PRINT September 2008


Renzo Piano’s Pontus Hultén Study Gallery

THE MACHINERY IS QUITE LOUD, and that is something that the architect Renzo Piano, its designer, likes. In fact, as he explained to me this past summer, standing in a gallery of Moderna Museet in Stockholm—where his contraption was making walls of artworks descend from the ceiling along metal tracks—he would not have minded it being even noisier. However cool his architecture, Piano has a taste for extravagant machines, something he shared with his longtime friend Pontus Hultén (1924–2006), at whose behest and in whose spirit this unique apparatus was created. In 2005, Hultén, head of the Moderna from 1960 to 1973, donated his roughly seven-hundred-piece art collection to the museum, but only on the condition that any work the institution could not display would still be available to the public in an open-storage warehouse designed by Piano (who had, of course, already been Hultén’s partner in creating the Centre Pompidou in Paris). This year, the Moderna celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with several ambitious events, including large exhibitions of Max Ernst and Andy Warhol (the latter artist’s first European retrospective took place at the museum in 1968), but the Pontus Hultén Study Gallery is perhaps the best testament—and a permanent one at that—to the playfulness and democratic ambition of the early years of this museum, as well as to the man who put it on the international map.

Nothing was more important to Hultén than to break down old hierarchies and to question any conservative respect for the art on display. Thus, Moderna Museet during the 1960s was probably Europe’s most daringly experimental museum, with initiatives such as “Poetry Must Be Made by All! Transform the World!” (1969), a show about radical politics that, instead of art objects, presented posters and other archival material, in addition to visits from American draft dodgers and Black Panthers, as well as free-jazz sessions inside a replica of Tatlin’s Tower.

Significantly, the presence of the tower in an exhibition modeled after poetry might best bespeak Hulten’s deep, abiding affection for the technologies born of the industrial revolution, as well as for the literature inspired by their effects on society. The previous year he organized “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an exhibition devoted, he wrote in the accompanying catalogue, “to the mechanical machine, the great creator and destroyer, at a difficult moment in its life, when for the first time its reign is threatened by other devices.” And one may grasp Hultén’s interest in the resulting sense of disorientation and whimsy by considering his professed admiration for Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus, in which an inventor of bizarre machines—and, more specifically, of instruments that mechanize life—guides a group of visitors around his estate, showing them such startling objects as a large diamond (within which hover a hairless cat, a dancing girl, and the preserved head of Danton) and an enormous glass cage holding eight tableaux vivants. (Of course, the word vivant is a bit misleading, since the figures therein are, in fact, corpses, which the inventor reanimates with a magical fluid that causes them to repeat the most important incidents in their lives.) As if mirroring this fiction, throughout his career Hultén harbored a vision that positively flourished through close associations with artists producing fantastic mechanisms, from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Tinguely and Alexander Calder.

Of course, Hultén was not alone among directors and curators in his passions. Harald Szeemann, whose 1975 Venice Biennale exhibition, “Bachelor Machines,” had similar artistic points of reference (drawing upon sources ranging from Deleuze to Kafka), was as obsessive in this vein. But in contrast with Szeemann’s interest in the erotic and occult qualities of machinery, Hultén’s was more that of a Swedish engineer with a slightly juvenile bent toward the absurd and anarchic. And so, today, the Study Gallery fits perfectly with this sensibility and tradition. Piano has fashioned Hultén’s “warehouse” into a kind of art jukebox: Setting aside the linear chronology of art history, visitors can order up any of the artworks stored in this gallery (by name or theme) using a digital device that activates the mechanism transporting large panels down from the ceiling. Important works by, say, On Kawara and Robert Rauschenberg are presented next to documentary material and Hultén’s personal souvenirs on approximately thirty movable walls. While there are artistic precedents for the scheme—for instance, in El Lissitzky’s exhibition designs of the ’20s, some of which featured mobile walls—the underlying technology here originates in the car industry.

Intriguingly, an early attempt to present the collection in a similarly democratic manner was introduced here years ago by Hultén: an old storage unit, placed next to the bookstore, from which anybody could pull out paintings. Yet now that Hultén’s dream of a machine has come to pass, it somehow seems not futuristic but rather the opposite. As much as it manifests his goals, it also represents hope for a nonhierarchical future that, in fact, never really arrived. Ideally, Moderna curators will be mindful of this paradox and find a way to present the machine so as to skirt any ’60s nostalgia. After all, it is not until the moment a technological device succumbs to obsolescence that something happens: To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, it is at that moment that a machine releases the memory of its original promise. If Hultén’s idea was born when the machine already seemed threatened, a fact underscored by the sense of outmodedness here, who knows what new artificial fantasies the device might trigger today?

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.