back to

Spatial Thought


I was thinking of a book, but I didn’t like that idea.
—Marcel Duchamp

Posthumous books are published, why not a posthumous show?
—Philippe Parreno

Can an exhibition be a productive medium for thinking through, and not just a kind of pedagogical illustration of extant ideas? Certainly there have been works of literature, art, and music with such magnificent ambitions, and intellectuals who have attempted to articulate the philosophy of, say, the novel, modern music, or cinema. Consider the case of Jean-François Lyotard. At the very peak of his fame in the mid-1980s, Lyotard, one of Europe’s most prominent thinkers, staged an art world intervention. He did so with essentially a short piece of writing and one major exhibition. The essay “The Sublime and the Avant-garde” appeared in the April 1984 issue of Artforum, just as he was also preparing Les Immatériaux (The Immaterials), a sprawling, pan-historical installation at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. His intention with the exhibition, Lyotard explained, was to produce “unease” in the viewer.

Lyotard’s massive project swept in during an exciting moment in continental philosophy, when the ways in which one might “do” philosophy were being radically rethought. A decade earlier, Jacques Derrida had proclaimed the end of the book, and in Différence et Répétition, Gilles Deleuze stated that the “search for new means of philosophical expression … must be pursued today in relation to the renewal of other certain arts, such as the theatre or the cinema.” Lyotard shared Deleuze and Derrida’s overtures to other media, but there is something quite original in his own wild texts from this period. These were not really books, but experimental and open-ended projects. Lyotard stressed the need to render philosophy visual—not only in the sense of illustrating concepts with striking and sensuous images but also through spatialization, in a way reminiscent of Mallarmé’s famous throw of the dice. Perhaps the recent English translation of Lyotard’s first major book, Discours, Figure is evidence of a new interest in his attempt to reinvent philosophy through confrontations with art. He was not happy with this book. What it ought to have been, he suggests, is a dislocated body, where fragmented speech could be joined together in various ways. “A good book,” he stated, is “a book the reader could dip into anywhere, in any order.” A good book, Lyotard seems to say here, is not a book at all, but an exhibition.

More like an environment than a traditional exhibition, Les Immatériaux was a scenography, an informational space or interface where objects, sounds, projections, music, and texts conveyed an image bordering on an “overexposition,” as Lyotard says, drawing on Paul Virilio’s concept of the “overexposed city.” Unlike the nineteenth-century world exhibitions, the aim of such an overexposure was not to project a sense of newness and amazement—not to simply affirm the seductive power of the new—but rather to trigger a “reflexive unease” in our relation to things that we already dimly sense.

Read the full article here.