in Frieze | 05 MAY 07
Featured in
Issue 107

Room with an Overview

The format of the traditional retrospective is undergoing a radical re-evaluation – especially at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

in Frieze | 05 MAY 07

As yet another generation of artists passes the mid-career mark and becomes eligible for a major museum survey, the format of the retrospective seems to be undergoing its own historical re-evaluation. The classic retrospective recipe – collect older works and present them chronologically, so viewers can take a stroll through art history and leave with an overview of one artist’s contribution – has been remarkably resilient, despite many challenges to the white cube. But after more than a decade of experimentation with classic exhibition formats – through crossovers between disciplines, projects, experiments and laboratories, site-specific interventions, architectural installations and exhibitions as seminars, vacations, screenings, waiting rooms, DJ’d evenings or bowls of soup – it’s getting trickier to present the accumulative gesture at the heart of the survey. If one cannot isolate the final oeuvre, nor put a single artist’s name behind it, then how does one set about collating the work for one big show?

Over the last few years, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Animation Recherche Confrontation (MAM/ARC) have become a kind of central laboratory for experimenting with the retrospective format by hosting major solo shows for Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Rirkrit Tiravanija and, most recently, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Peter Fischli & David Weiss. In a sense, the location of these shows may at first seem surprising, given that the neighbouring Palais de Tokyo earned much of its legitimacy (and also sustained a fair amount of criticism) on the basis of former co-director Nicholas Bourriaud’s reputation as the doyen of relational aesthetics, a notion he had initially developed in response to the work of the generation of Parreno et al. But this spring, MAM/ARC offered an exceptional comparative test for retrospective models by contemporaneously hosting Gonzalez-Foerster’s ‘Expodrome’ and Fischli & Weiss’ ‘Flowers and Questions: A Retrospective’, which debuted at Tate Modern last autumn. Both exhibitions promised a stroll through history – Fischli & Weiss even offered up their own worldview in the myriad miniature clay figures peopling Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly this Overview, 1981) – yet the difference in strategies could not be more pronounced. The Swiss duo, taking over the labyrinth of Salle Wilson on the museum’s main level, stuck to the classic formula, eschewing only a chronological installation; the show proved that the traditional retrospective still has a lot of battery life, even when on the road. Upstairs, however, Gonzalez-Foerster took another tack. The wall text at the beginning of her show could double as a manifesto for her generation: ‘In preference to the more conventional retrospective mode, the artist has opted for presenting an ensemble of works created in collaboration with an “exhibition team” – her version of a film crew’. Both ‘shared space’ and ‘playground’, the exhibition promised to put the viewer ‘at the heart of the set’. As I wandered through ‘Expodrome’, I had to come up with my own synopsis in relation to the works and other visitors, who could have been extras, stars or even two-legged cameras rolling around me. While a map charted out a clear itinerary, choosing just one storyline was as difficult as classifying Gonzalez-Foerster’s collaborative retrospective as auteur cinema. Her ‘team’ or ‘crew’ – composed of people with whom she has worked over the past decade – suggests a heady road trip with frequent wardrobe changes: from rock singer Alain Bashung (she designed the set for his 2003 tour) to Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière (together they design the label’s stores and also collaborated on the recent survey show ‘Balenciaga Paris’ at the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris).

By inviting collaborators from other fields to co-create works for her retrospective, the artist fused heterogeneous labours, times, places and stories in a way that recalls the combinatory power of the cinematic montage. But there were hardly any movie screens, apart from one dark projection room showing her rushes and films made by and with other artists (Huyghe, Parreno, Ange Leccia). Indeed, there was nothing to see in Promenade (2007), a sound piece created with Christophe van Huffel, which simulates a tropical downpour, letting you walk through heavy rain without getting wet. In the next space was another collaborative piece, Panorama (2007), made with designer Benoît Lalloz and artist Martial Galfione: a curved topographic map representing the planet earth as seen from outer space, from where the glowing hubs of the metropolises look like little flashing Lite-Brite bulbs. To reach Cosmodrome (2001), a ‘launch pad’ created with the Swedish pop singer Jay-Jay Johanson, you exit the museum and cross a narrow walkway on the building’s rooftop (definitely not for sufferers of vertigo), to end up in a planetarium / darkroom/disco carpeted with black crystal sand, which leaves you sinking, unable to be buoyed upwards by the seductive lights and voices. As these works suggest, ‘Expodrome’ replaced the unified chronotope of the retrospective with heterotopias, which would be put together by individual visitors in relation to their own histories instead of the artist’s past oeuvre.1 In fact, apart from the films and Cosmodrome (2001), the only piece in the show to predate the exhibition was Tapis de Lecture (Reading Rug, 2000-7), a pile of paperbacks left for visitors to leaf through for more connection points: from Kurt Cobain’s Diaries (2002) to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961). Although physically unaltered, the museum was made to function like a broken time machine; producing flashbacks that made the future seem like the past. As viewers, Gonzalez-Foerster seemed to be saying, we can arrive too late and too early; what matters is how the image materializes in our minds, conjured up by the sound of rain, by a stray light (a reflection of Panorama could be seen before the light panel itself came into view), by flicking through a paperback, or even on the bodies of fellow visitors.

Gonzalez-Foerster’s collaborative installation with Nicolas Ghesquière, Solarium (2007), used a cinematic setting to transform the grand staircase leading up to Raoul Dufy’s panoramic mural La Fée Électricité (The Electricity Fairy, 1937) – created for the building’s inaugural Universal Exhibition – into a space for reflection. I sat on one of the chaises longues especially created to fit into the stairs and basked in the rays of abstract colour projected on a screen above me while I listened to Alain Bashung’s musical montage, which echoed out from the hall of La Fée Électricité as though it were a soundtrack for the mural. While evoking many histories, Gonzalez-Foerster also succeeded in turning the customarily transient space of a museum passageway into a soothing resting place: part cinema, part health spa.

Although sparse, Gonzalez-Foerster’s collaborative retrospective, filled as it is with kaleidoscopic evocations, is less extreme than Tiravanija’s ‘A Retrospective (tomorrow is another fine day)’, which debuted at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, in 2004 and resurfaced in 2005 at the Couvent des Cordeliers, Paris, a temporary space used during the MAM/ARC renovations. For the show’s latter incarnation, the artist created a downsized replica of the museum’s winding spaces and fit them into the rectangular Cordeliers; none of Tiravanija’s works were displayed. Both an architectural model and an empty set, the retrospective was conceived – in collaboration with Parreno – as a ‘scenario’ haunted by an absent oeuvre and by three scripts, from which visitors could choose: Sitcom Ghost (all works 2004), written by Parreno and performed by actors; No Ghosts in the Wall, Tiravanija’s autobiographical text read by museum guides; and Bruce Sterling’s Yesterday Will Be Another Day, which emanated from speakers in the Cordeliers walls.

‘Expodrome’ should also be read as the final installation of ‘Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno’, a triptych show held at MAM/ARC in 1998, and out of which developed Parreno’s 2002 ‘Alien Seasons’ and Huyghe’s ‘Prologue/Celebration Park’, which opened at the museum in 2006 after the renovations were completed. In an interview with the French critic Jean-Christophe Royoux for the catalogue of the 1998 group show, Parreno insisted that the trio’s exhibition was not collective but nonetheless somehow constituted ‘more than three solo shows’.2 So, what was it that connected them? ‘What links the three of us together’, said Gonzalez-Foerster in the interview, ‘is the awareness, whatever we produce, of being simultaneously on the side of the one who sends out and of the one who receives.’3 In concrete terms, this personality split materialized as Le Narrateur (The Narrator, 1998), a news-like speaker who appeared on monitors beside the artists’ works and offered descriptions of them yet without revealing the name behind each work. For Parreno, Le Narrateur was the ‘backbone’ that allowed the common elements in the trio’s project to be rendered visible. As Huyghe explained: ‘Together we thought of a character who would take the form of a label, like those used to present artworks; this character would have the status of a commentator and at the same time a speaker, a moderator. She could also become an actor in a play or, without being directly linked to a play, talk about future projects.’4 Looking back at this seminal group show after having put together Gonzalez-Foerster’s survey, MAM/ARC curator Laurence Bossé believes that the classic retrospective became ‘impossible’ for all of these artists because their works had no finality.5 Indeed, in the book Alien Affection (2002), published for his show ‘Alien Seasons’ at MAM/ARC, Parreno describes the exhibition as an infinitely malleable ‘format’ with an experimental calling; the book, which documents his past works, ended up providing the retrospective while the actual show – a mixture of older and newer collaborative works as well as collaborations in progress – seemed to be a new footnote that escaped the book.6

For his part, Huyghe effectively negated the impact of both the museum setting and his artistic authorship with the trick of a legal disclaimer used by hackers for their remakes of copyrighted materials (‘I do not own the Museum of Modern Art, nor the Death Star’); 50 artists were invited to find reasons to celebrate the days that are not official holidays. His two-part retrospective – a prologue followed by a main show – further expanded the museum’s temporal-geographical limits with a trip to the Antarctic, and an operatic rendition of it in Central Park. ‘Each of these artists’, continues Bossé, ‘has confronted the museum with other modes of production: film, travel, fashion, architecture. These are not just exchanges of technical know-how but ways of moving from one field to another. Their works have several modes of existence – as a pavilion, a theatre piece, a clothing boutique – but each work produces its own temporality proper to its creation. In a way, every work is organic; it lives and dies according to its own rhythm.’7 Film, however omnipresent as a reference and as a mode of production, is not the most significant common element uniting the work of these artists. Rather it’s the ability to maintain a dual awareness of art production and reception while expanding authorship through endless chains of collaboration. Yet in terms of the retrospective, their treatment of time – a refusal of the closure and finality required by the museum, the cinema or even the market – has the most profound impact, exploding the chronological presentation of history. According to the Royoux interview, the 1998 group show at MAM/ARC owes its origins to the Association des temps libérés (Association of freed times) – a partnership Huyghe had created after another group show, ‘Moral Maze’, organized by Parreno and Liam Gillick at Dijon’s Le Consortium in 1995. ‘It’s Pierre’s personal response to a group show, a temporary get-together,’ Parreno explained to Royoux.8 Inspired by a BBC Radio 4 show, ‘Moral Maze’ was designed as a dynamic investigative structure within which certain stances could be defined. A number of ‘witnesses’ – political observers, economists, designers and creators of promotional tools in the advertising and marketing sectors – were invited to come and present their point of view. Each of them spent the day with the artists and had to leave before the next contributor arrived. The exhibition space was not closed to the public, but was not unmistakably open, either.9 Born in this context, ‘the Association... was a structure embracing all the people taking part in that show with the idea of not producing works of art but a whole series of activities,’ recalls Huyghe. ‘It was as if the exhibition did not mean the end of a process but the point of departure for something. The Association… was looking at the possibility of expanding the exhibition into its future.’10

In 1995 or even 1998, who could have imagined that the future would hold a major overhaul of the retrospective format for these artists? And for others, such as Barbara Visser to John Armleder, to cite only two recent examples which would merit closer study. But if the survey has become an artistic medium in its own right – yet another work of art instead of an overview of an entire oeuvre – then what’s the point of having one? In his review of Fischli & Weiss’ retrospective at Tate Modern, T.J. Demos suggests that the duo missed a chance for institutional critique by sticking to the classic recipe.11 Yet criticizing the museum does not seem to be the only motivation behind the many experiments that have been taking place at MAM/ARC. The nature of the works as open-ended collaborations seems to have been driven by a desire to challenge the conventions of the entertainment industry by offering spectators a more active role. ‘Freed times’ refers not least to leisure time as a chance for producing one’s own narratives (instead of passively consuming the narratives of art history or Hollywood). Huyghe et al., while wary of making democratic claims for their Association..., link the viewers to other callings: co-producer, actor, reader, passenger, user, detective, consumer, customer.12 Art historian and critic are not part of the cast. In the scenario of the retrospective as medium, the climax belongs not to the artist, nor the museum, but to the viewers. It’s just not clear if they actually know they have the starring role.

1 See also ‘Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in an interview with Lars Köllner’, Skulptur Projekte Münster 07, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2007, p. 56.
2 ‘Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Hugyhe and Philippe Parreno in Conversation with Jean-Christophe Royoux. Kind of Equal’, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Hugyhe, Philippe Parreno, Paris-Musées, Paris, 1998, p. 98, translation modified by the author. The exhibition took place from 30 October 1998 to 10 January 1999
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., p. 99
5 Conversation with Laurence Bossé, Paris, March 2007
6 Angeline Scherf, ‘Introduction. Script (Interview during the period of preparation for the exhibition)’, Philippe Parreno, Alien Affection, Paris-Musées & Les presses du réel, Paris, 2002, n.p.
7 Conversation with Laurence Bossé, Paris, March 2007
8 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster et al., Op. Cit., p. 99. ‘Moral Maze’ featured Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Lothar Hempel, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. The Association... members are listed as Bulloch, Cattelan, Gillick, Höller, Huyghe, Gonzalez-Foerster, Parreno, Tiravanija, Xavier Veilhan and Jorge Pardo.
9 Philippe Parreno, Op. Cit., n.p.
10 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster et al., Op. Cit., p. 100
11 T.J. Demos, ‘Sag mir wo die Blumen sind’ (Where have all the Flowers gone), Texte zur Kunst (March 2007), volume 17, issue 65, p. 199
12 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster et al., Op. Cit., p.100-102