PRINT December 2011

Tim Griffin

Ger van Elk, The Well Polished Floor Sculpture, 1969–80/2010, polished floor. Installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2010. Photo: Hogers & Versluys.

THE TEMPORALITY OF ART’S DISPLAY has always been in dialogue with that of the surrounding culture, and, more acutely, with that of commerce and its cycles of production and consumption. If, for example, during the workers’ reform movements of the 1800s the great expositions saw an extension of exhibition hours to make it possible for popular audiences to visit after the factory day shift, by the end of the nineteenth century encyclopedic institutions such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art would be attuned to shoppers’ attention spans. (When people visited either the encyclopedic museum or the newly created department store, they expected to spend three or four hours of their day—and the respective architectures were organized accordingly.) In our own time, a venue like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris could situate itself on the porous border between work and leisure, reflecting the rise of a postservice economy with after-hours presentations of participatory artwork grappling with—or, more accurately, made possible by—precisely those conditions.

What, then, is one to make of the Temporary Stedelijk, whose first exhibition, “Taking Place,” was on view at the very beginning of 2011? While the exhibition on its own terms warrants year-end consideration, as important as a precursor to any discussion of the show’s true significance is the story of the institution itself, which seems emblematic of our historical moment in many ways. Shuttered in 2004 to allow for both the renovation and the expansion of its hundred-plus-year-old building by architect Adriaan Willem Weissman, the museum—by all accounts a staple of cultural life in Amsterdam, providing a point of common reference in that city’s public arena since the institution’s beginnings—would remain closed for the decade’s remainder. This dormancy was, in truth, due to a variety of causes, ranging from extended internal negotiations among government bureaus to the near bankruptcy of a city-appointed construction company. (The latter would, in fact, finally fail this year.) And yet these circumstances would only seem enmeshed in a greater reweaving of the social fabric, impossible to separate from impending decisions by the national administration to implement severe reductions in national arts funding—cuts to the tune of 200 million euros, to be exact, or roughly 20 percent of the existing budget, which was hitherto among the most generous government sponsorships for artistic endeavors in the world. What better figure could there be for a general decline of the modern state apparatus and its historical foundations in the public sphere—and for its status as a basic framework for critical artistic discourse during the past century—than a publicly owned museum held in suspended animation, physically present but fundamentally evacuated from civic life?

Thus, when the unfinished museum opened as the Temporary Stedelijk in late 2010 with the arrival of director Ann Goldstein—who has detailed the irony of leaving one institution at the risk of collapse, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, for another in limbo (see Artforum, Summer 2010)—it was with a poignant, even provocatively paradigmatic sense of self-contradiction. Here was a museum, a place traditionally posited outside time even while containing all times—a home for all epochs, beheld at a clear remove—set decidedly within time, and whose very name bespoke the provisional. Indeed, the “temporary” denomination, intended to imply the forthcoming realization of the museum’s expansion after the original structure’s renovation, nevertheless evokes so many alternative spaces from previous decades whose basic purpose was to problematize the power structures underpinning the supposed permanence (or, better, ahistoricity) of the institution of the museum. And it was this dimension of the specific institutional context that gave unexpected gravity to “Taking Place,” the first installation to propose the Stedelijk’s incomplete space as suitable for programming. For among the strengths of the Stedelijk’s collection is its abundance of works anticipating or subsequent to the legacies of site-specificity and institutional critique, which in this case would be rendered eerily redundant, or made to produce the effect of a phantom limb—introducing a sense of contingency where there already was one, and seeking to make an interjection where there was, in effect, just a lingering absence. The foundations once being questioned were, in a palpable sense, now in jeopardy of their own accord.

Goldstein’s installation of “Taking Place” held these qualities in tension, leaving the galleries relatively spare—typically one work per room, and with a few rooms totally empty—in a way that privileged the artworks’ individual maneuvers at the same time as drawing attention to Weissman’s architecture, its elegant proportions and human scale. Solitary in one gallery was Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, 1965, underlining the institution’s status as a living environment. (Though one can perhaps also see the wit of such a piece given the newly installed climate control in renovated parts of the museum.) Alone in another was Ger van Elk’s Well Polished Floor Sculpture, 1969–80/2010, consisting of nothing more than a triangular section on the floor cleaned to a distinctive shine—suggesting the relativity of any apparently constant ground. Daniel Buren’s Kaleidoscope, a Work in Situ, executed for the museum in 1983, adorned spandrels with his signature stripes above doorways throughout the halls, while Willem de Rooij’s Route Along 18 Corners, 1993/2010, included a pamphlet whose pictures and text directed audiences’ views to the corners of so many ground-floor rooms. A simple enough underscoring of the literal architecture of the gallery spaces that nevertheless redirects attention from any art the museum might house, the work, nearly two decades after it was first created, becomes an archival cipher of muta­bility, documenting the renovation’s exchange of a herringbone pattern for broad oak planks in the building’s parquet floor. Similarly, Louise Lawler’s massive photographic image of Jeff Koons’s Ushering in Banality, 1988, and Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1989—a picture stretched to fit, to paraphrase Lawler, in a manner that renders the museum’s viewing conditions less transparent—depicts a wing of the museum added during the 1950s but destroyed as part of the new expansion.

Daniel Buren, Kaléidoscope, un travail in situ (Kaleidoscope, a Work in Situ), 1976–83, Plexiglas, acrylic. Installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2010. Photo: Hogers & Versluys.

Yet if the implications of a continually changing context for the institution were made clear here, they arose most markedly as one surmised such work as Jan Dibbets’s 5 Pedestals for a Museum, 1969, a group of collages documenting an action from the same year in which the artist shoveled away the soil around each of the Stedelijk Museum’s four exterior corners, exposing the foundation. Understood figuratively, here the novel qualities of, and possibilities for, the “temporary” itself become readily apparent in our contemporary context. For the temporary, traced to its etymological roots, might well mean something “not permanent,” or of “seasonal character”—but what is this except the character of our contemporary socioeconomic context? To return to the temporality of commerce: The state of precariousness, of shredded social safety nets, of nonstandardized production happening on a project-by-project basis, of our being accustomed to perennial change—in “the habit of not having solid habits,” as Paolo Virno says—makes the temporary something that speaks very succinctly to the foundations of our day. (In fact, another show appearing simultaneously at the Stedelijk, titled “Monumentalisms,” featured a video by Marianne Flotron, Fired, 2007, that wryly noted how losing one’s job can be portrayed through the prism of “mobility.”)

And so the Stedelijk’s “Taking Place” may be said to stand very uniquely at an interstitial moment, existing in that ambiguous realm between regimes of thought, within both art and culture more generally—offering, further, surprising valences of the temporary within any understanding of the contemporary. Regarding the latter, consider the double meaning of the title by itself. On the one hand, its phrasing suggests an event and, on the other, a kind of occupation, collapsing, in effect, any distinction of time and place. Think here as well of how a director’s task, ostensibly to care for the institution, would by any measure of conventional wisdom in the face of unfinished expansion demand that one not grant the museum any visibility. Here, on the contrary, the person charged with leading the institution is, in order to grant the museum a presence, having to overturn the very rules that would seem to grant it a future. Only when rendered at a kind of pause, resistant to any traditional narrative arc, do the institution and the art housed within it become truly visible.

Tim Griffin is Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen in New York and a Contributing Editor of Artforum.