Museums by Artists (1983)

“Museums by Artists,” Parachute, no. 32 (September – November 1983), pp. 44-45.

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 Marcel Broodthaers,  Museum-Museum

Marcel Broodthaers, Museum-Museum

Museums by Artists
Art Gallery of Ontario,
Toronto April 2 - May 15

Museums by Artists was organized by Art Metropole, a business specializing “in materials, related to avant-garde practice” and a member of ANNPAC [Association of National Non-profit Artists Centres]. Art Metropole has also published a book of the same name to accompany the exhibition, the third in a series—Video by Artists and Performance by Artists having preceded it. The ideal of artists’ self-representation as expressed in the title poses a problem here. This self-representation has become instead a principle of accommodation to the museum. Everything about “museums” by artists has been included in this exhibition without an overview or critical principle of organization. That critical principle is what we expect when the most constructive work of the recent past has been critical of the museum. In this exhibition that critique is just one point of view among others. When all these different “museums” are brought together in the museum, does this mean that the museum critique has lost its power, or has it been subverted? Or did this work always accommodate itself to the museum in a dialogue that produced a formal tautology? Or is another strategy operating in Museums by Artists? In whose interest is this accommodation to and so-called “inhabitation” of a museum?

Museum by Artists brings together those artworks relating to the museum: works quoting, mimicking or criticizing its classifying and collecting. By the evidence of the works in this exhibition, their forms, formats or framing devices are threefold, although each overlaps the others. They can quote the procedures of the museum or archive as models for its own processes in the miniaturizing or conceptualizing of a collection, with its basis in Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise, and including Robert Filliou, Glenn Lewis, Les Levine, On Kawara and the N.E. Thing Co. Some can be a global metaphor for one’s own artistic production, with Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum, being a personal collection of objects “classifying” the larger system of his own work, and General Idea’s “The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion” with its “destruction” in 1977 and subsequent archaeological retracing serving as exam-ples. Or they may take actual form within the museum, or its stand-in, the gallery, as museological critique: Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, Joseph Kosuth and Garry Neill Kennedy.

AA Bronson of General Idea and Art Metropole and Peggy Gale, guest curator, have chosen to exhibit these “museums” as if they were objects destined for the museum. The works are divorced in presentation as if they were any group of objects, paintings for instance, and as if none of the lessons of the museum critique had been learned. Even Buren’s in situ work is detached and of equal value next to the others. In the publication Bronson writes: “The relationship of artists to museums as reflected and articulated in their art is subtly diverse. In this book we have tried to evoke, rather than analyze, that multiple vision of overlapping realities resulting from the response of the artist to this cultural frame, their attempts to distance, engage, alter and simulate—that is, deconstruct—as an act of consciousness.” Just as the book refuses a critique by ordering the contributions alphabetically, the curators restore the museum intact, as a container for variously related artefacts. It is not a form of knowledge but a vehicle for objects’ aesthetic, historical and economic validation. Self-representation is not critical here: it presents a choice of goods for the reader’s or viewer’s consumption. We might ask instead how the exhibition in intention and presentation is ordered to accommodate General Idea’s notion of the museum, or perhaps to accommodate General Idea itself: whether it is ordered strictly to frame them or loosely to include them. Under the aegis of an official business arm (“An exhibition by Art Metropole, Toronto, curated by Peggy Gale”), they have insured that they are included in the discourse on the museum and status of art objects. The exhibition display—at least at the AGO—seems designed to highlight their work. The exhibition is channeled visually and spatially to conclude with General Idea’s ziggurat Cornucopia. This is the largest and only free-standing work other than some plexiglass display cases. Moreover, their work is the only piece that includes sound (a videotape that refers to General Idea and their enterprise by name) so that they completely command the space of the exhibition at all times.

The manner by which their name slides behind our reading or viewing of every other artist’s work is to the auditory as Daniel Buren’s stripes—his “name”—are to the visual. Besides the work titled These Elements that are Manipulated, Buren’s stripes appear in advertisements for the book and exhibition, as the cover of the book, on the pages of a printed handout, and on a plaque in the exhibition space that reproduces the text in that handout. Despite Buren’s past contributions, his stripes now seem to announce his name more than bring to the surface the various apparatuses or supports of an exhibition or the museum. He seems to have exhausted his critique in the decorative; but he is bound to the museum by the very nature of his work. A pedagogical imperative that found its context in each situation of exhibition now turns into a personal imperialism as the stripes advertise nothing but his name. This interchangeability of function and site for a work that was once rigorous establishes that generality that is opposed to the actual function of naming.

Since this exhibition in its capitulation to the museum signals an end to a period of questioning objects and institutions, the threefold categorization of museums by artists mentioned above no longer is sufficient. (It should be mentioned that this categorization is an accident of selection. The work took place apart from the museum or as a critique of it.) Instead we must rescue what is left of the museum critique by examining what functions in the exhibition in spite of the exhibition. A different order imposes itself. That order is a system of value, a system that not only attributes value but institutes it. A recognizable axis runs through this exhibition with naming at one pole and generalized exchange at the other. Generalized exchange accepts a system that corresponds to the commodity and its fetishization as value in the museum apparatus. A work may cynically construct itself on that system; or it may further rationalize that system in its construction. Naming calls a halt to that indifferentiation, indeterminacy and exchangeability. It either points to that process of exchange that attributes value or it names the apparatus and figures behind the process. We can take Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke to stand for that pointing and naming respectively, except that they also stand for the two poles of the axis of naming and exchanging. We also can take them as the measure of the rest of the exhibition as their works are the only ones with a power to stand out beyond the exhibition. To take two other examples, Garry Neill Kennedy and General Idea negatively mirror that axis with Kennedy in the position of Haacke and General Idea in that of Broodthaers.

Broodthaers’ significant work is not well represented, and unless one is aware of the body of his work, a piece like Six lettres ouvertes (Avis) has no apparent context for the viewer. There is however a work, Museum-Museum, 1972, that incorporates the process of exchange into the structure of the work itself: from the title to the process of making, from its represented content to the relation between word and image, from its destiny as a work to its reference to the museum. Museum-Museum is a pair of nearly identical prints. As a print it enters into circulation as a reproducible commodity. (While a print is an original itself and not a reproduction, it is destined for circulation as a multiple.) The process of exchange establishing value by measuring one good against another is mirrored in the doubling of the prints in display and in the tautology of the title itself. Tautology is a pure form of exchange, A=A. The museum is the means by which the form of exchange, from which a monetary and ideological surplus value is derived, is concealed: the museum fixes the status of the original under the name of an artist. (That name is equivalent to any other in a series positioned in the museum.) Classification, exchange, origin and name fall to this tautological series with classification by name disguising the exchange under the fiction of an original that itself is produced by this classification. The pairing of prints in their difference and equivalence reduces classification by name to the basest of exchange, although gold bars are reproduced against a rich black background. Under each identical eagle-imprinted bar a value is ascribed by name: in the first by a list of the “greats”—artists Mantegna, Bellini... David, Ingres... Duchamp, Magritte; in the second by a series of commodities —Butter, Fleisch... Kupfer, Blut... Gold, Tabak. In this exchange both are reduced to commodities in their mutual equivalency. Value of exchange is further underscored by another series of terms denoting value: IMITATION/KOPIE/COPIE/ORIGINAL in one, and IMITATION/FALSCH/KOPIE/ORIGINAL in the other. These terms connote status by assuring originality through the denotation of a name. Here a process that finds its fetishistic representation in gold, a process that produces value and exchange, is displayed and named.

While giving the appearance of criticizing the museum apparatus by their Beauty Pageant and Pavillion (“The Search for the Spirit of Miss General Idea is the ritualized pageant of creation, production, selection, presentation, competition, manipulation and revelation of that which is suitable for framing.”), General Idea have reproduced a system of exchange with their own name as fetish object. It is their own self-referring system (“The Pavillion,” etc.)—a system of value par excellence—that they keep in operation: “Accumulated layers of function and meaning slip in and out of focus, creating a shifting constellation of images which is the Pavillion itself,” says the videotape accompanying Cornucopia, 1982-83. Everything contributes, including the viewer, and is equivalent: “Imagine these shards as nodes of thought, imaged points of intersection erected in the network of motifs and themes from which the Pavillion is constructed and its fragments dispersed.” This exhibition is one more point of intersection in the Pavillion and the manipulation of a self-created history, a history they continue to control by the control of this exhibition.

Hans Haacke’s Der Pralinenmeister (The Chocolate Maker), 1981, is a set of fourteen paired panels, with each pair grouped under the actual label and packaging of a particular chocolate product. The “Chocolate Master” is Peter Ludwig, chocolate magnate and art collector and “benefactor” to German, Swiss and Austrian museums, among others. One panel of each set tells the story of Peter Ludwig and his art collection. The other relates the business practices and social relations of the companies he controls. In both cases Haacke shows the same practice in action, the means by which Ludwig extorts surplus value: in business, from workers and taxpayers (moreover his collection is used to open new markets); in art, by the manipulation of the art market and the museum community by parlaying his collection through public funds to increase its value and his power. A work can go no further in naming, in the actual practice of naming, than this exemplary piece.

Garry Neill Kennedy’s Retrospective (in quotations), 1982-83, unlike Haacke’s work, is a naming that fails to name. By referring to himself—as a documentary retrospective of his work from 1978-1982—it is a museum collection of his own work, a retrospective by quotation. The work becomes a museum critique by putting other elements in quotation marks, in the sense of making them fictional. Part of the documentation of fourteen different works, each framed in a separate panel is real—announcements, invitations, etc. The other documentation is fictitious. They are photographs cut from the pages of Executive magazine, a business magazine, and given fictitious captions to situate them in a particular art institution, in most cases where Kennedy had a show: the AGO, Mercer Union, Optica, etc. Thus they supposedly deconstruct the social relations, constructions of value and cultural manipulation that take place in these institutions. Unfortunately, the work turns into a joke next to Haacke’s which has done the real labour of naming, not Kennedy’s formal manipulation of the appearance of a critique. Haacke has taken the risk (legal, economic) of naming. Kennedy has used naming merely as a self-referential strategy for the formal construction of a work, that brings this work, as his own apologist, to our attention within the gallery that shows his work. Measured against this axis, where does the exhibition fit? It includes work from both poles of naming and exchange and gradations in between. By that very practice and lack of commitment to a view, the exhibition fails to exchange, and in no way points it out. By refusal to participate in the critique, it participates in the return to the authority of the museum.