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Gerd Elise Mørland: Curated History

Artists Goshka Macuga and Guttorm Guttormsgaard clarify their own positions as storytellers and the allegation seems clear: All history is curated.

Museums have traditionally presented history as a complete narrative and have been less than conscious of their individual role as participatory. Understanding their function as objective and neutral managers of historical information, museums have paid little regard to how their own interests and categories belong to a rather specific story of art.1 Over the past few years, Guttorm Guttormsgaard and Goshka Macuga are two of many artists who have made museum «anti-archives» criticizing such practice. Whereas artists in the 90s, for example Fred Wilson in the project Mining the Museum (1992), primarily criticized museum practice as recording history with a capital H, it appears that artists today are choosing a different strategy. Artists such as Neil Cummings/Marysia Lewandowska, Steven Claydon, Ryan Gander, Goshka Macuga and Guttorm Guttormsgaard present «anti-archives» to highlight the archiving process itself.2 By clarifying their position as subjective story-tellers and fellow creators participating in the process, they clarify the recording of history as part of general experience – including the scientifically compiled history in traditional museums.

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Installation image from the exhibition «Guttormsgaard og hans arkiv (et utvalg)», 2010. Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall. Photography: © Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall

 

History science and history-telling

Archiving characterizes museum practice. They endeavour to collect, preserve and present artworks that they believe best represent a historical era. Artists criticizing such practice often make use of the museum’s collection and play with the idea of the archive – as both a physical and immaterial entity. Examples are Museum without Walls (1950) by André Malraux, Musee d’artes moderne (1972) by Marcel Broodthaers and the already mentioned Mining the Museum by Fred Wilson. However, while «history-writing» traditionally referred to scientific practice, with notions such as objectivity and neutrality as guarantors for truth production in its storytelling, «history-telling»has traditionally been referred to as a more or less fictive storytelling tradition.3 The two exhibitions «Guttormsgaard and his archive (a selection)» (2010) and «The Nature of the Beast» (2009-­2010) prove that such a divide is not similarly operative today.


Personal collection

Over the last few years, Guttorm Guttormsgaard has curated his own personal collection of cultural treasures. His work clarifies his own storyteller perspective through his selection of objects, the grouping of them and the overall composition of the combinations in exhibition space. In the projects Obs! m.fl&.m.m.m. (2006-2009) at the old Blaker Meieri (a former dairy) outside Oslo and «Guttormsgaard and his archive (a selection)», it’s Guttormsgaard’s own interests that are displayed using historical objects as «sampled» elements in a formal composition.

Guttormsgaard’s collection consists of everything from old political posters to Norwegian log-chairs, old metal tools, architectural sketches, hand-woven lifting straps and old, hand-made reproductions to art readily accepted as visual art. Guttormsgaard’s archive therefore is not an archive or collection in the traditional sense. Guttormsgaard’s exhibitions are a mixture of «crafts», «visual art», «applied art» and «printing», all shown in combinations and groups with little regard to whatever art category they might belong to.

The objects aren’t even presented to represent any specific time, style or period. In fact, the display of the objects defies any historical period and any art historical style. Guttormsgaard’s curating therefore emphasizes the lack of relationship between art historical periods, when the art was made and the objects in themselves.

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Installation image from the exhibition «Guttormsgaard og hans arkiv (et utvalg)», 2010. Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall. Photography: © Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall

Traditional museum practice is replaced by a unique interest in the visual form of the objects. Guttormsgaard’s most striking strategy is how the objects are arranged on the basis of formal visual analogies. With a basis in such analogies, different art categories and the time objects were made appear insignificant. The independent arrangement of the objects; defiant of category, results in the impression of a different history to the one we are normally told in museums.

Guttormsgaard points out how the use of scientific category: «applied art» and «visual art», create the basis for the history produced by museums and how such a practice provides only one specific result. Wouldn’t we have had a different history if today’s extended notion of visual art had been in place? Or, wouldn’t we have had a different history if the objects hadn’t been displayed to represent one specific art history or one specific historical era, but rather as emancipated, formal objects, like Guttormsgaard’s objects? Such questions help reveal how history is also linked to storytelling and fiction, and is therefore not objective or neutral but simply involved in producing history.


Guernica as political symbol

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The Bloomberg Commission: Goshka Macuga: «The Nature of the Beast», 2009. Photography: Patrick Lears. Reproduced with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

The exhibition «The Nature of the Beast» (2009-10) was made in connection with the re-opening of the East London Whitechapel Gallery in 2009. Goshka Macugabased the re-opening on Pablo Picasso’s world famous painting Guernica from 1937. The painting was originally produced for the Spanish Pavilion of The Paris World Exhibition in 1937 and was then used as communist propaganda for the aggressive Spanish Civil War. Picasso painted Guernica to mark how the Franco regime, in cooperation with the Nazis, reduced the little village of Guernica to rubble in only 45 minutes. Two years later the painting was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery and 15 000 visitors streamed in during the first week. Designed to raise income for similar political motivations, the exhibition admission fee was either a pair of boots for a communist soldier (in the same civil war) or a small donation for clothing. 15 000 was an unusually high number of visitors in 1939 and Macuga decided to pursue Guernica as a political symbol based on the history of the Whitechapel Gallery.  Her motivation - according to the exhibition text – was to revive the power of the subject and its effect on people, and place it into the current political situation.4

By emphasizing their own subjectivity as history-tellers and revealing how curatorial strategies in themselves produce meaning, these artists propose that history-telling is an important part of historical practice.

Bringing Guernica back to Whitechapel was difficult due to practical issues, however during work with Whitechapel’s archive Macuga came over another story. A woven copy of the painting had been made in 1955. The copy had been made with Picasso’s permission and produced by a group of Parisian weavers fascinated by the subject and its political power. Nelson Rockefeller bought the copy in 1955 and it was later lent to the UN building. At a press conference in 2003, when Colin Powell announced that the USA had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it was decided that the Guernica-copy should be covered by a blue curtain, a clear indication of how the painting, even today, functions as an anti-war symbol.

Macuga borrowed the Guernica-copy from the UN building for the exhibition in Whitechapel and this was the meeting of the three stories about Guernica. The tapestry was mounted on an end wall in the exhibition space in front of a blue curtain, like the one in the UN building. In the centre of the room Macuga placed a round table with a sunken display case. Inside the case went Guernica’s history in letters, documents and images from the Whitechapel archive, then Macuga offered the exhibition space as a meeting room for local political groups.

It is a specific historical method that Macuga applies to this project. An art historian will often consider the relationship between Guernica and the particular context surrounding the work at the time of production. Instead Macuga pursues the painting regardless of time and place, hers is a particular, personal motivation; the desire to examine Guernica’s historical effect as a political symbol and find out if it could be used for something productive today. What Macuga underlines through her own storytelling is how history-telling is altered by her perspective and interest.

That a story is always motivated by someone’s personal interest and is difficult to distinguish from historical narrative, is articulated in post-modern art and philosophy generally and represented in particular by thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jaques Derrida and Jean Francois Lyotard. Therefore what’s radical about Macuga’s project is how she implements such an idea. The local political groups that used the exhibition as a meeting room documented their meetings and the material was entered into the Whitechapel archive. Meaning that while she criticized the general idea of what an archive is – what history-writing entails and produces - she also intervened in the strict Whitechapel Gallery archive

Using the story of Guernicato write oneself and one’s own project into the immaterial and physical archive, also expresses an understanding of history as a continuous entity. In contradiction to a view of history as a series of breaks replacing each other, such as indicated by traditional art history’s focus on limited styles and eras, such a method underlines the connection between the now and the past. In this perspective history becomes a direct forerunner of future events and this is how a renegotiation of «the archive» or history, will create the basis for the now and the future.

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The Bloomberg Commission: Goshka Macuga: «The Nature of the Beast», 2009. Photography: Patrick Lears. Reproduced with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

 

Focus on the archiving process

«Guttormsgaard og hans arkiv (et utvalg)» and Goshka Macugas «The Nature of the Beast» invite us to renegotiate the principles that establish museum practice because the categories and methods they use are in themselves creators of meaning. These structures therefore ought to be revealed, rather than hidden behind ideas about neutrality and objectivity. By emphasizing their own subjectivity as history-tellers and revealing how curatorial strategies in themselves produce meaning, these artists propose that history-telling is an important part of historical practice. However, where post-modern history critics would insist on the rights of these parallel histories to co-existence, these two artists believe in focusing directly on the archiving process and different archiving strategies, and to a lesser degree on evaluating the truth of them: A general tendency among artists interested in contemporary archiving. Perhaps it’s the development of the internet in the 1990s that’s updated the critique of the museum, since the net has the potential of an almost unlimited archive, where information moves freely between contexts and perspectives, and where the process of archiving is very visible.


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1 In the book Art History after Modernism The German art historian Hans Belting writes about how such a practice was connected to the function of the museum in the national state: They would create a foundation for a common identity and therefore history was told as a unified narrative. See page 105-106. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

2 For example Enthusiasts:Archive, 2006- (on-going) by Cummings/Lewandowska; «Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Appearing» by Steven Claydon, Camden Art Centre, 2007-2008; or «The Way in Which it Landed» by Ryan Gander, Art Now series, Tate Britain, 2008.

3 According to T. J. Demos in the essay «Storytelling in/as Contemporary art» the interest in history-telling has generally increased since the middle of the 1990s in contemporary art. In The Storyteller, JRP Ringier, 2010, p. 83.

4 Macuga, Goshka: The Nature of the Beast. Guernica 1939-2009. Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2009, p. 8.

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