PRINT April 2007


Wieder und Wider

IF YOU VISITED Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (MUMOK) in the middle of the second week of the exhibition “Wieder und Wider: Performance Appropriated” this past winter, you would have encountered seven slide projectors arranged in a row, of which three were running through a continuous cycle of images, and four were not yet operational. The projections were part of Sharon Hayes’s In the Near Future—Vienna, 2006, for which Hayes was staging seven “actions” at various locations in the Austrian capital over the course of a week, holding signs for causes specific to the city’s history of protest—ranging from the demonstrations against Austria’s right-wing government in 2000 to protests against nuclear power in the early 1980s to women’s rights marches of the ’70s. Hayes persuaded a different member of the public to document each day’s demonstration; the resulting images were then loaded into one of the slide carousels. By the end of the week, seven sequences of slides would be showing concurrently, projected in different sizes and at different heights. The cultural contexts of the scenes recorded in the images were a mix of the contemporary and the long since passed, creating an unnerving sense of temporal dislocation.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the gallery, across from Hayes’s slide show, rows of chairs and a podium signaled that a discussion would soon take place. A large poster announced the schedule for a two-day symposium, titled “Politics of Images,” that had taken place in 1990 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York—a further assault on one’s sense of chronology. The poster announced talks and discussions with a number of stellar art-world personages, Brian Wallis, Guy Brett, Stan Douglas and Jeff Koons among them; here in Vienna, sixteen years later, the lectures would be delivered in a seven-hour session by members of the New York–based collaborative Continuous Project. In the center of the exhibition space was Tom Burr’s Anxiety, 2006, which was modeled on another sculpture the artist had made some six months previously and is yet another example of his uncanny ability to render sculptures as crystalline time machines. Composed of a few mirrored cubes, a number of fallen chairs, and a silver curtain hung haphazardly from a black cast-iron railing framing the raised pedestal, Anxiety is quietly dazzling by virtue of its multifarious references: to theater history (vaudeville), design (Michael Thonet’s bentwood chairs), Minimalism (Robert Morris), and Pop (Andy Warhol). To one side of Burr’s piece, Gerard Byrne presented Nominally an Installation, a Performance, or an Event, 2006, which casually dominated one end of the gallery. It consisted of a simple plywood box modeled on a Donald Judd sculpture, together with a video documenting the box’s construction and installation by a team of MUMOK staff members (making the work also a kind of update of Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961). The work Byrne’s sculpture reproduced, Judd’s Untitled, 1987–88, was on display nearby, in “Review: 25 Years of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation,” a concurrent exhibition featuring selections from the museum’s permanent collection, prompting comparisons across art-historical eras. Byrne’s sculpture—in its proximity to its source and doppelgänger—concisely articulated the significance of both the “again” (wieder) and the “against” (wider) of the exhibition title.

Byrne describes his work as being about “the shadow of the original.” The tense relationship between original and copy—in evidence throughout this exhibition—is something we have grown used to encountering in contemporary art, given the current prominence of revisions and reenactments of past artworks and performances. A number of recent exhibitions have addressed these very concerns, among them “Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art,” at the Witte de With in Rotterdam in 2005, and “Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History,” at Mass MoCA this spring, as well as Marina Abramovic’s much-discussed “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2005 and the Allan Kaprow retrospective currently at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. This revival of historical performances has been accompanied by the criticism that such shows are far less concerned with the content of the works they present than with abetting their institutionalization and fostering a sense of nostalgia.

Wieder und Wider” thwarts any such move toward canonization. The ten-day exhibition and series of performances and lectures—organized by MUMOK curators Barbara Clausen and Achim Hochdörfer, in collaboration with Sigrid Gareis, Martina Hochmuth, and Krassimira Kruschkova of the contemporary dance center Tanzquartier Wien—was conceived as an open and collaborative project that would allow visitors to think in broad terms about the re-presentation of historical artworks and, more specifically, to consider the relationship between the reinterpretation of a choreographic score in dance and the practice of reenactment in the visual arts. In addition, the curators invoked the concept of appropriation as a more productive means of addressing their subject than the more widespread—and more reductive—notion of historicization.

The exhibition made the relationship between past and present—between Judd’s sculpture and the Byrne work’s response to it, say, as well as between the galleries exhibiting the MUMOK collection and the space where “Wieder und Wider” was on display—seem fascinatingly unresolved. While Byrne does not seem particularly concerned with implementing a radical artistic program either in his sculpture itself or in the accompanying video exposing the goings-on behind the scenes, his installation, like Burr’s haphazardly placed mirrored cubes, operates within a field of open questions about the transformation of a repeatable concept and a sequence of gestures into a unitary manifestation and a contemporary work. Nominally an Installation, a Performance, or an Event brings up issues of historicization, authorship, artistic autonomy, and the value of art, as well as problems of interpretation and museification.

The curators’ concern with the conflict between the remote immutability of historical performances and the experience of an immediate presence during a live event was made explicit in the reconstruction of Emil Hrvatin and his dance troupe’s Pupilija, Papa Pupilo pa Pupilcki (Pupilija, Papa Pupilo, and the Pupilceks)—a piece first staged in 1969 that continues to have cult status in the history of Eastern European performance. For “Wieder und Wider,” Hrvatin, who is also a renowned Slovenian dance theorist and publisher of the journal Maska, re-created the twenty scenes of this work via myriad modes of repetition: Portions of the script were read aloud as if it were an instruction manual; the performers copied movements from television monitors showing past performances; in an echo of the original production, actors remade the same mistakes and immediately corrected them; the reenactment was in part improvised; one actor from the 1969 cast explained how the next scene should be performed. Moreover, photographs of the first performance and newspaper articles about old and new versions of the work provided ways of reflecting on the piece. At one point, a large video projection showing members of the original cast watching footage of their own performance in 1969 suddenly appeared on the back wall of the stage. Because of the camera angle, the cast members seemed to be mirroring the audience in Vienna, joining them in watching the reconstruction of the piece as it was taking place. In this way, the stage itself became a point of intersection for different collective memories and their reinterpretation.

A similar strategy, engaging a multiplicity of approaches to staging events, both actual and metaphorical, each implying a particular set of expectations and conventions of performance, was implemented again and again in individual works, as well as in the overall concept of the exhibition. All the works in the show were subjected to stages of activation and transformation: “Before,” “during,” and “after” were all constituent parts of the whole. The dispersed locations where performances took place—various sites within the museum, public places around Vienna, and the Tanzquartier’s auditorium—also served to create an impression of a lack of solidity and a sense of openness to interpretation. With the exception of Continuous Project’s reading marathon, each performance was followed by a discussion or a lecture on the work. Interestingly, although individual pieces in the exhibition often experimented extensively with multiple speaking roles and moments of inner reflection and exterior observation, the subsequent lectures, conversations, and discussions in general struggled to turn their proximity to the performances to their advantage.

Wieder und Wider” stressed the fragility and indeterminacy of contemporary art’s current emphasis on performance and reenactment. It offered an opportunity to see the performance locations, the exhibition galleries, and the individual works themselves each as separate spaces for interpretation. The curators succeeded in complicating the idea of performance, even if it remained unclear to what extent the “against” of the exhibition’s title was productively engaged as a form of critical reading. The destabilization of time in the presentation of the exhibition, the awareness of the significance of different formats, and the responsiveness to the implications of earlier performances all suggest that “Wieder und Wider” created an opening for further reflection. It will be exciting to see what new developments—both curatorial and artistic—result from the impetus of this exhibition.

Rike Frank is head of the curatorial office for Documenta 12.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.