The idea and nature of cultural exchange

Jamelie Hassan’s deceptively simple-looking Even Onto China questions the idea and nature of cultural exchange as well as the idea of the replica-memento and its meaning for the museum visitor. Comprised of a display stand topped by a Plexiglass case divided in two, one side of the case was filled with specially packaged hairpins which could be taken out thanks to an opening at the base. The other side of the case, which started out empty, featured a slot and a note inviting viewers to drop a memento inside, in exchange for one of the pins. Hassan’s hairpin-souvenirs were packaged in a similar way to an ancient (c. 1500 A.D.) hairpin that she had apparently seen displayed as a museum curiosity, due to the fact that hairpins had been traded as a commodity on the Silk Route. But the key to Even Onto China was a colour photograph (which served as part of the case’s backdrop) of a Cantonese street vender who sells similar pins today. It is a moving portrait of a hardworking older woman patiently packaging the pins, surrounded by dozens of packages of similar items in her tiny stand. If, on the one hand, Hassan reclaims “the street as museum; the street as a place of history,” Even Onto China also speaks of low-wage earners and their relationship to the West. As Hanhardt points out in his catalogue text, as one side of the case fills up with mementos left behind by viewers (and the other side with the hairpin-souvenirs empties), the work ironically “becomes a container for remnants of the mass-produced consumer culture of the West, with articles fabricated in the globally spanning hyper-capitalism of a Far Eastern factory.”

Even Onto China bore relation to Kristin Ross’ lecture, in which she asserted that all possible definitions of culture are negotiated through commerce and need to be evaluated by looking at specific circumstances. The specialist in French literary theory and popular culture (who teaches at NYU) used the history of the development of Paris’ Centre Pompidou and Le Forum des Halles to ask if the phenomena that cultural institutions are increasingly perceived as shopping malls constitutes the threat it is made out to be. The Centre Pompidou, which probably represents the first attempt to use a contemporary art museum to economically transform an area, also represents a museum transformed to contemporary purposes – that is to say, according to Ross, it is praised by the French not as a monument but as a center of activity.

Sophie Calle’s Last Seen … (1991) creates a link between the memory of the museum object and the importance of the physical place that object holds. Last Seen … features framed colour photographs of the phantom shadows left behind from objects which were robbed from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. These lighter areas on the museum’s walls are a poignant reminder of loss, and a telling sign of a forced transition which Calle has prolonged indefinitely. The museum, determined not to change, has – first through the loss of its precious objects, then through Calle’s appropriation of that altered image of the museum, then again by the artist’s subjective framing of that image, then again by its transference to another viewing context. The museum’s image is further transformed/distorted via the museum staff’s fuzzy and mundane remembrances, which were gathered, edited, printed, and framed by Calle for their “irreverent” presentation.

Calle’s piece effectively challenges Alexander Garcia Duttmann’s excessively morbid claim that through the museum the “tradition of the dead generations rests on the living like a nightmare.” In his presentation, the Essex University philosopher constructed an elaborate metaphor of the museum as “the making of an orphan.” Yet, more in keeping with museum psycho-dynamics (at least to my mind), Last Seen … portrays the obsessive love of the mother-museum who has lost her children. Their “after death” memory is perversely preserved, but given new life by Calle, as well as a new, altered history perpetuated by the spectator that transgresses the (original) museum’s fierce efforts to control its own identity and self-worth.

Ilya Kabakov also investigated the drama of the museum’s identity dilemma and its relationship to its beloved objects, with Incident at the Museum or Water Music, which took the form of a leaky Russian museum. Elaborately decorated rooms were adorned with provincial paintings and fitted with buckets to catch dripping water (incredibly, as the title indicates, the drips are a musical composition). According to Kabakov, “you cannot look at paintings now in museums … in order to return `museumness’ to the museum, it has to leak water, it has to be in a dilapidated state already.” Yet Kabakov’s emphatic statement about contemporary museums is made entirely without reference to them. His point is made, and beautifully so, by transporting us to Russia, because, as he says simply “in order to understand the truth, we must distance ourselves from it.”

Julia Scher’s The Institutional State offered a live video hookup between the museum and St. Joan de Deu, a local psychiatric hospital. Viewers at both sites could see themselves on camera as well as watch people at the other institution. According to Scher, The Institutional State ideally created “a non-judgmental `video-corridor’ for communication between different cultures, passing through different institutional bodies.” Here Scher engages technology to extend the space of the museum, although technology is widely thought to signal the museum’s obsolescence. The objects museums collect “are threatened with irrelevance in the age of global information and entertainment technologies, from television to computers, and of vast reservoirs of electronically-archived data,” as Keenan mentions in his catalogue essay. Still, I would argue that these are techno-dramas of the West. Whereas Scher’s amazing cyberchatter which cleverly mixes sexual and top-security lingo (published in the catalogue), was probably lost on most local viewers, The Institutional State transcended Western concerns in a very significant way. Museum spectators could well understand that Scher intended that the work reflect “on institutional control and link(ed) the Tapies site and the mental institution as ideological, recuperational and educational (settings) as identified by the state.” By linking the two institutions, The Institutional State also hinted at an answer to Andrew Ross’ question, “why have museums failed to democratize culture?”

Of all the works in “The End(s) of the Museum” only Bill Fontana’s Time Fountain truly disarticulated the museum’s physical, aesthetic and conceptual constraints. Piped into the museum via loudspeakers were the gurgling splashes from Calder’s Mercury Fountain (permanently installed in Barcelona’s Miro Foundation), echoes from the stairwell of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, the gongs from an ancient clock tower in an older part of town, and the rumblings of the adjacent metro. The multi-layered references, created aurally, were astonishing – a contemporary art museum linked to Calder’s modernist fountain, Spain’s national museum (Reina Sofia) connected to a regional museum, one monographic institution (Miro) tied to another (Tapies), a contemporary institution united with an historical clock tower. In addition, the metro transport system entered the galleries through a white box-bench (when sat on, the vibrations caused by the ambient sounds of the metro’s reverberations were felt). Time, motion, and institutional identity were interwoven in a fluid interchange that did not involve imagery, yet the possibilities of the museum’s ever-changing realm, paced differently from place to place, were powerfully conveyed.

Although other works on view were created by artists who regularly address contemporary art museum issues, their pieces did not escape their museum presentation as discrete, individual objects. Taken separately, the works did not travel far enough beyond the Western museum’s preoccupations, nor did the accumulation of their parts coalesce into a forceful critical retort. The fact that both the exhibition and conference fell a little flat is sadly symptomatic of today’s museum’s plight. As Keenan suggests, the museum’s non-conclusivity is its affirmation, not its weakness, yet it is clear from “The End(s) of the Museum” that offering a diversity of viewpoints is not enough. Keenan’s prognosis for the museum calls for new reading(s) of “object and media, subject and public, memory and history.” I would add to his list of crucial but fairly straighforward pairings the dialectical coupling of fragmentation and wholeness, time and movement, transition and difference.