Not to do something
Not a drop but the Fall. Künstlerhaus Bremen, Susanne Pfeffer. Catalogue Revolver-books
Not to do something?
To wish for something, to plan something, to be able to do something – yet not to do it, not to have done it, perhaps never to do it. All this takes us from the world of fact and of yes-no to another, speculative space. Where there is not nothing. The space of possibilities, of plans and wishes, is not empty, even if the exhibition leaves it almost empty. Instead, it guides our gaze to the conditions that determine that space. From the work which could be there but is not there, a circle can be drawn through the different parameters that create its possibility. The circle cuts through the possible work, its place in space, the space itself and the conditions under which the work is not produced.
As is the case with all circles, this one can also be entered at any arbitrary point. The point of entry is not neutral. The choice of point is linked with a perspective on connections, causes and effects. This could begin with the invitation to the artists, i.e., the production perspective; or with the caption on the wall, and thus the perspective of the recipient.
The empty place
A place can only become visible as empty when it is reserved and designated. The emptiness thus becomes a question of format. The format establishes where something is to stand. The simplest example are our numbers and their value system. Between the tens and the thousands are the hundreds. A zero designates the non-existence of a position, i.e., the empty place.
Art also has such a format. Questions of format play a particular role for the simple reason that otherwise almost nothing is excluded. Instead of the term format, one can, like Gerard Genette, also speak of paratexts, or of metadata, like Lev Manovich.
In the exhibition the format becomes visible in the form of the captions. They give the artist’s name, date and place of birth, usually a title with a date, and other data on the work. That these data are never irrelevant is nowhere clearer than in this exhibition.
Art’s metadata name the parameters according to which the work itself enters onto the art scene. Even the name of the author is anything but self-evident. Michel Foucault showed how the position of the author enters a discourse and fulfils functions. There are sufficient cultural forms that do not involve the function of the authors. The same applies to the references to dates. These conceal a methodology of the historical sciences which grounds the museum as an institution.
The format exercises power. Sometimes the individual work seems like a mere trimming for its metadata. When, for example, a collection strives to acquire another work by XY for the purposes of completeness, it is often irrelevant which work that is. The market and its prices are dominated by the effect of the name. This is evident in the cultic adoration of the lists of participants in large exhibitions.
Since the onset of concept art, leaving spaces empty and not realizing works can no longer be regarded as anything new. Sol LeWitt and Michel Asher worked through their variations on this theme in the 1960s and 70s. This exhibition is a reminder of that. And like all reminders, it draws attention to the circumstances that have changed since then.
The space that is left empty is no longer the space of concept art. The decision to leave the space empty and not carry out the work appropriates a strategy of concept art and thus indicates a system that is in the process of change.
The vacating of museums, which artists have tried in their way to achieve, is taking place in an unexpected manner. Despite the boom in museum building, the large art institutions are in a precarious situation. They are much sought after as representative outer frameworks, but what they should contain is becoming more and more doubtful. The funds required for building these museums are increasing according as the funds for expanding their collections are decreasing. These representative buildings are empty, they are even built as such.
Two different strategies jump into the breach of the museum landscape: The one tries to use the empty spaces for temporary events by presenting art classics as spectacles. For one last time, a cultural asset is mobilised that was said to be disappearing, and which actually disappears when temporary events replace the permanent collection. The other strategy accepts that the spaces are no longer at the disposal of the public and leaves the museum to private collectors, who use the representative setting to enhance the value of their stocks.
In both cases, the empty buildings are filled, but the price is that they give up their cultural sovereignty. This is in keeping with a political situation in which the sovereignty of nation states is declining, ushering in the demise of the model of art as national art, that has existed since the bourgeois appropriation of the feudal art treasures.
The exhibition recalls both of these: through the invitation not to impose any limits on the work, it recalls the museum as a model of cultural production; through the renunciation of the realization work, it draws attention to the current state of affairs.
The invitation to draw up a plan asks about nothing specific. There is nothing that would be expressly excluded. Yet this invitation is also part of a convention, or to put it another way, part of an artistic format. It turns the two artists who extended the invitation into curators. Curator means, among other things, carer. The verb curare can be translated as healing or caring. Exhibiting becomes a cure. The curated are the artists, and these are thus also the cured. Their work is a means, a medium, a medication for their cure.
In their choice of means, they are subject to the greatest possible freedom. That is unusual. It has after all become the done thing for those carers who call themselves curators to know exactly what they want. In the case of regular exhibitions, they afflict the artists with so-called themes.
They in turn react to this by regressing to a working method which they wanted to abandon half a millennium ago. When they changed their professional designation from pittore, the well-paid and highly- specialised painter, to artist, they were in pursuit of an ideal. Their model was the liberal arts, in other words: the classical disciplines with the freedom of sciences. The ideal behind this concept of art consisted of not accepting any more commissions, but working without regulations. The freedom of art means this very liberation from the services of an only apparently free-lance worker. It does not mean the freedom to produce any works whatsoever, but more precisely and in officialese, freedom from being subject to directives.
The exhibition recalls this original freedom of art by generously granting that freedom. By not demanding that the free plans be realised, and by exhibiting yet at the same time not exhibiting the work, it shows the system as it can be and is not.
Translated by Pauline Cumbers