Obrist’s arms tend to go into motion when there is silence. He asked Ruscha about a show the artist had organized at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, in 2012. “What did you do, exactly?” Obrist asked.

    Ruscha said that he had taken some “meteorites and stuffed animals and some Old Masters” and put them on display. He had included one of his own paintings.

    Cartoon
    OCTOBER 2, 2006
    “I’d like you to meet my pillows.”
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    “One no longer isolates so much of contemporary art,” Obrist said, sharing his latest epiphany. “The contemporary is now connected to the historical.”

    Ruscha continued to smile. Eventually, he said, “They told me not to go throwing that word ‘curator’ around. I was told I was just assembling an exhibit.”

    “Maybe we need a new word,” Obrist said.

    “Yah.”

    “I don’t want to take more of your time,” Obrist said, after a moment.

    On his way out, Obrist asked Ruscha to contribute to his Instagram project. Ruscha told me later, “I gave him something that said, ‘On the bag before the tag.’ Some baseball announcer said that.” He added that he had no idea what Instagram was. Obrist, in turn, didn’t catch the baseball reference.

    The next day, Obrist went to visit Burden, who lives in Topanga Canyon, north of the city. He was excited: Burden was an important performance artist in the seventies, and Obrist admires the installations that he has been making in recent years. Outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art*, Burden created a dense plot of refurbished lampposts—a glowing garden that has become an actual junction for nighttime visitors. Burden also creates elaborate toys and contraptions that speak to the geeky side of Obrist, as Fischli and Weiss did long ago.

    After climbing a rugged road, we arrived at the top of a small mountain. Burden met us at the door. Squat and muscular, he looked as if he had been lifting weights and was still mad at them. “I can give you a tour,” he said. “Or maybe you have something to tell me.” He didn’t want photographs taken of his hangarlike studio. “Next thing you know, they’re on your Web site,” he said. Obrist put his recorder away. But he is adept at winning over artists. After touring the studio, they went outside, past rows of lampposts, ordnance shells, and mermaid caryatids. Soon they were clambering around on a forty-foot steel tower Burden had built, like two boys with a giant erector set.

    Back inside, Obrist asked him about unrealized projects.
    “I had a dream of building this city called Xanadu,” Burden said. He showed Obrist some drawings.

    “That is a huge unrealized project!” Obrist said. He clapped his hands with pleasure.

    “A real city that no one lives in.”

    “That’s awfully exciting. I had no idea about this!” He promised to visit Burden again on his next trip. As the S.U.V. careered down the hill, Obrist checked his e-mails and texts and pronounced the visit “super-super-productive.”

    In mid-October, Obrist put on the Serpentine’s ninth annual Marathon, in Hyde Park. The press had framed the show, “Extinction: Visions of the Future,” as a depressing alternative to the ebullient Frieze Art Fair taking place in Regent’s Park. Nevertheless, the Serpentine event drew a crowd, with more than four thousand attendees. It had a carnival feel, underscored by three big Mylar balloons, spelling out “HUO,” that were tethered to a tent where the speakers gathered. When I arrived, Obrist, wearing a blue single-breasted suit, was making rapid-fire introductions among the gathered artists, ecologists, writers, researchers, activists, sages, and prognosticators. He seemed to be going slightly mad.

    Obrist told me that his own unrealized project is to found a new version of Black Mountain College, the defunct North Carolina retreat where, sixty years ago, top practitioners in the arts, culture, and the sciences taught and exchanged ideas. That ambition, combined with his admiration for Diaghilev, had shaped the Serpentine event. The guiding presence was the eighty-eight-year-old artist Gustav Metzger, who had sat through the entire first Marathon. Although he is ailing and in a wheelchair, he attended nearly all of this year’s proceedings. Obrist, in his opening remarks, declared that Metzger—a longtime environmental activist—had helped inspire the theme of “Extinction.” Julia Peyton-Jones, who sometimes plays the goof to Obrist’s Luftmensch, dedicated the Marathon to the pangolin—an adorable, endangered mammal that looks like an anteater.

    Cartoon
    SEPTEMBER 23, 2002
    “Now that the kids are in jail maybe we can take that vacation we always wanted to take.”
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    The performances and the talks took place on a small stage with a backdrop of an oversized hand pointing at black trash bags. To begin, several scientists delivered bad news. At least eight hundred and seventy species had been wiped out in the past four hundred years. Jonathan Baillie, of the London Zoological Society, noted that, of the seven remaining northern-white rhinos, one had died the previous day, in Kenya. Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental social scientist at New York University, spoke about the decimation of the Steller’s sea cow, which was hunted for sport—and for its blubber—in the eighteenth century.

    Suddenly, Gilbert & George, the painting duo known for cheeky irony, came onstage, in bespoke nibbed suits and bright-colored ties. They unfurled spray-painted posters. “BURN THAT BOOK,” Gilbert’s said. “FUCK THE PLANET,” George’s said. They were lampooning the ignorance of climate-change deniers, but the audience wasn’t sure what to make of them. After a few more speakers, Obrist stood up. “Coffee breaks are urgent!” he said.

    Later in the day, Stewart Brand, who created the “Whole Earth Catalog,” amused the crowd when he took a showy tumble off the stage, to impersonate the death of a lemming. Brand then spoke about efforts to clone extinct species. Passenger pigeons would come first, he promised, then mammoths. The more excited Brand got, the more uncomfortable the audience seemed.

    Obrist informed me that his friend John Brockman, a science impresario and literary agent, had selected most of the scientists. “We don’t know the important scientists, and they don’t know the good artists,” Obrist explained. Perhaps as a result, the science had an austere implacability to it, and the art often seemed to aestheticize tragedy. Benedict Drew, a young English artist, created a hectic digital montage that included a disembodied head and images of a garbage dump intercut with ominous messages. (“We are done for.”) The piece, weighed down with sinister synthesizer music, was called “Not Happy.” When the words “Why you so happy Pharrell” flashed, the audience laughed in relief.

    At times, the worlds of science and art came together: an oddly moving presentation by Trevor Paglen focussed on communication satellites that will circle the earth for billions of years after humans are extinct. But most of the time the scientists conveyed the information and the artists the hurt. A bewildering variety of extinctions were invoked: of plants, of gays, of languages, of books on paper, of celluloid film. Obrist, surrounded by half-drunk cups of coffee, got up to introduce presenters and then sat back down in the front row, where he and Peyton-Jones, who sat by his side, passed notes to each other and to their assistants, who sat behind them.

    The Marathon ended with a new participatory piece by Yoko Ono that was read aloud by Lily Cole, a model and environmental activist, for which the audience was given small bells to ring.
    “Don’t try to change the world, that’s a concept floating on our horizon,” Cole read. “Just use your wits and change your heads.” On a large screen by the stage, the words “Surrender to Peace” appeared. In the audience, bells prettily chimed.

    The message seemed at odds with much of the Marathon. Wasn’t changing the world the point? Then again, there was not a single policy official among the eighty participants. The real goal, it seemed, was to conjure a sense of community. “It was quite magical,” Obrist said of the chorus of bells. “The participants did at least fifty per cent of the work.” He added that “smaller actions can lead to bigger actions.”

    Obrist had brought together an eye-catching roster of participants, but epic conversation was not well suited to addressing the urgent topic of extinction. It sometimes seems that Obrist doesn’t care so much what people say, as long as they keep talking. In 2003, Hal Foster, an art historian at Princeton, published an essay that touched on Obrist’s first collection of interviews. “Formlessness in society might be a condition to contest rather than to celebrate in art,” Foster pointed out. Nothing at the Marathon was as strong as a Metzger work titled “Flailing Trees”: twenty-one willows planted upside down in concrete. The installation was first displayed in 2009, at the Manchester International Festival. Metzger had been included in that festival at Obrist’s suggestion, and it had been a smart one: “Flailing Trees” is rigorous, beautiful, sad.

    Cartoon
    DECEMBER 1, 2008
    “Load the holiday catalogues.”
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    After the Marathon, Obrist told me that the performance artist Tino Seghal had watched a live stream of the Marathon and had especially enjoyed a talk by Elizabeth Povinelli, an anthropologist at Columbia. “Tino’s reading her book now!” Obrist said. Who knew what collaborations might result? This was a different sort of Gesamtkunstwerk, he said—“one more in time than in space.” As the crowd dispersed, H.U.O. posed in front of the balloons with his initials. “This topic isn’t going to be solved in a night,” he said. “I see the ‘Extinction’ Marathon as a movement.” Then he noted, “I have a five-forty train in the morning. The Eurostar to Paris.” ♦

    *An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

    ============

    Art & Culture / The AnOther Proust Questionnaire

    Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curator

    Using his modern interpretation of the original Proust Questionnaire, Jefferson Hack uncovers the true mindsets of his peers
    — October 13, 2010 —

    Hans Ulrich Obrist
    Hans Ulrich Obrist Drawing by Thomas Bayrle

    Co-director of exhibitions and programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist has infinite possibilities. Rem Koolhaas once said that the omnipresent Swiss-born curator and irrepressible interrogator left his native country because he talked too fast for the Swiss. Obrist has interviewed an ever-expanding spectrum of the great and good, from architects to linguists, philosophers, scientists, filmmakers and musicians, compiling a kind of ongoing Smithsonian Institute for the state of aesthetic thought in the 21st century, while his curatorial eye has transformed the possibilities of the white-walled gallery…

    Co-director of exhibitions and programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist has infinite possibilities. Rem Koolhaas once said that the omnipresent Swiss-born curator and irrepressible interrogator left his native country because he talked too fast for the Swiss. Obrist has interviewed an ever-expanding spectrum of the great and good, from architects to linguists, philosophers, scientists, filmmakers and musicians, compiling a kind of ongoing Smithsonian Institute for the state of aesthetic thought in the 21st century, while his curatorial eye has transformed the possibilities of the white-walled gallery. On the day Frieze Art Fair opens, Jefferson Hack spoke to Obrist about enthusiasm, taking risks and parallel realities.

    What are you thinking of right now?
    Maps for the 21st century.

    What makes you laugh?
    Mechanised behaviour where you expect organic life – dixit Bergson.

    What makes you cry?
    Death is a dull fact.

    What do you consider to be the greatest invention?
    Youtube?

    Do you have a mentor or inspirational figure that has guided or influenced you?
    Alighiero Boetti, Gerhard Richter, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Christian Boltanski, Pierre Klossowski, Katharina Fritsch, Rosemarie Trockel whom I all met when I was 18, and many other I met since then.

    Where do you feel most at home?
    London and in between, as Camille Bryen said n’être quentre.

    Where are you right now?
    Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London.

    What is your proudest achievement in work?
    Dontstopdontstopdontstop dixit Douglas Gordon.

    What is your proudest achievement in life?
    Too early to answer, it has only just begun.

    What do you most dislike about contemporary culture?
    I am positive, as Emerson said: “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

    What do you most like about the age we live in?
    A fabric of reality which allows us to live in parallel realities.

    At what points do life and work intersect?
    To be with art is all we ask (Gilbert & George).

    What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
    To go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge.

    What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
    Utopia Station.

    Recommend a book or poem that has changed your perspective on life?
    All books by Edouard Glissant.

    What is your earliest childhood memory?
    Seeing the thin long sculpture of Alberto Giacometti as a child in Switzerland.

    What’s the most important relationship in your life?
    I’ve lived with artist Koo Jeong-A since 1994.

    What’s the most romantic action you’ve taken?
    The Poetry Marathon in the Serpentine pavillion in 2009 is perhaps the most romantic project I’ve ever curated.

    What’s the most spiritual action you’ve taken?
    Visiting Buddhist Monk Daehaeng Kun Sunim.

    If you could wish for one change in the world what would it be?
    No war.

    Jefferson Hack is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnOther Magazine, AnOther Man and Dazed & Confused

    ========

    CONTEMPORARY ART MAGAZINE

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    Hans Ulrich Obrist
    Paul O’NeillPAUL O’NEILL: In the last 15 to 20 years there has been an unprecedented interest in contemporary art curating. How do you think curatorial discourse has changed during this period and what are the dominant forms of curatorial practice that have developed during this time?

    HANS ULRICH OBRIST: The field has grown exponentially in the last 15 years. One of the main changes is the emergence of many new biennials. The ever-increasing polyphony of centres is another major change; also a multitude of curatorial models have emerged. The last 15 years have seen the appearance of a very strong generation of artists who put the focus on the time protocol of exhibitions, which has led to a whole new form of exhibition – the exhibition as a programme.
    A major change has also happened in the funding situation. In the early 90s curating involved a whole range of activities – Szeemann’s famous list of the curator as a generalist. However, fundraising did not play a big role. But since the second half of the 90s fundraising has become the essential task of a curator, at least 50 per cent of my work today has to do with fundraising. The exhibitions I have organised since 2000 would not have been possible without massive fundraising, so the profession has completely changed.

    PO: Something very apparent in your projects is an interest in establishing exploratory spaces, laboratories without finite statement. You appear more interested in contributing to knowledge, producing something that can be used elsewhere. This can be seen with your projects ‘Interarchive’, ‘Laboratorium,’ and even ‘Utopia Station’. There are so many models being used within the same framework, and with the ‘Interviews’ project there is the same ongoing production of information for other people to use. You work with many people over a longer period of time where you are employing people to do a particular task. Your projects span a wide field of discourse and it seems that as a kind of admission that you may not know it all, you bring people with knowledge on board to assist in the research and realisation of projects. How important is this pooling of knowledge to you?


    HUO: Generally speaking, I have always tried to avoid exhibitions that illustrate a curatorial proposal, which I think is a redundant and very limited concept. My first curated show, ‘The Kitchen Show’ in 91 in St. Gallen, was about testing the kitchen as a place for an exhibition, following Robert Musil’s dictum: ‘Art can happen where we expect it least’. It was not a kitchen theme show.

    PO: In the laboratory projects you mention, which are all in the long term, the ‘theme’ of the show has to be a trigger. The idea of the exhibition space as laboratory enables the unexpected, the spontaneous and the unplanned as in ‘Cities on the Move’, ‘Do It’ or ‘Laboratorium’, which didn’t follow a top-down plan. This is where curating can learn from urbanism: to question the often unquestioned master plan. Yona Friedman, Constants Cedric Price or Team X all questioned the master plan in the CIMAM [International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art] context of the 50s and tried to use bottom-up organisation. ‘Cities on the Move’ (1999) evoked the visionary manifestos about open form and participation of the Polish urbanist and architect Oskar Hanson, who died earlier this year.

    HUO: For ‘Cities on the Move’ Hou Hanru and I tried to use the travelling show, which is usually a homogenising force. We tried to do the opposite and produce a local and global research system for each venue. It was a continuous process of dialogue, of emerging collaborations, feedback loops and notions of circularity; also of mise en abîme and recycling of previous exhibition design.

    With ‘Utopia Station’ (2003) Molly Nesbitt, Rirkrit Tiravanija and I wondered how we could think again about the social contract of art. After an initial appearance at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, the Station has developed into a kind of an evolving system. From being a very horizontal concept in Venice, it was transformed into occupying a ‘receptive’ zone, which can at any point be animated. In view of this, we decided for the installation of ‘Utopia Station’ at the Haus der Kunst in Munich to develop more of a programme. The entire piece – an architectural exhibition by Rirkrit Tiravanija – is a vertical tower built from recycled materials, which is not a building but a passage to walk through, with zones for projections, light zones and dark zones, fast lanes and slow lanes. The space is programmed in a different way every day.

    Something these laboratory research projects have in common is that there are different layers of involvement for the artists: some contribute a work, but often a new work is triggered, and others contribute structural elements for the installation or exhibition architecture. In order to understand the forces which are effective for the visual artist it is necessary to look at other fields, not just artists but architects, designers and writers in order to create a pooling of knowledge. I think a curator should not stand in the way. This is my idea of curating: not only to ask the artist to do a piece, but to get involved in a different, often more intense, way. This started with my kitchen show in 1991, when Fischli and Weiss made a kitchen altar and produced all the photographic documentation of the show. This is a red thread. You have said that ‘routine is the enemy of the exhibition’.

    It is always interesting for an artist or architect, or a museum, when practitioners are asked to do something they wouldn’t normally be asked to do. It is Cocteau and Diaghilev’s étonnez moi. I have been inspired in this by pioneers such as Alexander Dorner, Willem Sandberg, or Adriano Olivetti and their experiments. Another thread of the laboratory exhibitions you mention is the idea of inviting architects and scientists to these projects. In the art world there is regular venturing into these other fields. Contact with architecture and urbanism has become particularly intense with projects such as ‘Cities On the Move’, ‘Mutations’ and, more recently, Domus magazine with Stefano Boeri.

    Concerning your initial question, I see the archive not as a continent but as an archipelago. The title ‘Interarchive’ has a double meaning: it is an archive between cities on the move and not belonging to a geography; and it is also about in-betweeness, the zones between other archives – an archive always hides another archive – which leads us to the ‘Utopia Station’ project, the idea of archives of exhibitions. Besides curating, I also developed the ‘Interviews’ project.


    PO: As toolboxes, the exhibitions that you have done incorporate the idea of the exhibition developing over time. ‘Cities on the Move’ had various manifestations, ‘Utopia Station’ is an on-going project; ‘Do It’ is another on-going project. How would you see your projects as toolboxes, how do you see them as possibilities for ideas being filtered through those projects into the curatorial projects of other curators?

    HUO: There is something life-like about shows like ‘Do It’ or ‘Cities on the Move’, and the way they tour is more that they have their own life cycle. The exhibition is alive. Lyn Margulis wrote: ‘Metabolism has been a property of life since it began. The first cells metabolise. They use energy and material from outside to make, maintain, and remake themselves.’ Scientists in the early 21st century are inventing a future based on molecular technologies, from biotechnology to nanotechnology to material science. As in Chris Meyer’s and Stan Davis’s show ‘It’s alive’, we live at the moment when information is converging with biology; change has become more rapid, and volatility permanent, with autonomous software and a high degree of connectivity giving rise to big, unexpected swings and non-linear effects. Then we could also talk about Mandelbrot and the butterfly effect of exhibitions, which sometimes occurs… this is something that is very difficult to plan, but I think it has something to do with it. Exhibitions have to be generous, and maybe the most important thing is not exactly knowing where. This is something we are always trying to define so it can be used by other fields.

    PO: The preparation and research period for large-scale exhibitions has decreased dramatically with the expansion of biennial culture and the acceleration of the arts global economy. How has the issue of temporality affected your practice and research as a curator of these shows?

    HUO: The homogenising forces of globalisation are also affecting the art world. One important aspect is the formatting and homogenisation of time. Therefore, the necessity for the coexistence of several time zones in exhibitions enables a great variety of different contact zones. I am interested in the whole notion of the time protocol of the exhibition. I am working on a larger show for 2007 co-curated with Philippe Parreno in which every artist will have a different time instead of space.

    PO: How does your multi-layered approach to exhibitions continue with ‘Uncertain States of America’, 2005, the show you co-curated with Gunner Kvaran and Daniel Birnbaum at Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo?
    HUO: ‘Uncertain States’ is part of a series of shows that reinvent the problematic format of the survey of a specific scene. We are showing 40 artists who emerged after 2000.

    Similar to the way the monographic shows work in Paris, which take a very rigid and predictable genre and try to give it a new edge, we, the curators, are trying to reinvent its spatial and temporal parameters, to invent each time a display feature. There are many shows with a number of artists from a specific city or country and they are usually meaningless to the artists, and more about representation than performative space. Earlier shows like ‘Nuit Blanche’, ‘Life/Live’ which I co-curated with Laurence Bossé on the 90s scenes in the UK and Northern European countries, and now ‘Uncertain States of America’, are the outcome of a long research period that focuses on a specific geography. Gunnar Daniel and I travelled to the US 11 times for research this year, visiting Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Pittsburg, Miami, San Francisco, New York and other places. In Europe we are usually only familiar with New York and, to a certain extent LA, and the other scenes are neglected.

    The show tries to illustrate the complexity of the new scene, and also of a new generation. For the first chapter we have individual presentations, almost like shows within a show – temporary autonomous spaces where the artist’s singularity is the focus. The artists each have a room and show an ensemble of their work or a bigger installation. It is interesting to see that there is a strong emergence of political work, many works are about open-ended, non-linear story telling, and there is also a strong presence of non-nostalgic ways of revisiting pop. The artist Matthew Brannon designed the catalogue and all the related printed matter. The show opened last week and we already have six venues where it will tour, so the research can go into more depth in the years to come; each show will add a new chapter.

    PO: Your expansive large-scale exhibitions are often the most well known, but since the 90s you have been working on solo projects with artists as part of the ‘Migrateurs’ project at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and, more recently, you have been developing more long-term monographic projects with artists at the museum. Are they testing the parameters and potentialities of what a monographic show could be?

    HUO: The idea of the shows at Musée d’Art Moderne was to reinvent the rigid format of the monographic show. At the same time, this is something which has become a red thread. First of all, they invent a new display feature to show the work. As Richard Hamilton once told me: ‘we will only remember exhibitions that invent a new display feature, another aspect’. We invite the artist to take over parts of the museum for a big one-person show, a monographic space, and at the same time invite him or her to invite other practitioners with whom they always wanted to work. For example, with Philippe Parreno we made contact with Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, who wrote the program for Philippe’s show. Each time the fish appeared a projection popped up like a pop-up book, and at the same time there was a collaboration between Philippe and François Roche. We also put Olafur Eliasson in touch with Yona Friedman, who did a floating city; we did an experiment with Luc Steels, and with Steve McQueen there was the whole story with NASA and Bill Clancy from Voyager.

    In the case of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s retrospective, which we co-organised with the Serpentine Gallery and the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam, it was Tiravanija’s desire to involve science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling to write a script for the show. Next shows in this series are Doug Aitken, Pierre Huyghe and Karen Kilimnick, then Cerith Wyn Evans will show a retrospective in collaboration with the composer Hecker.

    PO: You have been an advocate of both Bruce Altshuler’s ‘The Avant-Garde in Exhibition’ and Mary Anne Staniszewski’s ‘The Power of Display’, which are quite key, not only looking at amnesia within the history of exhibitions, but also locating the laboratory years within contemporary curating. Do you think these two books are the beginning of the historicisation of curating?

    HUO: There is a missing literature of exhibitions. At a moment when there is so much talk about curating, there is no literature. We have to start with Alexander Dorner in the 20s in Hannover, then Willem Sandberg in the 50s in Amsterdam. But many books are missing – key texts by curatorial pioneers such as Alexander Dorner, W. Sandberg (his famous radio broadcasts) or Pontus Hulten are mostly out of print and often not accessible in English. Sandberg inspired the generation of Szeemann, Hulten and so on. There are very few examples and that is why they are so welcome, so important. It has a lot to do with the fact that exhibitions are not collected and that’s why they fall into amnesia. This is the main part of my ‘Interviews’ project: to write an oral history of exhibitions that asks scientists, artists and architects to talk about their exhibition experiences. We should also take into account that architects are great curators. I believe we should look at curating at large, which also means unexpected curatorships – architects as curators, or scientists as curators. Peter Galison from Harvard has fabulous ideas about curating science from which we can learn.

    When Barbara Vanderlinden and I did ‘Laboratorium’, we invited Bruno Latour to be involved in the think-tank and he curated a section called ‘the table-top experiment’, which involved performative events on a table in which experiments got re-enacted. It was the first time he had been invited to curate something. In terms of unexpected curatorship, the main example remains ‘Les Immatériaux’ by Jean Francois Lyotard. This was what you described before: a toolbox so that many people could take things and connect with over many years. I still have the catalogue, it is like a game of cards, like the Eames house of cards. I play with this catalogue, with the cards.

    PO: You have been working with curator Hou Hanru again on the Guangzhou Triennial this year. It continues your play with expansive, transformative, fluctuating exhibition formats. How is this different to the previous Triennial?

    HUO: The first Triennial in 2002 took the form of a retrospective of contemporary art in China in the 90s. With this year’s exhibition, Hou Hanru and I are connecting an international event to the context of China. Instead of making a large exhibition, we decided to do a sustained project, which will last for about 18 months. Then in November this year there will be a synthesis with a larger exhibition. The projects bring seminal artists such as Dan Graham and Fischli/Weiss to China for the first time, and at the same time there are artists from all over China to show the amazing energy of the local art scene there at the moment. A big potential of any biennial is to create a spark in the local scene – the biennial is a catalyst, or, in the words of Anri Sala, it can produce ‘different layers of input in the city’.

    Paul O’Neill is an artist and curator researching curatorial histories at Middlesex University. Open Editions will publish his edited anthology of new writing on curatorial practice in 2005

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    THE FIFTH FLOOR: IDEAS TAKING SPACE / TATE LIVERPOOL

    2008-12-07

    Interview by Pierre Huyghe and Hans-Ulrich Obrist

    Hans-Ulrich Obrist: My first question is, to begin with the beginning, what prompted the transition from film-based experiences to the new work you showed me when we met last month. Is there what Matthew Barney calls a new desire for non-mediated experience? In a postmedium condition, what is your medium?Olivier Bardin: Ever since I first entered art college as a student at the beginning of the nineties I have thought of exhibition as a medium. In the first instance, I made use of the closed space of the college as a means to produce and mediate my work, my concept of exhibition involved a stage which contained its own means of production. Exhibition is, for me, the opportunity to create a physical encounter between myself and a spectator, and between spectators. In a context where experience dominates, it is left for me to construct the scene. What I create, the formal element which can be transmitted and reactivated, is the set-up itself. The system is fixed, it is an architecture. I don’t tell how it should be occupied, but the visitor is immediately subjected to its influence. The constituent elements of the scene lie in the choice of a location, its proportions, the sense of movement around it, the presence of one or several people, and, depending on the circumstances: my presence, the materials in the space, a spoken word, a speech, recording instruments.Pierre Huyghe: Exhibition is, for you, a system which redistributes roles and reinvents the status of the image. It takes place in the present, in an exchange between you and visitors who are treated as protagonists, and it often operates through dialogue or a game rule. The image is the site where representation is transformed into play. Is exhibition a necessary path – albeit a dangerous one – to self-reinvention within the context of a shared image?Olivier Bardin: I would say yes. The situations I create contribute to the development of a community, bound together through the use of the gaze, which goes beyond considerations of class, social group, generation, and language. The visitors at an exhibition are images which move around, observe each other, and engage in interactions with each other. This is something that cannot occur in television, cinema, theatre or dance, only exhibition makes it possible.Pierre Huyghe: It seems to me that you have always been interested in the moment of reconfiguration of power, in the moment when roles are being redistributed, where a change of representation is taking place. I am thinking of your fictional role as director of the Bordeaux École des Beaux-Arts in 1994 when you were still a student there, of your first exhibitions in the college’s gallery created during a single night with other students invited by you. You reconfigured the space of the exhibition by using what was already there. I am also thinking of Une télé pour la télé (A Television for Television) in which you invited individuals in a television studio to control the equipment which recorded their own images, I am thinking of Robespierre’s speech on the origins of the French Constitution (Sur la Constitution à donner à la France, 2004), or again of your most recent exhibitions which put the spectator on show.Olivier Bardin: My early projects involved the organisation of exhibitions according to strict rules. Already, in 1996, it was the relationship between me and another artist, while producing a piece for an exhibition within the short time-span of a night, which was more important than what we were going to produce and be able to display the next day. The work was being created and it was enthralling, but we were the only ones to be involved in this very intense moment. The mediation of the moment was impossible on that occasion.It seemed to me, for this reason, that television was the medium which would best allow me to give form to such a moment. Real time, the continuous flow of the transmission, the studio, the guests, the means of transmission, are the parameters of television. Combined, these elements generate an unusual situation which obliges participants to invent a character, a role, a new mask for themselves. Now, there exists a period of latency, of adaptation, during which an individual is feeling around to construct a new mask. This latent period corresponds to the duration of the broadcast itself and it is this revealing moment which I attempt to capture. My television projects began with your invitation in 1997 on behalf of your channel in Dijon, Mobile TV. At that time I created six programmes called A Television for Television, which invited young people into the studio individually, asking them to create a live half-hour broadcast which would take account of the technical features of the broadcast, of the set, of my presence, and of the real-time transmission to viewers who could see us, but with whom interaction was, by definition, impossible. I was greatly surprised by the attitude of these young people who were content simply to be present in a studio. They were there, with no personal statement or message to convey, not wanting to speak to anybody. The transmission of the image of their bodies, of their presence, was all they required during that half-hour. My research and productions for local television stations continued until 2004 and the exhibition at the ARC Museum of modern art in Paris, where I was invited by Hans-Ulrich to present a sort of overview of the whole.For the Liverpool exhibition I propose a new piece. In an empty white room, which visitors are obliged to cross in order to continue their visit in the rest of the museum, I am installing out nine identical armchairs (of the sort to be found in an English gentleman’s club) facing the entrance to this space. On entering, you immediately see these iconic armchairs in which visitors to the exhibition are seated, in other words the viewer become the object itself of the exhibition. But you also see the space which you are going to occupy, a moment later, when you yourself sit in the chairs. Once seated in the chairs, you watch, as in the theatre, a ballet of spectators who appear suddenly on the stage, are surprised at being observed, and are obliged to become both participants in the exhibition and its objects. Both those who enter and those who are seated display themselves and observe each other in a choreographic tension which is defined by the movement of their bodies or the expression on their faces. The choice of furniture, the dimensions of the exhibition space, the lighting, and the distance between the armchairs and the entrance are essential to the staging, they determine what visitors see and the moment of their awareness. The number of seats is limited, it is for each individual to decide whether or not to give up a seat, in other words, to work for the balance of the whole composition. Each visitor’s responsibility is brought into play, each self-image then interacts, as you said, with a communal or shared image.Pierre Huyghe: When we understand that we are on show or when we look at somebody else on show we put ourselves in the other’s place. In your work, representation always seems to have a political or psychoanalytical dimension – we find it in Dan Graham too – there is a process where the construction of the subject is transferred.Olivier Bardin: The risk we take in exhibiting ourselves must necessarily happen in relation to the other, to a receiver, a spectator. It is an intimate and unique experience. If there is no desire, bringing with it the possibility that curiosity may triumph over uneasiness, then spectators are in danger of moving across my exhibitions without seeing what is to be seen, frozen in their own images. But once I offer an inter-subjective experience, desire is produced by a relationship, and it is, indeed, very close to the psychoanalytical concept of desire. It is a means, not an end. It is not embodied in a thing, but is instead a tension. This desire is not new, but with the (art)market, we have become accustomed to measuring desire against the merchandise.

    Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Is time your medium?

    Olivier Bardin: I think that my work can certainly be understood through the concept of temporality. Time is the property of each spectator. Through the conditions which I set, I make it possible for time to belong to each individual. Time is the necessary condition to understand the full complexity of the images of others. If we initially perceive individuals as objects, when they first declare themselves on show, we then need time to recognise them as subjects.

    Hans-Ulrich Obrist: How to document time-based work?

    Olivier Bardin : The question of time is just as important in the photographs I take. I preserve, in films or photographs, facial expressions or arrangements of bodies in space which have been influenced by one of my systems, such as a speech, for example Lou Castel under the influence of a speech by Robespierre. I prefer still photography to film. A photograph is an object which complements an action. Such images show the ways in which people exhibit themselves. What is seen in the visual record cannot be captured in the action. Films or photographs thus appear as objects which complete and prolong action. The recorded image is accordingly never simply an archive document.

    Pierre Huyghe: Are spectators not also witnesses? Could we not consider them as a means of recording or transmitting experience?

    Olivier Bardin: The spectators who exhibit themselves at my exhibitions often express spontaneously what they see or feel, some also take photographs or make video recordings. The intersection of the words and images extends the event and indeed allows it to be transmitted to others. I think that these words and images are testimonies. Each one bears witness to an experience in the present moment and communicates that experience to other viewers. In principle, of course, we testify to a past experience. Testimony has the status of proof, it allows us to reconstruct a past reality, but from a single viewpoint, that of the witness. In that, it seems to me that the time of direct experience and the time of its recording cannot be separated in my work, and that the encounter between the two is the condition of its transmission. I propose a frame of experience, but I do not control in any way the words of the witness, who remains entirely free.

    Pierre Huyghe: You invent systems, game rules which authorise, and, in a certain way, oblige subjects (often spectators in an exhibition) to bring into play their own image, their role in the situation in which they find themselves; by having to participate they exhibit themselves. What happens in that moment of self-exhibition? Can you take us back over such situations, such systems?

    Olivier Bardin: What Hans-Ulrich has referred to earlier, following our discussions last month, and what you and I have been discussing a great deal recently, is the series of exhibitions which I created in museums where I asked that the spaces should be completely emptied. I wanted to allow visitors to move from the status of exhibition viewers to that of exhibition objects, and then subjects. In Vassivière, Nuremberg, and Geneva, we designed an invitation card, we invited people to come and view an exhibition for a few hours in a location which was intended for exhibition but was empty. I was present and I would say to spectators: ‘You are in an exhibition space. For there to be an exhibition something has to be exhibited. Who wants to exhibit themselves?’ When a spectator said that he would like to do so, and it is easily the case in this empty space, the exhibition would begin.

    The others would look at him, go up to him, sometimes even touch him, then they would move away, move around him, adopt the pose of a museum visitor; all of them found it very easy to make the connection between their own experience as exhibition-goers and what was happening at that moment. But the person who was exhibiting himself was alive, he could use his eyes, move his body. This person on show had also come along as a spectator like everybody else and everyone remembered that the question had been asked of all of them. All the participants then became conscious of their own images and of being on show themselves, each becoming in turn the exhibited object. These spectators had simply come to see an exhibition and as a consequence of the precision of the system, its effectiveness, they became the exhibits. Each of them was thus compelled to play two roles at once, that of spectator and that of exhibit. Nobody could hide, be in the position of a voyeur, for example: we were all subject to the gaze of others. The gaze is egalitarian and free. Two visitors to an exhibition can experience the loss of their own masks and discover each other’s image. The system allows a balance between all the participants and avoids all forms of judgement about others.

    Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Can you please tell me about your yet unrealised projects? Projects which are too big to be realised, to small to be realised, forgotten projects, self-censored projects, censored projects, concrete utopias and utopias?

    Olivier Bardin: My projects are born in the course of encounters. This fits with the principle that the museum or exhibition is a specific site for encounters. Each day, I imagine the organisation of potential encounters, in museums, in different countries, in political or religious institutions, at historical sites, etc. I sometimes reorganise their spaces, imagine what might be done to encourage people to look and make that moment individual. It is also a matter of scale and means, you can’t approach encounters with individuals and vast audiences in the same way. I enjoy being challenged on different scales.

    There is, in my work, the idea of acting everywhere that it is possible to act. I imagine setting up my systems from Japan to Brazil, via India, that is, provoking ways of looking which take account of the particular organisation of personal relationships in each of these areas of the world. There is no relationship without a mask, and that is common to all societies. The process of losing and finding masks occurs everywhere.

    Olivier Bardin, Interview by Pierre Huyghe and Hans-Ulrich Obrist in The Fifth Floor: Ideas Taking Space, Editor Peter Gorschlüter, Liverpool University Press

    ———-

    MAP

    Hans Ulrich Obrist – The Contemporary Artworld’s Curatorial King

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    ARCHIVE

    LYNETTE YIADOM–BOAKYE
    interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist

    Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Six AM Wednesday, 2009
    Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London

    HANS ULRICH OBRIST   In your paintings you have a very clear methodology, which is actually quite conceptual. It sounds like, in a sort of On Kawara way, a painting a day. Can you talk about this? It seems that with a painting, no matter what, you finish it.
    LYNETTE YIADOM-BOAKYE   Yes, exactly. That started off as being a practical consideration: the way I was initially painting, if I didn’t finish in a day the surface wouldn’t work, it would dry at different times, so it was completely a structural thing. Then I started to realize that the way I was working was as important to the work itself as the finished product, it was about reading between works rather than becoming very precious about one. It’s to do with the way I think: I say it’s a short attention span, but what I mean by that is that it’s one thought and it’s fresh in my mind. It’s about a certain kind of urgency and capturing that time frame. Because if it were dragged out over days I feel like the whole resonance of it would go, it would become a much more labored process and I would personally become too precious. If I get to the end of the day and something hasn’t worked I don’t sleep well. I’d rather destroy it than think about it over night just to come back and try and force myself to like it.

    Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hard Wet Epic, 2010
    Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London

    HUO   It’s interesting also because you say that you don’t fix the particular narrative behind it. The paintings are like snippets or part of something, it’s almost like the viewer writes the stories. Duchamp said the viewer is half of the work, Dominique Gonzales Foerster says the viewer does at least half of the work. It seems to be the case with you as well.
    LYB   I give all I can, as I think seduction is very important. I love painting. I love the surface of it. I know how it makes me feel when I see certain works or when I’m in the presence of works that I really admire, and I think the pleasure for the viewer comes out of that kind of feeling, rather than me trying to tell a story. It’s a sensual thing—it’s about a sense of touch and a sensibility. I want it to be that kind of experience as well, which is why I don’t like the idea of giving too much of a story and trying to control that response too much.

    HUO  You say in all your texts and interviews that you conceive the paintings as groups, and think of how they could work together. Can you tell me a little bit about the main groups in your work?
    LYB   They develop over a period of time, and relate more or less directly to what I’m thinking about at the time. I try to put as many different things into a group as possible and often things that relate to each other. There are paintings that come in pairs. But I don’t necessarily show them together. There’s a recurring pair that goes into every body of work. When I start a body of work I will do these two paintings and each time there will be a slight variation but essentially it’s the same man. He’s always wearing basically the same thing, always facing in opposite directions, the pose changes and the facial expression changes slightly, so he’ll always come into that group and there’s always a man in a stripy top. In a way they are like an anchorage. Somehow they start the body of work and then from there everything kind of builds around them. It changes each time. More recently I’ve been trying to paint a lot of landscape, and I’m not very good at it. (Laughs.)

    Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, From Here Until Never, 2011
    Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London

    HUO   I wanted to ask you about these two characters. They are larger portraits filling the canvas completely and almost coming out of the wall. You say that they are always there, these figures, one has a stripy top and the other one not. So how did they enter? You have often mentioned that this is a recurring element but I didn’t find any literature on how they entered into your work. How did you have the epiphany? How did these two guys pop up?
    LYB   They happened quite separately. The really big ones of the man with the white top, the massive ones that always come as a pair, they started of as a very small work. It was a triptych of three of that man and there was something in the facial expression that really captured everything for me, everything that I was trying to do somehow. Really, if I had to choose two pieces that encapsulate the spirit of what I’m trying to do, it’d be him and the stripy man. When I say capture everything I’m trying to do, or the spirit of what I do, I mean the way that I think, the way my sense of humor works. When I start a body of work they are a good reminder, if you like, an anchoring of how I think generally and the reminder of where I am. It is also the sense of getting to know someone better. They have changed a lot since their first incarnations.
    HUO   And what about the stripy one?
    LYB Again it’s like they are opposite poles of the same thing. So there are two emotions there. There’s this calm, sense of something level and almost elegant in the stripy man, and then the white shirt is far more like a sphinx I suppose.

    Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Bound Over To Keep The Peace, 2012
    Photography by Marcus Leith
    Courtesy of Chisenhale Gallery, London

    HUO   I’d like to talk about the characters that you invent for each of your portraits. Your fictitious characters are all black people, and you have said that that it produces a kind of normality. I wanted to ask you about this, and to what extent you view this as a political gesture.
    LYB   I think it’s always in some way going to be political. But for me the political is as much in the making of it, in the painting of it, in the fact of doing it, rather than anything very specific about race or even about celebration. I don’t see what I do as at all celebratory, because to me it just is. The fact that they are all black is double edged as well. They’re all black, or what I should say is they are all tinted black or brown—some of them actually have black features, others have completely Caucasian features—but they are still sort of black. For me, that is the normalizing aspect. It’s not normal, because they’re not real people, but at the same time that means also that race is something that I can completely manipulate, or reinvent, or use as I want to. Also, they’re all black because, in my view, if I was painting white people that would be very strange, because I’m not white. This seems to make more sense in terms of a sense of normality. I suppose with anyone doing anything you set yourself certain parameters, it’s not about making a rainbow celebration of all of us being different. It’s never seemed necessary to alter the color of people just for the sake of making that point.

    HUO   You also say in a statement that you don’t like to paint victims. Jennifer Higgie says it’s a kind of empowerment, kind of power to the people.
    LYB   Absolutely. I said that many years ago in relation to how I like to think about how I finish a person, how a person should look in a painting, and what I want their expressions to be. One of the things I always destroy in the work is anyone that I think looks passive. In part, this is because they’re black, and in part because I don’t want them to like anyone has taken anything from them. I don’t want them to be victimized basically, or to look that way. It’s as much about avoiding certain tropes in the work as anything else.

    Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Fiscal Sweatsuit, 2012
    Photography by Marcus Leith
    Courtesy of Chisenhale Gallery, London

    HUO   I would like to ask you about Ghana, as your family comes from there. I was wondering if you have any connections to Ghana or to Africa?
    LYB   Not very strong ones. I mean, my strongest connection is my parents.

    HUO   Who live there?

    LYB   No, they live here in London, and they have for forty years. But just the fact of them having raised me the way that they did, they are my connection. I kind of have an idea of Ghana from them, but I wouldn’t say I have a strong personal connection with it, in that I haven’t been there that much and I certainly never lived there. I wasn’t born there—I was born here, and I was raised here. Really my connection is through my relatives, the people who raised me, and their way of thinking, which to me is very much Ghanaian, and that has obviously effected how I think and what I think about. But it would be disingenuous of me to claim some strong connection with Ghana as a place because I don’t really know it and I wasn’t raised there.

    HUO   But it’s there through the transmissions of your parents.

    LYB   Definitely. The way I always put it was that Ghana is present as a way of thinking and a way of seeing, which has influenced me.

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    HOMEBLOG › Epiphanies: In Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
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    Some of Hans’ published works Hans in conversation with John Baldessari at LACMA last month Giacometti Still from The Way Things Go Still from The Way Things Go Published to accompany Richter’s 1992 show at Nietzsche’s house in Sils-Maria Richter’s Swiss mountains
    Epiphanies: In Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
    by Yanyan Huang
    Arts contributor Yanyan Huang travels the world in search of big game. In her first blog post with OC she interviews contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.An anomaly within the art world, Hans Ulrich Obrist operates as an auteur who takes ideas from the past, present, and future and stitches them together to provide a well-founded framework. Hans’ approach to his work is organic: ideas come from conversations and spill over to provide the fuel for the next project, ad infinitum.Of course, there can be no reaction without a preceding action, and Hans has had incredible luck in finding the right mentors to fuel his imagination. In a conversation with him after one of his public talks at LACMA last month, he cites the generosity of these “artist-teachers” who provided the inspiration and set him along on his artistic trajectory.Yanyan Huang: During tonight’s talk you asked John Baldessari about the epiphanies he’s experienced throughout his life and career. He mentioned: “conceptual art is pointing at things,” “talent is cheap,” and “be in the right place at the right time.” Have you ever had such epiphanies?
    Hans Ulrich Obrist: One of the first epiphanies that triggered my obsession for art was the Giacometti collection at Kunsthalle Zürich. I was 12 years old and would visit the gallery after school.The second was when I began to meet artists: it was like I was reborn. At the age of 17, I visited the studio of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. At this time (1985), they were just about to work on an amazing film called The Way Things Go, a film of chain reactions. I decided I wanted to be a curator after visiting their studios and speaking with them. Out of this grew one of my first exhibitions held in my kitchen and in a hotel room.A few months later I met Gerhard Richter, prompting another development. He had a big show in 1986 in Switzerland and invited me to his studio. This is a dialogue that has continued ever since. We collaborated in 1992, at Nietzsche’s house in Sils-Maria (where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra). I organized Gerhard’s work, particularly photographs he did of the Swiss mountains. All my early shows had to do with this idea that art can happen unexpectedly in unexpected locations.Fischli and Weiss suggested I go to Rome to meet with Alighiero Boetti. I spent a day with him where we discussed the concept that artists should be involved in a global dialogue. This triggered in me a whole other way of working. From then on, I never stopped. I had infinite conversations and these conversations led to more epiphanies or moments of insight. It’s always a dialogue. I started thinking about how I could expand the notion of curating. How could I curate science, literature, and music? I started exploring these fields.YH: You realized it was important to contextualize your ideas within other fields of study?
    HUO: I thought it could be interesting to curate in different fields: to curate in science and literature museums and in the context of architecture. This led to Cities on the Move and other museum mutations.YH: Have you found similar themes underlying the different fields of art, architecture, and science?
    HUO: There’s not one thing that connects everything together, but many. I’ve been working with the Institute of the 21st Century to archive my conversations. Within the digital interview archives there are a lot of recurring conversations, so we did tagging. Whenever someone speaks about museums, that’s a tag, and so on. Eventually, we tagged different conversations between different fields and different practitioners. It will make the interviews more accessible in the future. The idea is that this archive could be a “book machine.”

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    032C


    Limited Lifespan of Cities

    An interview with architect CEDRIC PRICE on the limited lifespan of cities. By Hans Ulrich Obrist. Issue #02 (summer 2001).

    By HANS ULRICH OBRIST

    HANS ULRICH OBRIST: One of the reasons your work has been so important to many architects in Asia has a lot to do with the notion of time and the ephemeral, something which is understood better in Asia than in Europe.
    CEDRIC PRICE: A short lifespan for a building is not seen as anything very strange in Asia. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is so vast and yet it lasted for less than three hundred years. I liked your dependence on change in the “Cities on the Move” exhibition you curated and I particularly liked the Bangkok exhibition where time was the key element. I see time as the fourth dimension, alongside height, breadth and length. The actual consuming of ideas and images exists in time, so the value of doing the show betrayed an immediacy, an awareness of time that does not exist in somewhere like London or indeed Manhattan. A city that does not change and reinvent itself is a dead city. But I do not know if we should use the word ‘city’ any more; I think it is a questionable term.

    What could replace it?
    Perhaps a word associated with the human awareness of time, turned into a noun, which relates to space. The paradox is that the city changes all the time, so it would have to be a word in permanent mutation; it could not be a frozen term.

    But let’s return to the idea of dead cities, tell me more about why they die!
    Cities exist for citizens, and if they do not work for citizens, they die.

    Which is interesting because you also talk about the fact that buildings can die.
    Yes, the Fun Palace was not planned to last more than ten years. The short life expectancy of the project had an effect on the costs, but not in a limiting, adverse way. No one, including the designers, wanted to spend more money to make it last for fifty years and we had to persuade the generators and operators to be economic in terms of both time and money. The advantage, however, was that the owners, the producers and the operators, through necessity, began to think along the same lines, as the project created the same set of priorities for everyone. That should be one of architecture’s aims; it must create new appetites, rather than solve problems. Architecture is too slow to solve problems. I suppose we should ask what is the purpose of architecture? It used to be a way of imposing order or establishing a belief, which is the purpose of religion to some extent. Architecture does not need that mental imperialism any more. As an architect, I do not want to be involved in creating law and order through fear and misery. I see the creation of a continuous dialogue as both interesting and also perhaps the only reason for architecture. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century, someone defined architecture as “commodity, firmness and delight.” Commodity equates to good housekeeping, particularly in terms of money; firmness is the structure; and the delight factor is the dialogue.

    Could you talk a bit about your time-based project in Glasgow and how that opened up a dialogue between the city and its citizens.
    The city hall is in the centre of Glasgow. They are very proud of it and people are not allowed in very often, unless they have got a complaint against the city. We decided to improve the lift to the top of the tower – putting a carpet in, installing lovely mirrors, spraying it with perfume – and invited the public in. We did not tell them why; all we said is that they could go to the top of the tower and for free. In the lift was a tape announcing “tonight, all the areas which we think should be saved without question will be floodlighted red.” Only parts of the city were lit up, so their attention was focused. You heard comments like: “Well of course that church should be saved” and “Why keep that slum?” The next night, different areas of the city were flooded green, indicating districts they decided should be improved. On the last day, the floodlights were white. The public was invited to tell the city what they should do with the spaces lit in white. There were no “superiors” involved, no architects with patches on their tweed jackets around for miles. The city was saying, “We’ve thought about it for years and still don’t know what to do with the white areas. You tell us. But don’t tell us next year, tell us within a month, because after that it’s too late. As you go down, pick up a free postcard and mail us your response.”

    ===

    Sarah Lucas & Hans Ulrich Obrist

    The bad-girl artist and the Serpentine curator talk shop

    Bruno Serralongue 1_web

    Twenty years ago, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin set up The Shop in a former doctor’s surgery on Bethnal Green Road, east London, selling handcrafted art and knick-knacks like badges, t-shirts, keyrings and wire penises. Their DIY enterprise stayed open for six months while they got pissed in front of their David Hockney altar and used their aquarium as a moneybox. Meanwhile, budding curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was initiating his project do it, conceived with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, which invites artists to invent sets of handwritten instructions, or “scores”. do it has now grown to include Ai Weiwei’s instructions on how to make a spray device to block a surveillance camera, Gilbert & George’s “Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George” and Theaster Gates’ “How to Catch the Holy Ghost in a Shopping Mall”.

    For the new do it 2013 exhibition at this month’s Manchester International Festival, Lucas has created a homage to Franz West using instructions from the do it back catalogue and Emin has paid tribute to the late Louise Bourgeois. The ideas, DIY attitude and “just do it” spirit of 1993 are still going strong.

    The Shop

    Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s not that in 1993 all of these things were invented. The spirit – the genesis of it – started much earlier. But maybe in 1993 it all came together. 1993 was the year of The Shop, it was the year when do it happened, it was the year of Aperto ‘93 in Venice, where a lot of artists from our generation met for the first time. A lot of things crystallised.

    Sarah Lucas: It wasn’t one thing or one person; so many people kept the whole scene buoyant. We were our own audience and we liked it. It generated a lot of energy but
    I don’t think you can bring it down to one moment.

    HUO: I remember the first time I visited your studio. A DIY spirit was very much in the air. What was the epiphany behind The Shop? Do you remember the day you and Tracey had the idea?

    SL: Yeah, I think we were sitting in a restaurant in Brick Lane. I was previously at a studio with Gary Hume. Tracey was mostly writing then, she wasn’t making much art… And we came up with the idea of getting a shop. Just doing it, I suppose. There was this particular shop that was empty and I contacted the estate agent. We rented it for six months and paid in advance. We thought we’d just start turning up there and make it up as we went along. Looking back on it, Tracey really did have this entrepreneurial flair. We used to make these t-shirts, and Tracey would say, ‘When we sell the first one it’s a fiver, we make another it’s a tenner and then the next one, £20.’ We did a lot of drinking at The Shop until the late hours. I can always remember swinging in this hammock we had and falling out on many occasions. We used to spend a lot of time in the pub next door. When someone came in and bought a badge they’d pay 50p. We’d go next door to the pub and buy two halves of Guinness because they were 25p a half. We did actually get by from what we made at The Shop.

    (The YBAs) were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end, we decided what art was legitimate

    HUO: You invented The Shop in an Indian restaurant in London with Tracey, and I had coffee and breakfast with Boltanski in Paris maybe about the same month and conceived do it. It was also about the promiscuity of collaboration. For me, do it was almost open source. It was the beginning of things becoming more global. It was a moment of intense travelling, taking night trains all over Europe. You know, ‘How can I make things that globally make sense, have a show that travels in a different way?’ For my Hotel show (Hotel Carlton Palace: Chambre 763, 1993) I was basically in the hotel room for 24 hours and anybody could come in at three or six in the morning. It was non-stop. It was a similar feeling to The Shop – your dialogue with Tracey was also non-stop.

    SL: Certainly on Saturday nights, we were open all night on purpose. It was a good area to be, just off Brick Lane. There were bagel shops open all night. We were absolutely knackered at the end of the six months. We went from nothing to having half the world coming through the door. I look back on it all fondly. I’m one of these people who are very fond of their own work. They’re sort of like friends to me.

    HUO: I remember I basically had no money, but I bought this cigarette package from The Shop, a ready-made one. I remember a conversation we had then about the use of cigarettes and you said something I never forgot. I was wondering if it was about death and you told me, ‘Only if we think about such distractions that make us think about life,’ something like that. So that was already all there, no?


    Sarah Lucas at The Shop
    Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ

    SL: Yeah. It’s amazing, making things, how often you realise that something was there very much earlier. Really, things started happening for me in early 1992. I did ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ and I had my first one-person show at City Racing, which was where I met Tracey. You could even say it started before that, being part of the Goldsmiths group. The Shop was about using premises that nobody else was using at the time. It was a social necessity (to adopt the bad-girl image) in those days, living in squats and co-ops in rundown areas of London. I didn’t have that much money so I was either cycling, walking or taking the nightbus. I found it useful to have a good pair of boots on and look a bit tough. It was a way of not getting picked on. Now I live in the countryside and don’t feel a great necessity for that. I mean, there are similarities in my appearance now in the sense that I’m still in old jeans and jumpers with black hair, but that toughness was rather integral to the reality of living in that situation.

    New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.

    HUO: It’s interesting that you mentioned City Racing. When you talk about the DIY spirit, the artist-run spaces were very important in early 90s London.

    SL: City Racing was an old betting shop, and ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ was in a shop in Kingly Street, which funnily enough is where Sadie Coles is opening her new gallery. So that’s kind of gone full circle, back in Kingly Street where it all started for me.

    HUO: When I came to London in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a whole map of these artist-run spaces, which is quite difficult to imagine now because it was obviously before rent was expensive. Now most of those spaces are public spaces and commercial galleries. Back then, none of these spaces were really commercial – they were self-organised, artist-run spaces that worked on a shoestring budget. Gilbert & George were a great inspiration for me, that idea of art for all. I remember as a teenager I went to see them and they explained about that famous 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. Gilbert & George were devastated as young artists not to be invited, so they just went to the opening as living sculptures, and that’s obviously what got the most attention. That was a great inspiration, to see that one doesn’t have to wait for an entitlement.

    SL: It’s also who decides what’s legitimate art. In terms of the huge bunch of artists that we became (and it seems to be continually expanding), it was like a sort of ongoing party. We were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end we decided what was legitimate.

     The Shop

    HUO: Robert Musil said in his great novel The Man Without Qualities that art can happen when we expect it least. That’s why my first show in ’91 was The Kitchen Show. When your show Penis Nailed to a Board happened, it happened in a shop. After that I invited you to my Hotel exhibition because that was another model of an exhibition that was more in the context of life.

    SL: New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.

    HUO: One of the reasons we did the new do it book is that there are so many younger artists reconnecting to that DIY spirit. There is also the idea of the rumour. In 1993 I lived between Switzerland and Paris and heard rumours about The Shop and came to London to see it. A similar thing had happened with my shows – there wasn’t really any advertising, so it became a rumour. People came to the hotel room and there were queues outside. Richard Wentworth said one of the ways an exhibition travels is in these concentric circles through rumour. The same for 60s performances which only seven people saw but then became very well known.

    SL: And some things, because of the rumour, continued to grow after they opened, even when they had technically finished. The rumour keeps it going.

    Until September 22, DO IT 20 13, Manchester International Festival, Manchester Art Gallery.mif.co.uk. manchestergalleries.org

    =============
    ARTSPACE

    Art 101

    8 Super-Curators You Need to Know, From Massimiliano to HUO

    By Alex Allenchey

    May 30, 2013

    8 Super-Curators You Need to Know, From Massimiliano to HUO

    Massimilano Gioni at the Cinema Manzoni (Photo by Marco Di Scalzi)

    As today’s art world continues to expand at an exponential rate, with new museums, exhibitions, and biennials popping up seemingly by the minute, contemporary curators are increasingly expected to be up-to-date and knowledgeable about all the goings on around the globe. Only a select few “super” curators have the drive and the wherewithal to handle the mounting responsibilities required to stage today’s monumental shows. We’ve compiled a list of eight of these exceptional gatekeepers, who also happen to be some of the most influential and important people around.


    Name:
    Hans Ulrich Obrist
    Affiliation: Serpentine Gallery in London (Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programs, and Director of International Projects)
    Known For: Being everywhere at once, writing a Brief History of Curating.
    Curatorial Approach: Interdisciplinarily-inclined advocate for evolving and participatory exhibitions, Obrist’s curatorial reach knows no limits.
    Most Notable Exhibition: “do it,” a still-ongoing project begun in 1993 consisting of a set of instructional works—contributed by artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Marina Abramović, Christian Marclay, and Olafur Eliasson, among many others—that anyone can follow to create an open exhibition in any location.
    Weirdest Exhibition: Beginning with an “Interview Marathon” in 2006, Obrist has conducted a series of 24-hour cultural endurance tests, with themes ranging from “Experiments” to “Manifesto” and “Poetry.”
    Sartorial Flourish: Blazer, no tie.

    Name: Okwui Enwezor
    Affiliation: Haus der Kunst in Munich (Director)
    Known For: As a writer, critic, and editor, as well as a curator, Enzewor serves on numerous curatorial teams and advisory boards.
    Curatorial Approach: Enwezor’s exhibition topics focus primarily on post-colonial art and political activism.
    Most Notable Exhibition: In Enwezor’s case, it’s a tie: As the artistic director of the second (and final) Johannesburg Biennale, Enwezor’s “Trade Routes: History and Geography” is largely credited as an important moment for African art on an international scale. As curator of Documenta 11 in 2002, he made the exhibition truly international, conceiving it as a series of decentralized “platforms” located in Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos, as well as the main event in Kassel.
    Weirdest Exhibition: Not so much weird as revolutionary, “In/Sight,” an 1996 exhibition of African photographers at the Guggenheim helped challenge visual stereotypes of African representation.
    Sartorial Flourish: The man can rock an ascot.


    Name:
    Massimilliano Gioni
    Affiliation: The New Museum in New York (Associate Director and Director of Special Exhibitions); the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan (Artistic Director)
    Known For: Being the Wall Street Journal-annointed “crown prince” of the art world.
    Curatorial Approach: Gioni frequently pulls together art regardless of genre classification, creating generally pleasant and thought-provoking juxtapositions.
    Most Notable Exhibition: His “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition, the first iteration of the New Museum’s triennial, which he co-curated with Lauren Cornell and Laura Hoptman, reads like a “who’s who” list of hot young artists, from Cory Arcangel and Tauba Auerbach to Elad Lassry and Adam Pendleton.
    Weirdest Exhibition: His exhibition for the Venice Biennale sports the theme “The Encyclopedic Palace,” based on an outsider artist’s theoretical museum, and contains a bizarre assemblage of art, including “anonymous tantric paintings” alongside work by Robert Crumb and James Castle.
    Sartorial Flourish: No blazer, no tie.


    Name:
    Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
    Affiliation: Independent
    Known For: Being the first woman to reach #1 on Art Review‘s annual “Power 100″ list.
    Curatorial Approach: The American writer and art historian often takes a step back curatorially and lets the potentially-drawn associations between her disparately gathered artworks do the talking.
    Most Notable Exhibition: Under her curatorial guidance, Documenta 13 in 2012 was a smashing success, drawing over 100,000 more visitors than its previous edition in 2007 and being an impressive feat of organization, as it spread beyond the usual location of Kassel, Germany to Kabul, Banff, and Cairo.
    Weirdest Exhibition: Serving as the senior curator at MoMA PS1 in 2000, Christov-Bakargiev helped mount the first edition of the quinquennial “Greater New York” exhibition, which spotlights the very diverse (and very weird) art being made throughout New York City.
    Sartorial Flourish: Scarves and those glasses.


    Name:
    Klaus Biesenbach
    Affiliation: MoMA PS1 (Director) and MoMA (Chief Curator-at-Large)
    Known For: His ascetic lifestyle, not having any furniture in his apartment.
    Curatorial Approach: Ideas for Biesenbach’s exhibitions tend to derive from his own personal taste, which is excellent.
    Most Notable Exhibition: While his retrospective for (former flame) Marina Abramović in 2010 deserves mention, “Any Ever,” the New York debut of innovative video artist Ryan Trecartin in 2011 probably takes the cake.
    Weirdest Exhibition: In 2006, Biesenbach curated the group exhibition “Into Me/Out of Me” at PS1, which focused on the act of “passing into, through, and out of the human body.”
    Sartorial Flourish: Tailored Terminator.


    Name:
    Thelma Golden
    Affiliation: The Studio Museum in Harlem (Director and Chief Curator)
    Known For: Championing early career artists.
    Curatorial Approach: Golden’s exhibitions tend to focus on emerging African American artists, considering their work within nuanced conceptual and theoretical groupings.
    Most Notable Exhibition: Shortly after joining the Studio Museum in 2000, Golden curated “Freestyle” (2001), a widely lauded exhibition of 28 emerging artists of African descent. Golden’s catalogue essay for the show introduced the concept of “post black,” a term coined by Golden that “identified a generation of black artists who felt free to abandon or confront the label of ‘black artist,’ preferring to be understood as individuals with complex investigations of blackness in their work.”
    Weirdest Exhibition: Golden was on the curatorial staff at the Whitney when they launched their infamous “Identity Politics” biennial in 1993 that forever altered the course of contemporary art.
    Sartorial Flourish: Bold patterns.


    Name:
    RoseLee Goldberg
    Affiliation: Performa (Founding Director and Curator)
    Known For: Writing the definitive tome Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present.
    Curatorial Approach: As the driving force behind the Performa biennial, Goldberg is known for being on the cutting edge of performance art.
    Most Notable Exhibition: Performa 2012 included commissioned work by a laundry list of art stars, including Elmgreen & Dragset, Ragnar Kjartansson, Liz Magic Laser, Laurel Nakadate and James Franco, Shirin Neshat, and Frances Stark.
    Weirdest Exhibition: David Salle‘s first solo exhibition “Bearding the Lion in His Den” at the Kitchen in 1977, which featured ten high intensity light bulbs flashing at random while Tim Buckley’s “Song for the Siren” plays.
    Sartorial Flourish: Killer bangs.


    Name:
    Paul Schimmel
    Affiliation: It was recently announced that Schimmel will be joining the blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth as a partner in a new Los Angeles space, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, which is set to open in 2015.
    Known For: Putting on critically acclaimed exhibitions year after year and getting unceremoniously fired for it.
    Curatorial Approach: His vision is expansive and his exhibitions are often grand in scale, though they have often tended to focus on L.A.-based artists.
    Most Notable Exhibition: Schimmel set the bar high with “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” (1992), his first exhibition as chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which sought to upset stereotypes about West Coast art and challenge the assumed superiority of the New York art scene.
    Weirdest Exhibition: His (probably) once-in-lifetime show “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at LA MOCA (2005), which traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the following year, a collection of over 50 of the postwar artist’s rare and fragile collages.
    Sartorial Flourish: Cosby sweaters.

    ============

    An Interview

    Hans Ulrich Obrist and Damien Hirst 2007

    ‘Away from the Flock’ (1994). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

    Hans Ulrich Obrist  You often work in series.

    Damien Hirst  I’ve always liked series. I remember looking at Robert Motherwell’s painting when I was young. Do you know ‘Splashes by the Sea’? I thought that was great.

    You get some sort of security from the repetition of a series. If you say something twice, it’s pretty convincing. It’s more convincing than if you say it once. [Laughs].

    I think it’s also an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death. I’ve thought quite a lot about it. In a way, that’s why smoking is so sexy. Apart from the addiction, the attraction is that there’s nothing certain in life and things change all the time, but you can always rely on something like a cigarette – which punctuates your whole existence time and time again – to be the same. It’s almost like you’re cheating death. But it’s killing you, so then, smoking becomes even sexier. People are afraid of change, so you create a kind of belief for them through repetition. It’s like breathing. So I’ve always been drawn to series and pairs. A unique thing is quite a frightening object.

    HUO  A sort of umbilical cord in your work, which is more than a series, is the idea of the aquarium. You’ve spoken about that in many interviews before, but I thought it would be interesting if we could touch on it briefly. It revisits Minimalism but recharges it with a very different content. So how did this aquarium idea start?

    DH  I’ve always had a thing about glass. I had a magic mushroom experience very early on where I got a bit freaked out about being symmetrical. I imagined I had a sheet of glass running right through me. Glass became quite frightening. I think glass is quite a frightening substance. I always try and use it. I love going around aquariums, where you get a jumping reflection so that the things inside the tank move; glass becomes something that holds you back and lets you in at the same time. Its’ an amazing material; it’s something solid yet ephemeral. It’s dangerous as well. I just love glass. And it’s a way to separate people but engage them. You can invite them in and keep them away at the same time. It’s probably my favourite material, glass. And water. No, my favourite material is water and then glass. But glass and water are very similar. Glass in water is amazing; glass disappears if you put it in water.

    HUO  And there’s the series of animals in formaldehyde.

    DH   ‘Natural History’ that was called. I just imagined a zoo of dead animals. I keep thinking that I’m done with that, but then I recently had the idea for the crucifixions, which I think are fucking brilliant; I have to do that. I think there’s a narrative within those now. I was also thinking about doing the Stations of the Cross as fourteen cabinet pieces. I don’t really think they’re a series. I’m not sure.

    HUO  If one thinks about all the different series, one can see your whole work as a sort of open system from which new series start and others stop.

    DH  I think they’re aspects of personality. It’s shit to go on the wall at the end of the day. You’re decorating apartments a lot of the time; it’s something to go over the sofa. I remember my friend Joe Strummer said to me that a long time ago, cavemen used to go out and smash buffalo over the head and bring them back and cook them and eat them. Then at some point there were are a couple of guys who got their hands in the blood and put something on the cave wall. It was just about making the cave nice. Art came out of the desire to make your habitat more interesting. I love that. Or even music – the guy who started banging bones together and the other guys said, ‘We like the sound of that and we like the way the walls look. Why don’t you guys stay her and we’ll get the meat for you, so at least when we get back to eat the meat we’ll be in a cool place?’ So I’ve always loved that kind of view of art: that art is a reflection of life. I think there’s an infinite number of ways to get to the same point. Every artwork is fundamentally the same thing.

    HUO  Some of your work links to display features in science museums, and other works have more to do with scientific formulas. I’m interested in this relationship to science. Can you talk about that?

    DH  I just hitched a ride on science – or not really science – it was medicine. It’s just collage, isn’t it? Art is always very simple, or good art is always very simple. I took science in the way that Picasso took the bike seat and the handlebars and made the bull’s head. I mean, there’s nothing complicated about it. Science seemed to be getting people’s attention and art didn’t, so I hitched a ride on that. Or people were believing in science and questioning art, so I just took it very directly and used the science. It’s been a very rich vein for me. It also partly came from David Cronenberg’s film ‘Dead Ringers’.

    HUO  ‘Dead Ringers’ was the original of all the ‘Medicine Cabinet’ works?

    DH  Yes. Jeremy Irons as a gynaecologist, in the red fucking robes, and those weird gynaecological instruments that were like art. It was that real high-end medical stuff. And I saw some dark, smoked cabinets in there and I thought, ‘Fucking hell. They look great.’ And so I made some myself. That, combined with seeing Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, and all that Neo-Geo stuff and Kurt Schwitters. I was thinking, ‘What would Kurt Schwitters be doing if he was alive today?’ Bless him, he’d be down the pub. He’d be a priest.

    HUO  I think he might just have continued his Merzbau.

    DH  Yes. He’d have finished it.

    HUO  Because nothing could really stop him from doing it.

    DH  Only one thing.

    HUO  Death.

    DH  Death, yes. Don’t you hate that guy?

    HUO  Schwitters?

    DH  Death. No, I like Schwitters. I just fucking hate death. He’s such a dumb guy.

    HUO  It’s a dull fact. Leon Golub called death, ‘A dull fact’.

    DH  If it’s true. I don’t know if it’s true. [Pause] Come on, it can’t be true!

    HUO  It’s a rumour.

    DH  Elvis is still around. And sex doesn’t really make babies. How the fuck could that work?

    HUO  Another rumour.

    DH  Yes, it’s a rumour. It’s bullshit. I heard a great quote by George Burns, the American comedian. Somebody asked him in an interview when he was about 96, ‘What do you think about death?’ And he said, ‘It’s been done’. [Laughs].

    HUO   [Laughs] Great! We were talking about science.

    DH  Yes, the whole story of it, alchemy and everything; it’s fantastic. Trying to understand the world, looking for the keys to understanding: that’s what artists do as well in some ways. It’s like God should be, the way they sell you the pills, the forms, the utopia, the hope, the cure. We’ve come a long way since quack doctors.

    HUO  Were you inspired by science museums?

    DH  Yes. I love them: science museums, natural history museums, anything that takes your mind off death, really, or focuses your mind on it. I love all that hands-on stuff. It’s great when you feel that you’re being entertained and also educated. I’ve always felt if you could do that with art it would be great.

    HUO  I’m interested in finding out more about how you work, in terms of the collection, archives and studios. Picasso said one should never give up a studio: you should shut the door and take a new one and forget about it and accumulate more studios. Each time we’ve met, you’ve mentioned another place and it seems as if you’ve got lots of studios all over the world.

    DH  I think you should definitely shut them down. Somebody once said to me, ‘Which bit do you like the most? You must love it when you’ve got all these big machines and tanks and people and they’re all in the gallery piling stuff in and there’s all this chaos.’ I said, ‘No. I fucking hate it.’ I like it when it’s all one and there’s just a perfect exhibition at the end. Picasso was obsessed with fame, he wasn’t he? He thought every time he wiped his ass people would find it important. I’m more convinced by the Beatles than Picasso these days.

    HUO  Why the Beatles more than Picasso?

    DH  They had much more influence on the people around them at the time, and they were struggling with truth in a much deeper way. They grew up in public and they went through so many changes. Picasso is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, especially the late Picasso. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist… When I was a kid, I just loved the Beatles. I think I wanted to be the Beatles or something. It’s funny because I was from a different generation. I wasn’t around when the Beatles were around. I was born in 1965, so I witnessed it second hand, in the same way, I suppose, that you witness Picasso second hand. And then I was too young to be a punk. A lot of our generation missed the punk thing that really split everything wide open; we came in the wake of it. We were like punk artists. Some of us have a lot of the attitude. I always thought; especially when you look at the Beatles and the artists who were around at the time – Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake – that the Beatles really made a different. The artists, especially compared to the Americans, didn’t really.

    HUO  Warhol made a difference.

    DH  Yes, it was Warhol and the Beatles. With Picasso, maybe the talent is a little too apparent. I don’t know. Picasso became his own idea of himself; he created a persona and he lived it, whereas the Beatles split at the height of their fucking success, which is a phenomenal thing to do. They just got sick of it; they said, ‘We’re not going on tour any more.’ They were never just going to take the money. Which is great for people from a working-class background.

    HUO  Warhol is in your collection. Can you talk a little bit about him?

    DH  Warhol’s great. You can’t argue with it. It’s simple, isn’t it? And visually great. It’s easy, cheap, simple. He certainly doesn’t over-complicate things. I think that’s good. And in terms of consumerism and all that sort of stuff, art has been in a constant battle for hundreds of years with every other kind of image-making. We’re fighting it today. The paintings that I’m doing now are about that battle. The paintings came out of the time when the newspapers went colour. When newspapers go colour, it’s almost like you get information overload and image overload. Newspapers are about facts and truth, and you believe you get a true view of the world from these images when you don’t: they’re completely fake.

    HUO  Which paintings are you referring to?

    DH  The realistic ones I’ve been doing. Like the ones in the Gagosian show this autumn. It’s like taking one of those images and trying to make it into a painting, because paintings you believe and images you don’t, so you want to throw away the images. What’s happened though, is that we believe in images.

    HUO  How are these paintings made? Are they done by people who work with you, like in Warhol’s Factory?

    DH  For two years I worked with a sculptor called Nick Lumb. I was giving him these little photographic images and saying, ‘I want it to look like that.’ But I didn’t really know what I wanted. We didn’t get any results – well, we did, but they were horrible. We were trying to do it with airbrushing. I kept going back to these paintings and hating them. And after all the airbrushing, after two or three years, we just went back to oil paint. When you’ve learnt all that discipline, the oil paint really cracks back in. They’re still not there, but all I know is they’re getting better. They’re getting closer to what I want. I’ve been setting up my own photographs. I’ve taken photographs of diamonds. I’ve been doing photographs of the Beatles; just creating this mass of images that keep piling up. But it’s real chaos because I don’t know what I want. I keep stopping and starting. I keep thinking about Goya and Soutine, and I sort of imagine that at the end of my life I’ll just fucking paint. I’ll be fucking sat in a tiny little room with one light bulb doing self-portraits on my own. There’s a lot of complications with what I do now. You have to be young, you have to be fit, to run the operation that I run, and I certainly don’t think I can get old running an operation like this.

    HUO  So the operation will have to reduce?

    DH  Yes. It will have to. If you’ve got people working for you, and they’re getting older and you keep replacing them with younger people, and you’re getting old too, it’s going to be mental. But if you keep everybody working for you and they get old, eventually they’re not going to be able to move big things around. So instead of getting rid of them younger, why not make the works smaller? You could make smaller things that they can carry. You’d end up with this fucking studio of old people carrying little things around – ‘Can you make it in wood, please? I can’t carry the steel.’ It would be good if you could do that. I love the idea of a company, an old-fashioned company. I’m just an old-fashioned boy at heart, really.

    HUO  In some ways it does feel like a new model of Warhol’s Factory. But this idea of revisiting painting is interesting. You could get rid of all these structures without concentrating on painting. Why painting?

    DH  It’s like, ‘Why books?’ It’s just a great way to convey a message. It’s a brilliant illusion. It’s very simple; the illusion that something two-dimensional is three-dimensional evokes emotions in people.

    HUO  You mentioned that you’re doing a new show and a book of the drawings in New York.

    DH  It’s called ‘CorpusI’ve just sent 300 drawings over to Larry Gagosian, so it’s kind of everything I’ve done. When I started doing the drawings, I didn’t really want anybody to see them. But as I’ve been doing it for longer and have got older, I think maybe it’s good to see them.

    HUO  Is there a daily practice of drawing?

    DH  Yes, it’s the first point of call, isn’t it? You have an idea, and when it gets too complicated to hold in your head, it’s a great way to visualise it. It’s a very cheap and effective way to visualise it. I love that. You can work out what size it needs to be. You can imagine it. So I’ve always done that. I can work out in a few lines with a pencil on a piece of paper how big I need to make a tank. That way, you don’t make expensive mistakes.

    HUO  Peter Fleissig showed me the drawing of the shark.

    DH  That was done after the fact. Peter said he wanted a drawing of the shark, so I did one. I think you can tell if they’re done afterwards because you can see they’re drawn from a photograph of the piece.

    HUO  Are the drawings after the fact rare, or are there lots of them?

    DH  I think as long as you don’t pretend that they’re done before, it’s OK. If someone said to me, ‘Can you do me a drawing of the shark?’ I don’t mind doing that. But the ones done before are more interesting, because you’re trying out different possibilities and you can see the progress of how you got to the actual shark.

    HUO  Are there a lot of unknown drawings in the show that nobody has ever seen before?

    DH  Yes, there are lots. There are some drawings of horrible sculptures that never got made. There’s one called ‘Lambie Loves Snoodle’. It’s got a pram in it and a baby monitor with a skull; it’s the very stupid idea of death talking to birth on a baby walkie-talkie or a mobile phone. The title was from a Lonely Hearts column.

    HUO  That piece was never made?

    DH  No. I don’t think it ever will be. There are lots like that. Loads. When you have an idea for an animal in formaldehyde, you do drawings for every animal. I was going to do a big Raft of the Medusa with dead animals and meat and big butchers’ tables, but I never made it. There’s a great one of a butterfly made out of two pigs sewn together ass to ass; you cut the back end off it and then four sides of beef make the wings. It’s a huge thing, like a butterfly of death, which I never made. You do drawings very quickly, and that’s easy, but then you work out how much it’s going to cost to make it and it becomes a ridiculous amount of money.

    HUO  There was this whole debate in the press the other day. People were asking about the shark: how will it be in the future? Does it matter if it’s a different shark? Does it matter whether or not you, as the artist, choose the shark? Can someone else make it?

    DH  The idea of replacing the shark is a bit of a difficult one. The original shark (in ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living‘) was done badly – that’s the problem. With the other ones, you probably won’t replace them. Everything is replaceable in my mind, but then, I’m not the person who’s going to decide that, because it happens when you’re gone. But I feel pretty bad about the way the shark was looking, because it’s deteriorated. A shark has got to look fierce. So I think it really had stopped doing what I wanted it to do. The problem with the shark was that it was done with MoMA and it was done with Charles Saatchi; there were too many people doing it and they all got involved with the commission. Different people advised them that there was no need to inject the shark. I wanted to inject the shark, they didn’t want to inject it – Charles can be a bit bullish – and they pushed me into not injecting it. So in the end, it didn’t get injected, and it was the only thing that didn’t get injected. Then we had all the stories that it had started floating; it completely rotted insider, and we had some real problems with it. In the end, Charles went off on his own and had it gutted and skinned and stretched over a fibreglass mould, so it wasn’t a real shark after a while, and it just started to be totally wrong: it was the wrong shape, it just didn’t look frightening, didn’t look dangerous, didn’t look like a shark. So for me to get involved at this point now, knowing what I know, I can go back in and get a new shark and make it look exactly like I wanted it to look originally because I’m still alive, so I think that’s good. But that’s an example of an artwork being handled really badly. It’s not like the ‘Venus de Milo’. The arm is missing – it looks great. With old art you’ve got to use a lot of imagination. In a way there’s a big joy in looking at things and reconstructing their past lives. I mean, every day you have to deal with your own mortality, so a good way of doing that without too much fear is to deal with the mortality of an object.

    HUO  Some artists in the 1960s tried to make contracts stating that a work had to be dealt with in a particular way. That was another part of my question: how do you feel about that difficult business?

    DH  I don’t mind. There are two things in an artwork, aren’t there? There’s a visual thing and there’s a cerebral thing; there’s a mind thing and an eye thing going on. And then mind thing is always secondary; no matter how great or important conceptual art is, at the end of the day, it’s secondary to the eye thing. If it looks fucking good on the wall, none of that matters; it’s really not important. But I think you’ve got to be careful. When you’re making an artwork, there’s an idea and you play around with it and then it comes to life. But you can have an idea and put things together, and then it doesn’t work. So I suppose if things can come to life then they can also die. You can create an artwork, and it comes to life, but then maybe 500 years later it dies. I’ve never really thought about that. It’s a weird thought; a good thought.

    HUO  A limited lifespan? Like buildings.

    DH  Yes, like everything else. In my mind I think that art’s immortal, but maybe it has a limited lifespan. All these Old Masters are falling apart, and we’re clinging onto them through preservation. It’s like in that film of HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’, when the books fall apart in his hands. You’ll get that happening with art, I guess. With a Jackson Pollock painting that’s going to happen eventually. Or is it? You can create it digitally. Maybe art is like true love; maybe it never dies. That’s my hope, anyway. But it will die with the world. If we do nothing, the earth is going to smash into the sun, so we’re fucked really.

    ‘An Interview’ constitutes excerpts from an interview (with permission from the artist and the interviewer) which took place in connection with the exhibition ‘In the darkest hour there may be light. Works from the Damien Hirst murderme collection’ at Serpentine Gallery, London.

    Copyright © Hans Ulrich Obrist/Damien Hirst, 2008.

    Hans Ulrich Obrist — A Biography

    Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London. He has served as curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and has curated 250 exhibitions worldwide.

    Obrist’s recent publications include A Brief History of Curating and The Conversation Series (Vol. 1-20.)

    In 2011, Obrist has been awarded the Bard College Award for Curatorial Excellence and the Swiss Institute Honoree Award 2011.

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    Artfacts.Net Interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist


    Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Marek Claassen
    Hans-Ulrich Obrist is one of the most prestigious curators of contemporary art. Currently he serves as a Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

    AfN: Hello Mr. Obrist

    HUO: Hello. Good morning.

    AfN: Rather randomly I browsed to a web site called www.edge.org. A website where usually scientists publish their very personal opinion, for example their dangerous idea. Now it’s you the curator asking about the formula of life. When did your connection to the world of science occur?

    HUO: My connection to science started a long time ago in Germany. When I was a young curator, I started to work with Kasper König in Frankfurt. He was at Portikus, at Städelschule in the early 90s. We were working in ’91 on a book called “The Public View”, my first book, and then on a big painting show called “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” [The broken mirror], in ’93 in Vienna. I was contacted by Christa Maar who runs the Academy of the Third Millenium which brought people like Ernst Pöppel, Wolf Singer, two German neurologists, together with architects and scholars from all disciplines and artists.

    In ’93, they had invited me to come to the Academy meetings. For me, it was really a revelation because it was the first time I met scientists. I had never met scientists before in my life, I was always with art and architecture. I had long conversations with Ernst Pöppel and others. And that really triggered a relation to science. I would show Semir Zeki a Mark Rothko exhibition, and he would tell me about neuroscientific issues, about what happens in our brain when we see a Mark Rothko painting.

    So little by little, I began to think that it could be very interesting to connect artists with these scientists and develop an approach. And one of the first approaches was called “Art & Brain” which we did in a science centre in Germany where we basically had an extended coffee break. Carsten Höller was there, Rosemarie Trockel, Douglas Gordon and many others. And then, after that extended coffee break, we did another project called “Bridge the gap?”, and another one called “Laboratorium” which then became a bigger project.
    I started this thing at a certain moment when I thought it could be interesting not only to do conferences but also bring that science link into the medium of the exhibition which is my primary medium. I basically worked on these different things and on conferences like the 24-hour marathon here in London. That obviously shifts the rule of the game of what a conference is.

    But for me, the main medium remains the exhibition. And the question was how to bring science into an exhibition, and this was the primary focus for “Laboratorium” in ’99 – the show which Barbara Vanderlinden curated, where we invited scientists and artists to talk about the laboratorium, about their studio, about their science lab. Different labs have happened in Antwerpen. Rosemarie Trockel did her sleeping lab; Jonas Mekas revisited Andy Warhol‘s factory, and wondered what happened to the factory later on, what it became; we had Luc Steels developing colour recognition experiments and robots; we had basically Panamarenko defining his laboratory, his studio to be close to the public; it was a secret place; and we invited also the eminent Bruno Latour to actually curate a show within the show, and he came up with this idea of the table top experiments. So he curated a series of public lectures and demonstrations where scientists, artists and architects would publicly present either a new or an old experiment. So that’s the first time in ’99 where we – the science investigation – reached a critical mass. We really developed a larger scale exhibition.

    Then it moved on with conferences again like “Bridge the gap?” with Akiko Miyake where we invited – for a week – scientists, artists and architects to Japan, and had a sort of a think tank where art meets science meets architecture in a different environment. In this case it was a house on the outskirts of Kitakyushu, very remote.

    Then, I moved to London last year, and we started with Julia Peyton-Jones to welcome these different projects of the Serpentine Gallery: education and public programmes, exhibition, and architecture which are the three main strings. Obviously, the question was also: how can the pavilion be a “content-machine”? And Julia had initiated and invented in 2000 this pavilion scheme with world leading architects doing a temporary pavilion every year. Together, we invited Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond to design the pavilion, and we spoke with them about his idea that it could also be a forum, an agora for conversation. We had a very intense summer of conversation last year which culminated in the marathon, and Rem said, architecture without content is meaningless shape. So when this year, we approached Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, they immediately picked up on this idea as well but pushed it further, and Olafur agreed to be involved. Olafur was here most of the weeks; there was a colour experiment, there was an experiment of models; there was another one about sound. The pavilion became a musical instrument.
    Olafur and I had been through “Bridge the gap?”, but also through an event in Eidar, in Iceland which was another interdisciplinary think tank. So it’s a really long story. We’re working a lot on these art-science-relationship. So we felt it could be interesting that the pavilion becomes really a place where a marathon of experiments could take place. And Olafur thought that maybe last year, there have been enough conversations, and it could be interesting to, this year, really not talk but ask people to do something, to do an experiment in the pavilion. There have been up to 60 experiments on the Frieze weekend in October, ten days ago, where artists, scientists did an experiment. The results are on www.serpentinegallery.org.

    Hans-Ulrich Olbrist during the interview in the streets of London

    AfN: And is this your formula of life?

    HUO: Yes, that brings us to the question about the formula. Besides the exhibitions, the conference season, the symposium, I have always had this other type of projects, more immaterial exhibitions which are basically “Do it”, a book made out of recipes, or also “The future will be” where I had asked artists to define the future, and my most recent project of such an immaterial exhibition is “Formulas for the 21st Century”.

    So in the last 18 months, I started to ask artists from all over the world to send a formula for the 21st century. It was triggered by an interview I made with the great inventor Albert Hofmann. At the end of the interview, he drew on a piece of paper the formula of LSD. It was an incredibly simple formula, and I just thought “wow, it could be interesting to ask 100 artists to email their formula!”. My projects are kind of a flanerie. Out of this flanerie, things very often – also by chance – develop. It’s not a masterplan. These things, these projects just happen. Little by little, whenever the artists email a formula, I put it on the wall of my office. At the beginning, when I started to work here, my office was empty, there were just three formulas on the wall, and then, the office became more and more full with these formulas which had been faxed or emailed. After about the year, the whole office was full with these formulas.

    One night, when we had an opening, Brian Eno who is my neighbour here in Notting Hill and who obviously had been one of the world’s great pioneers to bring music in relation to science, he came with John Brockman to one of our openings. John Brockman is the founder of “Edge”. He saw all these formulas on the wall at my office, got really excited and said “this is an ‘Edge’ project! We should do something together!”. I had known John Brockman for almost 10 years, through James Lee Byars and many other common friends, but we never had collaborated directly. I contributed to some of his online-things but we have never done a big project together. He said: “You do it with artists but I could ask the ‘Edge’ list to contribute”. John Brockman asked all the scientists of his mailing list to send a formula; so in some kind of way, he had quite a parallel way of working. He took my idea, obviously with my acquaintance, and asked his mailing list to send a formula which we then presented as part of the science marathon we did here. We invited John Brockman not only to do this formula but we also thought it could be interesting that John Brockman actually does a section of the marathon. Brockman invited about 10 scientists to do an experiment, so there was an ‘Edge’ sequence. Projects of this sort are not developed in one masterplan. It’s an archipel-like model of different islands which we then connect in many different ways. So there was a John Brockman island, there was a Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels island;…. On the website, you can see an image of each experiment.

    What happened is that suddenly this immaterial exhibition of formulas has, by being on ‘Edge’, reached a completely other context. Suddenly we ended up on top of Boing Boing which is the biggest blog on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world would visit it. To some extent, that obviously is very important for us because it is not only about bridging the gap between disciplines, but it’s also about reaching art and building bridges to other visitors who usually would not come to an art gallery, and we have 800,000 visitors p.a. Admission is free. So this kind of way is also an interesting link to the internet. You go to “Edge”, it’s free. You come to the Serpentine, it’s free.

    Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen

    AfN: ‘Edge’ always asks these interviews “What is your question?” with a question mark. And you have a website called “Point d’ironie”, and there is also a question mark but it’s turned upside down. So I asked myself how these things are linked with each other? It has nothing to do with irony, right?

    HUO: No, artists like James Lee Byars or Alighiero Boetti have been immensely influential for me when I started in the late 80ies, early 90ies to work as a curator. James Lee Byars had in ’71 this wonderful project called “The World Question Center”. It was a huge inspiration for me, but it was also an inspiration for Brockman who has seen Byars earlier than me because he started earlier than me. But we both, being from different generations, were equally inspired by James Lee Byars, and we kind of met through this inspiration by James Lee Byars‘ “World Question Center”. And he asked as an artist all the eminent people like Freeman Dyson, the Dalai Lama among others, to ask one question. He’d ring them, and the moment, he had that question, he’d hang up the phone. So the World Question Center was certainly a trigger.

    The “point d’ironie” leads us to another project; it is related in a sense that we disseminate art broader than just in the conventional way, and it’s got to do with this idea of inventing other circuits of disseminating art. The “point d’ironie” was really a discussion between Christian Boltanski, the French artist, Agnes B., the French designer, publisher, and collector, and myself. About ten years ago, we were thinking, it could be nice to do two-folded posters that would be a magazine and a poster in one. We had printed hundreds of thousands of copies and distributed them for free all over the world. If you go the “point d’ironie”-website, you will see that it’s been going on now for ten years. Jonas Mekas did the first issue; the most recent ones were done by Damien Hirst and also by Richard Prince and Hreinn Fridfinnsson. What is interesting is that each time, it’s also a different circuit because we print about a hundred thousand copies and distribute it globally, obviously through Agnes B.’s channels, then through the mailing list of museums, but each time also, through where the artist wants it to travel. So the artist brings each time his or her mailing list. I think, to some extent, that’s the core of this project.

    Currently, we have all these forces of globalisation, and obviously, they lead to a danger because sometimes the danger is that in my world of exhibition, they can lead to a homogenising force. The difference disappears. I believe in this idea that we use the forces of globalisation because they are an opportunity, a possibility to stimulate and trigger more global dialogue but that we, at the same time, resist those homogenising forces so that we define models which are actually a difference producing globalisation.

    AfN: We are sitting here in this wonderful pavilion designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorson. It’s a temporary installation. This pavilion will be replaced by another one. Isn’t this sad, don’t you want to keep it. What’s your relationship to possession?

    HUO: Interesting question. I mean, to some extent, exhibitions are temporary mediums that is so much related to possession. In the art world, there is a strong art market; there is galleries, there is collections, and I think that’s incredibly important. I am very much convinced that there is a necessity for that because it helps to create sustainable, long-term presence of art and of architecture.

    However, parallel to that, it is very important that we have laboratories, that we have experiments which not necessarily last, which are temporary because they allow to test things, they allow to test ideas, they allow new things to emerge, and I have always seen my role rather on that end to basically develop experimental situations where temporary constellations can be tested and can be invented. The exhibition is very much a temporary medium; exhibitions are temporary constellations of objects, of quasi objects, of processes which, after the exhibition, dissolve again. You have a book, you have a website, sometimes you have a lot of interviews and conversations, you have a memory, you have a documentation, you have archives, you produce archives but not necessarily permanent objects. With architecture it is similar because we are not producing permanent situations but we basically produce temporary architecture, temporary buildings which are pavilions. And this project initiated by Julia Peyton-Jones has actually developed a very very global visibility for architecture because it is visited by hundreds of thousands of people, it is published all over the world. However, it is not creating a lasting building here. First of all, we are not allowed to do it because this is “Royal Parks”, and it can only have temporary things but beyond that, it is also carried by the belief that temporary architecture sometimes produces the most innovative architecture. If you look at the history, there have been a lot of incredible inventions of architecture done by pavilions. If you think for example of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona…

    Buckminster Fuller once said that maybe we can own cars or buildings, but we can also consider cars or buildings to be a service which means we only have the building when we need it. We only have a car when we need it. We do not necessarily have to own a car. […]
    However, I do believe that there is a place and a necessity for such experiments which are not necessarily gone by thinking. Somebody builds a building, and it has got to last; he builds that building with a different spirit than if he builds a building for two or three months. So it gives the freedom to the architect to really test something maybe more daring, more extreme than he or she would if it was a permanent building. He would build a different pavillion. […]

    AfN: You are known a somebody who breaks the custom habits of viewing (e.g. Hotel Carlton Palace, Cloaca Maxima, Take me (I’m yours)) or the casual ways of presenting art (e.g. Biennale Lyon). Your putting the things in a different context or adding a layer. It’s like reminding the people: Hey, this is art, it’s here and there it’s everywhere. Do you consider yourself as somebody appointed to train our senses?

    HUO: I think it grew out of a necessity of conversations with artists. […] Alighiero Boetti once told me that, as an artist, he was always asked to do the same thing. You are asked to do gallery shows, you are asked to do museum shows, you are asked to do these very repetitive things, and it is unbelievably limited and restraining. […] [An art project and its realisation] are very much driven by discussions where one thinks about how to produce reality, how to make things happen which very often prove to be possible. […] It has to do with making things happen but it has also to do with the fact that when you ask an artist to do things which are not a routine but which are slightly different, he produces sometimes very very different work. […] It is the drive or necessity to produce new experiences

    AfN: Another thing, something that striked me by reading one of the many interviews you did was that there was quite a lot of traveling involved. But not in the sense of just visiting some other place more in the sense of the German word “Wanderjahre” (journeyman). Where one to be considered professional has to gain knowledge by working and learning through emigration. Is this physical emigration obligatory if someone wants to succeed in the art world?

    HUO: […] Since last year, I spend my week, from Monday to Friday, in London. Then I started to always travel from Friday night to Monday morning, each time to another continent. So I do my China research, the India research, and then my New York research – I changed my rhythm, and I began to do more short journeys. […] In 2000, at a certain moment, I chose not to travel at all, to stay for three years at one place. […] There are so many professions in history where it was not necessary to travel at all, and the idea that it becomes an obligation, in the worst case, even to do travelling without it being a necessity or a pleasure or a conviction, is not beneficial. It cannot be an obligation. Everybody travels, and it is certainly good that there is a lot of travelling going on but then, at the same time, maybe it is not important for every practice. Whenever I write a book, I cannot travel. Then I have – for several weeks – to stay somewhere. So to some point of vue, it is about rhythms, waves with intervals, pauses, silences.

    I mean, sometimes it is very interesting not to go somewhere but to imagine a journey; if you think for example of Robert Walser’s fictitious Gazettes Parisiennes or Joseph Cornell’s European Grand Tour that never took place. It happened in the imagination.
    And particularly in terms of exhibitions, it is sometimes not necessary to travel, sometimes it is more important to do a local research. One of my most interesting experiences was for example when I did the first Berlin Biennale with Nancy Spector and Klaus Biesenbach, and we decided “let’s just look at Berlin!” [for the selection of artists]. So we did not proceed like curators who travel all over the world to catch artists for a biennale but we just stayed in Berlin and looked at all the artists who live and work in Berlin. And it was really a very interesting experience. […] I prefer to focus on a few places and to dig deep. The cities where I live are obviously the cities where I research more deeply what is going on. […]

    AfN: I always had the feeling that there are three different layers in the profession of an artist. You either are a teacher, or an installation artist in shows or you produce for the art fairs. And some of them serve every layer. Do you think that this trichotomy exists?

    HUO: The big danger is that there is a pressure to homogenise practices, and that the difference disappears. It is interesting, to some extent, to resist this whole organisation and to be different. […] Everbody doing the same leads to an impoverishment, and in some kind of way, it is all about how – in a context where the homogenising forces are at stake – to produced a difference. That’s why there cannot be a prescription which says “It has got to be this way. An artist has to be like this”. It is something which has really to do with finding out one’s own projectory.
    It has a lot to do with “Spaziergangswissenschaften” (Lucius Burckhardt). There are so many different ways of navigating the world.

    AfN: But the artists you choose, do you meet them by wandering around?

    HUO: It is also systematic. As John Cage said, it is chance but it is very controlled chance. […] I have been very inspired by Cage’s idea of the musical score and analogue the curatorial masterplan being too policing; maybe we should allow more chance in it, we should allow more improvisation, and that is something that you have in urbanism, in music a lot.
    […] At the same time, you have Yona Friedman or Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price in urbanism who, since the 60s, have talked about how to question the masterplan.
    If you look for example at these people over there at the bus stop, we do not know whether they are going to take the bus or to change their mind, maybe they are going to walk… there is a lot of unpredictability, and how can we actually bring what urbanism and music have done since the 60s about questioning the masterplan, to curating. In terms of curating, it is very much about the masterplan. The curator makes the list of artists. In France, you even call the curator a “commissaire” which is police vocabulary. I found it very inspiring: music and urbanism, and how I can bring that into curating and develop self-organisation, develop models where controlled chance can enter.

    AfN: Is this habit you have “quality”? – In the art world everybody speaks about “quality”. But when you talk, I get the impression that this is the quality of an artist – to jump in, to build a pavilion, to do something completely different. Would you call this quality in terms of an art work?

    HUO: It’s also to change what we expect from art. I think, great artists always change what we expect from art.
    And then there is the famous “étonnez-moi”. In the conversation with Cocteau and Diaghilev and the Ballets russes which was a great moment where art met theatre, and there was this famous explanation, and they said “étonnez-moi” (surprise me).

    AfN: Dear Mr. Obrist, thank you for the interview

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    Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Emily Wardill

    Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Emily Wardill about her enigmatic film work

    'Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck', 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s the first month, the 10th year, the first decade, the third millennium and we’re in London — Deleuze wrote about repetition and difference…


    Emily Wardill:
    Yes, I was thinking about him, because I was thinking about windows.


    Obrist:
    Windows?


    Wardill:
    Throwing a body through a frame. You couldn’t really throw yourself out of that window.


    Obrist:
    No, I couldn’t throw myself out of the window. But why do you think about windows this morning?


    Wardill:
    Partly because I’m working on a catalogue at the moment and trying to organise everything under ideas of theatre and the object in the window, and I had heard that Deleuze, when he threw himself out of the window, did it because he was trying to get air into his lungs.


    Obrist:
    Christian Boltanski told me that in an artist’s life there are a couple of inventions, great inventions, just as in a scientist’s life. Benoît Mandelbrot still remembers the day he discovered fractals. When was the first time you had an awakening epiphany?


    Wardill:
    I think art made sense of the feeling that some things make sense and some things don’t. Maybe it was more accumulative than an epiphany.


    Obrist:
    Do you remember the first piece you were happy with?


    Wardill:
    I was really into editing and filmmaking — it was a performance piece (a re-enactment of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ black dinner from À rebours, 1884), ‘The Feast Against Nature’, 2005. When I was making sense of that vast project — two years of trying to work out the voices and how they came together — I realised that something happens when you edit, you can make connections that are not expected. It was an important piece of work also because it was made as a collective.

    'Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck', 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden


    Obrist:
    So it was a performance in which, for the first time, things came together. What was your inspiration?


    Wardill:
    I remember being struck by Des Esseintes’ temporary loss of virility and that this gigantic black feast would then be something ridiculous and grand at the same time. And also the idea of decadence — decadence in the sense of the late 19th century word, but also the American contemporary version of decadence, which relates to its original meaning — a kind of moral decay (in relation to Gary Indiana). It was just before Bush was re-elected, so that feeling was really present in people’s minds in New York. In England this decadence came across as a much more romantic sort of dandy-esque embodiment.


    Obrist:
    And did you see a link to ‘happenings’?


    Wardill:
    Yes, people had this pathological relationship to the thing they were talking about instead of having an academic one, and I think that that was something, as I understand the ‘happenings’, that happened to the participants; that you would kind of play through your roles, be it gender roles or societal structures.


    Obrist:
    Etel Adnan, the seminal poet and painter from Lebanon, says that identity is shifty, identity is a choice.


    Wardill:
    That you perform it? Yes, and also that you can have stories you hold onto, that you carry along with you as ‘being’, as opposed to being therapy which demands you search for answers and origins. Adam Phillips talks about this.


    Obrist:
    Cerith Wyn Evans was telling me the other day that when he was a student Peter Gidal told him to read Proust and Beckett and that had completely changed his life — have any books changed your life?


    Wardill:
    A Fire On The Moon by Norman Mailer. He was commissioned by the American government to write about the moon landing and it got really slated by the critics. So he took out an ad in the New York Times which published all the criticism from Moby Dick when that first came out. Hilarious. The thing I liked about it was it was constructed like Moby Dick, so it had this big sort of technological expansion in the middle of it, but also right in the beginning he puts himself in it. Even though it’s about a grand world event, he’s always there. He always places himself there so you have this thing that’s both expansive and grounded in autobiography — everything that is wrong with him, all his vices, all his insecurities and passions and posturing become part of this world event — when you hold a lens up to something it makes it big but you’re aware of it being small and you’re aware of the mechanics of that sort of magnification as well.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: Any other books which are oxygen?


    Wardill:
    I’ve been reading Carlo Ginzburg’s essay ‘Making It Strange’ (from Nine Reflections on Distance). He’s talking about Tolstoy’s writing, which he wrote from the perspective of a horse, and this idea of changing perspective in order to point out how strange common sense is. And then, Love is Colder than Death, the Fassbinder book. I love where he talks about his films being like the walls of his house. So he never needs a house because he’s constantly making films. That’s his stability. The thing I like about it is that it can’t just belong to him.


    Obrist:
    After that you made your first solo show, the legendary Reader’s Wife at Fortescue Avenue.


    Wardill:
    The Reader’s Wife was an expansion of the Smithson example of the boy running around in a sand pit that’s half black sand and half white sand. If he runs around clockwise it turns grey and if he turns around anti-clockwise it doesn’t go back into its two distinct halves. I was really interested in how that stage towards understanding could become a kind of theatrical stage and how you could then re-complicate it and make new connections from it. So in terms of fictionalising significant spaces, it was a kind of an epiphany. I’m using your word now. I’m not sure if I like the word.


    Obrist:
    What does London mean to you as a kind of context where you work?


    Wardill:
    I keep on getting out of London and then coming back and really liking it a lot more than when I left. But I think what’s hard about London to leave is that it’s full of people that I love and respect and it’s full of a kind of energy which is special.


    Obrist
    : So cities are people?


    Wardill:
    Yeah, but when I went to Marseilles last year I really liked it better then any other city. That was a different thing, because in Marseilles it feels like everyone is outside and swarming around each other. The beaches in the city are all rocky with graffiti and people go swimming as the sun sets. Everyone is in on it — grandmas, kids, groups of teenagers playing guitar, army men, inflatable aeroplanes…

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: In 2006 you did the exhibition Basking In What Feels Like An Ocean Of Grace, I Soon Realized That I’m Not Looking At It, But Rather, That I Am It Recognizing Myself. Titles seem important to your work. Sometimes you have verylong titles. What’s their role?


    Wardill:
    Well that one was because the film was based around a soundtrack I wrote which reflects in on itself. So if you look at sheet music, it’s like you’re holding a mirror down the middle of it and then you play the music backwards. But I didn’t want to actually play it backwards, because I thought it would have allusions to Satanism and I didn’t want that. So the title becomes a thing that’s almost semi-therapeutic — it has to do the same thing that the work is doing.


    Obrist:
    What role does chance play in your work?


    Wardill:
    It helps. [laughter] It’s dangerous but it helps.


    Obrist:
    Is music important to you?


    Wardill:
    Definitely. Because it does this thing where it bypasses your brain. I’ve been thinking about dub a lot for the new film, because of this relationship of sort of talking to people who are dead and on repetitions. But I also like what Marguerite Duras said when she was making ‘India Song’— that she played music to the actors so they would relax and could do nothing without feeling.


    Obrist:
    You’ve got a lot of soundtracks to your films.


    Wardill:
    Well in something like Basking In What Feels Like An Ocean Of Grace, I Soon Realized That I’m Not Looking At It, But Rather, That I Am It Recognizing Myself, the music gives it structure, becomes this cage. But with something like BornWinged Animals and Honey Gathers the Soul, [2005], the music is much more like an image. The next film was called ‘Ben’ [2005], and I quite like the fact that that title was so surly in relationship to the earlier title. It was shot on a set built to look like it was black and white but is in colour and has two stories about Ben. Ben becomes an object halfway through — I was thinking about case studies, and how they take ostensibly casual situations and expand out to reach giant conclusions and patterns which can be applied to other situations. Because one of the case studies is about a person suffering from paranoia, I tried to make the film paranoid. It’s like when you can’t disconnect the idea from the form.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: What about the sound of ‘Ben’?


    Wardill:
    The sound is two voices and one of them one is the voice of a girl — Keisha Sandy Wellington. She’s reading the case study about the man Ben. The other is the voice of a hypnotist — he lulls you into feeling you can trust him. He’s like the voice of God as voice-over. She’s a much more faltering, fragile voice.


    Obrist:
    Which film followed Ben?


    Wardill:
    After ‘Ben’, I made a film called ‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, [ICA, 2007]. It was a kind of playlet based on ideas from British stained glass. I was trying to shoot it in such a way that it looked like the colours were really saturated but also, as with stained glass, things are framed in a really illogical and fragmented and, it seems, in very contemporary way. The stuff I was looking at was medieval English — you have faces with eyes and noses lobbed off and all these kind of strange framings. The film is framed in a similar way, but it was the beginning of an interest in the way in which stained glass windows were used to communicate to a largely illiterate public. I was trying to make this connection between that and the way Karl Rove had woven religion into the republican party discourse. So that then leads on to the film ‘Sea Oak/The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter)’ which was a much more pedagogical way of thinking about that.


    Obrist:
    Why Descartes’ Daughter?


    Wardill:
    Because there’s a famous story about him being summoned by Queen Christina to be part of her court and he doesn’t want to go because he is scared his thoughts will freeze over like the water in Sweden. He was right because that was when he died.


    Obrist:
    And so his intuition was right?


    Wardill:
    Yeah. His daughter had died when she was five, of scarlet fever and it was the big sorrow in his life that he carried around. He booked into this journey on a ship with his daughter but they never saw her with him. There was a huge storm and in the midst of it the sailors went to look for Descartes. There was no one in his quarters but they found a box with a little automaton that he built that moved just like a little girl. They were shocked by this and thought she had cursed the journey. So they threw her overboard. So he loses his daughter twice, but the second time he loses her she’s a strange embodiment of all his rational ideas taken to the point of irrationality. I thought that this was amazing.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: Your work has a lot to do with the digital relating to the physical.


    Wardill:
    Often the way I make a film is to start it as a performance. Similarly with ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’— the performance ‘Life is a Dream’, at the Serptentine, helped me to think through the film.


    Obrist:
    So the performance triggers the film, the film triggers performance? It’s kind of a communicating vessel maybe?


    Wardill:
    Yes, but I’m also quite slow, my brain works quite slowly. Which is why I’m not very good at keeping up with these ideas of epiphanies. But that being so, it helps me to think through what the film is going to become.


    Obrist:
    Can you tell me about this performance you did in Reykjavik [relates to ‘Sea Oak/The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter)’]?


    Wardill:
    It was about this imagining of me, trying to remember this scene from a film where there’s a diamond in a room protected by lasers, but also, the search for that scene. So I re-created the scene and then I had a girl dressed up as one of the subjects that Etienne Jules-Marey used to use when he was conducting chromophotography. She’s playing on a Nintendo Wii under a strobe light, so she’s a physical version of his photography. I was trying to think of a contemporary movement that was like sport: playing tennis with the television seemed to be the closest thing, using stunted mechanical movements particular to the present. With the voiceover I wanted to make the connection between this and the fact that his photography was really important in relation to proving the efficiency and productivity of the labour force in America. So there was a relationship between what this original and rationality, and a way of living that is like a machine.


    Obrist:
    Do you make drawings?


    Wardill:
    I have big sketch books full of things, full of workings through ideas and then I have photography and drawings.


    Obrist:
    Are they like storyboards?


    Wardill:
    Some are like storyboards. Some are like costume design — similar to things I’ve seen. Some are credits.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: 2010 has been a really active year because of the show at De Appel. But you also had a solo show called Solo Show?


    Wardill:
    Imaginatively! At Spacex. That was the same film I was showing at The Showroom in London — ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’.


    Obrist:
    Can you tell me more about that film and how it works?


    Wardill:
    Well, I wrote a script for a future film because I became interested in adopting modes of communication that are really familiar to explore ideas that are difficult. This script has everything you would have in a conventional melodrama: an introduction, a violent scene, a sex scene, a death scene. Everything’s told through objects that go from being status symbols, to evidence of crime, to theatrical props… and there are acted scenes you get dropped into, where people are acting very realistically, but not touching each other. It looks a bit like airline food, so you kind of have this separation, but it’s all brought together under the rubric of a script. There’s also a drumming soundtrack that’s in 5.1 that runs all the way through. So you have again this feeling of a house being built, but are aware of it being built through individual elements. It’s like individual drums become the bricks. It carries you through pathologically too. At one point, the younger son has a panic attack and you become anxious because the drums are fast. As he calms down they slow and you can relax.


    Obrist:
    It reminds me of the Fassbinder story of the house. You’re back to that idea — it seems recurrent.


    Wardill:
    Definitely.


    Obrist:
    There’s also the house of the Winchester Widow, where the widow of the man who invented the Winchester rifle builds room after room after room.


    Wardill:
    My next film, ‘Full Firearms’, is based on that story of Sarah Winchester — she had upset the spirits and they were hounding her, so she builds a house to accommodate them all. She was trying to disorientate them so they would leave her in peace. As a story it’s really intriguing but when you actually see the house, it’s kind of ‘wacky’ in a really tinny way.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: I’m wondering what your unrealised projects, dreams, utopias, projects, the projects you don’t dare do (as Doris Lessing pointed out to me recently were so important) might be?


    Wardill:
    I’m 32 so I hope I still have some unrealised projects! One of the things I really want to do, but probably won’t until I’m Doris Lessing’s age is to set up a film school/production company.


    Obrist:
    Your own structure?


    Wardill:
    Yes. And then have a group of people that you have a sense of responsibility towards.


    Obrist:
    Do you have a motto?


    Wardill:
    A motto?


    Obrist:
    Hans-Peter Feldman answered the question with an image — a photograph of a boy in front of a closed wooden door, next to a brick wall.


    Wardill:
    I like that. I like answering a question with an image, but I can’t do that here.


    Obrist:
    What’s your connection to science?


    Wardill:
    Science is massive, how am I supposed to answer that?


    Obrist:
    Duchamp was inspired by Poincaré.


    Wardill:
    Well, Marey was a scientist — I was really interested and still am in how those documents which are essentially scientific become influential outside their original intent… the Robert Smithson example as well is, obviously, an example which relates to entropy, I suppose. There’s a way in which science adopts the material in order to clarify its ideas that I find interesting.


    Obrist:
    What ought to change?


    Wardill:
    The people who are in power ought to change, the reliance of government on business, this ought to change, education should be more elliptical to the economy. Lots of things ought to change.


    Obrist:
    Are you a situationist?


    Wardill:
    The inheritance from the situationists is that spectacle is inherently suspect — I have a real problem with that. Though I obviously have a lot of respect for its history. I think a lot of art people have inherited this attitude, which is really problematic — it relates to a kind of inheritance from fascism, that spectacle in itself, is evil.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: What role does the computer play in your work. Paul Chan says, ‘Linking is beautiful and de-linking is sublime’.


    Wardill:
    De-linking is sublime?


    Obrist:
    There are moments when it is important to disconnect.


    Wardill:
    You know, I was in Chicago giving a lecture and I showed ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’ and a student asked me, ‘What’s the relationship between the white space and me and how am I supposed to enter this white space of your film’? I had to keep on asking him what he meant because I didn’t really understand. In the end, it seemed to me that it was a kind of compression: the film gets compressed and then de-compressed in your head. I think there’s something about what the computer does that has completely changed the way we think about that idea of what images can become and then how they come back to us. Also, it offers up the democratic promise of linking people up, but actually, what you’re doing is looking at a screen and it becomes a different matter. It has the potential to be so much, but that potential very often seems unrealised.


    Obrist:
    It’s a ‘spectacle of’ unrealised projects.


    Wardill:
    [laughs] Maybe so.


    Obrist:
    What’s your favourite mistake? In our western society, it has become very difficult to make use of mistakes.


    Wardill:
    I like when you make mistakes in bookshops and in record shops. When you go to buy something but buy something else. Or, I like it when people read things wrongly.


    Obrist:
    What was the new work you created yesterday?


    Wardill:
    [laughs] What I did yesterday was try to think about a compilation tape I made for a friend when I was a teenager. It had a picture of a woman on it and her spine was the spine of the cassette and I was thinking about how books become bodies.

    'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    ‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

    Obrist: What’s your favourite sport?


    Wardill:
    Curling. Because it makes art look less ridiculous.


    Obrist:
    What’s time?


    Wardill:
    Can I answer that with a quote?


    Obrist:
    Yes of course.


    Wardill:
    ‘The hands of the clock must know where they stand. Otherwise, neither is a watch but only a white face and a trick moustache.’


    Obrist:
    Beautiful. Who said that?


    Wardill:
    Nabokov.


    Obrist:
    What have you forgotten?


    Wardill:
    So many things. [laughs]


    Obrist:
    Do you have dreams?


    Wardill:
    I have really good dreams. I often have dreams where I’m being chased by a faceless predator around a multi-story car park. I have better dreams than that but that’s a re-occurring one.


    Obrist:
    Please tell me about an exhibition that has inspired you?


    Wardill:
    An Anselm Franke one in Antwerp, Animism. It was very atmospheric but also intelligent. It didn’t make this strange disconnection between being emotional or intelligent. It was both things at the same time. Also, I really loved the Richard Wentworth at Lisson about a year ago. You saw all these objects from very different artists, from very different points in their career, but that didn’t matter; they were not named. You looked at them for what they were. You didn’t really understand it but then you saw the film about Rem Koolhaas’ house, shot from the perspective of the cleaner, and you realised in this generous and slow way —‘ah!, that’s it’ — it’s about seeing privilege from another position where it becomes almost comical.


    Obrist:
    What is energy?


    Wardill:
    Is it something to do with the present? I wonder if it is, I wonder if that’s why the present is so scary — why people are constantly deferring it. I mean that’s what money does isn’t it — it defers the present to what it might become.


    Obrist:
    Do you have nightmares?


    Wardill:
    I had a nightmare the night before the Haswell and Hecker laser show at Conway Hall. It haunted me for a long time. There was an old woman lying on top of me, scratching at me. She was still there when I was awake and I had to leave that show— the show was aggressive attacking.

    Obrist: Jeannette Laverriere, an extraordinary one hundred-year-old designer in Paris, asks visitors, ‘Are you political?’, and if you say no she doesn’t see you. So are you political or do you think art is political?


    Wardill:
    I think politics has become this difficult thing now — I had a meeting the other day with the poet JH Prynne and he said to me. ‘I think artists are parasitical’, and I said parasitical in what way? I think there’s been this thing that politics has done very slowly, which is to create the idea that art is somehow parasitical and kind of dangerous. That it’s sort of fluffy. That it’s a useless thing and has been replaced by a weird sort of rationality, which is all to do with the way we spend and the way we serve and what we conserve. The government somehow doesn’t allow any sense of responsibility for that and I find that really terrifying and think it’s going to get worse. So, yes I’m political. It’s completely necessary to be political right now.


    Obrist:
    And the future is?


    Wardill:
    I’m not a predictor. I thought that’s what you do.


    Obrist:
    I listen to artists. I’m not predicting anything. Last question: what kind of cameras do you use?


    Wardill:
    I use everything, everything’s a technology. A lot of the time I’ve used an old Bolex camera, but then the last thing I shot was on HD with 35 mm lenses.


    Obrist:
    Do you have collections? Do you collect art or found objects?


    Wardill:
    I collect cassettes and records, CDs and sort of collect books. I’d like to collect art but can’t afford the art I’d like to collect.


    Obrist:
    What would you like to collect?


    Wardill:
    I’d collect Rembrandt’s ‘Abduction of Proserpina’, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s ‘All The Clothes of A Woman’, Hollis Frampton’s ‘Nostalgia’. Oh, lots of things. Actually, I was sort of inspired by the way that you ask questions, to go around asking people if they could collect ten things, what would it be? It’s a nice question to ask people.


    Obrist:
    And you’ve got already some answers?


    Wardill:
    Yeah, lots of people have different answers, and lots of people say they wouldn’t collect anything. They don’t feel like they should.


    Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London

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    HYPERALLERGIC

    Photo Essays

    Inside the Mind of Hans Ulrich Obrist

    Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Ian Cheng and Micaela Durand (2013) (all images courtesy Badlands Unlimited)

    The celebrity curator may be a phenomenon on the rise, but before Klaus Biesenbach and Paola Antonelli, there was Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist, who’s currently the co-director of exhibitions and programs and director of international programs at London’s Serpentine Gallery, has a list of curatorial accomplishments so long, it’s daunting. He started out small enough, organizing a show in his kitchen in 1991 (he was 23) that included contributions from Christian Boltanski and Fischli & Weiss; in the decades since, he’s curated and co-curated more than 250 exhibitions, including the first Berlin Biennale and the first Manifesta. He’s also known for his ongoing conceptual projects, among them do it, a roving show built around artist-given instructions for viewers, and The Interview Project, for which he’s racked up more than 2,000 hours of conversation so far, with artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and others.

    It turns out he’s also been taking notes the whole time — making diagrams and sketches, scribbling down ideas and keywords. And when artist Paul Chan, who’s also the founder and publisher of Badlands Unlimited, found out that these copious notes and drawings existed, he knew he wanted to release them.

    “I wanted to publish them because I’m surprised they exist, still,” Chan told Hyperallergic over email. “Badland’s publishing program is mindlessly simple: we publish things that no one knew existed. The poems of Yvonne Rainer, speeches on democracy by Saddam Hussein, afternoon interviews of Marcel Duchamp, and now this. I didn’t know he made them. Did you?”

    The resulting book, Think Like Clouds, premieres at the New York Art Book Fair, where Badlands has also mounted a small exhibition of the some of the artworks — or whatever you might call them. “I don’t know if these drawings are important,” Chan said. “I don’t even know if they are in fact drawings. This is to me their appeal.”

    Badlands sent us six of Obrist’s sketches specifically related to his curatorial practice:

    All drawings untitled, ink on paper, date unknown

    huo2

    huo3

    huo4

    huo5

    huo6

    And here are a few more from the book:

    Huo7

    Huo8

    Huo9

    Huo10

    Huo11

    The New York Art Book Fair opens to the public today and runs through Sunday, September 22, at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City).

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    THE TELEGRAPH LONDON

    Hans Ulrich Obrist interview for Serpentine Gallery’s Map Marathon

    Alastair Smart meets the Serpentine’s revolutionary co-director, officially the most powerful man in art.

    Marathon man: Hans Ulrich Obrist

    Not since Roger Federer has a Swiss reached the top of his profession with quite such speed and humility as Hans Ulrich Obrist, officially the most powerful man in art.

    Obrist, 42, has come a long way since staging his first show in the kitchen of his student-flat in St Gallen in the early Nineties. The co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery since 2006, last year he came No 1 in the annual ‘Power 100′ list published by ArtReview magazine, leaving previous winners – Hirst; Saatchi; Christie’s owner François Pinault; super-dealer Larry Gagosian – trailing in his wake.

    Not that he himself paid much heed. Obrist reckons he’s a mere ‘utility’, arguing that ‘it’s not curators or collectors who set the art-world agenda, it’s artists. By definition, without them there would be no art world.’

    Fair enough, Hans, but it’s surely no coincidence that Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum ranked fourth in the Power 100 – behind curator-cum-museum directors Glenn D Lowry (MoMa) and Sir Nicholas Serota (Tate). It seems that while artists’ prices and collectors’ clout have both waned in the global economic downturn, it’s now the moment of the creative curator.

    But what sets Obrist apart from the rest? Well, first, a relentless schedule. He juggles day-job commitments at the Serpentine with endless freelance commissions around the world. He is newly returned from talent-spotting at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil and, ahead of this week’s Frieze Art Fair jamboree in London, he’s just unveiled an exhibition of Anish Kapoor sculptures in Kensington Gardens.

    ‘The 21st-century curator works in a supremely globalised reality,’ he says. ‘Where once there were just a few centres, now the art world has a polyphony – India, China, Latin America, the Middle East…’ Obrist has done his bit to introduce us to artists from two of those centres, with his Serpentine group shows Indian Highway and China Power Station (held off-site in Battersea Power Station).

    Fluent in six languages, with full-time museum jobs in Vienna and Paris behind him, he’s also bombarded with invitations to seminars and symposia, to discuss his trendy ideas about the future of exhibiting. The antithesis of your stereotypical, dusty-old-relic curator who never leaves his museum, Obrist is of a new, go-getting breed of über-curator.

    He has long advocated taking art beyond the confines of the gallery –
    as well as in kitchens, power stations and Kensington Gardens, Obrist has held shows in a monastery, an aeroplane and even Friedrich Nietzsche’s Alpine home in Sils-Maria.

    ‘To keep art stimulating, it’s important to open it up to new horizons, which includes showing it in unexpected contexts,’ he says, decrying the normal museum-going experience as ‘like being on a ski piste: go
    left, go right… It’s too linear, too homogeneous.’

    Traditionalists often call Obrist a charlatan, a celebrity curator intent on stealing the thunder from art and artist. But, in his defence, aren’t we all a bit tired of the diktat that contemporary art must be viewed in crushingly anonymous, white-walled galleries?

    Obrist is also a serial interviewer. Down the years, he’s conversed with pretty much everyone in contemporary art – from Robert Crumb to Yoko Ono – recording the results in two 1,000-page volumes called Interviews. His contacts book is duly tome-like, and since 2008 he’s attracted artists in the Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter and Jeff Koons league to show at the humble, one-time tea room we call the Serpentine.

    Next weekend he’ll be calling on yet more of his contacts. As his fellow art-world potentates descend on London for Frieze, Obrist will be chairing the latest of his annual ‘Serpentine Marathons’, for which he invites 50 artists, architects and philosophers to give short presentations on a chosen theme.

    In 2009, he had them reciting verses (Poetry Marathon); in 2008, they launched manifestos for the future of art and society (Manifesto Marathon); and this year he’s decided on a Map Marathon, with the likes of Gilbert & George and Marina Abramovic each producing and discussing maps.

    ‘In this new age of GPS, Google Earth and multidimensional digital maps, mapping is suddenly hugely relevant again,’ Obrist says. The Marathon promises a postscript to the British Library’s recent Magnificent Maps exhibition, which held up the Enlightenment as the previous major turning-point in cartographical history: between maps as art and maps as scientific record.

    Rather fittingly, this year’s Marathon – the first ever outside the Serpentine – is being held at the Royal Geographic Society, with talks running non-stop through next weekend’s waking hours. Even by Obrist’s standards, it promises to be a busy old week, with ArtReview publishing its new Power 100 list on Thursday. What odds that he’ll continue to dominate the contemporary art mappa mundi?

    ‘Map Marathon’, Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 (08444 771 000), Oct 16-17

    This review also appears in Seven magazine, free with The Sunday Telegraph

    =====

    To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

    A RULE OF THE GAME

    Hans Ulrich Obrist [5.5.08]

    Topic:

    Introduction By: John Brockman

    These are exhibitions which are not material, but which are more virtual, virtual in the sense of them always being able to be reactualized. They can be revisited and reactualized and updated, and they are also not related to a place. The exhibition can go to where the viewer is. Anybody in the world can download these formulas and pin them on the wall, or they can do their own and trigger their own formulas. We are in the very early days of understanding how the Internet can be used for exhibitions.

    15 May – 17 August 2008

    Reykjavik Art Museum – Hafnarhús

    Experiment
    Marathon
    Reykjavík

    Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist

    In collaboration with artist Ólafur Elíasson

    HANS ULRICH OBRIST, a Swiss curator, is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, of the Serpentine Gallery in London.

    Introduction

    By John Brockman

    Beginning May 15, Edge travels to Iceland for the Reykjavik Arts Festival, which will reprise the Edge Formulae of the 21st Century project, presented last October at the Serpentine Gallery, London, by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of the Serpentines Exhibitions and Programmes. ThatWorld Question Center project was a response to Obrist’s question: “What Is Your Formula? Your Equation? Your Algorithm?”

    One of the highlights of the Reykjavik Arts Festival will be the Experiment Marathon Reykjavík, an exhibition and program of related events organized by the Reykjavík Art Museum and the Serpentine Gallery, London. Lasting from 15 May through August 17, the focus of the project is experimentation. The RAM [Reykjavik Art Museum] will become a laboratory in which leading artists, architects, film-makers, and scientists will create an environment of invention through a series of installations, performances and experimental films.

    Additionally, previous related projects will be presented as archives within the exhibition. The exhibition and related events are curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery, London, in collaboration with artist Ólafur Elíasson.

    The Experiment Marathon Reykjavík builds on the enormous success of the recent Serpentine Gallery Marathons which have taken place in successive Serpentine Gallery Pavilions, an annual architectural commission conceived in 2000 by Serpentine Gallery Director, Julia Peyton-Jones. In the 2007 Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon, which took place in the Pavilion designed by Ólafur Elíasson and Kjetil Thorsen, leading artists, writers and scientists performed a huge variety of experiments, exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language. Participants included John Brockman, Steven Pinker, Marina Abramovic and John Baldessari. The event was collaboration with Thyssen- Bornemisza Art Contemporary. The Serpentine Gallery Marathon series began in 2006 with the 24-hour Interview Marathon conducted by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. A presentation of these previous programs will be shown in the Reykjavik Experiment Marathon in a pavilion of archives designed by Ólafur Elíasson and Einar Þorsteinn. Another collection of archives will refer to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s and Barbara Vanderlinden’s exhibition, Laboratorium, from 1999.

    A substantial catalogue will be published on this occasion, documenting the Experiment Marathon Reykjavík together with previous marathons and with textual contributions by Bruno Latour and others.

    Obrist and I, as Edge readers may recall, have a mutual connection: we both worked closely with the late James Lee Byars, the conceptual artist who, in 1971, implemented ”The World Question Center” as a work of conceptual art.

    As a curator, he is ever curious about the world around him and this includes the latest ideas and developments in science. Obrist interviewed me for Art Orbit in the 90′s. With this Edge feature, I get to ask the questions.

    -JB

    HANS ULRICH OBRIST, a Swiss curator, is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, of the Serpentine Gallery in London.

    Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Edge Bio Page


    A RULE OF THE GAME

    One of the questions I started out with, at the beginning, was trying to understand the forces effective in visual art and contemporary art, which is my field as a curator, trying to understand what is necessary in art: Is it necessary to understand the forces effective in other fields of knowledge?, which is a question Alexander Dorner asked early in the 20th century.

    He was the great pioneer of experimental 20th century museum studies, he inspired Alfred Barr to do the Museum of Modern Art, and he wrote a very groundbreaking book called Ways Beyond Art, where he really expressed the necessity of going beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. The question of how we can create a pool of knowledge has somehow been at the beginning of my activity.

    Another great inspiration was György Kepes, the artist and legendary editor of the Vision + Values book series, which were books introduced to me early by Bruce Mau and which have been instrumental ever since. And that has led to a lot of projects relating art and architecture, art and science, art and literature. And that has been the umbilical cord of a question that I that I’ve always asked while working with artists, and then later with scientists and architects, because I tried to do to curating what happened to art in the ’60s and ’70s when artists expanded what art is. They created an expanded field on an expanded notion of art.

    And if you think about an expanded notion of art, it becomes interesting to think about an expanded notion of curating. But I was thinking how it could be an interesting to ask how we could do the same thing to curating as what had happened to art in the ’60s and ’70s, how we could really have an expanded field of curating — curating at large, where there would be curating of art, curating of science, curating of architecture — and about how these things could be brought together.

    Now, that obviously always implies a problem, which is the curator defining a “rule of the game.” Every project has a rule of the game. Every exhibition process has a rule of the game. What this means is that the curator sets these rules of the game, but then it might not fit what the art is about, and then it is the art illustrating the curator’s rule of the game, and that is not as interesting. So, from that point of view, I started to think a lot about just starting with artists, and starting with architects and scientists, and above all, listening to them.

    One of the key aspects of my trajectory has always been conversations with artists. And this became particularly clear to me in a very early conversation I had, which was an early encounter with an artist that changed the way how I see. I had gone to Rome, and I was told by my friends Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the amazing Swiss artist, who was the first artist I had really long conversations with, that I should visit Alighiero e Boetti there. Mr. Boetti was from the same generation as our mutual friend James Lee Byars. He was a visionary artist who emerged in the ’60s.

    I went as a student to his studio, and just paid him a visit. And he told me that there had always been curators and museum people and galleries inviting him to do projects, and it was always the same format — it was museum exhibitions, it was gallery shows, or maybe it was art fairs, maybe biennials. But he said there were all these other things he wanted to do. So, I asked him what he wanted to do. And he said one of his main desires had always been to exhibit in all the airplanes of an airline, to do an airplane exhibition. And within the parameters of the art world, of what is given in the art world, that project would never have been possible. He just was never asked to do it, and never able to do it.

    I was 18 or 19 at the time, so really just starting, and he said, “you know, young man, it will be a project for you to actually not squeeze art into your kind of predetermined scheme, but to start to look around and see what great projects artists have and try to make them happen, to produce them as realities.” At the time I went back to Switzerland and I started to work with museum in progress in Vienna, in Austria. But then we approached Austrian Airlines, and three years later we made Boetti’s project happen, so that for a year he had an exhibition on every single airplane of that airline, which was carried all over the world. It not only developed an expanded notion of what an exhibition is, but it also geographically disseminated the exhibition into totally different circuits where art wouldn’t normally go.

    More or less at the same time, I spoke to the French artist Christian Boltanski as well as Fischli/Weiss, and they said that it would be interesting to do exhibitions where nobody ever does them. And I said, “Where?” And they said, “In the kitchen. Do it in your kitchen.” They had always thought a kitchen show could be interesting. So, they transformed my kitchen in my apartment into an exhibition space, out of which then grew this idea that maybe exhibitions can also happen in unexpected places. And ever since my beginnings in the early ’90s, that is a question I’ve asked myself, and also the question I’ve asked each of my interlocutors, each of the people I have talked to: What are your unrealized projects? What projects have been too big to be realized? What projects have been too small to be realized? What are sense of projects of yourselves, sense of projects?

    Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winning author, once told me in a conversation that there are not only the projects which are made impossible by the frames of the contexts we work in, but there are also the projects we just don’t dare to think up. The self-censorship of projects. And there are all the books she hasn’t written because she didn’t dare to write them. So, that is the question that been my umbilical cord, and it’s also the only question that I ask in all of my interviews. What is your unrealized project?

    ~~~

    I started out actually studying economics, social science, political science at St Gallen University, but I was always friends with artists. It was almost a sort of parallel reality. I never wanted to study art because curiosity drove me to understand other fields. But from that moment on I was always anchored in the arts, because I knew from the beginning of my early adolescence that somehow I wanted to work with contemporary artists.

    In Switzerland there was Harald Szeemann, the legendary curator, so the notion of a curator for me as a kid growing up in Switzerland was already somehow concrete. But I always thought that curiosity drove me to all these other disciplines. And during my studies, when I started to do exhibitions, little by little, I wanted, through the exhibitions, to make these bridges.

    First it went from art to architecture. Architecture was the first contact zone. I started to work a lot with architects, and that is obviously also a quite direct contact zone, because when you do exhibitions you have a link to architects, you have exhibition designs, and you involve architects in the exhibition design. So I started a lot of research in that direction. And the history of exhibition design is incredibly interesting, because it has got to do with the invention of new display features.

    Exhibitions can push the radical, experimental solutions because they are not permanent. I think that is why very often exhibitions are an interesting “laboratory” for architecture. It is not by coincidence that pavilions and exhibition designs were the contexts for a lot of inventions in architecture, because it is not the rigid thing of a permanent structure, but an ephemeral structure where an architect can really play, and can experiment.

    Other exhibition designs are invented by the artists themselves. When you think about Marcel Duchamp and his radical displays for the surrealist exhibitions — which for me were very inspiring — if an exhibition does not really invent a new display, there’s a risk that it is forgotten, because art is not only about the works, but also it’s about a new way of seeing the works.

    I always felt that when I went into other disciplines, I learned a lot for my own field. From architecture, I became familiar with the whole critique of the master plan, because, in the late ’50s, there was an increasing critique of the Le Corbusier notion of the master plan, the top-down master plan, and architecture started to look into this idea of self-organization. So, I became very familiar with architects like Yona Friedman, Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price, all of whom very early on thought about how self-organization could be brought into the master plan. This questioning of the master plan I then fed back into curating, and I started to think about how could we do exhibitions which are not just a top-down master plan, but which could grow more organically.

    There is the link between art and literature and philosophy. If you look at all the avant-gardes of the 20th century, they have a great link to literature. And that connection goes from the beginning of my work, when I worked with Gerhard Richter on Nietzsche, to a current exhibition, “ever still”, that I have curated at the Lorca House in Spain, which is about the poet and writer Lorca.

    Science never really played a role for me at the beginning. I was completely ignorant about science. I didn’t grow up with a scientific background, I didn’t study it, and I didn’t auto-didactically work on it. Then in ’93, I got a phone call from Christa Maar, who at that time was just about to set up the Academy of the Third Millennium with Hubert Burda. She had read an article about my unusual exhibitions on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and she thought it would be interesting to invite me to these meetings.

    I went to Munich, and the first couple of times I was completely lost, because I had never met scientists before, I had never read science, and there were people there like Wolf Singer and Ernst Pöppel. After not saying anything during the first meetings, I then started to systemically read. And it was really through these experiences at the Academy of the Third Millennium that I began to build bridges with scientists. In the meantime I had started to work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and each time a well-known scientist would visit Paris, Christa would ring me, and would say, “Show him your museum.” I started to walk with biologists and neuroscientists through the Mark Rothko exhibition at our museum and that was really the beginning of how this whole bridge with science began.

    A very interesting next step somehow happened. In a certain way, all my work in terms of curating, and expanding the notion of curating, has never been a priori defined, because it’s almost like a long walk. It is a sort of a “flânerie,” to use the French term. It is almost like strolling. It is a promenade. And chance plays a very big role. It is a sort of controlled chance, but it is always about how to allow chance to come into the process.

    Out of our conversations in ’95, Christa then invited me to do an exhibition for her first big conference in Munich, Mind Revolution, which was about the connection between the computer and the brain, between neuroscience and the computer. Bruce Sterling was there. It was the first time I met Bruce Sterling. A lot of scientists were there, neuroscientists. But I felt intuitively that somehow it would be wrong to get artists to illustrate a scientific conference, and I also felt the conference wouldn’t be the right place for an exhibition to take place, so, instead, I suggested to Christa, and to Ernst Pöppel, that we could invite artists to Ernst Pöppel’s KFA in Jülich, artists from Douglas Gordon to Matt Mullican to Rosemarie Trockel to Carsten Höller.

    Ernst was located near Cologne in Jülich, Germany’s biggest science center, which has hundreds of labs. He is a leading neuroscientist who is also part of Edge. We thought we’d do a conference there, but then talking to Ernst, we actually realized that that was again wrong, because to some extent why would we do a conference with artists and scientists who had never met, and who would feel put on the spot. Instead, we decided that the most important thing would be to create a contact zone, which wouldn’t put people on the spot, where something could happen, but nothing had to happen.

    I feel very often with my projects that we cannot force things. One cannot engineer human relations. One can set the conditions under which things then happen. For that reason, we decided, a few hours before the event was supposed to take place, to cancel the conference and to just do a “non-conference.” It had all the ingredients of a conference — badges, tee shirts, bags with all the speakers’ CVs, a hotel where all the people would stay, a bus to pick them up in the morning and bring them to the science center, people at the airport picking the guests up, all of the logistics — but the conference no longer was there. It was just a coffee break. It was the invention of this idea that we should just do a coffee break. And it was my first project with art and science.

    This came from that observation that obviously at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break. Why do the rest? We’ll just do the coffee breaks.

    The most important things happen in interstitial spaces, they happen in between, and they happen when we least expect it. Incredible things happened. The artists visited the science labs they were interested in. At the end we made a little film, and everybody spoke about his or her impressions. We published a set of postcards. It was the first conference as a coffee break, of which we did many afterwards.

    Just as Cedric Price talks about the “non-plan” in urbanism, this was the “non-conference.” That was the inspiration. As a curator, conferences and symposiums are not my main activity. But I felt it was a very interesting thing, because in exhibitions almost every single rule of the game has been invented. The whole 20th century is a permanent invention of new ways of doing exhibitions. Almost every radical gallery gesture has been tested, from the full gallery, to the empty gallery — everything. Yet somehow with conferences and symposiums very little has been shifted in terms of rules of the game. It is always the same kind of protocol: there is the table, there are speakers, there is a speech by everyone, then there is discussion, then there is a Q&A, and then, maybe, there is a dinner. I think there is a huge potential to change the rules of the game.

    Then we did Bridge the Gap?, which was in Japan with Akiko Miyake and CCA Kitakyushu, and it was again art and science, and we paid homage to Francisco Varela, who had just passed away.. Varela was a very important person for me, a mentor, a great inspiration in the few meetings we had. We made a homage to him, so we invited a lot of his friends. At the same time, we also had scientists and artists and architects. We thought we’d do it in a remote house, on the outskirts of Kitakyushu. Guests would fly to Tokyo, and then there would be an internal Japanese flight, and then an hour-long car ride. Finally they were brought to this very old Japanese house so remote that once they were there, they couldn’t get away anymore.

    The idea was for three days to bring into the house all these incredibly busy people, who would usually immediately run away after their lecture and have meetings. We had rooms that would were for official meetings, and then, inspired by online chat rooms, we had rooms where people could retire and have their own self-organized chats. There were a lot of rooms in the house, rooms for Hosts, Guests and Ghosts to quote Marcel Duchamp.

    There were about 30, 40 speakers, all in one big house. There was a a Japanese garden, so people could also stroll outside. And we had all the books by all the speakers inside, so there was a reading room that was a big success. The speakers went from Rem Koolhaas, to Marina Abramovic, to Gregory Chaitin. Anton Zeilinger who came with a little suitcase and made one of his teletransportation experiments.

    The whole event was also about what artist Paul Chan calls “delinking.” That was also a conference that had to do with how we can delink very linked people.

    Curating is my primary activity, even while experimenting with these different types of conferences, I always wanted to bring it back to the exhibition, which is my main medium. So, even though my whole venture into science actually started out with actually refusing to do an art and science show, I then, in ’99 with Barbara Vanderlinden, brought science back into the exhibition, and we did Laboratorium, which investigated how studios and labs are more and more inter-related. And we investigated the notion of the laboratory in the late 20th, early 21st century. Laboratorium was a transdiciplinary project searching the limits of the places where knowledge and culture are made. It started as a discussion that involved questions such as:

    What is the meaning of Laboratorium?

    What is the meaning of experiments?

    When do experiments become public and when does the result of an experiment reach public consensus?

    We installed many laboratories all over the city:

    A laboratory of doubt

    A cognitive science laboratory

    A highway for choreographic investigation

    An existing artist studio

    The first laboratory of Galileo etc

    We invited Bruno Latour to curate the theatre of proof, a series of demonstrations, a lecture series aiming at rendering public what happens in the laboratory. At the same time we declared the whole city of Antwerp a lab. And we found out that actually labs are very often invisible, part of the invisible city. People were saying, “You’re crazy to do a show in Antwerp about labs. There are no labs in Antwerp.” But we had a whole group of researchers mapping every lab, and there were dozens of world-leading labs in Antwerp; people just didn’t know about them. They’re invisible. So, we had an “open lab” day so people could visit the labs throughout the whole city. And then the museum became a place for all the artists’ “labs.”

    The city got behind it. And we had the full support from Antwerpen open. It was really about the idea of the citywide lab exhibition, and then the museums.

    Laboratorium showed me that the most effective thing for the issue of art and science is really this idea of doing something together to produce reality.

    This leads us right away to the Marathons in London last autumn. I moved to the Serpentine London two years ago, and with the Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, we started to think about concentric circles: the gallery, the park, the world. We started the Serpentine International projects with China Power Station and now a big project on India. We also felt it was important to open up in terms of disciplines, and to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge, so we thought it could be very interesting to connect this to the Pavilion, which Julia Peyton-Jones had invented nine years ago, with an amazing pavilion by Zaha Hadid, which became the Serpentine annual Architecture commission.

    We thought it could be interesting to have the content reflected as much as the building. So when Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond did the pavilion in 2006, Julia and I discussed with Rem the idea of conversations. The pavilion became a place for interview marathons It was basically an “infinite conversation” in the Pavilion — an architecture of conversation. It culminated in October ’06, when Rem and I interviewed 70 Londoners from all disciplines in 24 hours, including, for example, Brian Eno or Richard Hamilton. The London Marathon is part of my ongoing project of, so far, 1400 hours of recorded conversations.

    Then when Olafur Eliasson, together with Kjetil Thorsen, designed the Pavilion last year, he said he would very much like to continue this idea of a marathon. So, we felt it would be interesting to make it a completely different temporality, a 24-hour non-stop thing, so people can come and they can go, and then they can have dinner, and then they can come back again. And there can also be chance encounters.

    Olafur said he would like to do an experiment marathon rather than a conversation marathon. It was very much tied in with what we earlier discussed with Latour, with the tabletop experiments. The idea was that we invited people throughout the summer, and then in autumn, to participate in this marathon. It was an experiment marathon, where we invited practitioners from all kinds of different disciplines to develop a new experiment and to realize it in the pavillion.

    The interesting thing was that artists did their experiments, and scientists did their experiments. It wasn’t necessarily about forcing artists and scientists to collaborate. They all did their own thing, but yet it happened in the same space. And there is the possibility that certain encounters happen. What I have experienced is that very often these things take a lot of time. For me, it’s never a question of doing these things in a rush, because very often they trigger something. It is like a butterfly effect. It is maybe five or ten years later, and two of the people who met there are doing a book together.

    For me, it is very important to trigger these possible sparks, and it is very organic. Freeman Dyson was saying on Edge that the 21st century will be biological. I think it is also very possible to think about exhibitions and conferences in biological terms, as growing over time, and not just as these sorts of one-off events. We are living in an event culture where we always switch on and off, and it’s very unproductive because we move on to the next thing.

    For me, it is very important to work on these things as if it were long distance running, over many years. Little by little, new ramifications happen. So, the answer to your question of how one can bring these things together is by, first of all, not rushing them, and, secondly, not jumping from one project to the next, but instead having sustained projects that evolve over a long time, through different chapters. It’s about making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and then making new mistakes.

    There are a lot of aspects of exhibitions and the world of art that have to do with objects, and that is a very important dimension, but I don’t think it is everything. I think art has many, many dimensions. In this multi-dimensional field of art, I think it is also important to explore all the other possibilities that are not objects: performances, processes, and also non-material exhibitions.

    Besides my more “materialized” exhibitions I’ve always been very interested in the idea of the dematerialization of art, which led to new forms of exhibition. In the ’60s, Lucy Lippard wrote the famous book on dematerialization of art. I’ve always been very interested in lists, something we actually share. I think it’s not by coincidence that we somehow directly and indirectly met through James Lee Byars.

    And there is this whole idea of exhibitions and lists where one asks the question. I very often just launch the question, “what is your unrealized project? What is your dream project?” I’ve asked hundreds of artists and that’s going to be an online project at the Serpentine. I asked hundreds of artists and architects and scientists, “What is your recipe? Is there a recipe? Is there an instruction?” And that led to Do It, which is my score book based on an idea we developed with Boltanski and Lavier.

    I think art can travel in different ways. Art can travel through objects, and great artwork can travel over centuries, and that’s a very valid way for art to travel. But art can also travel through scores, like in music.

    Scores was Do It, like musical scores. Or as Pierre Boulez, the French composer, told me, we should think of open scores, of how the scores are actually unfinished. That leads us to Project Tempo del Postino, where Philippe Parreno and I curated for the Manchester Festival a time based group show for an opera house: The group show as an open score. Last but not least there is the Formulae project, where I invited more than a hundred artists to contribute a formula or an equation for the 21st century. These projects arrived in my office, where they are pinned on the wall. Many arrived by email. Many by fax. After about six months, my office wall was completely filled. And there was the day last October when Brian Eno came with you to my office, and that encounter triggered a fantastic Edgeproject where you invited your whole Edge community to develop a formula or an equation for the 21st century.

    You could really say these are also exhibitions. These are exhibitions which are not material, but which are more virtual, virtual in the sense of them always being able to be reactualized. They can be revisited and reactualized and updated, and they are also not related to a place. The exhibition can go to where the viewer is. Anybody in the world can download these formulas and pin them on the wall, or they can do their own and trigger their own formulas. We are in the very early days of understanding how the Internet can be used for exhibitions. For instance, there was Do It, where with e-flux.com, we developed an online project, where anybody who sees the instructions online can download them and can then send their feedback. They can send a photograph of their interpretation. And then, all of a sudden, we have many different possible interpretations of an artwork. It is the very early days, but I see a great potential for these digital exhibitions for my curatorial work in the next years.

    ====

    NEW YORK OBSERVER

    The Man Who Made Curating an Art

    %name The Man Who Made Curating an ArtHans Ulrich Obrist enjoys a level of prominence in the art world that would have been unimaginable for a curator of contemporary art 20 years ago. Back then, curators didn’t get famous, and though they talked among themselves about their work, no one else cared very much about who they were or how they made their decisions.

    People care about Mr. Obrist. At 41, the Swiss-born impresario has spent the past three years as co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, and has curated some 150 exhibitions internationally since his early 20s. His reputation is that of a fast-talking, tireless obsessive, and his various activities–which include mounting shows around the world, moderating panels, writing catalog essays, hosting early-morning salons and conducting scores of in-depth interviews with artists and other cultural figures–have made him an improbably influential, globally ubiquitous presence in the art world.

    After making his first bit of noise as a curator in 1991 with a group show in his kitchen that featured, among others, Christian Boltanski and the duo Fischli/Weiss, Mr. Obrist quickly made a name for himself as a self-consciously innovative exhibition-maker interested in working closely with artists and mounting shows in unconventional spaces.

    “There’s a certain kind of curator who is really down with the artists, and Hans Ulrich is definitely down with the artists,” said the downtown gallerist Jeffrey Deitch. “There are many other curators who keep their distance, simply because it’s their personality or their background or because they think that’s what one should do. They’re not on the scene. You’re not going to see them at a party at 1 a.m., deep in discussion.”

    The interviews Mr. Obrist has conducted over the years currently add up to some 2,000 hours’ worth of tape. A fraction of them have been published in books and magazines, but the vast majority remain in Mr. Obrist’s personal archive. Through these interviews, Mr. Obrist has established himself as the unofficial secretary of the contemporary art world. “The way we might read Vasari for primary information on the Italian Renaissance,” said Mr. Deitch, “people will be looking at the archive of Hans Ulrich’s interviews to construct the art history of this era.”

    For all that, Mr. Obrist remains all but unknown to the general public.

    “Sometimes people who are a little bit below the popular radar are actually more powerful than people everyone knows about,” said Paula Marincola of the PEW Center’s Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, who edited a 2006 collection of essays on curatorial practice. “In our field, he’s kind of a rock star.”

    In that capacity, Mr. Obrist has functioned as a “catalyst,” according to the artist, critic, and White Columns director Matthew Higgs, but at some point during his career, “this other thing happened, which is that this character emerged, ‘Hans Ulrich Obrist,’ who is clearly at the center now of all this activity and is as well known as a lot of the subjects of his interviews, exhibitions, and research.”

    Earlier this fall, Mr. Obrist was named the most powerful person in the art world by the British magazine ArtReview, bumping the fellow who topped last year’s list, Damien Hirst, down to No. 48. The U.K.’s Independent wrote at the time that Mr. Obrist’s placement was evidence that “it is curators rather than artists who are now regarded as the real movers and shakers of the art world.”

    THOUGH HE GRADUATED with a degree in economics and social science, Mr. Obrist was set on being involved with art from the time he was a teenager, and made himself known in the art world at a young age.

    “He was this enthusiast, you know? This kind of genius thinker who was very hyperactive,” said gallerist Barbara Gladstone of Mr. Obrist’s first few years on the scene. “He read voraciously-he’d wake himself up in the middle of the night to read. He had this huge library in Switzerland, which wasn’t so much where he slept as where he kept his books.”

    At this early point in Mr. Obrist’s career, no critic or scholar had thought to study the role of curators in art history, and while there was plenty of secondary literature on museums as institutions, there was no book one could read to learn about milestone exhibitions or the history of curatorial practice. Mr. Obrist was surprised to discover this state of affairs when he resolved, in his early 20s, to learn everything he could about his chosen line of work.

    “At a certain moment, when I started doing my own shows, I felt it would be really interesting to know what is the history of my profession,” Mr. Obrist said in a phone interview last week. “I realized that there was no book, which was kind of a shock.”

    Mr. Obrist was not the only one who had this experience. In New York City, a young gallery director named Bruce Altshuler found himself in the same position, and in 1989 quit his job to research a book on the history of exhibitions that became 1994′s The Avant Garde in Exhibition.

    “I was working in a commercial gallery, so I was seeing the role that exhibitions played all over New York in terms of the functioning of this overall system,” said Mr. Altshuler, now the director of the museum studies program at N.Y.U. “Art history tended to be written monographically: most of the effort in the discipline had gone into studying individuals and their works, rather than looking at the system of display and distribution of those works.”

    Mr. Altshuler’s book was followed two years later by another milestone text, Thinking About Exhibitions, this one an anthology of essays on exhibition practices edited by the independent curator Bruce Ferguson, the art historian Reesa Greenberg, and British museum professional Sandy Nairne.

    This flurry of scholarly interest in the work of curators and the history of exhibitions–now a burgeoning field within art history–came as a result of several factors, starting in the 1980s with the emergence of a class of independent curators who saw the exhibition as a medium unto itself and were driven to experiment with it.

    These curators collaborated more with artists than traditional museum curators ever had. They weren’t merely taking care of collections, but commissioning original work and organizing group shows around sophisticated themes. As the contemporary art world exploded in size during the 1990s, international biennales proliferated–there are now more than 150–and became platforms for ambitious emerging curators who wanted to showcase their curatorial voice and vision. Curatorial-studies programs, where students learned the trade and thought critically about the practice, popped up all over the country.

    “In many ways, curators took on the role of what we might have once thought of as a role of the critic,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Someone like Clement Greenberg was able to codify moments in art and promote individual artists into groups, and say, ‘This is what is significant in our time.’ I think there’s a moment in the ’80s when that transfers over to curators.”

    BY THE TIME Mr. Obrist read Mr. Altshuler’s book and the Thinking anthology, he had already begun making his own contribution to the field by interviewing the generation of ’60s curators–men his grandfather’s age, like Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén and Harald Szeemann–who had inspired him.

    “Exhibitions are kind of ephemeral moments, sometimes magic moments, and when they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Mr. Obrist. “I wanted to find a way of recording this. And since there weren’t any books, I thought a good way would be to do an oral history, to start to speak with all these pioneers who had been somehow forgotten. … It was the last moment when one could get a really firsthand account of the history of curating in the 20th century.”

    Starting in 1996, some of the interviews started appearing in ArtForum, and this fall, 11 of them were collected in a book called A Brief History of Curating. It is Mr. Obrist’s third collection of interviews–the other two are with artists–and an informal survey this week made it seem like basically every curator of contemporary art in New York is either currently reading it or already has. Though it is hardly the first time someone has published a collection of extensive conversations with curators–see Carolee Thea’s 2001 book Foci and her recently published follow-up, On Curating–Mr. Obrist’s book is nevertheless being called a landmark work, in part because so many of the people in it have passed away in recent years.

    Norton Batkin, the founding director of the curatorial-studies program at Bard, called it an “invaluable contribution,” and praised Mr. Obrist for getting his subjects on tape while they were still alive. “Other people didn’t think of interviewing curators,” Mr. Batkin said. “It’s a history that in some sense wasn’t there before.”

    And yet, Mr. Obrist is decidedly not a historian. Rather than synthesizing primary-source material and making arguments about what it means, he merely generates that material and moves on, hoping others will pick up the ball. Throughout his career, he has made little of his own views on art, asserting his taste through exhibitions, to be sure, but only occasionally writing argumentative essays of the sort one might expect from a man famous for his rigorous engagement with ideas. In effect, Mr. Obrist functions as something like a neutral mediator–a listener who asks questions of others and provokes them to explain themselves while keeping his own beliefs to himself.

    That he has managed to become as famous and influential as he is in spite of that role is what makes him a singular figure in the art world, and a poster boy for how much that world has changed since the days when curating was considered just a job.

    “Anybody who pumps a lot of energy into a situation, anybody who expresses interest in other people and brings good things out of them … is bound to be a player of a special variety,” said Robert Storr, the curator, critic and current dean of the Yale School of Art. “The ability to generate excitement, to focus attention and to stir things up in a positive way is a particular skill, you know, and it is not to be taken lightly. We need animators. We have too many of them who have no seriousness and no curiosity, who are just making events and spectacles. He’s an animator who actually creates interesting situations.”

    ===

    MATTHEW STONE.COM

    Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviews Matthew Stone

    April 2009 London

    Hans-Ulrich Obrist: To begin with the beginning, Id like to ask you how it all started, where are your beginnings? In terms of feeling your way around, in terms of becoming an artist.

    Matthew Stone: I have always been aware that you can be an artist. There is a history of going to art school in my family. Very few people are taught that it is a job, or even a way of being, so I’m lucky. But essentially I’ve always known that it was something I would do.

     HUO: I was wondering if there was some kind of an epiphany, you know, some sort of a revelation or epiphany.

     MS: I don’t know about one particular event, I think about the role of the artist in relation to that of the shaman, within a Beuysian tradition. I remember lying in bed when I was a kid playing with balls of invisible energy in my hands and then bouncing them off the walls. What I am doing now feels the same as that, so… I guess it has always been there.

    HUO: Thats interesting, because during my childhood in the late 70s and in the early 80s, Beuys was really like God. He came to Switzerland and gave a lecture and he was somehow, the most important living artist, it was his aura… And strangely when he died, somehow his influence diminished considerably and throughout the 90s and the 00s, Warhol became much more of a greater influence. What is interesting is that I have a feeling that in the last couple of years theres been sort of…

    MS: … A renewed interest. Well I’ve always made a comparison between Warhol and Beuys. I wrote my dissertation at college on the spiritual content of Warhol’s work, arguing that he recognized an inherent religiosity to post-war America. They had very similar messages, but they explained themselves in very different ways. These differing ways were relevant to their specific socio-political environments at that time. Andy Warhol took the everyday and turned it into art, whereas Beuys wanted our everyday lives to become art. It’s almost the same statement and surely the same sentiment, but superficially inverted. I think that Warhol, to all appearances, didn’t state his true intent and that’s one way to be very powerful as an artist.

    HUO: So they were different sides of the same coin or something like that.

    MS: Exactly, and I think that finding this spiritual aspect in Warhol is an idea that runs completely against the grain of most people’s approach to his work. It’s too easy to read his work in an overly simplistic way. I think that if you really listen to what he said, you find the depth he spoke of when he said “deeply superficial”.

    HUO: I was very curious how you reconnect to a kind of unmediated experience. I think that after 2000, there seems to be a reconnection to unmediated experience, and also performance comes back and that obviously ties in with Beuys, who was involved with all of these performances and political activities, which were at the moment he died, kind of forgotten.

    MS: I think the main thing that was forgotten about Beuys, was the seriousness of his intent to reform society. I think that in the 90’s, that was something that disappeared, replaced by a fetishization of nihilism, which is a dead-end ideology.

    HUO: So one can say that clearly you are part of a new generation. Are you younger than Jesus?

    MS: I’m under 33, yes. I think it’s interesting, because a “generation” is a myth, but one that we can in certain ways use. In a sense definitions can become a death to possibility. As soon as you define something, you limit what else it can be or become. So in that sense, the idea of a generation or of a singular movement is perhaps limiting. However if it can be used in a playful or more fluid sense, then it can become something that is empowering, not only in terms of comprehension for the audience that encounter it, but also for the community of artists who are linked to it.

    HUO: So then its positive.

    MS: It can be positive, but you must be aware of its potential to create elitist structures rather quickly.

    HUO: We met in a group context on the roof of Hannah Barrys Gallery, about a year ago, you were a part of Bold Tendencies II. You have developed an artist-run space in London, you have weekly salons. You are involved with a lot of collectives. You are not identified with one context.

    MS: I hope that the current level of activity promotes further diversity. Art must fight for freedom but if it can only light one path to freedom, it returns to oppression. But to retrace your initial question, which I feel described my extended sense of community… This is something central to my work. Whether conscious or not, collaboration is inherent to every human process. I think that often for artists there is a fear to expose where somebody helps them. What I tried to focus on was crediting my creative interactions. It was quite a frightening thing to do, because you have to give up on the myth of being a solo operating genius. It’s very seductive this myth of the artist working alone, misunderstood by everyone else. When I exposed this level of constant collaboration, the work developed a much wider meaning, and became stronger. As I tried to destroy myself (by recognizing other people), my individual identity actually became stronger. For me it really exposed a rational argument for altruism.

    I think a lot of the ideals, which Joseph Beuys upheld and supported very sincerely, have sadly been seen as irrelevant hippie liberalism, unfounded in any intellectual structure. But there is a real context to find and reactivate the initiatives that were started in the sixties. They were dialogues that aimed to do more than just passively comment on the nature of society, they were to truly transform it. For example the Art into Society – Society into Art show at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1974].

    HUO: Thats an exhibition, featuring Gustav Metzger, Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys…

    MS: I’ve have the catalogue.

    HUO: So thats a reference for you.

    MS: Definitely.

    I was part of this community in 2004-2005 in Peckham, we were a squat-based collective that involved not only artists, but fashion designers, writers and musicians. We squatted an old 7,000 sq ft, Co-op department store and maybe ten of us lived there. At that time, it felt that there was no identifiable young art collective in London. We were doing ambitious exhibitions and throwing huge after-parties with performances involved. We ended up with 2,000 people in this old ballroom.

    HUO: So that was before you had an identifiable art structure?

     MS: Yes, but we had our own structure and organized a series of artist-run shows in different buildings.

     HUO: Can you tell me about these shows?

     MS: There was one that was called Rising Tendencies Toward the United States of Mind, and there was Optimism as Cultural Rebellion

    HUO: So optimism started there?

     MS: Yes, in 2004 I wrote “The Manifestation”, which was a manifesto that didn’t seek to dictate a specific course of action. It was a call to self-manifest. In a way I returned to it when I wrote the introduction to the book for Optimism – The Art of Our Time show at Hannah Barry’s, and then that text was included as part of your Manifesto Marathon event.

    HUO: Exactly, and obviously were now curious to know more about this manifesto about optimism, because Ive always thought we needed new optimism and then we see here that in 2004 you became interested in optimism.

    MS: Well it takes a few years for a new century to start. When cultural movements occur, artists pay attention to one specific aspect from what is a wide spectrum of art-making, this is because a previous generation seems to have neglected that specific aspect. This is why movements aren’t forever and they shouldn’t be. Movements exist to momentarily remind us to question the fluidity of what we collectively assume is solid.

    In a sense I think all art is optimistic. My optimism is not necessarily about happy art or cheap positivity, Optimism is the vital force that entangles itself with, and then shapes the future. So for me it’s a dynamic stance rather than a belief that everything will be OK, it’s not a naive hope. Optimism is about actively commandeering reality, and shaping the future. I am an optimist, and always have been. At first formulating this approach to art and idea of optimism really felt like the antithesis of cultural credibility.

    HUO: So this is a kind of a counter reaction?

    MS: Well, my blog is “Optimism as Cultural Rebellion”…

    HUO: So your blog is a kind of daily practice of rebellion!

    MS: Well, I think optimism itself is still a rebellion. But at that time, it really felt that there was no space in art for a sincere discussion relating to optimism. Back then I was thinking about blind optimism, that to seek utopian ideals or even to speak the language of those kinds of manifestos was a necessary cultural rebellion. I was thinking less about the real consequences of that, just that it needed to happen.

    You manifest the full intensity of an idea to understand it. This is part of the process of creating visions of the future. But once you have this vision of the future, you have to step back to understand how and to what extent you are going to work towards realizing it. Like the Dogma films, at the beginning they made and stuck to the rules, but afterwards were still influenced by the most useful parts of what they had established. I think that’s the way that movements should operate. I think Beuys said that inside every human, there’s all of the past, but there is also visions of the future.

    HUO: Panofsky said that if we want to be the future, its out of fragments of the past.

    MS: Within shamanic logic, there exists a non-linear sense of time and a relation to history that is impossibly intertwined with all the potential futures. History cannot and should not be forgotten. But also if we only think of the past there is a danger that we will forget to design the future. In your interview with Ballard, he says “We now live in the present, unconsciously uneasy at the future, and this short-term viewpoint does have dangers. We know that, as human beings, we are all deeply flawed and dangerous, but this self-knowledge can act as a brake on hope and idealism.”1

    HUO: Talk more about your exhibition, “Interconnected Echoes”, in Paris.

    MS: In that show there is a series of digital collages, one drawing and also a photographic billboard work that is installed sculpturally. The billboard is sunk into the walls of the gallery. Similarly, the collages appear to show cubes that have sunk into each other. The show is called Interconnected echoes, which is also the official title of my salon and an interview-based blog that I run. “Interconnected”, is a term that relates to this advanced idea of community that we spoke about earlier. The collages emerged from designs for my sculptures which you saw on the roof in Peckham.

    HUO: These are photographic sculptures, kind of performative photography, fragments of bodies blown up, its quite monumental.

    MS: I was thinking about creating 3D Venn diagrams which evidence shared space. But in my sculptures these solid and geometric cubes somehow go off the grid and sink into each other. The Venn diagram moves into the next dimension, from the second into the third. I was wondering whether this sense of multidimensionality could move from the formal perspectives that cubism challenged into the conceptual realm. We can project ideas into multiple dimensions, and then maintain a multitude of perspectives on those ideas.

    HUO: … Its multidimensional.

    MS: Marina Abramovic and I talked about multidimensionality in terms of travelling between worlds, and from the shamanic perspective, that’s always been possible. We can all perceive these things directly, but you need to shift your consciousness slightly in order to experience them. They don’t happen in the same way as placing a cup on a table does.

    But going back to the cubes with bodies on them, they have become a way of proposing the coexistence of uncompromised visions. An illustration of shared spaces that should be read as being both physical and conceptual.

    HUO: You use these multidimensional constructions with photography, putting them in a-perspective constellations. Where is the source of this material, because we see these entangled and disentangled bodies in fragmentary poses and oppositions. Are these coming from live performances? Do you have some kind of an archive?

    MS: They are staged images, I regularly shoot in my studio and there’s a small group of people that I work with. I have an archive, and use the images at different times. I use the ones that stand out to me visually. I can’t make any claim to understand beauty other than when I see it. I think this is difficult for some people when they approach the work. If the images are beautiful, it’s in quite a traditional sense. I struggle at times with the pressure of beauty being contextualized.

    HUO: So that might lead the next step then? What are your unrealised projects?

    MS: I want to write an opera that describes the shamanic journey. The opera would describe and also engage the audience in the journeying process. It wouldn’t be an artwork that you engage with just by viewing or listening to; it’s something that the audience would interact with on a very personal level.

    HUO: So its a collective decision. The engagement will produce reality in some ways…

    MS: Or realities, collectively personal realities.

    HUO: Talking about parallel realities, its kind of an issue which independent of generations seems more and more relevant. You are an artist, but you run a salon, numerous spaces that are parallel realities, you might want to enter into politics. So these ideas of identity or citizenship become a sort of “perceptive band”, as Stefano Boeri says.

    MS: I think that this complexity you describe is the gift of post-modernity that will stay.

    HUO: And you dont seem to be against that?

    MS: I’m not. I think there is a danger that people are tempted to try to introduce a re-modernism of sorts. There is no Golden age. The artistic movements that have looked back only ever occupy footnotes in History. Whilst there was a period of what could be described as a “conceptual baroque”, the complexity of meaning and understanding is vital to promote diversity and tolerance thereof.

    The true death of post-modernism will not be described in relation to it. Before post-modernism, there was this idea that if you knew the name of a god, you had power over him. Post-modernism became a god if you knew its name and it then had power over you. This was the imbalance that led to the collective power loss we see now. We need to talk about it now, because it’s a type of exorcism of old ideas. But it will seem absurd soon. Any idea applied in totality leads to absurdity, whether capitalism, socialism… Or postmodernism. So we must look head forth into the abyss and stare at the future. The future is the unknown, and all fear comes from a fear of the unknown. Artists must be fearless.

    HUO: We haven’t spoken yet about your influences. We spoke about Joseph Beuys in connection to Andy Warhol, as if they were one, as two sides of a coin. But we havent really spoken about your English influences. John Latham was described in the 70s in Germany, as a kind of English Beuys, with his Artist Placement Group, and his political dimension which he ran in tandem with his art projects. He used to be your neighbour. I knew him very well. I was wondering about John Latham, who was also a hero in the early 90s because of his introduction of time…

    MS: I am very interested in his work and considering I spent so much time in Peckham while he was alive, it’s sad I never met him. In terms of other English influences I can clearly identify Derek Jarman as a mentor. His extended practice, priestly nature and role as a facilitator of others has influenced me. His open and unashamed romanticism is also something I relate to very directly. I mentioned earlier Louwrien Wijers who in 1990 organised Art meets Science, and Spirituality in a Changing Economy. That project and accompanying book is heroic. She conducted the longest ever interview with Warhol. We are back to Warhol and Beuys again! She asked Beuys ten questions, who sent her to Warhol with the same questions. Warhol then suggested she take the questions onwards to the Dalaï Lama. Isn’t that incredible? This perfect triangle of Beuys, Warhol and the Dalaï-lama, three men working in different ways, on different continents and yet all suggesting the same things. Warhol sticks out, he’s like “um, well I mean, gosh, sure, uh…” But he also speaks very clearly about the future of religion, in which he talks about big rock concerts where everybody is singing the same song. He also says that anyone can be an artist, like Beuys.

    I see that pyramid of interviews as Louwrien’s perfect artwork and social sculpture; she created and facilitated a wider vision. This vision is not only the people she gave a voice to, but the collective voice that she identified. Which brings us back to opera, the beauty of different people singing at the same time. This was an example that Norman Rosenthal gave and I thought: “Oh my God, that’s it!”

    1Hans Ulrich Obrist,Interviews: volume 1, Milan, Charta, 2003

    ======

    Hans Ulrich Obrist Issue (7)

    To talk to the man who talks to everyone you want to talk to.

    There was a surprising dearth in the history of art curation, until Hans Ulrich Obrist, specifically surrounding the curatorial pioneers perspective. It was because of this Hans began a series of relentless interviews to create an intimate documentation of this turning point in art history, collected in A Brief History of Curating (2008). Since his mid twenties he has been single-handedly documenting a first hand take on art history through conversations with some of the most interesting artists, writers, curators and thinkers of the 20th century.

    This interview was a cold call, we didn’t get to sit before hand and compare the wear on each other’s shoes. However it was setup by a mutual friend, so the pressure was slightly off.

    Adam O’Reilly: Have you ever been intimidated by anyone you’ve interviewed?

    Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s an interesting question because I don’t think that intimidation necessarily occurred, but I started to be in awe, you know, great artists or philosophers whom I had never met before. I would not meet someone and then immediately interview him or her. So you know very often the interview only happens when there is a relationship, a dialogue, and after many meetings there is a moment I start to record. There is a curiosity for me. The curiosity is kind of stronger than the intimidation, maybe?

    A: I only asked that, because I was a bit intimidated to interview the interviewer. Interviews have always interested me, I like that they generally begin a little one sided, a linear prompt that triggers a non-linear response and then they have a life of their own. How do you go about preparing for an interview?

    H: I usually read as much as I can on the work. In the case of a writer I read the novels, and I look at as many possible shows of an artist, and I read lots of interviews they have given in the past. Here to give you an example, with one of the greatest living artists, Gerhard Richter, at some point I realized he had never been interviewed about his relationship to architecture, so we did this interview and that was published in Domus, the architecture and design magazine about his relationships with architects like the late Oswald Mathias Ungers, an architect he was friendly with, the design of his own studio he built for himself, his architecture models he inserted in his early paintings, the unrealized projects that were meant to be unrealized, was a topic I mentioned. That became because I read so much, met him so many times, so I found this loophole that had never been done. Very often it’s that, so that the preparation leads to something, which maybe hasn’t been discussed. Also, for my influence to work I have to be very prepared in order for then in the interview to be free to improvise. And I very often have a pile with lot of notes, I have a lot of questions, I have researchers helping me to make research, obviously it’s changed a lot with the Internet, because now Google plays also a big role, so books and Google, and then at some point during the interview I very often throw overboard a lot of the preparations and go into freestyle, but I can do it because I’m prepared and if I don’t prepare I don’t have the confidence to do that, so I need to over prepare to then be free.

    A: Actually, I am glad you brought up Gerhard Richter, I wanted to ask about your conversations with him, they are beautiful documents. It’s also interesting to see you both grow in your respected disciplines through them. How have your conversations with him progressed through the years?

    H: It’s interesting to talk about the Richter conversations, because it was one of the first, he’s one of the first artists I met and when I was a teenager, I was 18, and that was definitely a great inspiration for me to realize that that was what I wanted to do in life is to work with artists. We then, after initial conversation, started to work on projects together, and I think the dialogue has always circled around the reality we produced together, so I invited Gerhard Richter to do a show at the Nietzsche House in Sils-Maria then I started to collaborate with Kasper König, out of that grew the painting exhibition, The Broken Mirror, which is my first large-scale exhibition I worked with, and König had invited me to do this with him. That was when I was 24. Then for the catalogue, we decided we wanted the artists’ own words, so we asked them for their own writings, and I realized how amazing that fragment of Richter was, so I became curious and I started to research and I saw that there were all these amazing writings he had done, and there was never a book, so the third project we did after the Nietzsche house and the group show in Vienna, The Broken Mirror, was I started to edit, over years, a book of his collected writings, which came out, and has now come out in an augmented edition, a second edition, co-edited together with Dietmar Elger, and is now double the size of the one from fifteen years ago, and then, so it’s always been approached in working on another exhibition together. Ever since we’ve always worked on books really, lots of artist books.

    A: A cyclical relationship, the interviews become a by-product of working together?

    H: Yeah, or the other way around. It’s either a by-product, or you could say the conversation produces the project, so it can be both ways, right? At the moment I am reading a long new interview with Gerhard Richter on his artists books.

    A: The interview you did with Julian Assange, (e-flux journal 25, May 2011) was really revealing. With an interview like that, you’re changing a public perception of a person, in this case someone shrouded in a lot of controversy. Is it important to you to give them a candid place to talk?

    H: Yeah, there has always been a situation with the interviews. My interviews are supposed to have a lot to do with empathy, creating an empathic situation.

    A: Empathy is rare to find in the art world,

    H: And, I think if you want to understand the forces which are effective in art it’s important to understand what’s happening in other disciplines.

    A: Of course, and you have that attachment coming from the art world.

    H: The art world is my home, and I am based in the art world, so why would I interview Julian Assange? I mean I’m very interested in how Wikileaks had an impact on events over the last twelve months. But the main reason, is that artists kept telling me how much they are interested in Julian Assange, they’ve got questions for Julian Assange. At a certain moment I felt, as in conversations with Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda and Brian Kuan Wood from e-Flux, you know it could be great to do this as a polyphonic interview, and get artists, through me, to ask him the questions they always wanted to ask him.

    A: I thought that interview was very on point. Many artists that I talk to, are trying  to think of ways to use Wikileaks or just trying to figure out the impact it is having on everyone. Assange’s approach is so selfless and impressive. Documents like that have the power to challenge popular positions and perspectives. In A Brief History of Curating, you went about it retroactively, how did that change project start?

    H: I think the book came out of the feeling that something is missing, it’s driven by curiosity, I mean, I came into the art world being very close to artists, I obviously realized when I started to curate that… at the very beginning I was very naïve and came out of a desire to do an exhibition in my kitchen and then on a mountain peak and then I realized, you know what, there has actually been a history of that and a lot of people have been doing that beforehand and then I realized this sort of history hasn’t really been written, why hasn’t it been written, and then you know, like always, when I see an exhibition that hasn’t been done and I want to see it, I do it, and when there is a book which hasn’t been written, and I want to read it, then I realize I have to do it. I just started to do this, not for a publisher, just out of my own interest and curiosity, and then at some point, I spoke to Jack Bankowsky, the then editor of Artforum, and he thought that was interesting, he said, “you know, why don’t we do a series for Art Forum so we can do it more systematically?” He commissioned me to do Walter Hopps, Harald Szeemann, and Pontus Hulten so that added three more to the mix, and then ever since I just continued to do them. I think now that many people know I’m doing these recordings, there is a lot of collective thinking about it in the sense that it’s no longer just me sitting in the office and thinking, “Whom could I interview next?” But there are lots of people who Email me and say, “Why have you never interviewed this person?” Every day I get an Email or a phone call and somebody says, “It’s very urgent that you interview this person. By the way, if you have any ideas for pioneers in Vancouver, I’m most curious.

    A: I know pioneers in Nova Scotia, which is where I am right now, Gary Neil Kennedy is really fantastic, he gave a lot of early conceptual artists space and time to make new work.

    H: Yes, Kasper König often talked about him. I saw a show of his at Portikus. Great, the next time I’m nearby I should interview Mr. Kennedy. That’s a great idea.

    A: It is a pretty fascinating history, his push to start the NSCAD Press with König and Benjamin Buchloh. Those books are such great primary resources for early conceptual work.

    H: Then obviously you know there is a link to Nova Scotia because I was very inspired by the NSCAD books. I mean the whole NSCAD book series was, for me, a great inspiration to start to make books with artists, and I’m a fan that the medium of the book as a medium, so that books aren’t a secondary reality. Michael Snow’s Nova Scotia book, and the great books by Gerhard Richter, Dan Graham or Dara Birnbaum. It’s interesting you mention Halifax, I was learning from Halifax, definitely. Also, I was always very inspired by David Askevold. He was a part of my “Do It” project, and sadly we had planned an interview with him, and then he died. But at least we could collaborate on Do It and he made marvelous texts for me for the Do It Books, and I think a lot of it has to do with his protests against forgetting and trying to remember, and I think the art world is quite good at this, and I think it’s a collective activity. You know, it’s not you or me, but it’s many, many people in the art world collectively trying to remember and I think that’s what is so interesting that this interview approach a very collective project, a lot of people thinking together whom we could remember, whom we could visit, and sometimes it’s like a lot of people are telling me that I should visit someone or interview someone. It gives a lot of people the idea to revisit your conversations and it has a very positive, hopefully, impact on the process of remembering, and that’s really what happened with these curators, because this curatorial history was partially forgotten or only very patchy and then at some point started. We thought we could bring all of these interviews I had with curators together and make the book. It wasn’t like a priori, it came a posteriori, no? After me having done so many interviews, obviously within the archives I’ve got a lot of potential books, or websites, or things I can now extract. It’s 2,200 hours, so someone could classify them according to geography, like all the China interviews we did with Phil Tinari or I could do all the London interviews, all the New York interviews according to the cities I have lived or spent time, all the Paris interviews. So one could do them according to disciplines like all the artist interviews, all the architect interviews, brief history of architecture, brief history of music, of sound, because we did lots of sonic inventors.

    A: How do you go about putting together group exhibits?

    H: I think it’s very much inspired by John Cage. Cage said that during a period of time he doesn’t just make music, but he also writes texts, he makes etchings, and a whole list of other things, and he does them in a different way so it’s not a linear situation, and I think with me it’s also overlapping a lot of layers. I’m not just a curator of exhibitions, but I write texts, I make interviews, I do films, I organize panels, and symposiums, and conferences, and research, so it’s a lot of parallel realities. It’s very non linear and then within these overlapping layers all of a sudden things emerge. And mostly it starts with a conversation with an artist. If there is an umbilical cord, it’s because I’ve got a very strong proximity to artists and that’s how ideas pop out.

    A: I find it easy to get both optimistic and pessimistic when in conversation with artists about the role of art in a time when it is so easily absorbed into popular culture. It is a very exciting time to be making work because of unstable political climates, new technology, and a welcoming public. What sort of subversive role can art take in this?

    H: Yeah, I think that’s a complex question, which I think is difficult to answer quickly, but I think when there is no more priests and philosophers says Gerhard Richter, the artists will be the most important people in the world. I have always felt it’s a very important moment where the art world is magnetic and there is a lot of other disciplines that are interested in the art world, I think it has a lot to do with the former. There is I think within the art world, a high degree of flexibility also of the formats and the possibility to invent new rules of the game, new formats. I very often think through the medium of exhibition we can show artists, architects, scientists, philosophers and all kinds of practitioners, it would be very difficult to do this in another field right now, so I think there is a great possibility right now to bring the different disciplines together in the art world as the formats are open. Obviously the art world has gained a lot of territory, and I think in this sense, it’s much broader than it used to be and much bigger. Maria Merz is always telling me that he loves this quote by General Giap who said, “When you gain territory, you lose concentration and when you gain concentration you lose territory”, and obviously the challenge right now is how the art world doesn’t lose the concentration, so for me it’s important to always not forget that, so every now and then, besides the big exhibitions I put on, I do very intimate, small exhibitions which are really concentrated moments with artists, they are focused shows a bit like the Kitchen. The Kitchen always stayed with me and it was the poet Cavafy who said, “the city you are born with, you always carry it with you wherever you go” and for me there is always the Kitchen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where I grew up and studied and this kitchen is always with me, and so like besides all the very public shows in the big museums and biennales and stuff I always very regularly find a little exhibition like in the Barragan House in Mexico or now soon in Brazil or in the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London about ten years ago, these sort of house museum exhibitions in very intimate small houses concentrate and develop projects that are important, so I hope it’s both, it’s both trying to reach out and bridge the gap between other disciplines, but also remain concentrated.

    A: Thanks Hans

    H: Pleasure to talk to you.

    A: Yes, you too.


    Interview: Adam O’Reilly
    Photos: Jonnie Craig

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    FRIEZE BLOG

    Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

    December 06, 2011 by Clo’e Floirat

    Hans Ulrich Obrist © Yang Fudong, Shanghai (2009)

    At the age of 23, Hans Ulrich Obrist curated his first exhibition in his kitchen; it included the work of artists including Christian Boltanski and Richard Wentworth. He is now Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Since the early 1990s, Obrist has mounted 150-plus exhibitions around the world, hosted The Brutally Early Club (a breakfast salon before the sun has risen), written catalogue essays and published numerous books. Obrist is the author of The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing anthology of more than 2,000 hours of interviews with artists, architects, scientists, writers and engineers.

    Clo’e Floirat: I am interested in the form and the concept of the interview itself, rather than an isolated interview about an artist, a designer or an architect’s work. What is its role when it transcends the traditional answer and question structure? A form of art criticism? May it become an art form?

    HUO: This is a very important question. Obviously interviews played an important role in art history, at least since Vasari. Vasari was a great influence for me, because I was always thinking: what will we know about the art of our time if we look back in some century? Warhol too was an influence, because to record everything at a certain moment is like creating a time capsule. I would say the third historic influence on me was David Sylvester. He did this wonderful book of interviews with Francis Bacon, which is one of my favourite interviews book ever. You have a very rare in-depth situation because Sylvester has interviewed Bacon again and again, and all over again, throughout his life. The other influential character was Jonas Mekas. I think without Jonas Mekas I would not have started to film my interviews.

    CF: Did you initiate your first questions with the plan of making a collection of interviews? Was The Interview Project premeditated?

    HUO: I have always done this as a curator; I talk to artists. Little by little the interviews were published and now there are artists holding seminars about The Interview Project. It was not premeditated, there was never a strategy behind it at all, it was never a conscious idea of ‘now I want to write the history of my time!’ That sort of grand gesture was not there. For me, it was to be in the middle of things and in the centre of nothing. There was no master plan and still there is not. It is more that, all of a sudden, there is an occasion or a desire to interview someone; little by little there a system develops. But the system comes a posteriori, not a priori.

    CF: What does that system look like?

    HUO: If this is the art world, [draws a square in the centre of white page, and illustrates artists with dots inside that ‘art-world square’], I have interviewed many great protagonists. First the artists I met when I was a student, Alighiero Boetti… I did not record these first conversations sadly. Everything between 1986 and 1991, the first five years are lost. From 1991, I started to record. Because I was a curator, I also wanted to know where curating comes from, so I started more systematically to interview curators, like Pontus Hultén. But if you want to understand the forces in art you need to understand what is happening in other fields. From art I went into science; from art I went into music; from art I went into literature; from art I went into architecture. And gradually it is like a concentric circle, it goes from the art world to all these other worlds, and then, from there, it goes into the multitude.

    CF: In the first volume of your Interviews, what is the reason of listing the interviews in an alphabetic order? Not chronological? Is it to emphasize the manual aspect that the volume eventually provides?

    HUO: There are lots of different books from The Interview Project, and, each time, there is a different rule. When you have a big archive of interviews, you can start to edit in different ways. One is according to cities, for example we have the ‘Beijing Marathon’ and the ‘London Marathon’. David Sylvester’s interviews were published according to geography: his London interviews, and his New York interviews. I can have them according to professions; I can have all the curators’ interviews, like in A Brief History of Curating. Or I can have them according to one artist, which is Sylvester’s model for Bacon: all the interviews I have ever done with Gerhard Richter or Olafur Eliasson, for example. Or there is the Conversations Series with Walther Koenig Books: 21 books of in-depth interviews.

    In Volume 2, the editors – Karen Marta, Shumon Basar and Charles Arsène-Henry – wanted to show, as well the in-depth model, the broad spectrum of The Interview Project. In Volume 1, the order is according to the alphabet, and then for Volume 2 the three editors decided to do it according to birthdays so highlighting the five generations occupied by the interviewees. But who knows? We have to find out our own rules of the game, how to classify the material. It is a very big body of texts. A great-unrealized project is to do something online with it; that will be the next step.

    CF: Do you consider yourself as an art historian?

    HUO: I never studied art history; I studied social science and politics. I am curator foremost, I am curator of science, a curator of music, a curator of literature, a curator of architecture, but also I work as a critic.

    CF: Of the different roles you play which one of them do you assume when you interview someone?

    HUO: When I am interviewing, I am just learning.

    CF: A listener?

    HUO: Yes and I am like a student, I want to be a student all my life. I think the best thing in life is to be a student. When one stops learning it is terrible, particularly when you develop a trajectory, then you start to become more and more busy, and stop reading. And for me The Interview Project is to be an eternal student. I still function like a student, with hundred of books at home. When I do an interview I need to read all night long to prepare it, so it is the same intensity as when I had seminar as a student. And usually that goes away in life, but The Interview Project keeps me alive like a student.

    CF: Robert Storr has said that you are an animator, but an interesting one. At first I found it rather derogative, perhaps too connected to talk-show culture. But then I appreciated that it was, in fact, a very accurate portrayal of your purpose if one reflects on the word ‘animator’ in terms of the one who animates situations, conversations and his ability to generate attention, just like a motivator or a generator even.

    HUO: Animator is one of my many roles, I am a researcher, I am a fundraiser, I am a museum director, and I am definitely an interviewer. These are just aspects of a generalist profession. I think in the idea of ‘animating’, there is obviously a little bit of a negative connotation, because it has so much to do with events culture and all that, so I preferred the definition of the ‘junction maker’. What J.G. Ballard taught me is to make junctions and build bridges. I think we live in a world where we have objects, quasi-objects, non-objects. It is important also to have inter-subjective situations. I think my role of curator is not just in the exhibitions I install in spaces like in the Serpentine, or the exhibitions I install in time like ‘Il Tempo del Postino’ and the ‘Marathons’. But it is also in the projects that bring people together, and I see this as a very important part of my curation. I want my work to be useful for the world; I want it to be a toolbox. I do not want things that close down. I was never interested in occupying territories. I want to liberate.

    CF: You question artists about their references, their influences, who from the past have inspired them. By stimulating the past, and the forgotten practitioners, it generates a mise en abîme in producing art history. It generates some kind of family tree. Is it a way to keep the past present?

    HUO: It is clearly an aspect of what I often call ‘the protest about forgetting’. Obviously, I have a lot of questions; I learn from an interview what it is very interesting to ask the next person about. As Philippe Parreno says la chaîne est belle; it’s a kind of chain reaction. I observed, for example, that if on Monday I interview a film director, on Tuesday I interview an artist, on Wednesday I interview an architect – which is very often my week – then, by the end of the week, what the architect told me connects to what the artist told me, connects to what the film director told me. There is a kind of strange morphogenetic field, as Rupert Sheldrake calls it, different disciplines are interested in similar things. So then I started to think, I have a quite extreme schedule, if I push it even further then I could do the ‘Marathon’: 50 interviews in one day. We did the ‘Marathon’ for the first time in 2005, in Stuttgart, and then in London with Rem Koolhaas, and since then we have done it many times. I have lots of papers like this, thousand of these papers, and if I do an interview I take some of them. I do not script it in a linear way, for me it never works if I have a list with all the questions. While people talk to me – and actually sometimes people become confused because they think I am not listening to them – I am actually looking what could be a great link to the next question. Suddenly it is like a card game.

    CF: You frequently question the existence of unrealized projects. Is this a method to stimulate lost, forgotten or misunderstood projects from the past? From that they are too often unreported propositions and solutions for the art world and its future?

    HUO: It is actually my most frequent question. The second most frequent is: what advice to a young artist? And, finally, the question about the epiphany. How did Benoit Mandelbrot discover fractal geometry? How did Gerhard Richter discover over-painted photographs? But there is a reason that the most recurrent question is on unrealized projects. I believe that we know very little about them.

    CF: They could still play a valuable purpose for the future? Like in architecture, models and projects submitted for competition remain unrealized, yet when they are not published they stands on every architect’s website as visions.

    HUO: That is right, but, for example, we do not know about the unrealised projects of filmmakers, of scientists, and of artists, even less.

    CF: If the California artist Amy Alexander would invited you to ‘self-interview’, what would be the answer to your own question about the unrealized project?

    HUO: In 1986, when I was 18 years old, Alighiero Boetti told me this could be my life. I really did think artists were the most important people on the planet, and I wanted to be helpful and useful for artists. He said I could get all of these unrealized projects and try to make them happen, to produce them as realities. And so the irony is that I have been gathering thousand of unrealized projects, but whenever I want to do my big exhibition on unrealized projects it fails. So my unrealized project is to do a big exhibition on unrealized projects. And maybe even more to build a palace of unrealized project.

    CF: Today is it still you chasing artists for interviews, or is your prey lying in wait to be captured in their interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist? To be part of his oral history?

    HUO: Very often the desire has to come from me in the first place. Because it is my way of questioning the world so it has to come from my desire to understand the world. As much as it is a personal system within which it is about this desire, there is also a certain degree of objectivity and also collectively. The Interview Project now is a more collective project, it is more known that it used to be. People know that I have done many interviews so they say: ‘have you ever interviewed this great 80-year-old composer? Or this wonderful scientist? It could be nice to add it to your project’. It is very generous, and very wonderful that is has become a feedback loop. And the Marathon obviously is a very new form of producing interviews. Each time it produces a micro-archive in itself, and these interviews can then be published again in magazines. But what is very important, what I said in the beginning, there is not a master plan. It is very ‘rhizomatic’, it is a very Deleuzian thing.

    What is also very important is that The Interview Project was always almost like a broke heaven, it’s a zero-sum calculation; I never made any money with it. But the money I make from publishing in magazines, catalogues and books pays for the editing, the PhD students from different countries that work on those transcriptions. But what I always did from the beginning and what is very important is that I can keep the rights with the artist so that later I can publish it again in any anthologies. There is always the thought about the archives.

    CF: Your interviews are by-products of other events. You use every occasion to conduct them. In the most unexpected situation, you always take out your video camera to record any exchange of ideas. Is it also the case when you are being interviewed? Do you record and collect those conversations too?

    HUO: When I was a student I travelled in night trains and had my ‘grand tour’, and after that I was really prepared. At 23, I did my first kitchen exhibition; from then everything went pretty fast. I got a grant from Cartier Fondation in Paris, I was invited to the Museum d’Art Modern de Paris to do ‘Migrateurs’, I was invited to work with Kaspar König. So between 1992 and 1993 my activity went from this strange obscure Swiss student travelling around in night trains to see artists, to the most public voice of new curating. But because it was like this that I had to go out in public, I think The Interview Project was very important, otherwise one would burn out very quickly.

    CF: I met Markus Miessen two weeks ago in Berlin. He mentioned The Archive as a Productive Space of Conflict project in which you are involved. How is this project connected to your Interview Archive project?

    HUO: With Markus Miessen I have been discussing how we use the archives digitally. There is obviously the whole tagging technology, so we worked together with Armin Linke and the Institute for the 21st Century, founded by Karen Marta and Bettina Korek. And the Institute tries to help The Interview Project, we get support to try to archive and keep it together. With Miessen, Linke and the Institute we developed this tagging site for Cedric Price. The beautiful thing about the tagging system – we showed at the Venice Biennale – is that you can just click in ‘Fun Palace’ and there everything that has ever been said about the Fun Palace comes. So you could imagine once my all archives are there, you could type colour red or colour blue, and then everything an artist or an architect who ever mentioned something about the colour red would start to speak. So you can actually make the living and the dead speak to each other.

    About the author

    • Clo’e Floirat's photoClo’e Floirat is a critic and cartoonist, based in Berlin and currently a student on the Critical Writing in Art and Design MA programme at the Royal College of Art, London.

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    TIMEOUT LONDON

    Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interview

    A new role at the Serpentine Gallery is the latest chapter in Hans Ulrich Obrist‘s love-affair with London. Time Out finds out why he keeps coming back for more

    • As guest curator at the Serpentine Gallery in 1995, Swiss-born Hans Ulrich Obrist mounted ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, a show that was more like a jumble sale than an exhibition. Gilbert and George gave away badges and Christian Boltanski invited people to fill a carrier bag with second-hand clothes for a pound. The following year he presented ‘Life/Live’, a survey of artist-run spaces in Britain, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 1999 he stayed at the John Soane Museum while curating ‘Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow’, for which he invited artists like Steve McQueen and Cerith Wyn Evans to respond to the collection. Now, after being involved in curating some 90 major exhibitions, including ‘Cities on the Move’ that came to the Hayward in 1999, he takes up a post created specially for him: Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery.‘For ten years I was working freelance and travelling non-stop’, he tells me.‘But since 2000 I’ve been based in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville, curating the programme there. Internationally, it’s a very open situation that goes beyond national boundaries; directors and curators move from one country to another, which has opened up the museum landscape.’ Isn’t there a danger, though, with curators moving from one country to another, that museum programmes become the same the world over? ‘It’s essential that there’s a strong local ingredient,’ he argues. ‘You have to have a mixture of protagonists from inside and outside to create a dialogue – a negotiation between the local and the global – otherwise institutions become homogenised.’ Hasn’t he chosen the wrong time to move here, just when the London art scene has lost its creative edge? ‘It’s very exciting to be here again,’ he insists, ‘because London keeps reinventing itself. There’s a new generation of artists’ spaces and galleries and London is an amazing laboratory for new architecture and design.’With Tate Modern dominating the scene, how does he see the role of public galleries like the Serpentine? ‘The question is more about relevance and vision. This has nothing to do with scale; it would be much simpler if it did. For the last year Julia [Peyton-Jones] and I have been discussing what an institution of the twenty-first century should be. It’s not about filling spaces, but intuiting what’s necessary and urgent.At a time when other museums are building new wings, we are building a new image; our extension will be through programming in concentric circles: the Serpentine, the park, the world. The gallery offers a very specific experience, because it’s a world within a world – a lofty space, which you walk to through the park. The change of momentum from slow to fast, and from noisy to as silent as a chapel is important; it works especially well for monographic exhibitions.’ I’m told that persuading artists to show in smaller public galleries can be difficult, because they are hoping to exhibit at Tate Modern. ‘You have to propose something that is context-specific,’ he explains. ‘At a certain time an artist needs a big retrospective, at other times they need a more focused exhibition. It’s a different story each time; it’s about establishing a dialogue. Flexibility is essential, otherwise everything becomes predictable; planning too far in advance is potentially deadly: it can make the programme very stiff.’He won’t divulge details, because the programme will be announced in the summer, but the first project is a pavilion with an inflatable canopy by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond which will stay on the lawn through the autumn. ‘There’ll be debates, performances, screenings and 24-hour interview marathons as well as a café,’ says Obrist, ‘to build bridges between art, architecture and design.’A Royal College graduate compared curating to writing an essay with artworks. How does he preceive the role? ‘I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator – a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public. Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva proved that essay shows can be successful, but they have to be brilliant, otherwise they are in danger of using art to illustrate a text. You have to avoid a pre-written scenario. Great group shows are journeys that get written along the way; you don’t know the end point. ’How does the London art world compare with that of, say, Berlin? ‘The scene is no longer centred in one place, as it was in the past,’ says Obrist. ‘There’s a polyphony of centres and London plays a crucial role. Most cities have a centre surrounded by suburbs, but London has numerous centres: it’s the model of a twenty-first century metropolis.’
    • ===
    • MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
    • THE Q&A: HANS ULRICH OBRIST, CURATOR

      Hans Ulrich ObristIn November Art Review magazine named Hans Ulrich Obrist the number-one most influential person in the art world. But according to Obrist, the excitement hasn’t interrupted activities at London’s Serpentine Gallery, where he is co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects. For decades, Obrist has authored analytical commentaries on contemporary art, while simultaneously redefining its presentation at renowned institutions such as the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

      Obrist also conducts interviews. In the past few years he has released two 1,000-page volumes of his collected conversations with the most talented artists, architects, scientists, engineers and thinkers living today. Most recently he interviewed Jeff Koons for the artist’s new book “Hulk Elvis“, which features works from the series of the same name.

      It could be intimidating to interview someone with a C.V. like Obrist’s, but the man at the other end of the telephone line is disarming and reassuringly self-possessed. He draws his interlocutor into a cocoon of seemingly all-encompassing knowledge about everything involving aesthetics. Obrist speaks incredibly fast, and crams in so many snippets of insight that it would be impossible to relay them all in one pass. Here we present the highlights, including his thoughts on the trouble with meetings, the world’s most exciting new art scene and why it is vital to consider posterity.

      More Intelligent Life: What did you eat for breakfast this morning?

      Hans Ulrich Obrist: I always have coffee and porridge for breakfast. My breakfast happens very early, at 6.30am, because I wake up early. I founded a club, which is called the Brutally Early Club. It’s basically a breakfast salon for the 21st century where art meets science meets architecture meets literature. The reason why I decided to do my club at 6.30am in different cafés, which are open so early, is because in 21st-century cities it’s become very difficult to improvise. Everybody has a schedule and it becomes really difficult to decide from one day to the next to gather for a meeting. You have to plan it weeks and weeks in advance. It’s so important to have improvisation in cities. Most people are free at 6.30, so that’s the idea of the Brutally Early Club and I have done it ever since I moved to London.

      MIL: At this point in your career it seems that you could curate at any museum or gallery of your choosing, but you’ve been with Serpentine for quite a bit. What’s special to you about working there?

      HUO: It’s a very exciting collaboration with Julia Peyton-Jones, the director [of the gallery]. I am the co-director and we began working together in 2006. That collaboration is one aspect, and another is obviously the park. It’s the gallery, the park, the world, and it’s in Kensington Gardens. Artists really love the location because it’s completely a world in its own. There’s nothing else there. When they have an exhibition it is really their world with art in the park. Another thing that is special is that admission is free, so it’s art for all.

      MIL: And it’s in London, which is a city that you love and a perfect place for your open-ended model of curation that doesn’t rely on a city or a locale. You seem to have settled down from your constant travels in the ’90s. It’s like you’ve reversed the process and are making the work you want to see come to you now.

      HUO: From 1991 to 2000 I was totally nomadic. I was travelling 300 days a year and building out my research. These were a bit like my learning and migrating years, so to say. Goethe called it lehr und wanderjahre, this sort of idea of having these years where one would learn and migrate.

      In 2000 a new decade started, and it was sort of my second professional decade. I felt that it would be important to somehow have a place that was more grounded and with regular exhibition activity. It would also allow feedback. Otherwise you just book the show and you are already at the next one, and you never hear or feel what happens with the show. When I began this work the art world was still limited to art centres mostly in the West, but today the art world is totally global, particularly in the non-Western world like China, India, and so on. For me, the most exciting experience the last couple of years has been the Brazilian art scene. Brazil is completely exploding with an extraordinary optimism and an extraordinary energy. One cannot just sit in one place because you miss out on the extraordinary historical circumstances with so many new centres.

      MIL: You’re also a big proponent of research and ensuring art from different cultures is documented for history’s sake. 

      HUO: As Larry Halprin says, it’s a protest against forgetting. That means not only looking at younger and emerging artists, which is obviously a main focus of my work, but also to look into positions from the past and pioneers and artists who are maybe forgotten but need to be remembered. It’s key to see that there are not all of a sudden all these great artists, but there have been very interesting artists throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. It’s important to make this archaeological investigation.

      MIL: You seem to be embracing a sort of globalisation of the art world.

      HUO: It’s interesting because in some way the forces of globalisation, so to say, have always been a part of every society, and it’s not the first time that we have experienced globalisation. But in our time we’re being exposed to a particularly strong or extreme form of globalisation and I think that these forces are not only effective in society at large but also effective in the world of art. To some extent the question is always how to work within globalisation.

      MIL: I’d like to switch gears for my last question. You’ve interviewed Jeff Koons many times and one of the interviews is included in the new “Hulk Elvis” book, which was just released. He is primarily an object-based artist, which seems to be far away from the non-object-based art you’re so interested in at the moment. But I have a feeling you can easily connect these two types of work. How do you reconcile these different mediums? 

      HUO: As you say I’ve interviewed Jeff Koons many times, and we are actually working on a book right now where all these interviews I’ve done with him are going to be gathered together. I’ve done about eight interviews with him and then two interviews with him and Rem Koolhaas about architecture and art. Mr Koons’s work has always inspired architects, which I think is very interesting. I think he is an artist who has reinvented himself so many times and reinvented so many different series. Earlier this year we had a big exhibition that Julia Peyton-Jones and I organised at the Serpentine Gallery—the Popeye exhibition. He is clearly an artist who inspires a younger generation of artists. For example, [he has influenced] Tino Sehgal, the German artist who is going to do a big solo project at the Guggenheim Museum in New York [opening on January 29th]. He is one of the youngest artists ever to get the whole Guggenheim to himself. He’s also an artist that never works with objects. He basically works with situations. It’s a non-mediated experience and so in this sense it’s completely and totally different from Jeff Koons. Therefore it’s very interesting that Mr Sehgal has what he calls the “Koons test”.

      MIL: I’ve heard of this. He says if they someone dislikes Koons then he doesn’t want to work with him or her.

      HUO: Exactly. And he’s an artist in his early 30s. So it all shows how Koons’s work resonates with a young generation of artists and I think that’s always very important—how art travels and if a new generation artists connects to a practice. That is super relevant.

      ~ ROCCO CASTORO

      Image credit: Hans Ulrich Obrist on Myspace

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