In their first solo show The New World in the Treasure of an Old European Library, Henning Fehr and Philipp Rühr tread the path of Institutional Critique. The exhibition examines one of the largest museums to be founded in the United States in recent decades, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in small-town Bentonville, Arkansas. The founding of a new museum is nothing unusual in itself, but the Crystal Bridges Museum – deep in the American hinterland – exemplifies an alarming shift in arts funding. The museum, which features American art from the Colonial era to contemporary works, was created in 2005 by Alice Walton, heiress to the Bentonville-based retail giant Walmart – one of the world’s most profitable companies. Walmart’s efforts to maximize profits include requiring suppliers to set up toll-free ordering hotlines. How might such a ruthlessly profit-minded business philosophy be reconciled with art?
The central work in the exhibition, My Language Is An Unpaved Road (Crystal Bridges) (all works 2013), seemed to suggest that the two are indeed compatible. In this film, the two artists looked at changes in why museums are founded. Whereas the 19th-century view held that a museum should promote learning and culture and thus cement cultural identity, museums today are often founded to stimulate tourism. In the case of Crystal Bridges, the ‘Bilbao Effect’ was taken to a whole new level: the museum itself has become a driving force in stimulating the local economy. Just a few months after its opening, it had already tallied half a million visitors. In the film, the mayor of Bentonville expresses his pleasure on behalf of the town’s entire service sector.
Fehr and Rühr deploy imagination, humour and parody. Fehr plays museum director Don Bacigalupi (everyone else appears as him or herself). The founder, for example, speaks of the incredible US$1.2 billion donated by her family to the museum. The president of the Arkansas Horse Association wants to show her uncle’s pictures at the museum, while an ethics teacher from Maine has repeatedly tried (and failed) to invite a senior Walmart executive to talk to his class. Shots of the museum are seen again and again – its walls hung with pictures and panels like a stuffy parish hall – as well as the area around Bentonville, itself a rural backwater. The film comes across as both touchingly naïve and cunning – naïve in its direct voicing of the protagonists’ stories; cunning, because of the parodic effect given to these stories by the film’s imagery.
Accompanying this film in the show is a book, containing meticulously annotated stills, presented in a vitrine together with the film cassette. Behind these, on the wall hung two paintings of local landscapes. Another work, the three-channel video Crystal Bridges – A Stage Play, documents an action by the two artists at the Academy in Dusseldorf, where they are both students. Before setting off for Bentonville, they re-enacted for a live audience the press conference originally held to mark the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum: here too, Fehr plays the director, but this time Rühr takes the billionaire heiress’ role. In remaining specific and cutting, the two artists rid themselves of the humourlessness and dryness that sinks so much Institutional Critique. This approach to critical reflection is indeed an ‘unpaved road’. It may still be rather bumpy, but might just be able to shake things up down the line.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell