New York

Jan De Cock

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Jan De Cock’s first US museum exhibition is a multipart installation featuring a complex display of framed images punctuated by boxlike plywood modules. A larger wooden structure, spotted with recesses and reliefs and evocative of both Minimalist sculpture and De Stijl architecture, sits on the floor as if to obstruct one’s progress through the gallery. The photographs, mostly taken by the artist, depict buildings, landscapes, and artworks (including previous installations and projects by the artist), as well as shots of MoMA’s own architecture, conservation labs, library, cinema, and education center. The effect is, of course, self-referential. The work is titled Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008: Denkmal is included in the title of all the artist’s works, suggesting that each of them is a monument (and memorial—the word signifies both in German) and a “mold for thought” (the meaning suggested by a composite of the words denk and mal in Flemish, the Belgian-born artist’s mother tongue).

The scattered floor-to-ceiling installation is carefully arranged around the walls of the designated gallery in an unconventional layout evocative of early avant-garde experiments with exhibition space and the new technologies of vision represented by film and photography. Like his modernist predecessors, De Cock attempts, through the fragmentation, repetition, cropping, and framing of images of art and architecture, to alter and complicate the one-dimensional imagery of mass media. Each panel features a variety of shots of different sizes, taken from different angles and picturing an array of subjects. Using varied matting, the artist focuses our attention on different sections of the images; most remain recognizable but some don’t.

Those familiar with De Cock’s self-published books (the third is in the making but a projected twenty-three more will eventually form a massive encyclopedia of the artist’s work) will recognize here an almost mimetic relation to some of the pages of those volumes. In both sites, the museum and the books, De Cock juggles a profusion of imagery that, while initially appearing overwhelmingly diverse, is structured around clear axes dealing with European literature and philosophy (images of books abound), architecture, the modern avant-garde, cinema, and the elusiveness of place. The last is often directly addressed in the artist’s sculptural installations, in which sleek rectilinear forms and conglomerations of frames, supports, and planks together amount to a morphology of disintegration in which interrupted spatial trajectories disturb the idea of a unified place. The ambiguous, abstracted quality of the Denkmals, traces of which we see in this installation, points to the infeasibility of capturing the whole of space, of retrieving memory and history, even while alluding to monuments, a type of public sculpture that is always concretely rooted in time and space.

This preoccupation with the elusive nature of place and memory seems to parallel the artist’s investigation into the status of the image in contemporary society. Siegfried Kracauer’s reflections on the abysmal nature of photography and its mediatory role in the formation of personal and collective memories, and Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, 1962–, come to mind; De Cock’s inquiry likewise seems aimed at the ubiquity of contemporary image production. And despite the purely modernist genealogy carefully mapped by De Cock, the dispersed installation cannot help but suggest the decentralized and mutable nature of the Internet, with its surfeit of decontextualized images. “Acting as a chronicler,” the artist says in an interview with curator Roxana Marcoci, “I try to capture the spirit of my age by making a mold of the world around us.” He might be closer to his goal than he thinks.

Monica Amor