Critical, Public, Political. The (Contemporary) Space Of The Museum
Paolo Parisi has placed his powerful inscription on the façade of the Museo Novecento in Florence, running across most of its length and marking its access. A multi-colored landmark that captures the distracted eyes of passersby. A magnetic tautology, announcing the museum in front of the museum. It is the image of a museum, its caption, its visual synthesis, its presentation, its transmutation in the work in favor of looks and attention. Its symbolic and architectural body. The typographical experiment in the form of an urban installation, conducted by Parisi together with the students of the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence, conceived the object-concept as a declination of styles and forms that have been freely associated, reinvented, and re-evoked. And it is already a plunge into history, into the wellspring of the avant-garde movements that flourished throughout the 20th century, among the most vivid sources of inspiration conserved within the collection and through the volcanic memory of a territory – Florence’s – which welcomed and nourished radical artistic movements in the second half of the last century, among architecture, graphics, design and visual arts. The ideal journey ranges from Futurism to Russian Constructivism, from the Bauhaus to Max Huber, and then Bruno Munari or Franco Grignani, and again Archizoom, 9999, and Superstudio. Echoes, heritages, homages, and feedbacks, in a century and a half of audacious experimentation. Parisi’s work has always focused on an intriguing synthesis between pictorial dimension and architectural design, between the measurement of space and its symbolic translation, until it reaches a reduction in a material and/or constructive image: the two-dimensionality becomes an infinite score of bodies, signs, sound effects, and chromatic variations. Here, in a playful spatialization of sense, sound and memory, the plane of the thing encounters that of the word, while they exchange and cross each other’s volumes, intents, abstractions, measures. The cladding and the substance, of the one and of the other. The intention is naturally to tune in to a whole creative tradition dedicated to the relationship between verbal mark and visual mark. Pages and pages of experiments: from the technopaegnia of the Hellenistic era to the calligrams of Apollinaire, from the infinite production of conceptual works, based on the articulation and deconstruction of language, to the different seasons of visual poetry, passing through the adventure of Lettrism and the immense catalog of 20th century graphic research, spread between typography, publishing, applied arts and encroaching into pure art. A dense volumetric presence of cross-references, “Museo” is at the same time a light body, in which the light substance of color and the light tracing of writing prevail. But it is also a symbolic overture reflecting the word. Useful for triggering some reflections precisely on the theme of “museums”.
IMAGES, WORDS. THE MUSEUM SPACE AS A CRITICAL SPACE
In the brief text by Johannes Cladders, hosted in the essay Lo Spazio Critico (The Critical Space) by Federico Ferrari, we read:
Art deals with the effective reality and with its pendant, the truth. Art visualizes reality. It gives us an image of the world, it is a world-image and a world-intuition. It is not by chance that these metaphors taken from the sphere of figurative art should be understood in the sense of illustration, but rather in that of creation. In this case, art creates the world (basically this is what also occurs in philosophy and in the natural sciences)1.
If art is then able to offer reality to the vision, to make it transparent, effective, sensitive and exposed to the senses, it is, inevitably, capable of generating it, of making it possible. A “making of worlds”, a “bringing the world into the world”, evoking Boetti. Something that is inevitably subversive, deflagrating: a genesis, a reblending, an affirmation that breaks down and renames, that transmutes and fulfills it. And is it not perhaps the same sacred power of the word, which was the original breath in the biblical story, which was invisible archè and then a magic formula, an apotropaic refrain, a prayer? Once again – as has often been manifested in artists’ quests – the joyous correspondence placed at the origin of every story: the echo of an auroral epiphany that saw the verb and icon spring up together. The museum is an extraordinary witness of those words that forge images, and images that generate words. And this tension is strengthened and amplified in the perimeter of that museum that chooses the path of research, thought, debate, the polemos (controversy) as a healthy dispute, as an ethos and aisthesis of conflict: the trench is populated with images and words in action and in transformation, overcoming the mere attitude toward preservation, cataloging and chronological distribution. The “house of the muses” has porous walls, upon which tales are engraved as invisible matter, while the same method of writing and work becomes a meta-discourse around the status of the work and its presentation/layout, without stopping to evolve and to question. It is precisely Johannes Cladders, to whom we owe the concept of “anti-museum”, explained how the “anti” suffix, in the specific case, should indicate a “demolition of the physical walls and the building up of a spiritual house in which the art and artistic care find a reciprocally complementary and mutually dependent «space»”2. The museum as a critical space, a space of care, of projects and of tales. And the critical exercise returns, to affirm its function of mediation with respect to the work of art, together with that of theoretical construction and articulation of meaning, while memory is actualized and reconsidered in the open flow of the present, rushing into it, regenerating it in turn. The work of the past, decontextualized, guarded, exhibited, retrieved, placed at the center of new systems of iconographic relationship and signification, becomes a work every time. Brought into the world again. Pronounced once again. A museum collection, from this perspective, maintains a crucial role, also in relation to new productions, research projects and exhibitions with which – in the best cases – it finds itself in a dialogue. Pontus Hulten writes clearly:
I think a collection is absolutely fundamental. The failure of André Malraux’s Maisons de la Culture can be traced to the fact that he was really aiming at theater. He wasn’t thinking about how to build a museum, and that’s why his cultural institution foundered. The collection is the backbone of an institution. […]. I believe that the meeting between the collection and the temporary exhibition represents an enrichment. Seeing an exhibition by On Kawara and then visiting the collection represents an experience that goes beyond the sum of the two parts: a curious kind of current starts to move… it is the true raison d’être of a collection. A collection isn’t a shelter into which to retreat, it’s a source of energy for the curator as much as the visitor3.
It is once again an artist who gives us a powerful image at this point, a further idea. Marcel Broodthaers (who was also a poet) between 1968 and 1972 set up his museum. He conceived it, and dubbed it (Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), constructed it, and founded it, told it, conceiving it as a parodistic doubling of the museum institutions and together as an opportunity for reflection on the art system, on the role of museums in capitalist society, on political power and forms of contestation, on the function of the work, art criticism and cultural institutions. He wrote:
This Museum is a fictitious museum. It plays the role of, on the one hand, a political parody of art shows, and on the other hand an artistic parody of political events. Which is in fact what official museums and institutions like Documenta do. With the difference, however, that a work of fiction allows you to capture reality and at the same time what it conceals”4.
The work, as such, allows a significant grasp of the facts, of bodies, of places, of things, and has the power to disclose secret levels. Broodthaers was the administrator, curator, press agent, graphic designer, and publisher of his museum. He produced catalogs, posters, invitations, captions, works, press releases, and established locations, displays, exhibition itineraries, economic and managerial processes, preparing 12 sections – Literary, Documentary, 17th Century, Folkloric, Cinema, Financial, Figures, Publicity, Modern Art, 19th Century, 19th Century Bis, 20th Century – which he distributed in various venues, including his Brussels studio, utilized as a platform for critical discussion among visitors. The Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles – with its component of ironic subversion – is an exemplary critical space, but also a necessarily public space, where words and images, fiction and reality, social roles and dynamics of cultural industry, people, opinions, forms and writings, become the raw material of the same device-museum, ready to trigger the last paradox: its reconstruction inside of a true museum space generates a game of reflections and contradictions, so the threshold between authentic and inauthentic increasingly continues to shrink and become more complicated. And consequently to produce new possible meanings.
MUSEUM-THRESHOLD. BETWEEN WHAT IS COMMON AND NOT COMMON
The crucial theme of public space also runs through the work of Paolo Parisi, although in different ways. The installation exists in the essential specificity of its location: it would not be what it is without that threshold in which it inhabits. It is the square and street, already a museum and not yet a museum. Projecting on both sides of the museum itself – towards Piazza Santa Maria Novella and towards the interior of the former Leopoldine convent – the work emphasizes the nature of the threshold-façade, concretely and symbolically arranged to accommodate marks and texts. And it fits snugly, with its presence (plastic) and its relevance (semiotics). Moreover, the attention that has been reserved by the director Sergio Risaliti to the entrance area immediately clarifies the general coherence undergirding the new season of the Museo Novecento: the courtyard is transformed into a sort of pre-museum, free of charge and with an intimately democratic vocation, welcoming cyclical display formats, interventions on the windows, sculptural presences in the open air. And such a coherence is already obvious starting from the first exhibition projects, from the use of the environments, from the creative collaborations carried out, from the development of events and opportunities for in-depth studies, from the general structure given to the collection, no longer a dormant deposit, but a living, dynamic archive, that is able to offer critical ideas and to hybridize with the present, with other collections, with other territories. From here spring up a series of virtuous tensions: preservation and research, the recovery of the past and the activation/reification of the present, historical reflection and political consciousness, and likewise the idea of a museum as a device of memory and as a field of action. The entry gates, the gradients, the transit and crossing lines between open and closed, between urban space and intimate space, are multiplied. Together with those that redefine the relationship between tradition and actuality. Common and contemporary. Two attributes of a museum that define status and development. Which idea of common (good/value/memory) is embodied in a present-day museum, as we are defining it? What community is possible? Which temporal declination? “This form of community that exhibits the uncommon and includes the irreparable without repairing it is certainly very far from what is generally expected from art”, said Jacques Ranciére about an idea of the “not common in the heart of common”, that is of what diverges from the norm and which contributes, from its condition, to making community:
It seems to me to best correspond to the needs of our time compared to the proposals of a reparatory and reconciling art that echo in some sectors of the art world. This formula seems to me extremely current in a world in which the fate of the idiot who they want to send to a mental hospital becomes that of entire populations relegated to fields on the margins of the common world5.
On the basis of the hypothesis that artists and works, and therefore museums and collections, can influence the historical-social fabric and contribute – really, concretely – to question the present and to determine new perspectives from which to plan the future. ‘Making worlds’ as a matter of fact. Ranciére further explained, in his speech on the exhibition Sensibile comune – Le opere vive (Common Sensitivity – The Living Works) (National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, 2017):
The question is not to move from isolation to the community, but to know to which community we belong to and we wish to belong to. And to know what form of community we build as soon as we open our mouth and combine signs, as soon as we use our hands to complete a task or to indicate a task to be done, as soon as we gaze out the window and associate a sense and a love for the display that is being offered to us. We do not stop a second of doing what is common and “being made by what is common”. It is all about knowing which6.
An exemplary device of social infrastructuring – between territorial specificities, anchored to current events, creation of shared spaces and occasions for thought – a museum offers answers, indicates possible directions. Being a place in which the works – as forms of the visible and the sensible common, “figures of community” that are aesthetically constructed – continue to be updated, to complete themselves, to weave relations between them and with the world, between the words themselves and things, between data codes and those to be reinvented. Thus, processes of rupture, reformulation, overturning, deviation or inclusion of the “uncommon” are triggered. Claire Bishop, in her book Radical Museology, or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? describes three museum models, among the most interesting in Europe: the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, and the Muzej Sodobne Umetnosti Metelkova (MSUM) in Ljubljana.
All three present compelling alternatives to the dominant mantra of bigger is better, and better is richer. Rather than following the blue-chip mainstream, these museums draw upon the widest range of artifacts to situate art’s relationship to particular histories with universal relevance. They do not speak in the name of the one percent, but attempt to represent the interests and histories of those constituencies that are (or have been) marginalized, sidelined and oppressed7.
Organizing a collection, designing wide-ranging exhibitions, connecting themes, works, artists, attempting diachronic and eccentric paths, taking on the responsibility of a filter and a perspective: decoding and construction of the real inevitably goes from here too, in spite of certain populist, hypocritically anti-system, rhetoric engaged in a demagogic resetting of the role of criticism, even of exhibitions, or certain commercial drifts, which give the museum the obscene role of an empty box to rent.
POLITICAL SPACE, CONTEMPORARY GAZE
The value of such reasoning – from the discourse on the word and of the critical space, to that on the public space and of the community – is essentially political. Ranciére’s lesson once again returns to the way in which the sensitivity reveals itself, is founded and problematizes itself, also and above all in those places and practices that are public, plastically identified, collective, punctuated by narrative forms, vision, conflict, power, subversion, social life:
Whether it is the enterprises of dominium or those of emancipation, the arts offer only what they can offer, that is, simply what they have in common: the positions and the movements of the bodies, of the functions of speech, of the breakdown of the visible and the invisible. And the autonomy of which the arts can enjoy or the subversive reach which can be attributed, rest on the same base8.
Art is made of an intimately political matter, even when it is not on the political discourse and on the social themes at which it looks directly. An aesthetic fact, linked to the processes of vision, intellectual processing and formalization. A specific propensity to circumscribe (or to liberate) ways, distances, rituals, strategies of unveiling and concealment, codes and hierarchies. Along community’s time and space.
The surface of the painted “signs”, adds Rancière, the doubling of the theater, the rhythm of the dancing chorus: we are dealing with three forms of sensitive partition that structure the way in which the arts can be perceived and thought as arts and as forms of inscription of the sense of community. These forms define the way in which works or performances “are active in politics”, regardless of the intentions that have animated them, the ways of social insertion of artists or the way in which artistic forms reflect structures or social movements9.
A museum is the extraordinary theater of this audacious game, of this ardent polemos. Being ‘contemporary’ is then that conscious gaze that grasps such complexity. Also in the project-path of a museum. Not a mark, not a periodization, not a series of biographies or a chronological scan. ‘Contemporary’ is that museum which, at the height of its critical vigor, will have a hold on the present starting from a political and aesthetic awareness. Claire Bishop says it well when she suggests,
This present-minded approach to history produces an understanding of today with sightlines on the future, and reimagines the museum as an active, historical agent that speaks in the name not of national pride or hegemony but of creative questioning and dissent. It suggests a spectator no longer focused on the auratic contemplation of individual works, but one who is aware of being presented with arguments and positions to read or contest”10. Here the term “contemporary” is understood as a dialectical method and a political project where the temporal dimension assumes a more radical value. Time and value then become crucial categories to formulate an idea of what I will call dialectic contemporaneity: it does not designate a style or a period in itself, but rather a way of approaching the works11.
The political power of this approach is evident, especially when it dissolves the primacy of the “center” with respect to the margin and the “uncommon” with respect to the ordinary. And it does so with regard to the exhibition contents, stories and geographies, an actuality to be explored but also a memory to be retraced and a future to be received; and then, of course, about the methods, the spaces, the languages, the sense of the community that the aesthetic forms help to define. One of the examples analyzed by Bishop in her essay – where the role of collections is emphasized and rethought – is that of Madrid’s Reina Sofia:
The starting point for this museum is therefore multiple modernities: an art history no longer conceived in terms of avant-garde originals and peripheral derivatives, since this always prioritizes the European center and ignores the extent to which apparently ‘belated’ works hold other values in their own context. The apparatus, in turn, is reconceived as an archive of the commons, a collection available to everyone because culture is not a question of national property, but a universal resource. Meanwhile, the ultimate destination of the museum is no longer the multiple audiences of market demographics, but radical education: rather than being perceived as hoarded treasure, the work of art would be mobilized as a “relational object” (to use Lygia Clark’s phrase) with the aim of liberating its user psychologically, physically, socially, and politically. The model here is that of Jacques Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster”, based on a presumption of equality of intelligence between the viewer and the institution12.
Some “multiple modernities”, says Bishop, describing a museum collection that becomes an occasion and which is no longer an obstacle to research, a static burden, a heritage difficult to preserve, to increase, to offer to the public. And so Rancière, when he illustrates the differences between the ethical, poetic and aesthetic regimes of the arts, specifies that the temporality proper to the latter corresponds to “a combination of heterogeneous temporalities”13. Diachronies, polychronies, extremely vital planes upon which shapes and signs rest simultaneously. The aesthetic regime, moreover, is characterized by a full autonomy of art, free from specific rules and “every hierarchy of subjects, genres and techniques”14: here the old and the modern are not opposed, as in the poetic regime, while “the future of art, its gap from the present of non-art, never ceases to re-enact the past”15.
EUROPEAN EXPRIT AND FUTURE MODELS
What we should ask ourselves, in the wake of these multiple temporalities, of these critical and dynamic spaces, is what new common world we are trying to construct today, exposed as we are to the grotesque and insidious regurgitation of new forms of sovereignism, populism, nationalism, protectionism, policies of walls and aesthetics of reprisals. We wonder how and where the movements for civil rights and social emancipation, countercultures, cultural institutions, philosophers, artists, and scientists are acting. And how and to what extent museums can be, in this context, sensitive devices for the construction of strong, incisive, countercurrent narratives, conjugable to the future, available to the idea of openness, offered to a community project.
Europe as a horizon, democracy as a bet, culture as a source and as progress. In a recent lectio magistralis, Massimo Cacciari reiterated it clearly: “The end of philosophy is the end of Europe. Philosophy and Europe are synonyms”16. In Europe, in the heart of Magna Graecia, where the drive to critical and rational thought sprang up, which founded the philosophical dimension, but which also fueled scientific, political, religious and artistic research. The Museum, as we have imagined it, feeds on this spirit and offers precious apparatuses of symbols, memories, images, words to the great contemporary issues.
To be reinvented, to be reenacted.
1-Johannes Cladders, Idea guida di collezione, in Federico Ferrari, Lo spazio critico, Luca Sossella Editore, Roma 2014, p. 80.
2-Johannes Cladders, citation stated in “Das Antimuseum, rheinische ART – kultusMagazin online”, November 2017.
3-Pontus Hulten, in H.U. Obrist, Intervistas, vol. 1, Ediz. Charta, Milano 2003, pp. 478-479.
4-Marcel Broodthaers, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Art Moderne et Publicité (1972), in Gloria Moure, Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcellona 2012, p. 354.
5-Jacques Rancière, talk given on the occasion of Sensibile comune. Le opere vive, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Roma, 14-22 January 2017 – in the context of the «Parole Comuni» evening, 19-20 January, organized in collaboration with the Institut Français Italia.
7-Claire Bishop, “Museologia radicale”, Johan & Levi, Monza, 2017, p. 10.
9-Jacques Rancière, La partizione del sensibile, Derive Approdi, Rome 2016, p. 24.
10-Claire Bishop, op. cit, p. 67.
11-Ibidem, p. 13.
12-Ibidem, p. 50.
13-Jacques Rancière, La partizione del sensibile, cit., p. 35.
14-Ibidem, p. 33.
16-Massimo Cacciari, Physis, lectio magistralis held on the occasion of the Festival della Filosofia (Festival of Philosophy), Castello Aragonese, Ischia (NA), 29 September 2017.