In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

THE FIRST and until now only major retrospective of the Situationist International was organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Hotly contested, it was hindered by Guy Debord’s boycott and by the withdrawal of his films from circulation. Now, almost thirteen years after the strategist’s demise, a show currently in Utrecht and traveling to the Museum Tinguely in Basel next month brings to light some interesting new materials, courtesy of Debord’s old allies and his widow. The exhibition addresses the history of the SI with an assortment of objects, collages, printed matter, and a few films, as well as a substantial number of paintings by Asger Jorn, Constant, Jacqueline de Jong, and the German Spur artists, as well as obscure pre-Situationists like Ivan Chtcheglov.

The first question is, of course, if and how the exhibition uses the various materials to (re)conceptualize the SI. A second question, scarcely less important, is how it legitimizes itself with regard to the SI’s rejection of art and its institutions, underlined one final time by Debord’s boycott. While hard-liners continue to find any form of museification reprehensible, I would argue that museum shows are one legitimate form of the SI’s afterlife, along with and in dialogue with SI-inspired political activism, and that the conservation, interpretation, and presentation of historical materials can also have productive effects outside an institution’s walls. However, such an exhibition becomes an exercise in hypocrisy—as well as in bad art history—if it glosses over the SI’s struggles over art and its abolition. The large number of works on display here is somewhat misleading: By the early 1960s, the group of people around Debord had come to consider painting—no matter how avant-garde—as the bourgeois and commodified art form par excellence, an integral part of the society of the spectacle, no better than General Motors or Hollywood. But an emphasis on painting is perhaps to be expected in a museum show; a far more serious problem is that the SI’s attempt to overcome autonomous art in favor of a liberated life is treated as a folkloristic motif rather than as the crucial Situationist project, and as a result, the organization’s history is presented above all as a moralistic tale of youthful revolt ending in failure and melancholia.

Following a strictly chronological principle of arrangement, Siebe Tettero, until recently the Centraal Museum’s head of exhibitions, created a series of densely installed rooms. The first space is devoted to the SI’s precursors CoBrA, Lettrisme, Internationale Lettriste, and Le Bauhaus Imaginiste (the names of the latter two groups being misspelled, in king-size letters, on the gallery’s walls). Subsequent rooms lead one through the various phases of the SI up to its impact on “May ’68,” and trace its demise a few years later; the last room functions as a melancholy epitaph, containing some later paintings by Constant and de Jong, as well as a projection of Debord’s 1978 film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, which looks back on the SI from the vantage point of its posthistory (and gives the exhibition its palindromic title).

In all this, the place of the SI within the postwar neo-avant-garde remains unclear, as does the distinctiveness of the SI’s strategy of détournement vis-à-vis other, less activist forms of appropriation. The SI’s oscillation between being an artistic avant-garde and a political avant-garde is suggested only in the broadest of strokes. This is true at least of the Utrecht version, which features only part of the material to be shown in Basel. While the dramatic lack of ambition in Dutch museums and the rarity of their participation in the traveling-exhibition circuit demand that one be thankful for the Centraal Museum’s decision to host a version of this show—which was organized by the Basel team of Heinz Stahlhut, Juri Steiner, and Stefan Zweifel—one must nevertheless recognize the limitations of Tettero’s subcuration of their original selection.

That the result looks crowded is not without its advantages: The large display cases and the use of texts and colors on the walls conspire with the spatial constraints and plenitude of materials to create three-dimensional constellations rather than a series of isolated objets d’art surrounded by oceans of white. However, information on the role of the works and documents in the SI’s internal and external struggles is minimal, leaving viewers without the means to place the material in a broader context. A good example of this is one densely hung gallery with works by the artists of the (briefly SI-affiliated) Spur group, Jorn’s “modified” flea-market paintings, and—interposed amid this Expressionist fraternity—two resurfaced paintings or quasi-paintings by Debord: Dépassement de l’art and Réalisation de la philosophie, both 1963, in the form of “directives” that recall Debord’s earlier wall slogan NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS. The differences between Debord’s didactic directives and the paintings that surround them could have provided a means of elucidating the SI’s complex and changing approach to painting, but in this hanging the significance of Debord’s mocking abandonment of painterly skill for scrawled slogans disappears in the “anything goes” attitude implied by the quiltlike wall.

The two statement-paintings by Debord had originally been part of a rather obscure exhibition titled “Destruction of RSG-6,” held in 1963 at Exi Gallery in Odense, Denmark, and organized, with Debord’s blessing, by J. V. Martin to combat the “Nashists”—the SI’s by then excommunicated pro-painting faction centered around Jorn’s brother Jörgen Nash. The show’s title refers to a nuclear bunker secretly constructed in England by (and for) the British government, which had been exposed by peace activists a few months before the exhibition’s opening. After passing through a room made to look like a bomb shelter, visitors entered a gallery where they were encouraged to shoot guns at targets bearing pictures of various heads of state; another room featured Martin’s “thermonuclear maps,” a series of paintings depicting the consequences of nuclear war. It is an intriguing episode: At a moment when all the SI’s artists had either left or been expelled, Debord once more presented the SI as both a political and an artistic avant-garde movement, but with “art” that travestied and instrumentalized painting in order to make a political statement (and offend the Nashists). A partial reconstruction of this show might have helped make the dynamics of the SI visible, counteracting the tendency to present a neat chronology that smooths over too many contradictions. While there is a display case with Charles de Gaulle’s battered “target head,” a few versions of the Odense show’s brochure, and the text Debord penned for the occasion, the height of the vitrine discourages the reading of the printed materials, which are moreover presented without the information and contextualization they require. Other events remain sketchy as well, such as the congress held in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1962, which is represented only by its quasi-Pop poster sporting a picture of Marilyn Monroe, and a couple of black-and-white photos.

One could criticize this exhibition for historicizing the SI by reducing it to a more or less conventional movement charted in a series of chronological chapters. I would argue that, on the contrary, the show’s historicization of the SI does not go far enough—it comes disconcertingly close to the mass media’s nostalgic evocations of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s as ahistorical never-never lands. This tendency is especially apparent in the space dedicated to “May ’68,” which consists solely of a few pamphlets and posters overshadowed by a big photo blowup conveying a nostalgic image of those revolutionary days. More even than simply documenting this phase of the SI in greater detail, the show’s curators could have raised the question of whether and to what degree this later, “political” incarnation of the SI was still (also) an aesthetic project, in the sense that the revolution was to create the possibility of a nonalienated, playful, poetic life. Such questions are clearly a bridge too far for “In girum . . . .

Perhaps the most interesting objects in the “May ’68” room are the lithograph posters designed by Jorn. His slogans are more colorful than Debord’s in both content and execution. BRISEZ LE CADRE Q[U]I ÉTOUF[FE] L[’]IMAGE (Shatter the Frame That Suffocates the Image), one poster joyfully exhorts the reader/viewer. Although he was by then no longer an SI member, Jorn here points to a crucial part of the Situationist project: Is not even Debord’s apparent iconophobia a symptom of the desire to free the image from its spectacular appropriation? This question is also important in relation to Debord’s films, which often subject detourned images to spoken comments. But just as the images collected in the second volume of Debord’s autobiographical Panégyrique (1997) are directly related to his life and thereby constitute a plea for the value of images that have not been “artificially separated from their meaning,” his films also contain pictorial madeleines that hold their own against the monologue. This is especially true of his directorial swan song, In girum . . . . With its slow and elegiac black-and-white traveling shots of Venice in combination with the usual detourned film clips and old photos, all evoking Debord’s and the SI’s past, the film is itself not devoid of nostalgia, but it is here deeply personal and political, haunted by loss and longing. The nostalgia of In girum . . . seems above all an awareness of stunted possibilities, expressed in a montage of images and often-acerbic deadpan monologue.

Sadly, Debord’s films are underrepresented in Utrecht—in one small room the script of the film version of La Société du spectacle (1973) is displayed together with a monitor on which the film is shown in an inaudible manner. The sound of In girum . . . , the only other Debord film on view, is hardly more satisfactory, and the fact that neither film is subtitled suggests they were treated more as moving decorations. (Moreover, Tettero projected In girum . . . in a frame made from a blowup of an illustration of a television set from the journal Internationale Situationniste—le cadre qui étouffe l’image indeed.) In line with Debord’s own penchant for conspiracy theories, one could wonder if it is really only due to incompetence or negligence that his voice is inaudible. Adding insult to injury, the last room also has a quotation on the wall from Michel Foucault stating that “utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.” That the museum would give an author who dismissed Debord in the manner of an intellectual bully the last word on the SI is as baffling as the show’s subtitle, which proclaims it to be about the SI’s “lost paradise.” Leave it to the Centraal Museum to frame the SI.

“In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni: The Lost Paradise of the Situationist International” remains on view at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, through Mar. 11, and travels to the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Apr. 4–Aug. 5.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsterdam.