Exhibitions of an exhibition
More and more, the subject of an exhibition tends not be the display of artworks, but the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art. Here, the Documenta team, headed by Harald Szeemann, exhibits (artworks) and exposes itself (to critiques).
The works presented are carefully chosen touches of color in the tableau* that composes each section (room) as a whole.
There is even an order to these colors, these being defined and arranged according to the drawn design** of the section (selection) in which they are spread out/presented.
These sections (castrations), themselves carefully chosen “touches of color” in the tableau that makes up the exhibition as a whole and in its very principle, only appear by placing themselves under the wing of the organizer, who reunifies art by rendering it equivalent everywhere in the case/screen that he prepares for it.
The organizer assumes the contradictions; it is he who safeguards them.
It is true, then, that the exhibition establishes itself as its own subject, and its own subject as a work of art. The exhibition is the “valorizing receptacle” in which art is played out and founders, because even if the artwork was formerly revealed thanks to the museum, it now serves as nothing more than a decorative gimmick for the survival of the museum as tableau, a tableau whose author is none other than the exhibition organizer.
And the artist throws her- or himself and her or his work into this trap, because the artist and her or his work, which are powerless from the force of habit of art, have no choice but to allow another to be exhibited: the organizer.
Hence, the exhibition as a tableau of art, as the limit of the exhibition of art.
Thus, the limits art has created for itself, as shelter, turn against it by imitating it, and the refuge that the limits of art had constituted are revealed as its justification, reality, and tomb.
D. B. February, 1972
* Translator’s note : the French word tableau has multiple meanings; it can refer to a painting, a scene, a chart, a table, a board, a picture. Since there is no adequate English translation for Buren’s literal and metaphorical use of the word here, it is preferable to retain the original.
** TN : Buren uses the word dess(e)in, a combination of dessin, drawing, and dessein, plan or design.
Why do I open this brief reflection with a text that is more than thirty years old?
Simply because it seems that your question/proposition and what I wrote in 1972 about another Documenta are absolutely linked.
Thirty-two years ago, Harald Szeemann — who as the general organizer of the exhibition was the first to be concerned by this text — found it intelligent, naturally, but excessive, and hundreds of leagues away from his personal attitude, which he claimed was exclusively that of a person who, after having analyzed the production of the largest number of living artists, was choosing those who seemed to him to produce the most interesting works and, from there, was putting them together in the most suitable manner by arranging their works in the best possible fashion and even, often, by following the desires of those who know best how to express them.
What could be more natural than this response? It is a bit like a good deed. The perfect organizer’s good deed. There is no reference to the personality of the organizer in this declaration, nor any pretension to “create” the event. This implies that if there is an event, the invited artists will have created it, not the organizer!
Nevertheless, and despite his comments or his denials, my text indicated and could not have invented that other things were already at play.
These are things which H.S., more than any other organizer of the period, had already brought to light, since he was by far the most gifted and easily the best of his time (and of those who, afterward, tried to imitate him) in the realm of group exhibitions. Hence, it seems to me, the accuracy of the text “Exhibition of an Exhibition,” which analyzed the possible perverse effects of large group exhibitions that were emerging at the start of the most promising exhibition organizer’s career.
Judging from a tendency that could already be felt in 1972, today we can assert that the proclivity of most exhibition organizers is to conform as exactly as possible to what this text was already anticipating. So much so that it has become a sort of stylistic epidemic, an artistic genre in itself, a rampant competition in which the organizer proclaims as loudly as possible that he or she is the artist of the exhibition, and to such an extent that Harald Szeemann, who found my 1972 text attributing to him the role of principal artist of the exhibition inappropriate, today claims to be an “author of exhibitions,” undoubtedly out of fear of being outdone and of appearing simply like a nice organizer from the past. However, one must be careful to not misunderstand; the big change in this late-coming proclamation is not that Harald Szeemann has transformed the way in which he has conceived of his exhibitions, nor that he has over-personalized everything he has undertaken. It is simply that, at the end of the sixties and at the beginning of the seventies, no exhibition organizer concerned with his or her career would have dared claim out loud that they were the authors of whatever exhibition they were in charge of, and they would be even less inclined to claim they were the artists! Even if it had been the case, to say so would have denigrated the invited artists, who would have not hesitated to let them know in no uncertain terms, and who would have undoubtedly rebelled. But times have changed!
We have come full circle and the generalized passivity of artists in the face of this situation is even more serious than it was 30 years ago. Since if in 1972 they could still turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the ways in which they were being used, the straightforwardness of our epoch (which others might call cynicism) makes it entirely improbable that artists today do not know what is being plotted and what is being declared and the kinds of discourses surrounding them!
Just as it is hard to know if the chicken or the egg came first, it is also difficult to make out if this situation stems from the suicidal passivity of artists, automatically engendering organizers capable of bypassing or even replacing them at a moment’s notice or if the artists, having other fish to fry when confronted with the impertinence of certain organizers/manipulators, would have literally pushed themselves to the side by disparagingly watching the spectacular emphasis of the exhibition organizer to his own detriment, and above all to the detriment of his work as the exclusive center of the exhibition, which it naturally should be, for better or for worse?
Today, it is possible to imagine that we are not far-off from having a large-scale international exhibition directed by a great organizer-author who proposes the first exhibition without any artists at all!
Enough of these nightmares, and without wanting to specify all of the reasons for such a slippage here, it is certain, however, that the affirmation of one (the organizer as author or artist) and the passivity/acceptance of the other (the work of art as a colored stroke in a large fresco that escapes him or her) are two sides to the same problem: the present crisis of living art and how it is shown.
It is also, in most cases, proof that the couple “organizer versus invited artists” is no longer homogenous, but one that looks even more like a forced marriage just asking to be broken up. All the more so since, as everyone today knows, this infernal couple is made up of one who dominates and one who is dominated. The same people always play these roles, without any possibility for reversal. The former are always more dominating, while the latter are always more dominated.
However, if most invited artists were to refuse the role assumed by certain exhibition organizers, it is worth betting that they would no longer work in the atrocious way that some of them have been working, and we would never again see Robert Ryman’s works on pink walls under the pretext of innovation!
I also have to assert here, so as not to be misunderstood, that I cannot imagine for one second an ambitious group exhibition without an organizer. The role of the organizer is very important in the selection and the mise en scène, when it is necessary, and it seems impossible to me to do without. The organizer exists and must continue to exist. I am not calling into question their existence, just their manner of existing.
However, the problem underscored above — that is, the meaningless, because excessive, domination exercised by the author or artist-organizer — is even more crucial with regard to large-scale international exhibitions today; from Kassel to Venice, from Lyon to Istanbul, this has been evident for years. All of the large-scale international exhibitions are currently in a state of crisis, and I would not be surprised if one of the major causes is the problem we are concerned with here: the reversal of roles ratifying the organizer as author and the artist as interpreter.
Is it possible today to do without the organizer-artist or the organizer-author and return to the organizer-interpreter? In the absolute, the response is yes, of course, but it seems to me that the current situation is not moving in this direction; on the contrary.
We want to personalize everything, spectacularize everything, and individualize everything to the extreme. We no longer accept that the organizer remains in the shadow of the invited artists.
In the face of such a trend we can understand better why, with the help of laziness, organizers/authors have attained such importance in relation to the selected artists. Instead of studying the dozens and dozens of works presented, we can simply transfer all interest, criticism included, onto the shoulders of a single person, the organizer-author! What a relief! We put all of the works in the same basket and we throw out praise or criticism on whoever has put them in it and carries it; that is, the author of the compilation. And just as we go from compilation to compilation, we go from exhibition to exhibition, taking off or adding one or two pieces just as we take off or add a singer or two from a compact disk. And there you have it! We are made to believe that we have an entirely new exhibition every time!
So, the question remains: How do we get out of this cul-de-sac, this vicious circle?
From this perspective, your question has the advantage of redistributing the cards. Could a large-scale exhibition like Documenta be entrusted to an artist? If the tendency remarked upon here continues to hold, my response would undoubtedly be “yes.” For the artist-organizer would erase the faults inherent in the organizer-artist. For example, it would be worth betting that the announcement of an artist-organizer, whoever he or she might be, would cause an immense outcry of lamentations from the choir of the majority of all the other panic-stricken and destabilized artists.
This will be a varied and serious song. Its reasons for being will be intelligent, stupid, and revealing at the same time. They will be founded on jealousy, on the one hand, and fear of the artist-organizer’s positions, on the other. Artists, exacerbated individualists if ever they existed, would show that their corporatist spirit is not as remote as it may seem. One would notice, then, that the critiques suddenly raised by the announcement of the name of an artist-organizer had never been raised by the announcement of any organizer-artist. This a priori predictable reaction already bears within itself the fruits of extremely positive debates, for they reveal a state of fact that has been occulted for over thirty years.
Undoubtedly other kinds of faults inherent to the choice of the artist in question would crop up, but given that an experiment of this sort has yet to be attempted (apart from much more modest experiments undertaken here and there by artists as different as Duchamp, or even Kosuth, or myself), it seems a bit too early to mention it.
What other reasons — besides opening up a real debate — are there for welcoming an artist-organizer, even though such a possibility would certainly not be revolutionary? First and foremost, an initiative of this sort could bring the dulled, even anesthetized, artistic tribe out of the torpor it has been in for years now. Second, it seems to me that the artist in question would continue working as usual, but in another way, and this parameter alone would immediately allow for a clear perspective on the exhibition itself, both for the artists who would accept or refuse such an invitation and for those (amateurs and professionals) who would critique the exhibition once it opened.
Now, this putting into perspective with regard to artistic work over the long-term, verifiable in the works, does not exist when an exhibition organizer, whatever his or her talent, suddenly becomes an organizer-artist or author of an exhibition. His or her talent is linked to nothing else than the exhibition in question and the theme he or she has decided to develop, which, in most cases is a bit too insubstantial to be a “work”! However, the theme chosen by the usual organizer-author, which will enable commentators to exercise their eloquence, is never remarked upon by the invited artists, whether it interests them or not. They will just as soon agree to participate in the exhibition of another (or the same) author-organizer, which develops a diametrically opposed theme, which their (same) works will aim to illustrate as well (that is, as poorly) as the preceding exhibition, period, and so on.
If exhibition organizers today defend the status of author it means that they consider that the work resides in the exhibition produced (which becomes their work) and that, as I wrote in 1972, the exhibited works, the fragments that make up the corpus of this exhibition, are not really artworks but have become, at best, accents, particular details in the service of the work in question, the exhibition of our organizer-author. At the same time — and this is where the problem has become pointed enough to create the crisis in which we find ourselves — the “fragments” and other “details” exhibited are, by definition and in most cases, completely and entirely foreign to the principal work in which they are participating, that is, the exhibition in question. On the other hand, if the organizer of the exhibition is a full-time artist, it is worth betting that he or she will take enormous risks and that his or her vision will be more explicit, less neutral, more engaged; in a word, it will make more sense than that of an organizer by profession, whether or not he or she proclaims themselves an author. The latter will only be able to work by using the work of others or, if you like, by using work that is docile enough to fit into their own discourse, which strongly risks corresponding to current, fashion, or tastes.
For at least thirty years now there have been abundant examples of organizers rigging up group exhibitions in their own way in order to make “works”; and their own way is not always up to the works employed, to say the least. All the more so because, in most cases, their “works” are nothing but a larger scaled imitation of certain artistic movements or research, which they pillage for their own benefit, which they vulgarize and attach to all of the invited artists who, generally lacking in mistrust, find themselves cursed with a costume that does not fit them, when it isn’t a big red nose that the organizer-author/clown has placed smack in the middle of their face. At least with an organizer chosen from among artists (those capable of assuming and willing to take on such a delicate and dangerous role would certainly not be very numerous!) we would know a little bit more precisely the spirit in which they position themselves in relationship to the world. We could read the exhibition with much more perspective and more seriously than we seem to be able to do under the reign of the organizers-authors. At least, I think so.
Yet, why does such a possibility (that an artist organize the next Documenta) seem so original and so surprising, even improbable, once it is considered in the space of the plastic arts, whereas, a priori, it would not pose any problems in other cultural realms? Without pretending to respond to this strange situation, it could be useful to look around and to try to understand why what may be evident elsewhere is hardly conceivable here.
Who is most often nominated to the head of an opera house? A highly skilled musician (interpreter, composer, or director of an orchestra, or all of those things at once). Is an artist, a painter or sculptor, nominated to run an important museum? Never. Actors, directors, authors, or someone who embodies all three activities, are frequently hired to run theaters. Are living artists nominated to run Art Centers? Never. Publishing houses often entrust complete collections — from the choice of authors to the writing of texts — to a writer, a philosopher, a novelist, and essayist. Are artists named directors or editors-in-chief of art magazines? Never!
It is not rare to find writers, playwrights, musicians, and directors in charge of rubrics treating literature, theater, music, and cinema in journals, magazines, or other reviews. Is it possible to find an art criticism column written by an artist? Never!
The only exception to this quasi-generalized and systematic exclusion of artists from positions in which decisions are made is in the very area in which they work: art schools. Why? It’s a mystery!
The aim of these reflections is not to study the reasons for the absence of artists on the front lines of all of the domains cited above, where certain of them, if it were possible and if they so desired, could undoubtedly have their place. Yet, if we wager that we could decipher the reasons, would we be any closer to knowing what an artist is today? What is their role in society? What do we offer them and why? What do we never offer them and why? What role do we assign to them, really? And why does their place seem to become even more restricted as time goes by?
Given the far from brilliant state that contemporary art finds itself in today, it seems entirely appropriate that certain artists could assert their presence exactly where they are never solicited.
The organizers/authors/artists of large-scale exhibitions provide results we already know: Documenta transformed into a circus (Jan Hoet) or even as a platform for the promotion of curators who profit from the occasion in order to publish their thesis in the form of a catalogue (Catherine David) or as a tribune in favor of the developing-politically-correct world (Okwui Enwezor) or other exhibitions by organizers-authors trying to provide new merchandise to the ever voracious Western market for art consumption, which, like all markets, must ceaselessly and rapidly renew itself in order not to succumb, hence, in order to bring about: “Magicians of the Earth” by J. H. Martin, the Chinese and the breathless “youth-ism” of H. S.
Others, undoubtedly too influenced by the history of art of yesterday and today, and who forget that, even if they do admire the gesture of a creator like Duchamp for having put a mustache on a fake Mona Lisa, or the research of artists like Sylvie Fleury or John Armleder, it does not give them the right to hang a Bernard Buffet on a Sol Le Witt wall drawing, or to place a doghouse sold by Gucci in front of a Claude Levêque. 2 In doing so, at least they should not add to the taste for such banality the pretension of calling themselves an “author” by generalizing the attitudes of artist who have already proved themselves elsewhere on the scale of an entire exhibition.
To be an organizer-author is surely not to make fun of art at its own expense, especially since there are already a good number of artists that do so quite well and thus one is only shamelessly imitating them.
There are swarms of examples of doubtful worth and I think, at such a level of “non-thinking,” occasionally putting an artist (or several artists) in charge of a large-scale exhibition like Documenta would help to redistribute the cards, as I indicated above, and perhaps help us to see the questions that living artists today are posing, whatever their age, a bit more clearly.
If it is indispensable that every organizer plays a creative role when exercising his or her profession (whether they are artists themselves or curators), it less obvious that the result of this creativity, the exhibition produced, is a work in itself. And if it is the case, what about the “works” that make it up?
Therefore, the question that remains, and the one worth asking, is whether an exhibition that brings together a large number of different artworks can become a “work” itself.
Whether the response is yes or no, from the moment that a group exhibition is signed and defended by a veritable author who would also be, for the space of this exhibition, its organizer, strong evidence would be given on this subject that only an artist, it seems to me, can provide today.
1 Generally speaking the art magazines created and financed by artists themselves are those whose editors-in-chief or associates do everything for the magazine, those that are published irregularly and that never fail to collapse (which does diminish their quality).
2 This is in reference to an exhibition in Avignon during the summer of 2003, signed by Eric Troncy, organizer-author of exhibition.