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Politics of Installation

The field of art is today frequently equated with the art market, and the artwork is primarily identified as a commodity. That art functions in the context of the art market, and every work of art is a commodity, is beyond doubt; yet art is also made and exhibited for those who do not want to be art collectors, and it is in fact these people who constitute the majority of the art public. The typical exhibition visitor rarely views the work on display as a commodity. At the same time, the number of large-scale exhibitions—biennales, triennales, documentas, manifestas—is constantly growing. In spite of the vast amounts of money and energy invested in these exhibitions, they do not exist primarily for art buyers, but for the public—for an anonymous visitor who will perhaps never buy an artwork. Likewise, art fairs, while ostensibly existing to serve art buyers, are now increasingly transformed into public events, attracting a population with little interest in buying art, or without the financial ability to do so. The art system is thus on its way to becoming part of the very mass culture that it has for so long sought to observe and analyze from a distance. Art is becoming a part of mass culture, not as a source of individual works to be traded on the art market, but as an exhibition practice, combined with architecture, design, and fashion—just as it was envisaged by the pioneering minds of the avant-garde, by the artists of the Bauhaus, the Vkhutemas, and others as early as the 1920s. Thus, contemporary art can be understood primarily as an exhibition practice. This means, among other things, that it is becoming increasingly difficult today to differentiate between two main figures of the contemporary art world: the artist and the curator.

The traditional division of labor within the art system was clear. Artworks were to be produced by artists and then selected and exhibited by curators. But, at least since Duchamp, this division of labor has collapsed. Today, there is no longer any “ontological” difference between making art and displaying art. In the context of contemporary art, to make art is to show things as art. So the question arises: is it possible, and, if so, how is it possible to differentiate between the role of the artist and that of the curator when there is no difference between art’s production and exhibition? Now, I would argue that this distinction is still possible. And I would like to do so by analyzing the difference between the standard exhibition and the artistic installation. A conventional exhibition is conceived as an accumulation of art objects placed next to one another in an exhibition space to be viewed in succession. In this case, the exhibition space works as an extension of neutral, public urban space—as something like a side alley into which the passerby may turn upon payment of an admission fee. The movement of a visitor through the exhibition space remains similar to that of someone walking down a street and observing the architecture of the houses left and right. It is by no means accidental that Walter Benjamin constructed his “Arcades Project” around this analogy between an urban stroller and an exhibition visitor. The body of the viewer in this setting remains outside of the art: art takes place in front of the viewer’s eyes—as an art object, a performance, or a film. Accordingly, the exhibition space is understood here to be an empty, neutral, public space—a symbolic property of the public. The only function of such a space is to make the art objects that are placed within it easily accessible to the gaze of the visitors.

The curator administers this exhibition space in the name of the public—as a representative of the public. Accordingly, the curator’s role is to safeguard its public character, while bringing the individual artworks into this public space, making them accessible to the public, publicizing them. It is obvious that an individual artwork cannot assert its presence by itself, forcing the viewer to take a look at it. It lacks the vitality, energy, and health to do so. In its origin, it seems, the work of art is sick, helpless; in order to see it, viewers must be brought to it as visitors are brought to a bed-ridden patient by hospital staff. It is no coincidence that the word “curator” is etymologically related to “cure”: to curate is to cure. Curating cures the powerlessness of the image, its inability to show itself by itself. Exhibition practice is thus the cure that heals the originally ailing image, that gives it presence, visibility; it brings it to the public view and turns it into the object of the public’s judgment. However, one can say that curating functions as a supplement, like a pharmakon in the Derridean sense: it both cures the image and further contributes to its illness.1 The iconoclastic potential of curation was initially applied to the sacral objects of the past, presenting them as mere art objects in the neutral, empty exhibition spaces of the modern museum or Kunsthalle. It is curators, in fact, including museum curators, who originally produced art in the modern sense of the word. The first art museums—founded in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and expanded in the course of the 19th century due to imperial conquests and the pillaging of non-European cultures—collected all sorts of “beautiful” functional objects previously used for religious rites, interior decoration, or manifestations of personal wealth, and exhibited them as works of art, that is, as defunctionalized autonomous objects set up for the mere purpose of being viewed. All art originates as design, be it religious design or the design of power. In the modern period as well, design precedes art. Looking for modern art in today’s museums, one must realize that what is to be seen there as art is, above all, defunctionalized design fragments, be it mass-cultural design, from Duchamp’s urinal to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, or utopian design that—from Jugendstil to Bauhaus, from the Russian avant-garde to Donald Judd—sought to give shape to the “new life” of the future. Art is design that has become dysfunctional because the society that provided the basis for it suffered a historical collapse, like the Inca Empire or Soviet Russia.

In the course of the Modern era, however, artists began to assert the autonomy of their art—understood as autonomy from public opinion and public taste. Artists have required the right to make sovereign decisions regarding the content and the form of their work beyond any explanation or justification vis-à-vis the public. And they were given this right—but only to a certain degree. The freedom to create art according to one’s own sovereign will does not guarantee that an artist’s work will also be exhibited in the public space. The inclusion of any artwork in a public exhibition must be—at least potentially—publicly explained and justified. Though artist, curator, and art critic are free to argue for or against the inclusion of some artworks, every such explanation and justification undermines the autonomous, sovereign character of artistic freedom that Modernist art aspired to win; every discourse legitimizing an artwork, its inclusion in a public exhibition as only one among many in the same public space, can be seen as an insult to that artwork. This is why the curator is considered to be someone who keeps coming between the artwork and the viewer, disempowering the artist and the viewer alike. Hence the art market appears to be more favorable than the museum or Kunsthalle to Modern, autonomous art. In the art market, works of art circulate singularized, decontextualized, uncurated, which apparently offers them the opportunity to demonstrate their sovereign origin without mediation. The art market functions according to the rules of the Potlatch as they were described by Marcel Mauss and by Georges Bataille. The sovereign decision of the artist to make an artwork beyond any justification is trumped by the sovereign decision of a private buyer to pay for this artwork an amount of money beyond any comprehension.

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