PRINT December 2008

Jessica Morgan

A CONFERENCE AT TATE MODERN in London this fall titled “Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968” drove home to me the degree to which the major temporary events on the art-world calendar have replaced museums as the last, best hope for experimental exhibition making. Against the backdrop of a proliferation of blockbuster monographic shows in museums—to say nothing of those institutions’ meek or celebratory surveys of recent art whose critical theorization is limited to the vague moniker “contemporary”—we have seen the memorable statements of Catherine David’s Documenta 10, which brought together a complex argument through art, discussion, and performance; Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 and its attempt to articulate a new art-historical map for our times; and the groundbreaking Twenty-fourth Bienal de São Paulo, organized by Paulo Herkenhoff and Adriano Pedrosa, which established the notion of anthropophagy as a means of understanding the art of Latin America and beyond. And yet it was not ever thus. Discussions at this conference inevitably turned to such outstanding achievements as “When Attitudes Become Form” in 1969 at the Kunsthalle Bern and “Information” and “The Museum as Muse” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970 and 1999, respectively. (At this point in the conversation, I admit, it became sadly evident how few such significant shows have taken place in British institutions such as my own; it seems we have depended more on commercially savvy—rather than intellectually radical—accomplishments like “Freeze,” the exhibition organized in 1988 by Damien Hirst and other students in London’s Docklands.) To my mind, one organization in particular stands out for the extraordinary interdisciplinary program it has pursued since its opening in 1977: the Centre Pompidou in Paris, whose early exhibitions—such as the sequence of city pairings initiated by Pontus Hultén in the late 1970s and “Les Immatériaux” in 1984—have been followed recently by Jean-Luc Godard’s “Travel(s) in Utopia” (2006) and shows devoted to the work and interests of Roland Barthes (2002) and Samuel Beckett (2007).

“Traces of the Sacred”—which opened at the Pompidou this spring and is currently on view, in a smaller version, at the Haus der Kunst in Munich—is a notable addition to this list, even if its faults are in this context perhaps more in evidence than its achievements. Yet in a landscape largely bereft of bold ambitions, the curatorial depth and farsightedness of this exhibition’s undertaking—namely, to address more than a hundred years of art’s response to what Max Weber diagnosed as “the disenchantment of the world”—seem unparalleled among this year’s shows. Taking over the Pompidou’s upper galleries, the exhibition began with Bruce Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, declaring the beginning of the end of the role of artist as inspired genius, and ended, some 350 works later, with Jonathan Monk’s quip on this work, Sentence Removed (Emphasis Remains), 2000. Nothing but an identical red neon spiral, Monk’s piece relies on the remains or, one could say, the traces of Nauman’s work, a symbolic spiral that appears in several guises throughout the exhibition. The question posed throughout the show by its curators, Jean de Loisy and Angela Lampe, is: Do traces of the sacred remain in modern artistic creation, as Weber argued they did in the religious foundation of secular modern capitalism?

The exhibition answers this question clearly in the affirmative, providing us with a revisionist survey of art and art movements from the late nineteenth century to the present day. “Traces” goes back to the roots of a secular religious sense in, say, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, but much of the exhibition is guided by responses to evil as represented by the twentieth century’s major events—the Great War, the Holocaust, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. From the death of God, implied here with Edvard Munch’s 1906 portrait of Nietzsche, to the question of how to produce art “after Auschwitz” and the disillusionment with utopian promise that is demonstrated by many of the contemporary works, the exhibition’s path is guided by what the curators call the “irrepressible need for spirituality.” Viewing the twentieth century’s art from this angle does not provide as convincing an alternative arthistorical narrative as the curators would wish, yet the exhibition’s strengths emerge in the unexpected configurations brought about by its thematic (rather than chronological) organization. Even if the show in some sense fails, then, it does so in a productive way, with a selection and arrangement of work that demands conversation when so many other exhibitions merely ask for and reinforce consensus. There is a clear sense of the stakes involved.

The twenty-four sections of the show (reduced to sixteen in the Munich installation) included, for example, “Nostalgia of the Infinite,” with works by de Chirico and Brancusi as well as Gina Pane and Pierre Huyghe, artists whose work convincingly played into the section’s subject—and in Huyghe’s case intriguingly linked it to new technologies. “Cosmic Revelations” presented the relatively unknown large abstract paintings of Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), which were surprisingly but successfully paired with Matt Mullican’s Untitled (Big Chart), 1984, an array of pictographic symbols denoting the physical features and belief systems of an idiosyncratic fictional universe. Elsewhere, artists for whom the overarching theme of the exhibition is central—such as Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, and Piet Mondrian—were well represented; the nonchronological hanging productively illuminated their importance for contemporary production. “Rising to the Future” looked at the fascinating subject of visionary architecture, but it was a pity that at the Pompidou the extraordinary proposals of Hermann Finsterlin, Wenzel Hablik, Hans Scharoun, Bruno Taut, and others were crammed into a very small corridor. In fact, installation was poor overall, although crowding of works presented less of a problem than the complex, darkened route visitors were expected to follow, which left many, myself included, briefly confused as to the existence of the second half of the exhibition on the other side of a projection space.

A couple of the most innovative sections, “Sacred Dances,” which featured some memorable footage of dancer Mary Wigman, and “The Doors of Perception,” which included an incredible display of work by California artists Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and Jay DeFeo, among others, could easily be extended into exhibitions in their own right. This was also a strength of “Traces”: It introduced work, research, and ideas that should spur future curatorial work. At the other end of the spectrum were sections such as “Pagan Spiritualities,” which made evident the embarrassingly Eurocentric view of the exhibition and unwittingly emphasized its oddly silent relationship to the other exhibition at the Pompidou that could be said to have touched on such a theme—the legendary but controversial “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989). One can imagine the fear of reigniting the “primitivism” debate of the ’80s, but to so completely ignore the work of Georges Adéagbo, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Meschac Gaba, and Brian Jungen, to name just a few, seemed oddly naive for such a well-researched exhibition. The contemporary selections throughout were in fact some of the weakest, lacking the depth and resonance of many of the historical works, for which the context and thematic arrangement appeared to have been far better thought through.

That said, “Traces” is a great example of what an ambitious institution can achieve if it risks failure. One could even say that through its failure, “Traces” succeeded in proving once again that the museum—with its capacity to draw on loans, art-historical knowledge, and its own collections—still offers unique foundations for experimentation in exhibition making. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

“Traces of the Sacred” remains on view at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, through Jan. 11, 2009.

Jessica Morgan is curator of contemporary art at Tate Modern in London.