In 1968 the Palais des Beaux-Arts was occupied by a number of avant-garde artist, among them an uneasy Marcel Broodthaers. As one of those eventually responsible for negotiating a settlement with the administration, he felt that many of the artists who had used the galleries as studios during the occupation misunderstood the nature of their actions. For Broodthaers the production of artworks in this context was merely a cultural spectacle and not the ideal way of taking control of this kind of institution – a museum.
Four years later, a large semi-temporary staging structure was installed in the Palais’ Great Hall of Sculpture, and the room was renamed Hall d’Animation. Built by Victor Horta in 1928, the Palais des Beaux-arts is a listed architectural monument and one of the only historical buildings to house such a structure, or ‘space-frame’. The space-frame consisted of modular carpeted blocks in different stackable sizes. These blocks interconnected with painted steel units of scaffolding that made up moveable walls and ceiling within the Hall. A radio broadcast booth, stage lighting and other media related equipment were housed within the spaceframe. The Hall d’AnimationIs therefore a singular example of a public space, its austere Art Deco classicism host to a contrasting structure that, although cumbersome, can define and rearrange its own walls, floor and ceiling at relatively short notice.
As the largest hall in the exhibition complex, this change in function signified a dramatic break with the past. It prefigured an overhaul that many cultural institutions were to face: a concern with the needs of a wider audience, their public. However, publics change too: the Palais’ enthusiastic endorsement of new media and technology was soon superseded by their everyday availability to almost anyone. Smaller, purpose-built production studios were more convenient and, as information quickly began to be broadcast from almost anywhere, cultural environments became far more interchangeable. Even the direct action of occupying buildings by force turned out to be less attractive as a political tool because such invasions could be simply ignored.
‘brea-kd-own’, Fareed Armaly’s third solo exhibition of a series, declares the Hall d’Animation for sale, and that the removal of the space-frame clears the way for a new form of public sculpture. If this exhibition is a typical example of such sculpture, then Andrea Fraser and Christian Philip Müller have been happily at home with the notion of institutions turning in upon themselves. Although this method of working can be interesting, the result is otter depressing: institutions institutionalise, powerbroking is endemic, we are continually told.
Armaly’s investigative projects have examined how culture has represented society; how one generations’ ideals develop into another’s ideology. He examines the tensions that exist, how discrepancies occur, and here, the differences between what the space-frame became and the anticipation of what it could have been.
Three of th Palais’ galleries are used for the presentation of contemporary art, as well as the rotunda around which they are set. In one of the galleries Armaly has arranged a number of the original sandy-grey carpeted units from the space-frame into a low platform that serves as a plinth for a video monitor. The film shows the tubular, metal units that make up the skeletal ceiling of the space-frame. The camera weaves and sways, re-framing combinations of intersecting linear elements. A voice-over repeats passages from an accompanying publication that the artist has described as closer to a working script than the usual exhibition catalogue. It describes ‘sales’, ‘audience’, ‘public space’, and ‘architecture’, and their various relationships with the Palais. Photo-text panels relay much of the same information throughout the exhibition.
The other two galleries have been partially closed off. One, which can only be viewed through a keyhole, distorts verticals and horizontals into a curvy, elliptical perspective. The other contains a sequence of slide projections showing a succession of different pairs of hands each holding up a single Rorschach test-card. The viewer becomes aware that the space in such institutions is rigidly defined: Wander from the designated exhibition area, and you’ll be make to feel out of place.
Like much else in the show, if there is anything to be learnt, it is that there are tow distinct ways of looking at the past. It can be analysed to help construct a future or it can be the subject of a continual amnesia, a nostalgia that belittles the viewer’s position next to the institution. As a finale, Armaly provides us with a glimpse of the future, outside the entire complex, away from his exhibitions. He has built a number of sandboxes for children, a playful metaphor for both the origins of an institution and the successive reconfigurations of the Palais.