Paris, Madrid and Istanbul, from “elles” to Former West to Sweet Sixties
Uit de keuken van de curator

Paris, Madrid and Istanbul, from “elles” to Former West to Sweet Sixties

29/06/2009

Just returned from a small marathon of meetings and museum visits to see some permanent collections. First up was Daniel Buren to discuss his wonderful project where the museum guards wear striped waistcoats as uniforms. We are talking to Daniel about trying to reconstruct the piece that was first shown in VAM in Rudi Fuchs’ time and also to bring it finally into the collection, more about which soon. The second visit was to Centre Pompidou in Paris where they have turned part of their collection floors into a presentation of work by women artists. Drawn from the collection, the exhibition “elles” brings together exclusively female artists from the 1930s until today. While the premise of the exhibition is pretty lame, the first half of the display is thoughtful and interesting. The collection is divided according to thematic resonances between the works and more of less each room has its own thematic subject, surprisingly like our Plug Ins. Themes include “genital panic” with Schneemann and Valie Export a.o. and “artists and activism” with Guerilla Girls, Orhan and Sanja Ivekovic a.o.. There are also short archival interludes, which could have been stronger but made the point that the work needs a broader context. In fact, if you forgot about the exclusive gender of the show, this first part of “Elles” presents a plausible account of art’s relationship to social and political change over the last 40-50 years.

It is interesting to speculate if Centre Pompidou would have been willing to make such a clear connection between art and society if they had also included male art in the exhibition. In fact, you get the answer upstairs were the classical modernist works are shown in the usual way and in which the men remain firmly locked into their “l”art pour l’art” aesthetics while a few isolated rooms are given over the the pre-1960 women artists and photographers in the collection. It seems as though, while women’s art can carry its content proudly, men are the masters of form and must keep control in that field. Indeed, it is a shame that the directors did not have the courage to follow the logic of the first part of the presentation with the classic modernist displays. Was this in order to ensure the masses of visiting tourists were not disappointed? Is it patronising of me (and of them) to imagine that tourists only want to see what they already know? I am not sure, but I think the job of such an institution as the Centre Pompidou is not to affirm the known in art and cultural history, but to question it. Elsewhere in the building, the new Parreno was sadly broken and closed and the Grasso nearby mirrored the Palais de Tokyo that we saw later in its rather sad, and rather typically French, obsession with 1960s sci-fi B-movies – Alphaville meets Monsieur Hulot’s Holidays, with neither being improved in the process.

The second stop for me was Madrid where we had organised a conference on the forthcoming project “Former West” with the current partners: BAK, Reina Sofia Museum; MoMA, Warsaw and our researchers/curators including Kathrin Rhomberg, Boris Groys, Claire Bishop and Simon Sheikh. In between the meetings, I managed to  see briefly the impressive reinstallation of part of the collection including the excellent contextual presentation of Picasso’s “Guernica” I think that as a museum, some of us should go to Madrid to see these displays in more detail as they can teach us a lot in the development of our projects. Unfortunately, the conference kept me too busy to see more than a brief overview but cheap Ryanairs from Eindhoven make a collective return visit very worthwhile. Former West itself was clarifying, I think. A dense public session on the first day was enlivened by Simon Sheikh’s telling observations about the various “political imaginaries of the exhibition” and how these can be detected when not made explicit, by Boris Groys comments about our obsession with talking about and displaying art being the result of a loss of a future prospect and horizon after 1989 and finally Piotr Piotrowski’s important desire to “provincialise the West”, which would not only give other cultures room to claim some stake in the global narratives but allow the West to understand itself as part of history rather than the always having the responsibility and right to claim everything that happens in the world, good and bad, as it own. The next day, there were some useful accounts of post-Franco Spanish history in “Spain, for example”. It is interesting to understand that Spain was only really part of the West for 10 years (c.1979-1989) and is therefore, together with Portugal, the least experienced member of the Former West club of nations. Perhaps this accounts for the huge investment in museums and cultural infrastructure in the last years in Spain, where it was necessary to shift people’s self-perception from the passive, fascist “Volk” to democratic agents and citizens.

In this process, cultural identity and disputed artistic positions are important for an institution to discuss, as it was for the rest of former fascist Europe in the late 1940s and 1950s (cf Van Abbemuseum in this earlier period). Marcelo Esposito, one of the too few artists in the gathering, also showed a valuable work looking at the history of the Fiat factory in Lingotto, Torino and the shift from Fordist manufacturing to post-Fordism. This is an important addition to our thinking about the Former West as the processes of deindustrialisation (deskilling) that begin in the 1970s form a crucial part of the story of becoming ‘former’. I would love to trace these developments in Eindhoven with the closure of manufacturing by Philips and how it was carried out. If anyone knows any studies into post-Fordist Eindhoven I would be happy to hear – they must exist. Pragmatically, the sessions were useful to embed Former West further with each partner and it is now time that we as a museum become involved at  different levels in this project and everyone gets some further awareness of what we are doing. There are opportunities from fundraising and network building to research that can be developed and we should start working on it.

Finally back ‘home’ to Istanbul where I spend some time with Esra Sarigedik, who is now blond (!), but was mainly there for a new general research topic that serves in some ways as a prequel to Former West, The project goes under the title “Sweet Sixties”. This project has been put together by Georg Schöllhammer, Wien and Ruben Arshavyan, Yerevan in order to look at this crucial recent decade in a new way. The sixties marked a passage of transition across the globe but each region has its own story to tell. Those stories from the USSR and also less documented Soviet republics such as Armenia or Georgia, as well as large parts of the Middle East, can shed a different light on events, especially the artistic and cultural changes that took place, and ultimately may be able to shift the main (western) hegemonic narrative of lifestyle liberation, political failure, hippies, yippies and the ‘me’ generation that has become the sixties consensus. The project is still in its early days, but it has options for exhibitions and publications as public outcomes and might even tie into our new l’Internationale network, details of which I will also post here. It is interesting to discover the extent to which the process of ‘provincialisng the west’ begins in the 1960s with the exclusion of the “east” and the former colonies from the main cultural narratives. The famous exhibition “When Attitudes Became Form” from Bern in 1969 is remarkable for excluding all position outside the US and the US European Zone. This was not the case with other such shows at the same time but “Attitudes” became the benchmark that began the story of conceptualism and minimalism told from one side. In a way, despite its claims to universalism and the West’s military and political engagement across the world, the 1960s also represent a drawing back into itself that needs to be thought through. It is maybe here that the West begins to shape its process of becoming former. After the Sixties, globalisation begins but in that decade an imaginative retreat is arguably made. Now we are dealing with the consequences and backlashes against globalisation from all corners of a world – corners that are no longer manipulable in the same old colonial way but rather in real, contested dialogue with western culture over the future. Interestingly, it seems this new plural world seems to see it as its own right to take postions in regard to the west’s histories and to incorporate it as thier own in some measure. This is just what the west did to the rest before, until perhaps that sixties moment of retreat.