The first substantial British showing of Marcel Broodthaers’ art since the Tate Gallery retrospective in 1980 begins near the end: L’Entrée de l’exposition (Exhibition Entrance, 1974), 21 potted Kentia palms that turn the Milton Keynes Gallery’s foyer incongruously tropical, dates from two years before the Belgian artist succumbed to liver disease on his 52nd birthday. The exhibition waits until midway to reprise the inception of this brief, influential, still intractable artistic career: Pense-Bête (Reminder, 1964), a vitrine containing 44 books of Broodthaers’ poems turned unreadable, devalued and revalued, by their embedding in plaster. And it ends, superbly, with a conflux of seven works from the middle six years of his activity. But of course. F
or Broodthaers himself never saw an organizing category he didn’t want decorously to upset; and even if this show’s co-curators, Barry Barker and the Milton Keynes Gallery’s Mike Stanley, were using a jigsaw-like structure to camouflage absences that a chronological approach would expose (a finance-related implication redoubled by the initial absence of a catalogue: having polled visitors, the gallery has now decided to print one), one could hardly think of a more Broodthaersian approach.
Naturally aided by his scattered physical legacy, there’s something mysterious, apparition-like, about Broodthaers’ art that asks to be protected. One can unpack his programmatic use of mussels and eggshells, for instance, but the works containing membranes – delicate protectors of more delicate contents – seem, in retrospect, almost a caution to interpreters chasing a master code. Considering Grand casserole de moules (Large pot of Mussels, 1966), a bluish surfeit of glued bivalve shells rising implausibly out of a black steamer pot in a holistic form weirdly reminiscent of a hamburger, one wants to linger in the forest of potential discursive content: the Mitteleuropean response to Pop that salutes fine dining over fast food; the metaphoric gravitation towards structures (the shell, the pot) that are Janus-faced, not only protecting but also restricting freedom; the reality-exceeding autonomy of art. In his dandyish attention to styles of normative constraint, in particular, it’s clear that Broodthaers’ great tactical gift to art was his location of a place between meaning and meaninglessness, positing both as contingent.
One of many unseatings of language here, 4 Pipes Alphabet (1969) – four embossed plastic reliefs on which the alphabet is tidily spelt out, with occasional anarchic divergences, around four graphic depictions of Magrittean pipes – is a deviation from a given rule that convinces through its spotless formal crispness. Broodthaers did deadpan certitude almost arrogantly well: he could locate it in something as simple as the slide projector’s metronomic click in Bateau–tableau (Boat–Picture, 1973), which shuffles through close-ups of a maritime painting. Such gambits, of course, touch on his lawless reinvention of museology, exemplified by his ongoing project Musée d’Art Moderne (Section XIXe Siècle) Département des Aigles.
First produced in Broodthaers’ Brussels home in 1968 and then transported into various institutional settings (involving the re-labelling of existing art works), this was never going to transfer well into a retrospective, and one gets only the faintest hints of it here: a couple of photographs, a couple of props. Such, of course, is the big problem with accurately anthologizing Broodthaers: many of his projects for institutions are hugely difficult to reconstruct. But, again, maybe it’s better this way: some things ought to be left viewable only through a glass darkly, where misprision can do its work.
Barker and Stanley perform a further tribute to Broodthaers’ reshuffling of systems: they continually upset the flow of their already a-chronological display by interjecting ephemera: books, exhibition invites, doodles, a miniature brass cannon dedicated to Roland Penrose (relating, one assumes, to Broodthaers’ celebrated ‘Décor’ show at the ICA in 1975, which featured his filmmaking, making one wonder why there’s no work in that medium among these 38 examples). The show blatantly stutters. It leaps into ideational life – as when one loses substantial stretches of time to examine Kitchen Cabinet (1966–8), a white-painted dresser half opened to allow glimpses of a cryptogram in myriad objects: eggshells, miniature eagles, plastic spiders, pictures of staring eyes stuffed into clear 35mm film canisters etc. – only to nose-dive suddenly into historical tabulation.
So one finds oneself in it for the fragmentation, for the fragments themselves and, occasionally, for an assemblage of shards. Chief among these is the aforementioned closing sequence, which jumbles up various Broodthaers works revolving around bricks, turning the latter into an impish floating signifier. Navigate this: brickwork as trompe-l’oeil wallpaper, wrapped surrealistically around a spade; half-melted and abject bricks (both in sculptural and painted form) that are metonymically interchangeable with tower blocks, their grids of air-holes suggesting windows; a brick-cum-tower arrangement of eggshells on red-painted canvas, redoubling the artist’s characteristic suggestion of a constraining environment; and a blankly abject array of red masonry on a sawn-off length of table, like rotten teeth in a wooden jaw. Here, in a juddering sequence that combines an obvious spine, rampant associativity and the pointed evacuation of pre-existing rationales, a viewer can feel simultaneously lost and found.