As a portrait of a clique of frequent co-exhibitors and sometime collaborators loath to call themselves a group, ‘theanyspacewhatever’ served as a reluctant retrospective for the key practitioners of ‘relational aesthetics’. Organized over a period of four years through open-ended discussions between the curator, Nancy Spector, and the ten participating artists, the final exhibition refused to subsume individual contributors into a unified theme. Instead, framed by Philippe Parreno’s flashing movie marquee installed above the museum’s entrance, the show was loosely structured through the language of film.
The title, suggested by Liam Gillick, borrows a term used by Gilles Deleuze to describe cinematic shots that create a fragmented space without predetermined orientation and open to any number of possible connections. Through a polyphony of voices, the assembled artists attempted to disrupt the linear flow of the Guggenheim’s notoriously difficult rotunda to similar effect. However, as Deleuze writes in Cinema 1: The Movement Image (1983), ‘What in fact manifests the instability, the heterogeneity, the absence of link of such as space, is a richness in potentials.’ Walking through ‘theanyspacewhatever’, one wondered whether individual contributions lived up to this ambitious premise. As you proceeded along the Guggenheim’s ramp, disparate pieces bled together in mildly disorienting ways. In addition to the blank marquee, Parreno contributed an audio guide that skipped discussion of the work on view to instead cover past projects by each of the participating artists.
Recited by a world memory master after only one reading of the script, descriptions of iconic works were halting and disjointed. Listening to the commentary, one filled the long pauses by reading Douglas Gordon’s wall texts – a compendium of works to date – or Gillick’s sometimes informative, sometimes poetic signage system, installed throughout. Disassociating audio from visuals modestly downplayed each artist’s personal history.
Elsewhere, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Promenade (2007) transformed an otherwise empty section of the ramp by playing what might just as well have been a ‘Sounds of the Amazon’ CD through eight overhead speakers. Here, with Parreno’s audio guide still in your ears, the effect was unpleasantly like artists talking over one another, competing for your attention. Alongside these aleatory dialogues, the exhibition also included a couple of more bluntly organized mini-group portraits.
Jorge Pardo’s over-designed cardboard partitions served to present one print by each of the artists in the exhibition. Forcing viewers to wind their way up the ramp, the installation felt more like an obstacle course than an imaginative display system. Visitors, similarly, were asked to remove their shoes before entering the dazzlingly carpeted room where Rirkrit Tiravanija’s hour-long documentary Chew The Fat (2008) played on several monitors. The film presented meandering conversations with each of the ten artists in the exhibition. In this leisurely environment the chatty interviews – some sitting at their Macs checking emails, Douglas Gordon at a bar trying on other people’s glasses – were literally putting people to sleep.
Whereas Parreno’s audio piece humorously cast the group’s previous work as a foggy memory, Tiravanija’s film came off as disconcertingly self-congratulatory in its assumption that the biographical details presented would be of interest. Hesitant and stumbling, these ‘whatever’ generation pranksters kept egos guarded while seeming only half-heartedly to question their own instrumentalization on the museum’s behalf. Eschewing institutional critique for a more user-friendly approach, ‘theanyspacewhatever’ didn’t so much rethink space as just fill it (with a minimum of effort).
Consider, by contrast, a directive text contributed by Marcel Broodthaers as a cover to the autumn 1974 issue of Benjamin Buchloh’s Interfunktionen magazine: ‘View according to which an artistic theory will function for the artistic product in the same way as the artistic product itself functions as advertising for the order under which it is produced.’ Back-pedalling from Broodthaers’ pointed ambivalence, this generation of artist–service providers revels in its role as museum event co-ordinators. In the name of open-ended experience, these artists often created more scripted encounters with the work – wear this, sit here, eat that. Relational aesthetics may conceive of the work of art as a gift, but, as demonstrated here, it often seems more like an imposition.
After all, every gift carries with it the expectation of something in return. Superficially democratic, the exhibition, in the name of generosity, furthered its own self-serving interests. It’s tempting to applaud the Guggenheim’s willingness to mount an ‘experimental’ exhibition that, by all accounts, was a failure. However, under the guise of expanding the museum’s parameters, ‘theanyspacewhatever’ insidiously asked that we continue to invest in the status quo of contemporary art as it currently exists.