Last week I promised a discussion of Goshka Macuga, whose new show at Andrew Kreps Gallery is yet another example of the retrospectivity trend I’ve been tracking in these blog posts. Macuga’s work synthesizes a number of points that addressed in previous weeks: the obsession with modernism, the archival character of contemporary installation art, and the display of information and research. Polish-born, London-based Macuga has made a career out of installations in a distinctly curatorial vein, with display systems harking back to the historic avant-garde, as well as to German Expressionist film sets like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In previous works, she’s also incorporated a tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica; Paul Nash’s archive at the Tate; a walk-in model of Oscar Niemeyer’s biennial pavilion in São Paulo; and references to Kala Bhavan, the art school established in 1940 by the Indian poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, the latter work is currently on display in London’s Iniva and is titled, appropriately enough, When was Modernism? (2008). In short, she’s a pre-eminent example of contemporary citationality.
In New York right now, Macuga brings us Sexuality of Atoms, an exhibition that features a vitrine of five or six pieces by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý. Using home-made cameras, Tichý took thousands of clandestine images of women in his home town of Kyjov from the 1960s until the end of the 1980s. Macuga has curated a vitrine of Tichý’s photographs of women, placed alongside some of his kinky underwear designs. Eleven scrappy bits of paper and crude fantasy are laid out for our perusal. On the walls, Macuga has framed fresh prints from battered old Tichý negatives found strewn across the floor after he died in 2011; the negatives are clearly Tichý’s rejects, and so damaged that the resulting images almost disintegrate before your eyes.
Pride of place, however, is the latest in Macuga’s ongoing series of huge black-and-white photo-realist tapestries. This one runs down the wall to extend several feet across the floor. It depicts Karl Marx’s tomb as the leafy setting for a celebratory picnic for a group of women (both clothed and naked), all taken from photos by Tichý. Multiple temporalities coincide in the image—especially during the opening, when a performer sat on the tapestry ‘grass’ wearing a flesh-coloured bodysuit onto which one of Tichý’s maverick underwear designs had been printed. Immediately, the most difficult aspects of Tichý’s practice (its objectification of women and his eroticized relationship to communist state surveillance) were put right out there as central issues.
All of which leads me to think that the difference between an interesting and a humdrum archival installation depends not on the historical significance of the work being presented, but on the extent to which the artist manages to transform this material into something new and equally idiosyncratic. By making a massive digital photo-collage as the basis of a tapestry, Macuga turns the Tichý archive into a digested new format that is recognizably her own—albeit one where the source material is still visibly the product of others.
The arrangement of archival objects in vitrines, meanwhile, remains a topic that requires analysis in its own right. Nearly a decade ago, Hal Foster laid out the key terms of this ‘archival impulse’ in an article that drew attention to the almost paranoid manner in which artists seek to forge connections between objects, ideas and histories (his best example was Tacita Dean). What he didn’t mention were the two central models for this curatorial tendency to bring disparate, pre-existing objects and artefacts together: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1927-29) and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-40).
A handful of essays have connected Goshka Macuga’s work to that of Aby Warburg, especially after she raided the Warburg archives in London to find photographs of his 1896 expedition to visit the Hopi Indians. These photographs were presented alongside installation shots of Robert Morris’s exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1971 and private photographs from a Vietnam War veteran’s collection—all placed within a display system taken from Herbert Bayer’s design for the Edward Steichen show Road to Victory at MoMA in 1942. This list only scratches the surface of the resulting exhibition, I am Become Death, held at Kunsthalle Basel in 2009, which contained many more objects and references.
From Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas (1927-29)
Warburg has become a seductive point of reference for contemporary artists because he is seen as the ‘artistic’ art historian. 1 Earlier this year there was even an exhibition called Dear Aby Warburg, What Can Be Done With Images? (Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen). In the last decade of his life, he began arranging photographic reproductions of works of art (alongside a handful of contemporary images) onto large black fabric screens as a way to think visually through his arguments. The result, some have claimed, is an ‘art history without words’—a poetic phrase that glosses over how difficult it is to extrapolate anything like the clarity of an argument from his seventy nine Mnemosyne panels. It is especially hard when one doesn’t have prior knowledge of Warburg’s interests: the symbols and archetypes of human expression; the passion of Greek epics subsumed into courtly love narratives; the sublimation of pagan imagery into the Christian tradition.
Walter Benjamin, notes from Arcades Project (1927-40)
Benjamin, by contrast, is both a better known and more misunderstood precedent than Warburg—probably because his epic, unfinished Arcades Project is more verbal than visual. And yet it also anticipates a cut-and-paste culture: assembled entirely out of quotations, the Arcades Project juxtaposes texts, cartoons, prints, photographs, works of art, artifacts, and architecture in thematic constellations called ‘convolutes’. 2 The poet Kenny Goldsmith has been at work on a long-term project to rewrite the Arcades Project for twentieth-century New York. A description of the project, Capital, can be found here. Benjamin’s constellations, like the Mnemosyne Atlas, are quintessentially curatorial: they bring objects and events together in new ways, disrupting established taxonomies, disciplines, mediums, and proprieties. Of course, it’s important to note that Benjamin had a Marxist agenda that is barely detectable in the work of contemporary artists who select and arrange pre-existing images in constellations—from Luis Jacob to Cyprien Gaillard to Peter Piller to Jonathas de Andrade to Nate Lowman to to Wolfgang Tillmans to Henrik Olesen.
Luis Jacob (Album II,) Peter Piller (Shooting Girls,) Wolfgang Tillmans (Truth Study Center) - (installation views)
Not all of these artists are retrospective; some, like Tillmans, do maintain a legible politics of the present day. My point is that the selection and arrangement of images today—be they archival originals or digitally pulled from the web—is so frequent a trope in contemporary art as to be inseparable from the information age and its accompanying ‘knowledge economy’. I would defend a place for visual research, but it’s a fine line between presenting research for a work (in all its disconneted, inchoate fragmentation) and a researched work (where the juxtapositions evidence more than simply effort). Works of art need to do more than be three-dimensional iterations of Pinterest and Tumblr.
We seem to be a long way from Goshka Macuga here, but perhaps we can bring this full circle by noting the centrality of display today: not just in works of art, and the emergence of a curatorial discourse and professionalization, but of those commercial ‘exhibitions’ we find in shops big and small, and in every reach of the globe. The language of presenting objects is one honed by modernism (Frederick Kiesler, for example, designed both department store displays and avant-garde exhibitions) and it is a language we have all gained great fluency in, to the point where we can instantly register the aspirations and price tags of any given establishment on the basis of its display decisions. This hyperconsumerism coupled with the image-world of the Internet converges in a surfeit of contemporary art that adopts a curatorial/display methodology, placing pre-existing wares for perusal and sale alongside each other—from the auratic and archival, to the latest in laser-printing.