Appel blazen. Over engagement in de kunst / Call to order. On engagement in art

Ninety years after Duchamp’s urinal demonstrated that anything exhibited in a museum will become art and therefore acceptable, De Appel’s trainee curators set out to explore the boundaries of artistic tolerance. But at their show ‘Crap Shoot’ one could not help feeling that once again there was little outrageous about it. Not that the spirit wasn’t willing, it’s just that it’s impossible to be seriously affected by art which merely sets out to prove a point. The very fact that one’s own life goes on makes artists who strive at more than just making a statement – thereby making one’s future uncertain – more interesting than artists whose sole goal is to drive a fact home.

The curators of ‘Crap Shoot’ have landed themselves with an awkward paradox. How can they ever again present works in a context whose machinery they have so thoroughly exposed, without being hypocritical? Hopefully they will realize that their statement doesn’t stand alone. Life goes on for them too, although their future careers will be put in perspective by this assertion of theirs.

One of the curators of this show, the South African Clive Kellner, invited his compatriot, artist Kendell Geers, to come to Amsterdam. Both of them wanted a head-on encounter with the western art world, whose greatest and most soporific enemy is freedom. Geers put artistic tolerance in the Netherlands to the test by having the director of the Stedelijk Museum, Rudy Fuchs, shadowed by a private detective.

After the recent police scandal in this country, no-one lost any sleep over a Sherlock Holmes affair with which Geers demonstrated that tolerance was indeed sky-high. True, many considered the spectacle to be in bad taste but hardly the act of terrorism Geers had intended. For the exhibition, their was prior agreement, reached in consultation with the curators, as to what would be smashed up or stolen, so that the terrorist component of the art was clearly commensurate with the leeway granted by the curators. As a result Geers (who did the shadowing), Cattelan (the burglar) and Jacobsen (the vandal) are likely to be hanging around European museums for some time to come.

Clive Kellner, though, is going back to his own country where every square centimetre of artistic freedom has to be fought for. I hope he will manage to stay on his toes to the same extent there, for doing anything radical in South Africa is asking for trouble. It would be interesting to keep tabs on what this curator gets up to in his own country.

As for the other curators I have no idea what their plans are. But now that Lech Walesa is back at work in the shipyard, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pole Adam Szymczyk had something to get off his chest there. Similarly, the Irishwoman Annie Fletcher will have matters to square in Dublin. And in London and Amsterdam there are stands to be taken and issues to be raised, should anyone feel so inclined. The curators of this show implicitly commit themselves to continuing their careers in the world outside the art institutions.

That all art should by definition be shown in the museum or kunsthalle is an odd idea to begin with. This situation only exists by virtue of the power attributed to the art institute. The museum has served the artist for many years, as a place where it is possible to unburden the soul of all impediments that stand in the way of freedom. In that respect the museum has been fairly successful. It has also helped art to survive two world wars. Today, however, it is the artists who must keep the museum going. The roles seem to have been reversed: the artists have become the museum curators. Take, for example, the way the training institute Ateliers 63 – like a neo-Modernist factory – has entered into a collaboration with De Pont Foundation in Tilburg.

But the idea that all art can be shown in a museum is a misconception. That was never Duchamp’s intention. Today the museum panders to the outside world as a way of safeguarding its power, but in actual fact the options it can offer contemporary art are restricted. Rudy Fuchs may recognize the necessity of building a kitchen in his museum for the show ‘Peiling 5’, but that the kitchen has to be seen as a kitchen while the museum already has one is, he feels, taking things too far. Fuchs warms to an artwork which means something, and is finished. You only need to compare the budgets which the museum provides for artistic processes with those for the acquisition of ‘contemplative’ artworks to see that.

After ‘Crap Shoot’ and countless other attempts to lure in the outside world, it is time that museums acknowledged that they have their limitations. Not that this would mean the end of engage art, quite the reverse. But it does mean that many artists will have to explore other avenues, which wouldn’t do this kind of art any harm at all. It might even mark the start of something really exciting.

In his article ‘Aan tafel’ (Dinner’s ready) in the April issue of Metropolis M (no. 2, 1996) Rutger Pontzen suggests that artists who seek to ‘integrate the public’ would do well to stage their activities ‘outside the art circuit’. In my opion Pontzen has put his finger on the sore spot of engagÇart. Why, he asks, doesn’t Tiravanija open a Thai restaurant out in the suburbs somewhere, without immediately trying to reach an art public? Why not set up Fabrice Hybert’s stall for the ‘Shift’ show in the middle of Amsterdam’s Albert Cuyp market instead of safely next to De Appel’s door? I was overjoyed to hear these words from the mouth of an art critic!

Indeed, for many artists and curators engagement is primarily a question of form, a pretext for making art. It is striking how engagement invariably leads to exposure of the artists and curators themselves. Nonetheless, these can adopt a radical stance by consciously opting not to see the art context as a place to lay an artistic egg, but as somewhere to sneak into and engage in some secret activity. The context would then cease to be the subject of the artwork and the artwork would then be an infiltration of the context. By refusing to be content with an engagement that is all form and a context that is merely material for an artwork, the artist could once again be able to operate within a framework where decision-making is important. That framework is culture in the widest sense of the word. The difficulty there is that the artistic infrastructure would have to be adjusted slightly, and the question is whether those concerned would be willing to comply.

‘The exhibition unintentionally addresses the moment when an artwork comes into being as well as its rationale,’ writes Lex ter Braak in an article on the show ‘Entre Deux’ in the Brussels gallery Mot and Boogaard, a show which although actually mounted was not open to the general public. ‘The present processal nature of art makes it increasingly difficult to determine the moment when the work manifests itself as a fixed entity to the viewer, that is to say, the moment when he can act and make (or erase) a mental note of it.’

Lex ter Braak suspects that the ‘Entre Deux’ concept will eventually be inverted as its unsaleable and enclosed character is skilfully transmuted by artists and gallery owners into saleable and communicable art. Rutger Pontzen for his part accuses artists and curators of ambiguity because `all energy is directed towards integrating the public, capturing this process in photos and on video, organizing it round the museum and reviewing it in art magazines.’

But Rutger Pontzen’s article displays a dual morality. Ninety per cent of it deals with art which, in Pontzen’s opinion, is only concerned with getting write-ups in the art magazines. Just as artists and curators use the ‘participation model’ as a cover so that they can devote themselves entirely to art, so he uses this analysis to precisely the same end. His goal is identical. The argument that a critic has a journalistic task which legitimates such an attitude doesn’t hold water. The art world is too small for that and the role of art magazines too influential. Small wonder then that the critic tackles whatever invitations come his way. Pontzen wonders why Fabrice Hybert didn’t set up his stall in the Albert Cuyp market; yet if this were indeed the case Pontzen wouldn’t be aware of it.

‘The artwork is a hounded animal which, in trying to flee, adopts the hunter’s tactics of lying low in mere words,’ writes Lex ter Braak on the rationale and birth, the coming into existence, of a processal work of art. But then the words would have to be spoken. An appeal is therefore forthcoming, not only to the artist and the curator but also to the critic, if there is to be any real change. It is not realistic to expect an artist to work in complete anonymity or a curator to abolish his profession. Even if this were justified on principle, it would be unrealistic in that it overlooks the need to communicate thoughts, decisions and actions. If art is engage and processal then at the very least information will be required to apprise people of its existence. The role of the critic could well be vital here.

Curator Lex ter Braak challenges galley owners Mot and Boogaard to select a series of ‘unsaleable adventures’. Rutger Pontzen calls upon artists to look for new options outside the art circuit. Hans van Houwelingen for his part appeals to the critic Rutger Pontzen to follow De Appel’s curators, who do what they really believe in wherever they go in the world. A call to order which ultimately applies to us all.

Archis dobbelt niet / Tales of demolition