Thursday, October 16, 2008

Landmark Exhibitions – Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968

Hans Haake (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)
Welcome to a new contributor Oli Harris, a London Consortium student, who was at the Tate's symposium Landmark Exhibitions – Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968 to cover the first day of the two-day event for The Forum.

When does an exhibition become a landmark? Well, if people are still talking about it twenty-three years later, the chances are it deserves some historical reckoning. Jean-François Lyotard’s and Thierry Chaput’s 1985 exhibition for the Pompidou Centre, Les immatériaux, dominated the first morning of the Tate’s symposium. It has enjoyed a recent resurgence of interest – a ‘reactivation’ in John Lajchman’s words -and it is easy to see why.

Les immatériaux is perfect for those building a history of the exhibition as intellectual discourse, and the curator as auteur. Lyotard attempted to engineer an unapologetically philosophical experience. He chose Les Immatériaux as a tool with which to bring visitors ‘into the dramaturgy of postmodernism’, throwing together signs, sounds and technological artefacts as part of a bewildering display. Visitors were left with no clear route to follow. They wore headphones through which the voices of leading theorists provided a counterpoint to the visual exhibits. Guide sheets were unbound so you could shuffle them, guided tours replaced by group discussions outside the exhibition. ‘The exhibition is exhibiting itself,’ in the words of one excited commentator.

So Les immatériaux was a landmark, but was it any good? Whether it hung together internally seemed less certain by the end of the morning’s session, with Nathalie Heinich conceding how badly some of its concepts had aged. In retrospect, the following year’s less showy ‘Vienna, Birth of a Century’, proved the more ground-breaking exhibition. Les immatériaux could be seen as merely a logical extension of the Centre Pompidou’s own multi-media ambitions - and its labyrinthine structure. ‘Good for those with a cultural frame with which to orientate themselves; disorientating for the uninitiated.’

Nathalie Heinich (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)

One of the biggest problems, it seems, were the headphones, which just confused most visitors. From what I could gather, these picked up short-wave signals according to where the visitor moved – a piece of technology that brought back fond memories of Rock Circus, Madame Tussaud’s ill-fated, musical spin-off. Visitors to Rock Circus were also given headphones, which operated on identical principles to Lyotard’s - a thought-provoking chain of influence to research.

The Centre Pompidou inspired Jean Baudrillard’s essay on the ‘Beaubourg Effect’, his vision of a museum-world of endlessly reproduced simulacra. John Rajchman suggests that the ‘Beaubourg effect’ has been well and truly superseded by ‘the Bilbao effect’. Bilbao stands for the very real way in which contemporary art can make an impact on the world – if not by its content or message, then by its sheer existence within a glittering new institution. As a tool of urban redevelopment, art still lends immense geographical status, as it has long leant status to corporations and brands.

John Rajchman (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)
Hans Haacke touched upon the recent use of biennales as a political statement in Johannesburg and Guangiu, South Korea. The issue of ‘artistic capital’ and its exploitation proved to be the theme for Haacke’s retrospective talk, as it has been for much of his career. Haacke led us from the 1959 Documenta exhibition, in which he was the unwitting pawn in Cold War culture wars, to the day’s symposium itself, in a museum whose ambitions are unimaginable without corporate funding. [See Martine’s post on 23/5/08: ‘Why has ‘commodity’ become a dirty word?’ ] Haacke conceded, however, that institutions were in a bind, dependent upon more funding than they would ever receive through public channels.

Talk of the US’s use of Abstract Expressionism as an unthreatening symbol of political freedom made me wonder how safe and apolitical much British conceptual art is today – and how convenient this might be for collectors. Haacke spoke of his 1984 show at what was then the Tate Gallery, in which a Victorian-style portrait of Thatcher incorporated a list of Saatchi & Saatchi advertising accounts. Among these were the Conservative Party and the South African Nationalist Party. The piece may or may not have had something to do with Charles Saatchi resigning his position on the museum’s Patrons of New Art Committee one month after the show’s opening.

There is something crucial missing in current narratives of contemporary art, Lynda Morris argued: the role of the dealer. Morris placed this traditionally shadowy figure at the centre of conceptual art’s development. Using an impressive array of statistics, drawn from research conducted by the late Sophie Richard, she sought to demonstrate that between 1967 and 1977 galleries were less concerned about which artists they were buying, than by who they were buying from. Konrad Fischer looms largest, an artist-dealer-curator responsible for 31 percent of the conceptual art sold to public galleries in Northern Europe at one point. Though not that financially successful himself, his sales to other dealers, and the shows he curated, paved the way. Morris: ‘We urgently need more study of how contemporary art accrues value’.

Conceptual art is surprisingly expensive, she argued. Conceptual Art was also the first movement since 1945 in which US and European artists were treated equally. Figures like Fischer connected Europe and the States, establishing the prices of radical artists across continents.
Lynda Morris, (photo Miranda Gavin 2008)
Here’s one theory: the dealer becomes more important in proportion to the experimental nature of works. As the artistic value of a piece becomes less clear to those outside the scene, dealers step in as essential guarantors of financial worth. The rise of Conceptual Art occurred at a time when the experiments of a previous artistic generation began to fetch serious prices. ‘Difficulty’ was now an indubitable sign of modernist credentials. But the more works challenged the boundaries of gallery and museum, the more an intermediary figure was needed for all those collectors who saw investment potential but had no idea which was the right installation etc to buy. Some conceptual art is expensive, as Morris’s survey showed, but it is a tiny fraction. Who decides this fraction?

...Since 1968’. The year loomed large over these discussions. How could artists exhibit in an institution, when art was a weapon to bring institutions down? Daniel Buren provided a breath of fresh air, as his witty minimalism has done for four decades. His ‘what is this “institution”?’ sounded like the most radical question of the day. As Buren points out, they wanted change in the art world and things did change. It can feel like some in the art world have been fighting for so long they’ve forgotten what they were originally up against. The symposium highlighted a masochistic loop - a very restricted loop – that sees the art world enjoy flagellating itself over its own success.

Daniel Buren, (photo Miranda Gavin 2008)

Buren has a history of side-stepping complacent idealism. He was careful to note that after the 1971 Guggenheim International, in which he was asked to remove his 65 by 32 foot banner with trademark stripes, he declined the assistance of various ‘anti-establishment’ art collectives, as he didn’t subscribe to their agenda. The banner was intended to bisect the architectural space of Wright’s museum interior. An inoffensive work in itself, it turns out the controversy was stirred up, not by curators, but by Donald Judd and Don Flavin, who felt it interfered with their own displays. It was a US/French stand-off that still rankles, if the tone of a recent New York Times review is anything to go by.

Text by Oli Harris
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