“Voids: A Retrospective”

I keep wishing “Vides: Une Retrospective” (Voids: A Retrospective) were a work of art, but it wasn’t. It aimed to be a retrospective survey. The curators—John Armleder, Mai-Thu Perret, Mathieu Copeland, Gustav Metzger, and Clive Phillpot (along with curators from the two hosting institutions, Laurent Le Bon of the Centre Pompidou and Philippe Pirotte of Kunsthalle Bern, where the show will travel in September)—brought together nine past exhibitions where the artist left the exhibition space empty and fundamentally unaltered. They chose to simply present these shows through other empty, unaltered exhibition spaces that were neither reconstitutions nor new works. At the Centre Pompidou, “Voids” occupied a section of the fourth floor normally dedicated to the permanent collection. This juxtaposition of empty rooms and habitual museum displays was a knockout. It showed the physical context of art as one rarely sees it so plainly. The downside is, it was hard to remember that the rooms represented nine different architectural, geographic, economic, political, and artistic contexts, not to mention different artistic goals.

What made each room something other than an empty space was its label and a large wall text in the central corridor describing the artist’s approach. “Voids” fully depended on these texts to conceptually reactivate specific exhibitions. Of Yves Klein’s 1958 exhibition known as “The Void,” the wall text explained that the artist painted the gallery white. What it did not say is that he didn’t use just any paint, but rather his special International Klein Blue (IKB) formula with white instead of blue pigment. Unlike regular paints, it retained the vividness of pure pigment and produced an irregular surface; moreover, Klein rolled it onto the walls expressively. Most important, his exhibition hinged on going from the color blue in various forms outside the gallery to the emptied, whitened interior. Publicity-drawn crowds and the presence of guards were also part of the original experience. Klein’s “Void” only qualifies for this retrospective in a roundabout way: Ignoring half the project, commentators focused on the emptiness; Klein later adopted this focus himself. Unfortunately, as for most of “Voids,” to get the keys to the basic idea of this work, you had to leave the exhibition and go to the catalogue.

Another wall text dated The Air-Conditioning Show to 1966–67 and attributed it to Art & Language, which was not founded until 1968. According to this text, Art & Language had presented a written description—Michael Baldwin’s article “Remarks on Air-Conditioning,” first published in Arts magazine and absent from the current presentation— as equivalent to a work’s possible realization. But The Air-Conditioning Show is not declared as such in Baldwin’s article, which reads less as a description of a work than as convoluted thinking out loud. Wryly subtitled “An Extravaganza of Blandness,” the article comes with a diagram from an installation manual. As Art & Language confirms in the catalogue, instead of appropriating preexisting air-conditioning as the “Voids” curatorial premise suggests, the original hypothesis involved installing equipment. Other wall texts also cropped the work to fit their stand-ins at the Centre Pompidou, which really only suited Robert Barry’s Marcuse Piece, 1970, Robert Irwin’s Experimental Situation, 1970, and Roman Ondák’s More Silent than Ever, 2006. For example, it was not mentioned of Bethan Huws’s Haus Ester Piece, 1993, that an abstract visual poem was originally handed out, to be read in relation to the Haus Ester’s architecture, or of Maria Eichhorn’s Money at the Kunsthalle Bern, 2001, that the space progressively changed as repairs (listed on the invitation so viewers could look for them) were made to the building after opening hours. The radicality of Laurie Parsons’s exhibition of 1990 lay in the absence of her name on the invitation and at the gallery; in this case, the wall text said too much, disclosing that the room without a label is hers.

“Voids” had gumption. It’s too bad it was short on rigor. Stanley Brouwn wasn’t, however. He labeled his work An Empty Space in the Centre Pompidou, 2009, thereby casting doubt on the historical value of the exhibition as a whole, and refused to have a didactic text and pages in the catalogue. Likewise, Michael Asher was unable to come to an agreement with the curators for the exhibition, but he agreed to have documentation of his past projects in the catalogue. The only problem is, Asher thought the documentation would be used to illustrate a general essay, not presented in the section devoted to the artists in the show. In reality, the catalogue constitutes the true survey, bringing together valuable information, even if readers have to sort out things for themselves. Through its greater visibility, the exhibition mainly functioned as a plug for the catalogue.

Jian-Xing Too