1.14 / May Days

Between May 24th and May 30th

By Jeffrey Stuker May 5, 2010

Image: Student strikes, Paris, May 1968.

In her review of the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Patricia Maloney observes that there are a few artists who break with the curator's assertion that we live in a time in which personal and intimate rather than social and historical issues occupy artists. To break with this curatorial framework is commendable, Maloney infers, since the time in which we live estranges intimacy and confounds the personal with the historical, the peaceful with the violent. Of the works she mentions, Michael Asher's marks the most significant departure from the exhibition's theme. In fact, one might even call it an act of negation. With what follows, I would like to explore the broader histories and social relations that are called up and called into question in this work that first presents itself as an absence of work.

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The first way we can understand Asher's work at the Whitney as an act of negation is in the way it thwarts the most basic expectation of a visitor to a museum: seeing a discrete work of art on display. For the visitors to the Whitney who initially notice Asher's name on the exhibition program—especially those who look forward to seeing a "work" of his with excitement—there is bound to be a sense of fading anticipation as they move from floor to floor searching the Whitney's large galleries. When no installation presents itself resembling, for example, the elegant intervention Asher brought to the Santa Monica Museum two years ago—in which he installed skeletal walls to represent each of the floor plans of the museum since 1998—visual frustration and a breakdown of understanding might follow. This is a frustration that comes from not seeing "exhibition floor plans as a conceptual medium," as one high-profile critic described the 2008 project.[1]

In the immediate context of the Biennial, though, this is an act of negation that does not leave us without something to interpret or read. Like the presence of the unseen air in the elevator shaft, or the faint echo of footfalls in the well-damped stairwell next to the placard that confronts us as the only representation of Asher’s work, we are left with a slim narrative—an "almost nothing" from which to proceed. On each floor of the Whitney, this placard, which might easily be mistaken for the explanatory text to another artist's work in the show, reads:

Michael Asher’s proposal for the Whitney Biennial is to have the exhibition open continuously to the public twenty-four hours a day for one week (Monday, May 24 through Sunday, May 30)

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Michael Asher. Rendering for his proposal for 2010, the Whitney Biennial. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Reading this placard gives us a more precise understanding of what negation might signify in Asher's work in this year's Biennial: it is an act that suspends the financial transaction, momentarily arresting the exchange relationship that defines the very logic of our time. Between the period that separates night from day, it forces an opening that allows the lucid day to flow into the ludic night.

Allowing non-paying visitors to stay throughout the day and night potentially negates the museum’s default function as a place of one-sided dissemination of knowledge, historical narrative, or cultural capital paid for by an appreciative, disciplined public. People might come for no reason, look at "nothing in particular," or look so long at a single work that much more intellectually rigorous conversations might develop, beyond what the museum's informational placards have to say. Or, if an irreverent, festive atmosphere emerges, people might have so much fun that they ignore their surroundings. And a great many other people who are denied entry because of the high cost of admission might find those surroundings inviting for a change, or just as readily feel free to pass critical judgment on them, having been relieved of the burden of justifying an expenditure.

And let us pause here for a moment on the possibility that Asher's work at the Whitney addresses a broader public, one financially or symbolically excluded from contemporary art. While it has not featured much in recent criticism on Asher, a strong precedent exists in his work that links acts of aesthetic negation in museums to advocating for a population ignored by them. One recalls, for instance, Asher's 1991 removal of the furnace at Le Nouveau Musée in Lyon while the museum underwent renovation. He melted it down to make placards with the telephone numbers of housing advocates and the statement “Housing is Your Right!” This was an excision of raw material and funds from the museum (those given to a "conceptual artist" making "contemporary art") to address those being displaced by speculative real-estate developers looking to turn the surrounding neighborhood from one of modest income homes into one of luxury condominiums and retail stores.[2]

Or, one thinks of Asher's contribution to Documenta 7 in 1982, in which the artist made a poster from Gerd Arntz's 1928 graphic portraying male and female unemployed workers. This use of Arntz's overtly political “isotope” imagery was interpreted as questioning the validity of hosting an international art exhibition costing several million deutsche marks during a time of high unemployment and regular news of impending crises in the economy.[3]

What is at stake in considering these works in light of the aesthetics of negation is not that they are simply negative judgments passed on contemporary art institutions. For then they would be positive statements, simple morality, easily recuperated and dismissed. To the contrary, at work here is a negation that not only halts a certain default experience of art institutions—such as the role museums play in the creation of speculative capital in the economy as a whole, and the role they play in reproducing social hierarchy—but also delineates the contours of this institutional experience more precisely than the normal course of business allows. And, in revealing the precise limits of these determined experiences, there emerges the indeterminate, animate possibility of a response.

In Asher's work at this year's Biennial exists the invisible possibility of a collective whose principled occupation, indisciplined curiosity, criticism, or play might be difficult for the authorities to dismiss. Here, I believe, lies the significance of a second placard placed under Asher's proposal by museum officials:

Note: The duration of this work has been shortened from the artist’s original proposal. Due to budgetary and human resources limitations, the Museum is unable to remain open to the public twenty-four hours a day for one week. As a result, this work has been shortened from seven days to three days (Wednesday, May 26 at 12:00 am through Friday, May 28 at 11:59 pm).

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Chris Marker. Le fond de l'air est rouge, 1977 (clip); 240 min.

For an artist such as Asher, in whose artwork times and events are recalled with a precision similar to the uncanny memory of Borges' fictional character Funes, we must read the dates chosen for the opening of the Whitney day and night for seven days with requisite care. For we find here a specific reference to acts of negation in an exemplary moment within modern history.

May 24 to 30 is widely considered to mark the period between the apogee and forceful end of the marches, barricade fighting, spontaneous and coordinated strikes, and occupations of cultural and educational institutions that occurred in Paris in 1968.

On May 10, 1968, students—outraged by the arrest and expulsion of student protesters at Nanterre University and the Sorbonne—confronted a heavy police presence on the Rive Gauche. And while being brutally attacked by the police as they attempted to cross the river to gain access to the Sorbonne, which had been shut down by the government and was guarded by the police, they set up improvised barricades out of overturned cars and whatever else they could find to help them resist arrest and maintain their protest. After Georges Pompidou reopened the Sorbonne on May 13, the students promptly occupied it, and from there started their own autonomous action committee, The Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne. In the following days, many sit-down workers’ strikes took place in solidarity with the students in manufacturing plants, including a massive strike at a Renault auto parts factory in Roen that spread to factories in Flins and Boulogne-Billancourt.

On May 25, De Gaulle's government—anxious that the social movement spontaneously emerging might topple the entire government—proposed a small group of reforms and wage increases, called Les Accords de Grenelle (Grenelle Agreements); these were categorically rejected. After going into hiding, de Gaulle gave a radio address on May 30, ordering workers to resume working in their factories, and threatening a state of emergency, or of martial law, backed by

 

 

the French military, the national police, and the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité.

It can be argued that out of this event comes both the contemporary artistic practice of addressing the ideological function of the museum, and an understanding that spontaneous, de-centered refusal plays an exemplary role in “the will to escape, by all means, a world that is alienated but so tightly structured and integrated that simple contestation always risks being placed in its service.”[4] In particular, Maurice Blanchot's writings from this time come to mind, for he is a philosopher who uses the events of May 1968 to reassess his own philosophical language, as well as someone who, long before, explored negation and refusal as essential functions of art.[5] Blanchot does this, not retrospectively, but as a participant in these events. He published in newspapers, posters, and tracts issued from the occupied Sorbonne, and, in the months following May, in a journal called Comité, created by students and writers.

It is in Comité that Blanchot began to formulate the lessons of what was still the very recent past, laying out "les actions exemplaires," or exemplary actions:

"The night of barricades, the occupation of the Sorbonne, the "No" to the Grenelle Agreements, the active strikes, Flins, were―among others―the moments in which revolutionary possibility was not only present, but affirmed itself in a negation which, creating a void and arresting time, pointed to the future."

Coming into focus with the rejection of the Grenelle Agreements on May 25 and 26 is a total rejection of the established order of life, voiced by a disorganized public in a "moment of madness." And this rejection, according to Blanchot, can be undertaken only as a negative force: as a total refusal, not as a reform, which in the end is collaboration with authorities. Any response other than "NO" leaves the law intact and allows society to remain a nexus of guilt that, in the last instance, and in the name of safety and security, maintains private property and private propriety, the servile rationality of work, and the estrangement of pleasure.

Now it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove a positive link between this or that institutional occupation that occurred in 1968 and Michael Asher's work at the Whitney this year. It would be a mistake to see Asher's proposal simply as a monument to the events of May. But it would equally be a mistake to refuse to interpret either the echo that can be heard in this work or the silence and refusal that this work preserves for the future in the void it has created in the present.

Christopher Williams. "Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095," 2000. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

Here, it might be useful to recall an earlier work of another artist who is one of Asher's most well-known students: Christopher Williams. In his photograph "Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095," (2000) the viewer is confronted with what first appears to be a nonsensical advertising image of a car. All of the signs of advertising's seductive and irrational presentation of things are present: the defiance of gravity, the perfect geometry of specular highlights unifying the surface of enameled metal, chrome, and transparent glass. The car is carefully posed on its side, which, in general, would anticipate a witty explanation in advertising jargon of how it got to be this way. There is the endless horizon of the photographic "sweep," which shuts out all possible clues of historical context and social function that would endow the commodity object with a power of its own. But as we continue to look carefully and closely at the photograph's surface, we notice fingerprints that subtly interrupt the perfect polish of this car. These fingerprints are not just anywhere on the surface, but are located precisely at the place where hands would need to be in order to turn over a 1964 Renault, and many other cars, in the creation of barricades during the street fighting of May 1968 (and in solidarity with the strikes that had occurred in Renault factories in the days before).

Williams' work gives us a precedent for thinking about how specific political events—especially the events of May 1968—can be referred to negatively, in a moment of non-sense, when history itself seems to be cleared away.

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Thinking of Asher's contribution to this year's Whitney Biennial as an aesthetic of refusal, in which the politics of a “NO” resounds, allows us to reconsider the larger project of what is too quickly and too simply called "institutional critique."

Generally, what is called institutional critique is seen issuing from two distinct, but related, events in art in 1968 and 1969. The first is Marcel Broodthaers' founding of his fictional museum, Le musée d'art moderne, which first started during the political occupation of the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in May 1968. Its first installment outside of that occupation was in Broodthaers’ own apartment. There, the artist brought together paraphernalia that foregrounded both the classification of works of art in the modern museum and the utilization of cultural artifacts to naturalize socially constructed values, therefore presenting them as if they were universal.

Michael Asher. Groundplan and elevation drawing for 1969 installation in the Diego Rivera Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute. Drawing by Lawrence Kenny.

The second event is Asher's exhibition organized by Eugenia Butler at the San Francisco Art Institute from April 11 to May 3, 1969. Here, Asher brought in no artistic products of his own for display but directed the viewer's attention to the very infrastructure of display at work in the museum itself. The project in San Francisco, in Asher's own words,

was defined exclusively by the gallery's pre-existing architectural elements and visible equipment. Givens were considered to be those elements that were not prefabricated or produced and not inserted from outside into the existing institution for the production of the work.”[6]

Asher interlocked ten-by-four-foot panels used as additional walls in the gallery into an unusually long thirty-six-foot temporary wall that cut through the entire room (itself only a little over forty feet wide). On one side of the partition, the diffuse light of a skylight and four windows illuminated the space. On the other side of the joined partitions, a darker hallway resulted.

The result was a redirection of the viewer's attention away from individual works of art that were expected and onto the architecture of the museum, to its walls that partition and define the viewing experience, or to its sources of light that give primacy to some works and bring obscurity to others. Though less discursively clear in his critical intentions, the result of this project, like Broodthaers' fictional museum, was to show the extent to which art institutions shape visual perception even before works of art are  present within them.[7]

The fate of these two projects in our time is the reduction to a mea culpa or "self-consciousness" about the limitations of museums—itself put on display by museums. This has the effect of neutralizing critical reflection on the power that art museums exert on perception of works, as well as their role in creating a subjectivity that helps to reproduce the social relationships and laws that constitute society's present state. This was certainly the case with the trend that began in the 1980s, which had the effect of presenting the various strategies of "institutional critique" as an aesthetic practice—or, worse, a "look"—rather than an interrogation of the museum as an ideological space.[8] But with Asher's contribution to the Whitney, the viewer is not allowed to bask in cynical contemplation of artistic strategies that have exhausted their radicality. Nor are viewers encouraged to dwell melancholically in forgotten political strategies—before being consoled by a gourmet sandwich in the designer café of the museum's basement.

Instead, what is called institutional critique is being redefined here as the potential for a ruptured historical memory to emerge; or, more precisely, for historical memory to emerge as a rupture in the very institution that endeavors to make a comprehensive overview of the recent history of visual culture. At a threshold in the architecture, where a public is passing through, but not yet recognizing a work of art or itself as a "public" (they are as yet just an echo of feet, of air exhaled in the elevator, of small talk, but not yet a unified voice, much less a voice carrying a unified set of questions or demands), historical memory is made possible as a negative presence.  

Rather than a monument to left-wing political causes, or a memorial that honors the sacrifices made on behalf of political art, the viewer is presented with a void. In this void resounds the anticipation of a future cut short, starting, for example, with the threat of martial law on May 30, 1968. In contemplating it, one begins the difficult, even impossible, task of imagining a rupture opening up in the history that has continued—of an experience of law that always is on the verge of becoming martial law—without interruption since the end of that May. Asher's small wall text reminds us that it is not yet the end of May for us (indeed it is only March as these lines are being written). And before we resume our habit of dismissing as improbable or impossible any such interruption occurring this coming May, let us remember what Blanchot observed in "his" May, forty-two years ago:

Rupture du temps: Révolution

There is a stop, a suspension. In this suspension society undoes itself piece by piece. The law collapses in on itself. Transgression fulfills its task. For an instant innocence—history interrupted.

 

 

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NOTES:

[1] “How Art Is Framed: Exhibition Floor Plans as a Conceptual Medium,” Roberta Smith, New York Times, March 8, 2008. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/roberta_smith/index.html?inline=nyt-per

[2] Michael Asher, introductory statement, Le Nouveau Musée, 1991.

[3] See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, "Documenta 7: Dictionary of Received Ideas," October, Vol. 22, (Autumn, 1982), 104-126

[4] Maurice Blanchot “La solidarité que nous affirmons ici...” Le Monde, Mai 9, 1968. See also: Maurice Blanchot, Écrits Politiques, Lignes: Editions Léo Scheer, 83.

[5] See for example Blanchot's description of the function of language in literature, which greatly anticipates Jacques Lacan's reinterpretation of Saussure. In Mallarmé's poetry, the word, “is not the expression of a thing, but the absence of this thing.” Here “the word makes things disappear and imposes on us the feeling of a universal lack and even of its own lack.” (“Le Paradoxe d'Aytre,” Les Temps Modernes, June 1946. For a translation see, Faux Pas, Stanford University Press p. 65)

Or, more immediately relevant: see Blanchot's discussion of Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," which renders Bartleby an embodiment of the artist's refusal—a force that interrupts time and disintegrates identity—an act of insubordination that authority cannot assimilate.  (Bartleby is mentioned in the above essay, but also given more sustained reflection in Blanchot's book L'écriture du désastre, pp. 33-34. For a translation see The Writing of the Disaster, University of Nebraska Press)

[6] Michael Asher, Michael Asher Writings 1973–1983 on Works 1969–1979 (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), 1983, 2.

[7] These two works were compared along these lines for the first time in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh's essay “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture. ” Buchloh, being a friend of Broodthaers and an early champion of his work before the artist's death in 1976, and also being a friend of Asher's and an early champion of his work, starting in that same year, is uniquely qualified to develop conclusions while comparing both works. See Buchoh, “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 10, The Art Institute of Chicago Centennial Lectures (1983), pp. 276-295

[8] A partial list of these exhibitions, none of them without their good intentions: “Art in Los Angeles: The Museum as Site” (1981); “Art/ Artifact” at the Center for African Art in New York (1988); “Desire and The Museum” at the Whitney Museum of American Art” (1989) “Els Limits del Museu” at the Fundación Antoni Tàpies de Barcelona (1995); and “The Museum as Muse” at the Museum of Modern Art (1999). A sociological overview of this development is available in "La recepción de la obra de arte y la participación del espectador en las propuestas artísticas contemporáneas," Manuel Hernández Belver and Juan Luis Martín Prada, Reis No. 84 Monogáfico sobre Sociología del Arte (October-December 1998).

More recently, this self-consciousness, which nevertheless leaves the role of the spectator as a passive consumer intact, is what is being parodied in Josephine Meckseper's contribution to the Whitney Biennial in 2006. Here, the language of protest is conflated with the language of advertising, as in "Infinite Strike/Take 99% Off Everything Inside" (2005) or her "Complete History of Post Contemporary Art" (2005), which, like the work just described, also takes the form of a shop window in the Museum, conflating the presentation of protest with the commodity fetish.

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