PRINT April 2007


Goshka Macuga, Mula sem Cabeça (The Headless Mule), 2006. Installation view, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, São Paulo. From the 27th São Paulo Bienal.

WHEN CURATOR JOCHEN VOLZ selected artists to participate in a section of the Twenty-seventh São Paulo Bienal last year that revisited themes in the work of Marcel Broodthaers—including the circulation of artworks, the possibilities of creative collaboration, the ins and outs of institutional critique, and the changing role of the curator—Goshka Macuga was a natural choice. For the past decade, the Polish-born, London-based artist has been deeply engaged with questions of curatorial practice and museological display. And just as Broodthaers gathered objects from all over the world to create his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, superseding geographic, temporal, and stylistic distinctions to assemble his own unique collections, Macuga typically includes the works of other artists, selections from archives, and readymade objects in her installations, bringing her disparate artifacts together in a nonhierarchical setting. This displacement and recontextualization generates new connections and meanings, as was certainly the case in Macuga’s São Paulo installation, Mula sem Cabeça (The Headless Mule), 2006.

Working with an architect and an engineer, Macuga built a small-scale structure inspired by the Oscar Niemeyer–designed pavilion that housed part of the biennial—a “condensed” version, as she puts it. An elevated walkway led to a platform that afforded a commanding view of the pavilion; descent via a spiral staircase led to a “research room” containing secondhand books, antiques, and framed prints. Macuga had purchased the items in Brazil, and all of them related to the country’s colonial past, religious history, folk heroes, zoology, or art and design. She also planted a flower bed at the base of the structure with an herb locally believed to ward off evil spirits—a patch of greenery that was regularly raided by Brazilian biennial participants anxious about the success of their own projects. Mula sem Cabeça, in short, embodied the tension between Brazilian modernism and the country’s enduring spiritual beliefs. This seemingly paradoxical coexistence of modernism with the metaphysical, and of ideas of progress with the archaic, is of particular interest to Macuga. She notes a similar condition in postcommunist Poland, where the move to capitalism has seen a rising interest in mysticism. “As the political structure has changed and the culture has grown more materialistic,” Macuga theorizes, “people look for alternatives.”

But even as she foregrounds her long-standing interest in spirituality and mysticism, Macuga frames these references within a structure that evokes the cabinet of curiosities—the nonpareil example of how the Enlightenment urge to decontextualize, cordon off, and categorize all that is strange or “inscrutable” often wound up producing spectacles of the uncanny. In an interview with Volz for the biennial catalogue, Macuga cites that modern-day Wunderkammer, Los Angeles’s highly eccentric Museum of Jurassic Technology, as one of her favorite museums. “The ideal museum,” Macuga says, “describes the universe, nature and the supernatural, the human being, social behavior, culture, artifacts and the microcosmos all at once and leaves it to the spectator him- or herself to open passages, suites of rooms and complete wings to the unknown.” The Los Angeles museum, she tells me, is “a constructed reality—it calls itself a museum, but it’s a narrative around the museum; it’s a complete work of art.”

While more directly responsive to its site than her previous works, Mula sem Cabeça was very much in keeping with Macuga’s practice to date in evincing a similar desire to create a constructed reality, an encircling narrative, often through gestures that are more typically thought of as curatorial rather than artistic. From the outset, her strategy blurred the distinction between artist and curator, accruing a distinctly collaborative cast in the process. One of her earliest gallery installations, Cave, 1999, first shown at London’s Sali Gia Gallery, included works by artists Keith Tyson and Dexter Dalwood, among others, in a grottolike interior with crumpled brown paper walls—the prehistoric cave, after all, was perhaps the first museum. Cave’s structure and style seemed designed primarily to protect and preserve these rare gems, surrendering them to the viewer’s gaze with a hint of reluctance. Macuga’s ambitious 2003 installation at Gasworks Gallery in London, Picture Room, found the artist moving toward an exploration of actual museums; the thirty-artist, forty-work group exhibition was inspired by Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (a house that the distinguished architect both lived in and conceived of as a showcase for his collection of art and antiquities) and included reproductions of the building’s hinged, paneled walls. More recently, a 2006 group show at the Institut Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, Germany, “Mathilda Is Calling,” featured Macuga’s The Past Is a Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There, 2006, which incorporated works from the city’s museum collections, making explicit references to Joseph Beuys (including a remake of his Wirtschaftswerte [Economic Values], 1980), Martin Kippenberger, Jugendstil design, and Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin.

As the São Paulo project suggests, Macuga’s engagement with the institution has naturally led to a deeper and deeper engagement with architecture. While the “condensed” Niemeyer pavilion is the most ambitious example of this aspect of her practice, it was preceded by another large-scale architectural installation at A Foundation’s Greenland Street space during the 2006 Liverpool Biennial in England. Sleep of Ulro, 2006, constructed in association with If-Untitled Architects, was formally inspired by the iconic Expressionist set of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) as well as by Italian Renaissance design—an unlikely mélange that recalled the counterintuitive juxtapositions of the Wunderkammer. It constituted a dizzying complex of rooms and chambers within an intricate layout that echoed that of the Natural History Museum in Paris; the artist even tracked down the same brand of fiber-optic lighting for a darkened corridor that mirrored the French institution’s room of extinct animals. The installation featured projects by contemporary artists such as Olivia Plender and Melvin Motte; works by L. S. Lowry, Paul Nash, and Matthew Leahy; a selection of Victorian botanical specimens; and Macuga’s own artworks, including a life-size carved wooden figure of Cesare, Caligari’s somnambulist sidekick, titled The Sleeper, 2006. A series of platforms functioned as an arena for performances and lectures (including a “materialization of the spirit”) by scientists, magicians—and artists.

Macuga’s installations tend to stand in contrast to her more object-based gallery shows, as necessitated by spatial and economic restrictions, reflecting her interest in archives via more concise formal structures. The investigation of somnambulism and spirituality initiated in Liverpool and São Paulo was extended in Macuga’s solo debut in the United States last month. In “What’s in a Name,” at Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Macuga presented a varied assortment of objects and images. Her own carved wooden life-size figures of Madame Blavatsky, one of the founders of the spiritualist Theosophical Society in 1875, and the sleepwalker from Sleep of Ulro were presented alongside wall-mounted display cases containing found images and objects obliquely related to theosophy and a table of theosophical literature. Devil’s Sonata, 2006, is a mirror etched with a vintage illustration of a story about the eighteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini. The composer claimed he was visited in a dream by Satan, who commanded Tartini to write a piece of music; when he awoke, he transcribed the composition, which he appropriately titled Devil’s Sonata. “What’s in a Name” was perhaps Macuga’s clearest allusion yet to the artistic process itself. The dream state is a metaphor for the creative process; the archive is a literal manifestation of artistic influences. Rather than simply present her own finished objects, Macuga foregrounds how they came to be.

This June, Macuga will be featured in Tate Britain’s “Art Now,” a series of exhibitions showcasing contemporary British artists. She has already begun plumbing the depths of the museum’s archives to research British Surrealism, unearthing thousands of artworks that have never been displayed as well as letters between artists, such as Paul Nash and Eileen Agar. The project ties together the artist’s major themes—relationships between artists, unconscious and dream states, a preoccupation with history, and a fascination with what she calls “the birth of the creative thought.” Macuga has much in common with other excavators of cultural history, from Haim Steinbach to Carol Bove, and with devotees of the archive, from Gerhard Richter to Walid Raad, but her focus on the diverse and dynamic connections to be made within collections—rather than on consumerism or politics, per se—marks her practice as distinct. While the academic appeal of her work is clear, it is when, as here, it not only admits outside intervention or collaboration but also feeds on the element of chance (who knows what she’ll unearth at the Tate?) that the potential for curatorial alchemy it invariably contains is most fully realized.

Michael Wilson is an associate editor of Artforum.