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Art Museums

Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

The post-human thinking at the time of Anthropocene is not only an accelerating direction in art but also an influence on art museums. Comprehending the connection between humans, objects, animals, technologies and nature is an issue that moves into the center stage of art. The key requirement for this critical thinking and practice is the position outside of predetermined conceptions of existing  knowledge and social value mechanisms. As Keith Armstrong distinguished, when it comes to the realm of “ecological art practices” – it is not about “management” , but a completely new image of the human or rather a form of self-realization as part of broader processes that will then guide our engagement with the world. [1] Ecological disasters and the concrete effects of global warming make it urgent to feel and to operate within “the real,” – and the last years have seen art production that is occupied with the material environment.

New media art cultures and public art practices take up active and problem-based positions in order to re-orient human knowledge – to make sense of the human interrelations with non-human agents on the basis of praxis and empathy. It is useful now to apply imagination derived from science-fiction and tales such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to be able to sometimes expand and sometimes – shrink the perspectives of the human. With their project “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human” the Council followed this wisdom while bringing together experts and non-experts for one-to-one dialogues with the goal to create multi-dimensional and “hallucinatory knowledge space.” [2]

When we look at the classic exhibition format within art institutions, it is interesting that representational aesthetics grounded on inquiries for new knowledge enter these social institutions that have their conventional role to embody and transfer humanity’s knowledge. Nicolas Bourriaud claimed that human consciousness literally left forms of representation in the event of Mark Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013) and Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou (2013). [3] Bourriaud discussed these two major exhibitions with respect to the theme of art in Anthropocene. According to him, Leckey related to the objects without human mediation in order to connect with them sensually, whereas Huyghe proposed a “world without humans.” [4]

On the one hand, these practices are reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’ fictional project Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department  (1968-1972) that, through its perfect system of object gathering and classification, achieved elaborate and sophisticated deconstruction of institutional knowledge systems (in the frames of the museum itself). On the other hand, Leckey’s systems of objects that may produce “weird complexities” [5] and Huyghe’s interest in constructing situations that “take place within reality” [6] resonate with contemporary cabinets of curiosities, a widely celebrated trend of self-reflection and re-interpretation following the model of MONA in Hobart (as predicted in my blog post back in 2013).

Strictly speaking, the perspective of Anthropocene eliminates the existence of museums as we know them, yet of course they will exist, and the state of Anthropocene comes with opportunities for museum interplay with antithesis.

Image: Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

[1] Keith M. Armstrong. “Grounded Media – Expanding the Scope of Ecological Art Practices Within New Media Arts Culture.” QUT Media-Space-Journal (2008). http://eprints.qut.edu.au/8802/.

[2] Council. “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human, 25/4/2015.” Council,  http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/115_on_becoming_earthlings/737_on_becoming_earthlings_737.

[3]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[4]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[5] Kathy Noble. “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey: in Conversation with Mark Leckey, 2013.” Goldsmiths – Research Online, https://research.gold.ac.uk/9375/.

[6] Contemporary Art Daily. “Pierre Huyghe at Centre Pompidou, December 30th, 2013.” Contemporary Art Daily: a Daily Journal of International Exhibitions, http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2013/12/pierre-huyghe-at-centre-pompidou/.

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Fragment of Field Theory’s installation Bunker. The photo taken by author of this blog on 7 July 2017 upon visiting the opening of the exhibition Greater Together at ACCA.

In The Mimesis of Thinking, Boris Groys described two situations: an autonomous artist’s freedom through expression (yet within the systems of market and institutions) and an autonomous artist’s work as a system producer [1]. Today both of these situations mostly operate through market or institutional mechanisms. Are we even able to think art outside set formats of distribution and “product” value, without disbelief? Of course, artists will always think independently and their autonomy is an a-priori condition of being an artist. But if systemic (external) impact on art is unavoidable and art’s autonomy is always relative: how is then autonomy addressed?

In that same article Groys mentioned humour – understanding of the finite conditions in which artist operates in comparison with utopian project-oriented production modes of modern bureaucratic systems. Groys therefore identified humour in minimalism and other formal movements that grew out of systems thinking [2]. Empathy, in addition to humour, can be seen as another approach – outside of purely representational art making. Some artists develop what could be described as “empathetic bureaucracies”: they crowd-source data for creative work through a process of personal attention to each contributor. One example is Bridget Nicholson’s long-time project of shoes that she sourced in various events by wrapping people’s feet in clay.

Humour seems to be a good tool – a way to look at consumption value of art. Many artists have taken up commercial strategies. It feels that entering the market directly as the field of practice is a way to face economic relationships shaped by neoliberalism. Technological art also appears to provide a field for criticism – if it makes itself autonomous from the Silicon Valley inspired dreams of the fusion of creativity, tech and business.

Self-supportive and possibly rebellious collectives and networks, in which the curatorial role of distribution becomes dissolved, is a convincing format of autonomy, but problematic. Firstly – how to produce and survive? Secondly, what are the methods of organisation? Geert Lovink drew attention to techniques for art’s autonomous organisation in the age of “social media.” He asked – “is there enough time to organize the grassroots in the age of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook live?” [3]. For Lovink, social media is “weak ties” but autonomous organisation requires productive (and most likely, off-line) space and time. The long-time internet critic was right – the dream of social media is over: it now seems that social media most efficiently works for marketing and mass media.

[1] Boris Groys, “The Mimesis of Thinking”, in Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 (exhibition catalogue), edited by Donna De Salvo, Tate, 2005.

[2] Boris Groys, “The Mimesis of Thinking”, in Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 (exhibition catalogue), edited by Donna De Salvo, Tate, 2005.

[3] Geert Lovink, Organised Networks: A Model for Autonomous Organisationhttp://networkcultures.org/geert/2017/06/09/organized-networks-a-model-for-autonomous-organization/

Image – Fragment of Field Theory’s installation Bunker. The photo taken by author of this blog on 7 July 2017 upon visiting the opening of the exhibition Greater Together at ACCA

Ant in Amber (under magnifying glass), Sam Noble Museum. Photo credit: fine_plan. Creative Commons licensed. Sourced from Flickr.

I would like to pick up from the previous post, especially with regards to the importance of waiting areas preceding the experience considered as strictly “art experience.”  Whether we are reading labels or instructions there is no reason to differentiate and leave outside the “art experience” any elements, any modes of communication and constitution of exhibition. Perhaps such split of the wholeness of “experience” is not only unnecessary but also impossible. All associated activities and communications – such intense social acts as opening and closing drinks, could be measured within the framework of “paths” that constitute an exhibition experience. Even if one is encountering that experience as mediated by personal media, in a real-world situation. It is like we are seeing our bodies moving through the space and with this feeling of distance our condition is similar to that of the entanglement of ants in amber.  Then, the question is – how does this awareness change exhibition making?

Such view of curatorial methodology has been exercised in relation to museums. As Terry Smith has pointed out in his analysis of contemporary curatorial thought and types of exhibitions, the experience of museum architecture constitutes the event of exhibition. The most eminent case is of course Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. If architecture manifests as exhibition, what other things should be counted into the constellation of exhibition experience? Because museological perspective is naturally focused on the figure of viewer, the formulation of “exhibition anthropology” could emerge. Erkki Huhtamo has insisted on exactly this approach considering structural, ongoing and variable (viewer-related) constituents that are present to shape the experience. To explain the exhibition anthropology approach which comes hand in hand with close observations, Huhtamo has noted: “The approach should not be conceived of as purely empirical, focused on case-by-case analysis. My basic idea is to treat the museum as a kind of experience apparatus – a combination of material features, social roles, and institutional practices and policies that provide a framework for visitors’ experiences.”  [1] The continuation of this thought is particularly interesting: “Understood as an apparatus, the museum is a system of anticipations and regulations visitors are supposed to follow. One of its functions is to analyze potential deviations from its norms (including transgressive actions).”  [2] It is perhaps through these “transgressive actions” that we can detect the workings of exhibition apparatus and generate experiences specific to a particular moment. In 2015, I curated an exhibition in George Paton Gallery (Melbourne) that I started with a vision of a cafe as an implant into the gallery room – a different kind of exhibition context, enabling the space of communication, and sympathetic in relation to busy eateries and cafes on the ground floor. By the end of this project I had witnessed that the gallery walls were not, metaphorically speaking, a blank canvas – they contained the social relations of the art establishment.  This gallery-cafe was perceived through the experiences of individual visitors depending on the interplay of their interpretation and memory or knowledge of this gallery as a space to come to see art exhibitions.

The notion of museum as experience apparatus aligns with Gilles Deleuze’s assemblage theory. The metaphor of ants in amber, a view of the whole, including ourselves within the entanglement of all elements, serves well in relation to the materialist social ontology, from which the concept of assemblage extends. As Manuel DeLanda notes – “our minds need to be there”, but social ontology, “is independent of the contents of our minds” [3]. In Deleuze’s concept of assemblage, each part stands in active relation to others, whereby the emergent properties of the whole cannot be reduced to its parts: a horse, warrior and weapon is an example of assemblage – “each part amplifies the other parts”  [4].  Therefore, for Deleuze, the key to assemblage is that the warrior is a skilled user or connector in relation to horse and weapon (and we should assume that the horse and weapon are functional, and so forth), alternatively, it would be a mere collection of things rather than an assemblage [5].

And yet – why not use the assemblage to explore possibilities? For example, thoughts, are usually mere collections, but, what if they are treated as assemblages? Art often presents methodologies of collection, to the extent of absurd, yet with the claim of assemblage – active insistence on meaning even though there might not be any. We can also think of an artwork and a viewer as an assemblage. Thus, this theory is attractive through the potential of tension between its realism and “idealism”: awareness of entanglement and the potential of relationships.

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[1] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[2] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[3] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[4] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[5] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

MONA museum, Hobart

View from the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Australia

In March, I happened to be in Adelaide for the 2013 Adelaide Festival, and while there, I took a chance to visit the collection rooms of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

In the beginning I was little confused that the space seemed cluttered with art works. Such an attempt to show off nearly entire collection can be often observed in country art museums and would not necessarily be considered ‘tasteful’.

The recent acquisition through the Gallery’s Contemporary Collector’s program – Berlinde De Bruyckere’s ‘We are all flesh’ – a dramatic sculptural object of hanging horse skin was placed in the middle of a rather small room whose walls were covered with framed classic paintings.

The rules of the game became clear in the next gallery room that contained a glass box of the epic miniature world by British contemporary artists Jake and Dinos Chapman and a video work by Russian group AES+F. These works clearly formed relationships with a range of Old Master pieces ‘packed’ in the same space. I was not bored by an order of horizontally cantered works on the wall: the arrangement of paintings seemed random and featured ‘blocks’ of various art works.

It occurred to me that this sort of presentation looked like a version of MONA’s kaleidoscopic mix of contemporary art works and antique objects.

By now, everyone in Australia and, I assume, in the art world must have heard comments about the Museum of Old and New Art –  the private museum of mega-collector David Walsh in Hobart, the beautiful Tasmania. And since 2011, very many people from around Australia and the world have visited MONA. So far, I have travelled to see MONA twice.

MONA’s opening exhibition, MONANISM / An Evolving Exhibition (21.1.2011 –), conceptualized a ground breaking way to present antiquities side by side with contemporary pieces. The works were presented in a seemingly random manner, equally highlighted in the space of the dark museum-maze. I recall being attracted to contemporary works as well as old artefacts, for example, mesmerising dark cabinets of antique coins – iconic objects that visually associated with a view of the night sky with stars…

The way how the ancient and contemporary works were presented also led to a discovery of new meanings that emerged in the relationships among them. It was MONA’s next exhibition – ‘Theater of the World’ (23.6.2012 – 8.4.2013) curated by renowned French Curator Jean-Hubert Martin that further explored interpretation of classic works and antiquities through their integration in contemporary context. The presentation of objects and artworks manifested the intention of curator in creating meanings and even included combining different art objects together as one piece. The controversy of this exhibition has not been discussed enough.

I would like to predict that what I observed at the Art Gallery of South Australia was a sign of MONA’s far-reaching influence in art museum and gallery sector, providing a shift in the curating practices and interpretation of collections in public museums.

Such art museum objectives as ‘getting closer to the contemporary viewer’ and ‘being in the forefront of art development’ make no difference between public and private institutions. In this respect, the museums are even in competitive relationships with each other, especially with the increase in the number and scale of private museums in the world. Private ones can be more liberal in their approaches and, in this situation, the public museums need to keep up to sustain their leadership.

On the economic other side of the things, the pressure to attract large audiences – and thus show evidence of economic benefits is too on the agenda of public art museums. Interestingly, that same Gallery of South Australia recently celebrated findings by Deloitte Access Economics that  according to data from the 2010 – 2011 financial year ‘(..) for every dollar contributed by the South Australian Government, over three dollars were fed back into the economy’.

MONA is a big player now in Australia and an important one in the art world. It is certainly my favourite museum – the place of experience for all senses. I will keep returning to it for new experiences, perspectives and discoveries.