In an open letter written in 1969, Marcel Broodthaers stated that he saw his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles as ‘a system that is defined by objects, inscriptions and diverse activities such as, in this instance, my writing of this letter to you’. This fictive museum took shape in several instalments between 1968 and 1972, most of which are well documented. We know, for example, that the museum – drawn, on one occasion, in the sand of a beach in Belgium – could be as transitory as the changing tide (Section Documentaire, 1969). Section Folklorique (1970), on the other hand, never fully materialized. Broodthaers wished to establish a folkloric ‘wing’, possibly in the format of a catalogue, based on objects in the Zeeuws Museum’s collection. The lack of documentation about the work certainly contributed to its fading from the art-historical record.
The Zeeuws Museum (which has an eclectic collection of regional folklore and curiosities) plays a significant role in Section Folklorique. Broodthaers and the museum’s inaugural director, Piet van Daalen, first worked together in 1968, establishing a collegial relationship between an artist who took on the role of museum director, and a museum director who often sought active engagement in artistic production (they referred to one another as mon cher collègue). In 1970, Broodthaers and his wife, Maria Gilissen, visited the museum, where Broodthaers discovered that Middelburg’s coat of arms included a two-headed eagle. He also showed interest in the museum’s curiosity cabinets and instructed his wife to take photographs of the exhibited objects, to be included in the catalogue for his own Section Folklorique. Afterwards, the couple donated a piece of embroidery to the collection (supposedly made by their daughter Marie-Puck) with the inscription ‘MUSEE – MUSEUM Les Aigles’.
‘Collected Works (Section Folklorique)’ – which brought together existing (but mostly never-shown) documentation of this unfinished work – was a delight. With Gilissen’s help, curator Ivo van Werkhoven and art historian Leen Bedaux gathered the ‘props’ of these events (material came from the Zeeuws Museum and from Gilissen’s personal archives) to provide the visual clues to this never-completed work. Forty years after Section Folklorique was initiated, a pair of the museum’s curiosity cabinets showcased objects photographed by Gilissen during their visit in 1970 (corals, shells and old Dutch games), while a slide projection showed the actual photos. The embroidery donated by the Broodthaers family was exhibited in all its ambivalence: part history, potential Conceptual art work, and the only material object of Section Folklorique.
‘Collected Works’ also included a number of new works. Artists James Beckett, Mariana Castillo Deball and Frank Koolen were commissioned to make work that reflected on the museum’s collection, raising questions that were essential to Broodthaers’ project and are still significant today. What constitutes a collection: the collected objects, or the people and circumstances that provide the context for this assembly of otherwise random things?
The three commissioned pieces were all, to some extent, reminiscent of Broodthaers’ work – whether because of their poetic wit or their playful yet critical commentary on the museum’s order of things. For Musée des Regles (Phenomenon Plus) (2011), Koolen built a makeshift float. On this platform, a video showed a series of phenomena staged by the artist: vapour erupting from a thrift-store vase; a taxidermied bird catching alight; a wooden Don Quixote, steaming from a hydrochloric fluid. Beckett’s A Lazarus Taxon (2011) attempted to fictionalize the museum’s collection in an installation that combined prehistoric bones with casting moulds of 19th-century machine parts – relics that were linked together by Blade Runner (1982), shown in the same room. A Lazarus Taxon seemed to hint at a plot for an imaginary sci-fi collection in which the remote past and once-remote future collide, where mammoths and machines co-exist. Castillo Deball, who often works with existing archives and collections, constructed a wall-like sculpture containing found objects collected around Middelburg (Sciences Diagonales, 2011). Like the incomplete fragments of history found in archaeological excavations, her ‘museological archive’ unearthed the paradox of historical lacunae produced by any collection of material history: the speculative nature of our knowledge of the past, to which each evidential artefact can only grant limited access – perhaps no more than a visual clue, a material riddle. The same can be said about Broodthaers’ unfinished Section Folklorique, which, in it incompleteness, retains its own speculative quality even today.