New York


Exit Art

Exhibition, 1987, was a modified version of an installation by Muntadas staged in 1985 at the Galería Fernando Vijande in Madrid. In the ten works shown here he presented nine forms of image-presentation currently used by artists, from the historical conventions of the museum to contemporary street display: The XIXth Century Frame, The Slide Projection, The Print Series, The Photo Series, The Billboard, The Triptych, The Video Installation, The Drawing Series, all 1985, and The Light Box and The Light Box Display, both 1987. In each case, there was no image as such; the display case of “prints” presented sheets of fine blank paper; the video monitors emitted electronic “snow”; the photograph mats were empty; and so on.

On one level, Exhibition was a laconic commentary on the peculiarly American discourse in which the art object is emptied of any content that does not proclaim itself as a sign that is complicit with the fetishized codes of the commodity, however ambivalently. It complemented his installation in Paris earlier this year, Natures mortes génériques (Generic still lifes, 1987), which was an elegantly designed display of generic packaged goods, with labels in either English or French. In that work, perhaps, Muntadas went a step further than his American counterparts, for the corporate logo and the distinctive consumer object were both absent, displaced by the homogenizing effects of digitalized global marketing.

Exhibition’s emphasis on the contextual apparatus of art and the kind of subject positions that art constructs, rather than on the manipulation of the sign itself, aligned the work with another tradition whose concern has centered on the social narratives of architectural space. This might include American artists such as Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, John Knight, and Judith Barry (who designed the New Museum’s Damaged Goods show last year). Exhibition was a simulation of an exhibition, calling attention to the narratives of institutional display—those design features of the museum or gallery (the clinical white walls and the discreetly hidden machinery of promotion and finance) that masquerade as sociopolitical neutrality. In Muntadas’ installation there was no ambient light in the gallery; the space “dropped out,” giving way to “special effects” that focused attention on the displayed “goods.” Each piece was illuminated only by its appropriate light source (angled spotlights for the canvases, the slide-projector bulb, the fluorescent tubes of the light box, a warm and intimate incandescence for the print series), producing an atmospheric effect that hovered between theatrical spectacle and the hushed aura of a mausoleum. Like the mausoleum, the museum is a repository of corpses whose specific meanings or intentions are appropriated to the mythopoeic value systems of the institution.

Exhibition was stalked by the ghosts of late Modernism: memories of Barnett Newman’s abstraction, of the Minimalist object, or of Structuralist film and video. The phantom that most pervaded the work, however, was the spectator. Light, which conjures into visibility the institutional frame of art, illuminated the lack of any tangible point of view or position that might construct a viewing subject. We appeared as shadows across The Slide Projection, or as reflections in The Photo Series: always on the surface, outside the frame, but never in the picture.

Jean Fisher