Opening Marcel Broodthaers’ first Italian retrospective, ‘L’espace de l’écriture’ (The Space of Writing), was Un Jardin d’Hiver II (Winter Garden II, 1974). It was one of the later works on view and one of the artist’s first décors, a term he gave to a series of retrospectively reworked installations. Consisting of palm trees, chairs and photographs of 19th-century etchings depicting animals, the installation also includes a 16mm film showing the work’s first display at the Palais des Beaux-Arts Bruxelles. A playful repetitive logic underscores the piece, not least in the mirroring of its own various elements in the film by the multifarious connotations of décor – which translates as both ‘film set’ and ‘interior decoration’. As a prologue, Un Jardin d’Hiver II set forth the key preoccupations of the exhibition’s curator, Gloria Moure – the status bestowed upon art works, museological display and its politics of legitimation, and the intermingling of image, object and word.
Focusing on Broodthaers’ output from 1968 (the year he began his Musée) to 1975 (he died in January 1976) meant that important works – including Pense-Bête (Reminder, 1964) and Trois tas de charbon (Three Piles of Coal, 1967) – were noticeably absent. Yet with more than 50 included works, Moure’s was a rich and generous selection, displayed with great sagacity across MAMbo’s cavernous galleries. Based around four loose thematic groupings (the spatialization of poetry, the concept and its image, Le Musée d’Art Moderne and décor), the retrospective in no way sought to bind the artist’s output to one dominant key or chronology; instead, it deftly allowed for affinities to emerge between the works. Films – in many ways the culmination of Broodthaers’ achievements in combining, in his words, ‘writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film)’ – were interspersed throughout the exhibition. Shot in the garden of the house where Musée was inaugurated, La Pluie (Project pour un texte) (The Rain [Project for a Text], 1969) sees the artist seated, his expression deadpan and focused on writing with pen and ink. Although washed with pouring rain, he is poised, despite the slapstick circumstances. The act of writing becomes one of painting, a shift that makes apparent the fissure between the written word and its conjured image. This thread is continued in Ceci ne serait pas une pipe (This Wouldn’t Be a Pipe, 1969–71), in which a pipe is subtitled with various ‘Figures’ (I, II, III and so on). Under the guise of illustration, the film interlaces word with image to purposefully resist binding one to the other. Displayed directly opposite was Un coup de dés (A Throw of the Dice, 1969), a reminder of the importance of René Magritte’s work in Broodthaers’ investigations into the structure and space of language.
A key work, and one that informed the show’s title, was La Salle Blanche (White Room, 1975). This re-creation of Broodthaers’ living room was presented at his last Paris retrospective in 1975, when it included a number of ‘Salles’, each revisiting facets of Broodthaers’ practice. Covering the walls were stencilled words – ‘galerie’, ‘musée’, ‘images’ – an art-world vocabulary. With its access blocked, visitors view the room from the outside, frontally, as if it were a painting of a perspectival interior. Devoid of actual objects, La Salle Blanche is a space of words, detached from their referents. As in the case of Un Jardin d’Hiver II and Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Tell Everyone What I Said, 1974) elsewhere on view in this exhibition, La Salle Blanche adheres to the logic of revisiting past works, problematizing the very process of mounting retrospective exhibitions. Broodthaers often revised works himself in order to examine the relationship between original and copy, the autonomous work and that which acts as a stage for subsequent iterations. In, for example, Un Jardin d’Hiver II, film was added to its first iteration. Ultimately, the key problem posed by La Salle Blanche, itself an exhibition copy, is that of its experience and relevance today. This was where ‘L’espace de l’écriture’ was overwhelmingly successful – by centrally positioning the two décors it makes apparent Broodthaers’ investigation into the systems of production and reproduction, the institutional demands and restrictions placed upon artists and the act of exhibiting.