‘Voids, A Retrospective’, exhibits nine freshly whitewashed, empty galleries at the end of the long corridor traversing the contemporary collections of the Musée national d’art moderne on the fourth floor of the Pompidou Centre. Each of these spaces refers to one of nine historic ‘empty’ art exhibitions, including Yves Klein’s legendary ‘Void’ held at the Galerie Iris Clert in 1958, Art & Language’s ‘The Air Conditioning Show’, which first appeared as an article in Arts Magazine (1966–7), Bethan Huws’ ‘Haus Esters Piece’ (1993) in the Mies van der Rohe–designed Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany, and Maria Eichorn’s ‘Money’ (2001) at the Bern Kunsthalle, as well as projects by Laurie Parsons, Robert Barry, Roman Ondák, Robert Irwin and Stanley Brouwn.
Rather than reconstructing (which would be too akin to representing) the initial projects undertaken by these artists, ‘Voids’ emphatically reasserts that conceptual and neo-conceptual art are not exclusively bound to any of their particular forms of materialization and therefore can logically inhabit any space whatsoever. No modifications have been made to the standing museum architecture, except for the addition of wall texts describing the earlier incarnations at the entrance, and labels placed near all but one of the rooms. Not an historically exhaustive account, ‘Voids’ cites only those historic and contemporary exhibitions in which an entirely empty space was, reflexively, both the subject and object of the show.
As was the case with Conceptualism in its heyday, published documentation plays a crucial role in the production and interpretation of meaning in ‘Voids’. The catalogue, edited by the team of artists, curators and writers behind the show (Mai-Thu Perret, John Armleder, Gustav Metzger, Mathieu Copeland, Clive Phillpot, Laurent Le Bon and Philippe Pirotte) acts as a supplement, and is replete with a broad range of related and peripheral illustrations, interviews and primary and secondary source texts.
‘Voids’ therefore remains true to a set of premises intrinsic to Conceptualism. Yet, as a retrospective display of art practices, it formally refuses to portray diverse modes of emptying, such as disappearance, invisibility, refusal and ‘dematerialization’. The repetition of barely differentiated ‘white cubes’ erected on shiny parquet floors equalizes historically distinct attempts to map out the varying coordinates of emptiness through radical experiments with spaces, institutional histories and policies, artistic identities and materiality. As such, the different impulses and intentions behind Eichhorn’s deployment of her exhibition budget to the renovation of the Kunsthalle Bern, Ondák’s supposed installation of a hidden listening device in an empty art gallery (More Silent Than Ever, 2006), and Irwin’s decision to work solely with the physical limits and characteristics of exhibition spaces are, in essence, nullified by the unifying semblance of the spaces. In fact, the catalogue alone fulfills the promise of the retrospective’s confident claims to historical accuracy and completion. While this is evidence of a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between primary and secondary information in Conceptualism, such dependence on contextualizing documentation may also indicate that the exhibition, as a form for the production of knowledge, is a structurally insufficient paradigm for treating aspects of its own history.
The curators cleverly situated ‘Voids’ in the space of the permanent collection rather than in one of the temporary galleries, emphasizing the negation of visual forms (mostly painting, sculpture and installations) displayed and contemplated as one approaches the exhibition, and ensuring that the greatest number of visitors encounters the show. Yet, at the same time, the proximity of ‘Voids’ to the collection implies that de-installing artworks (which is essentially what has been accomplished here) is equivalent to a critique of the primacy of visual experience in art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Emptiness ceases to signify an aesthetic and conceptual problem and is instead reified as a monochromatic, minimalistic, ready-made architectural configuration of disconcerting purity. Features of the Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano edifice are rendered more explicit by the succession of white walls, but there is little physical indication that this very spatial ideal has been repeatedly deconstructed on formal, ideological and institutional grounds for over a century.
Despite these caveats, ‘Voids’ is significant in a number of ways, not the least of which is that, locally, it hints at a temporary but still welcome shift in the cultural politics of a major museum not especially known for its highly experimental presentations of modern and contemporary art. However, I wish the curatorial team had also used Conceptualism’s legacy to document and reveal more about their own processes of negotiation with the artists, objects and institutions involved in pulling this off. In this respect only, ‘Voids’ is a zero-sum game: nothing ventured, nothing gained.