(Art Papers, July-Aug 2012)
For the inaugural exhibition in its new space, VOX Centre de l’image contemporaine presented a head-heavy exhibition titled Art Histories [March 16–May 20, 2012]. Curated by Marie-Josée Jean, it featured a disparate selection of artworks from the established Western canon—Marcel Duchamp, Rodney Graham, and Louise Lawler, for example—as well as several examples of work from the former Eastern bloc. Although the artworks differ in both means and ends, they all use strategies of appropriation and repetition. As such, the exhibition focused on the lowest common denominator—the effect of destabilizing the neat categories of stylistic “-isms”—rather than the artworks’ historical context or its reception outside of the art world.
The show opened with Mondrian ‘63–’96, 1987, a lecture by “Walter Benjamin” some forty-odd years after the philosopher’s death. The videotaped Benjamin is charming and quizzical, fast-tongued and incredibly verbose. For twenty-five minutes he waxes passionately about the value and theoretical implications of Mondrian copies to a full room of students, only a few of whom stay to hear the inconclusive ending: “[These paintings] simply hover, and the only comprehensible sense of their existence which we can accept with certainty are these questions themselves.” The impossibility of locating or confirming the meaning of copied work (and identities) rung like a mantra throughout the exhibition.
The first impression of the room designated for the Retro-Avant-Garde of the former Yugoslavia was one of institutional stuffiness: a wall-sized didactic panel covered one wall; the rest of the space was dominated by a recreation of The Last Futurist Exhibition of 1915, in which Kazimir Malevich first exhibited Black Square and other influential Suprematist paintings. But nothing was as it first seemed: the recreation (The Last Futurist Show, 1986) is the work of a certain Kazimir Malevich from Belgrade, an artist who has assumed the identity of the famous Russian avant-garde painter in order to frustrate the idea of authorship. The installation is a recreation of the iconic black-and-white photograph of the exhibition that is included in almost every compendium of art history; in an accompanying letter published in the September 1986 issue of Art in America, Malevich (Belgrade) writes, “Why? Why now, after so many years? I have a feeling that this photograph is becoming even more important than my Suprematist paintings.” The ersatz Malevich’s Autobiography, 2009—of odd kitschy pointillist paintings of Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, as well as of his deathbed, coffin, and funeral procession—hung nearby. But rather than producing copies of Malevich’s work in the manner of postmodern artists such as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine, who claim the authorship of their gestures in a market-driven art world, Malevich (Belgrade)’s anonymous recreation and stylistic translation participate in a different economy, one where the market in scarcely present and the institution of art is still firmly authoritarian.
Also included in this room were videos clips and documentary footage of the infamous Slovenian noisemakers Laibach. In Opus Dei, 1987, for example, Laibach turns the original Austrian pop song “Live is Life” into a parody of fascist anthems. The video is set in snow-clad mountains with waterfalls, harts, and scenic valleys. Uniformed men sing, stomp, and salute to the beat. The lyrics, too, take on a sinister twist: “Because we gave all the power / We gave all the best / And everyone lost everything / And perished with the rest.” Laibach’s eerie, all too convincing use of totalitarian forms is well exposed in the military-style television interview ZY Unsolved, 1983, which resulted in a formal ban of their activities. Five uniformed members of the group sit motionless in front of drawings of what seem to be Nazi rallies while one member recites pre-prepared responses in an indifferent, alienating voice. Their faces are lit dimly from below. When asked about their sources of inspiration, the spokesman replies: “Our basic inspiration … remains industrial production, Nazi-Kunst, totalitarianism, bruitism, … and, of course, disco.” Laibach’s continued critical edge lies in their ability to inhabit and subvert various aesthetic forms by literally repeating them.
The wall-sized didactic panel ties Malevich (Belgrade)’s installation and Laibach’s music together. Contrary to first impressions, it is an artwork in itself: Retroavantgarde, 2000, by the Slovenian collective IRWIN. Retroavantgarde maps out a constellation of key Slovenian artists, complete with originals, copies, or reproductions of their work. Also incorporated into the panel is a citation from Marina Gržinić’s essay “Mapping Post-Socialism,” in which she discusses the artists as a Hegelian triad, with Stilinovic (and Laibach) as thesis, the latter-day Malevich as antithesis, and IRWIN (and the projects of the political art collective of which it is a part, Neue Slowenische Kunst) as synthesis. Like the artists, she repeats the term “retro-avant-garde,” which was first proposed by Peter Weibel, and comments on its definition as the “new ‘-ism’ of the East.” This theoretical framing aids in the integration of these practices into the modernist canon of art, but not without irony, for the artists work against the notion of linear progression, genealogy, and universality.
The tone changed drastically in the next room, which was replete with examples of the “ironic critique” mode of artistic self-reference we are now so familiar with. In the video Painter, 1995, for example, Paul McCarthy depicts a slovenly, heavy-breathing, painfully anti-heroic abstract painter whose “expression” is more fecal than artistic. In the large backlit triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962, 2007, Rodney Graham also casts himself as an abstract painter, albeit an immaculate one. We see him clad in blue silk pajamas with a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips. He nonchalantly pours cans of paint on a tilted canvas without a trace of angst. But to what end? These transgressions are part of the art system and do little to undermine its foundations.
Securing a place within the system may be more lucrative (for some) than playing a role in cultural and political history. Michael A. Robinson seems to suggest as much in his hermetically sealed white cube titled End of Career Privilege, 1998–2012. Through a small window one may peer into the artist’s “studio”: a stack of monographic tomes on the coffee table, Saab keys, a Starbucks cup, business cards. A small fluffy white dog lies in a black leather armchair; it is serving as a model for the drawing we see on the drafting table. In End of Career Privilege, success is devoid of rigor: it looks like a recipe for vanity and conspicuous consumption. The airless cube depicts a type of professional envy completely other to the collective and activist ambitions of the retro-avant-garde.
Marcel Duchamp’s La boîte-en-valise, 1936/1968, which was set aside in its own room, was the conceptual keystone of the exhibition. Here the artist has recreated his own work: reproductions and maquettes of his ready-mades fill a handy valise like a portable, collectible dollhouse museum. It is both original and copy, art and museum, all collapsed into a Pandora’s box of theoretical implications for concepts of authorship and originality. Like Duchamp, the artists in Art Histories play with the assumed arrow of time and successive -isms of art history and ironically mimic museological practices. If there is a winged hope in the bottom of the box, perhaps it is this: that the continuous looping of art references practiced by artists is not an end in itself but rather a means to resist containment, whether academic or totalitarian, through deliberately dysfunctional posing.