“Play Van Abbe”

WHAT WILL THE MUSEUM of the twenty-first century look like? According to the Van Abbemuseum, it won’t present chronological arrangements against neutral walls and it will include numerous collaborative arrangements with artists. It will also serve as a vehicle for star curators, whose visionary installations will merit the same reconstruction and redisplay accorded ephemeral works of art. “Play Van Abbe,” a four-part cycle currently in its second stage, enacts this new model with an exhibition about exhibitions, looking to the past in order to envision the museum’s future.

The decision to reanimate historical exhibitions aligns the Van Abbemuseum with a trend that includes a new book series from Afterall, focusing on seminal exhibitions of contemporary art from the past fifty years; a recent symposium at Tate Britain, “Art and the Social,” that looked back to major contemporary art exhibitions of the 1990s; and The Exhibitionist, a freshly launched curatorial journal devoted to notable exhibitions and their curatorial impresarios. The first stage of “Play Van Abbe,” titled “The Game and the Players,” opened in late 2009. In part, it resuscitated a collection show mounted by former Van Abbemuseum director Rudi Fuchs. “Summer Display of the Museum’s Collection” was originally presented in 1983, shortly after Fuchs’s return from serving as artistic director of Documenta 7. Along with Harald Szeemann, Fuchs helped set the stage for today’s high-profile curators, even as the two men’s strong curatorial presence made them lightning rods for criticism. The revived exhibition for winter 2009–10, here given the title “Repetition: Summer Display 1983,” reprised Fuchs’s once controversial strategy of juxtaposing works of different styles and periods based on a romantic notion of affinity or resonance.

Fuchs’s unexpected combinations evoke the earlier form of the cabinet of curiosities—its objects arranged according to the taste of the collector—in contrast to the chronological arrangement associated with public museum collections. His original invitation even included a sly reference to the exhibition’s precursor and methodological opposite: a reproduction of the floor plan for Chrétien de Mechel’s late-eighteenth-century rehang of the Viennese imperial collection—which followed a chronological arrangement designed to serve a new museum public, and was criticized at the time for its coldly didactic art-history lesson. With his ahistorical approach, Fuchs threw off chronology’s false neutrality in favor of overt idiosyncrasy.

This is a fine strategy, of course, when the viewer is intrigued by the curator’s aesthetic predilections, and potentially jarring if not. Yet the act of revival presents its own issues. Although the exhibition was displayed in the rooms where the original was held, a museum renovation means that the spaces are no longer the same. And certain works have been subject to restoration, while others have not, so their relative aging is out of step. Nor has their renown progressed at the same rate, since some artists have far outpaced others in the fame department. As with installation-based works that are given such treatment, the reconstruction foregrounds decisions that reflect a combination of authorial intention and exigencies of the original moment. Even as such reconstructions are prey to these contingencies, they have the potential to offer a glimpse into the past (however distorted) that, by serving as a counterpoint to the present, can highlight far more significant changes in the larger historical context.

For current Van Abbemuseum director, Charles Esche, 1989 was a pivot point, with such events as the fall of the Berlin wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, the Third Havana Biennial, and the “Magiciens de la terre” exhibition contributing to dramatic changes within and beyond the art world. Like Fuchs, Esche is adamant about the need for a clear break with chronology, but for different reasons. In “Strange and Close,” his own collection-based contribution to the first stage of “Play Van Abbe,” Esche focused on work made since 1989, emphasizing the year as a point of historic rupture that opened up global exchange. The idea of telling stories is central to Esche’s agenda, and a history of modern art established around Paris and New York is hardly sufficient to frame the multiple narratives emerging from a new world order. It is not only his show, however, but the approach taken to the overall exhibition cycle of “Play Van Abbe” that indicates Esche’s main commitment: a collaborative relationship between artist and curator. His own biennial turn, the Ninth Istanbul Biennial that he curated with Vasif Kortun in 2005, emphasized extended interactions between artists and locale; and at the Van Abbemuseum, artistic involvement with the site smoothly extends to include various curatorial activities.

Even before “Play Van Abbe,” Esche’s interest in shaking up museum strategies and roles was evident in “Plug In,” a series of collection-based shows mounted at his institution between 2006 and 2009 where selections by curators and artists were freely intermixed. For one “Plug In” room initiated by curator Christiane Berndes in 2006, Amsterdam- and New York–based artist Lily van der Stokker covered the walls with diagonal plaid wallpaper that she had designed, creating a video-viewing room remarkable for the competing patterns and colors that continued in the upholstered furniture and carpeting. The room functioned as a van der Stokker–and-guest affair until 2009, with a succession of artists invited to interact with her aggressively ornamented space.

“Play Van Abbe” takes the notion of collective authorship in another direction, commissioning artists to reinvent previous installations and exhibitions. It also puts the artist in an enabling position: If you can’t have the original, then what about an original reinterpretation? Chto Delat, a collective of artists and theorists from Saint Petersburg and Moscow, contributed their version of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1925 Worker’s Club—which posed a revolutionary space for proletariat edification—updated as Activist Club, a platform for a curated cycle of media works that spanned several stages of the exhibition.

In stage two (aptly titled “Time Machines”), which opened this past April and runs through September, the “Museum Modules” project applies the strategy of reanimation to different museal concepts, including Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s interpretation of Lina Bo Bardi’s striking 1957–68 design for the Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Florian Schneider’s materialized version of André Malraux’s 1947 Musée imaginaire. Museum pioneer Alexander Dorner merits two forms of homage, via a copy of El Lissitzky’s 1927–28 Kabinett der Abstrakten (Abstract Cabinet), which Dorner had commissioned for the Provinzialmuseum in Hannover, Germany, and a reconstruction of the never-realized Raum der Gegenwart (Room of Today) that Dorner conceived in collaboration with László Moholy-Nagy in 1930. The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. is here as well, his 1936 “Cubism and Abstract Art” celebrated via a small-scale model of a white box that, like the Lissitzky reconstruction, is presented courtesy of the Museum of American Art in Berlin.

The multiple roles played by reproductions are particularly evident in the Lissitzky example, where the alcove housing the reconstructed room is preceded by paintings of enlarged photographs along with documentation related to the original arrangement—one that is definitively lost today, owing not only to its dismantling but to the subsequent destruction of a number of the artworks it included. And the fact that the paintings and drawings in the room are all crude copies opens up obvious questions. How might one approximate the dialogue Lissitzky envisioned between works by Picasso, Léger, Mondrian, and Malevich if they are represented by inferior substitutes?

Given the prominence of appropriation in recent art practices, there can be little pretense that the art museum is oriented solely toward originals, and the recent popularity of reenactment only adds another form of copy to the mix. Yet the Danish collective Superflex’s contribution to the second part of the exhibition cycle seems designed to test what limits might still remain. Emphasizing questions of authorship raised by delegated fabrication in Minimalism, and by the foregrounding of ideas in Conceptual art, Superflex not only functioned as curators in their selection of collection works for “In-between Minimalisms” but also, under the banner of “Free Sol LeWitt,” set up a metal workshop where the museum audience could view the fabrication of reproductions of a LeWitt wall-relief sculpture owned by the Van Abbemuseum. Original and reproduction clearly have highly situational meanings today, and Superflex used LeWitt’s own pronouncements about Conceptual art’s challenge to authorship as justification for going well beyond the degree of immateriality and mutability LeWitt authorized for his own sculptural structures.

The theme of reproduction is made most explicit, perhaps, in The Copyist, a magazine-like publication produced by the museum for “Play Van Abbe.” The inclusion of an essay by Walter Benjamin in this periodical would seem to be of a piece. But an implausible credit line that dates the text to “New York 2009” propels the curious reader down a rabbit hole of uncertain authorship. Perhaps this is the same “Walter Benjamin” who presented a 1986 lecture sponsored by Galerija Škuc in Ljubljana, Slovenia, titled “Mondrian ’63–’96,” on the topic of purported Mondrian paintings signed and dated 1983; or who collaborated with Inke Arns on the 2006 exhibition “What Is Modern Art? (Group Show),” also produced under the auspices of the Museum of American Art in Berlin and accompanied by a catalogue based on the design of the 1948 MoMA show of the same name. And perhaps this Berlin museum, credited with the loan of two of the reconstructions on display in “Play Van Abbe,” can be more readily understood as an artist’s project—one that may or may not involve the “assistance” of Goran Đorđević, who apparently also served as doorman for the mysterious Salon de Fleurus (an anonymous reconstruction of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon) when it appeared in a SoHo apartment in New York in the early 1990s. The only thing that is certain here is the Van Abbemuseum’s participation in the vogue for blurred or multiple authorship, best known through the work of Reena Spaulings, the fictional artist–art dealer associated with the Bernadette Corporation collective, or the duo operating under the guise of the artist Claire Fontaine.

The overlapping job descriptions of artist and curator are the real story here. These days, it’s not uncommon to hear references to the curator as producer, and the preferred association is clearly the original Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay “Author as Producer,” in which he called for writers to challenge existing structures of production and reception with revolutionary forms capable of altering those relationships. Yet such radical aspirations slip away if the phrase is taken to refer merely to the role of the curator as head of a creative team or, in the literal sense, to the curator’s part in helping precipitate the art on display. Indeed, the widespread appearance of the artist-curator is not yet fully matched by that of its inverse, the curator-artist, though there is an open middle ground, centered on the hyphen between these terms, where artists and curators alike build constructs based on diffused or layered authorship. Reconstructions of past exhibitions, whether scholarly or actual, provide an important lens for understanding the ways in which art has functioned at different moments, within a series of shifting contexts that are too often overlooked or poorly recorded. But attention to exhibition making also fits neatly into a system based on star curators, particularly if their arrangements come to inspire the same revivalist energies already lavished on re-creating artistic installations.

Martha Buskirk teaches art history and criticism at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts.