Imaginary museums and private fantasies by Sotiris Baxtertzis

 

André Malraux in his well-known book Le Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (1952–54) introduced into the discourse around art the term ‘imaginary museum’, which has been often used by artists, art critics and theoreticians since then. Malraux argues that the advent of photographic reproductions of artworks enabled everyone to conjure up their presence without having to visit the museums where they were exhibited or the sites for which they were destined in the first place—a church, a palace, a private villa, a mausoleum, a piazza or a cemetery.

At the same time the advent of the Imaginary Museum is not a mere emblem of a new kind of panoptic overview of art history or of art’s precision as an imagification of historicity itself; it is a prerequisite of modern art. As Maurice Blanchot puts it in his own interpretation of Malraux’s book, once art became a ‘museum art’ in the twentieth century—since all works, real or virtual, become part of the museum—it was revealed for the first time in its entirety as well as in its true nature. The usual question of the autonomy of modern art is posed with heightened emphasis here. “The imaginary Museum is thus not only the contemporary of modern art and the means of its discovery; it is also the work of this art—one might say its masterwork, were it not also necessary to say, to an extent that is half secret, its compensation.” [1] Indeed, once the artist ceases to be the hierophant in a Gothic church or a diplomat in a Baroque palace, his or her work relies solely on the self-referential nature and the aesthetic autonomy of the museum. The imaginary museum is the artist’s point of reference to modernism as he “shuts himself away in it to be free”, [2] i.e. when he goes into it, when he copies it —remember the various “museums by artists”— or when he attacks it with one of the hundreds of iconoclastic and anti-institutional “actions” of the twentieth century.

Already in her previous works Artemis Potamianou had tackled in various ways and through a clear visual commentary the effects of the aesthetic and the ideology of museums and other art venues on contemporary art and culture. In the White Cube series (2003-4) her raw material was digitally modified photographs of international art museums which are popular tourist destinations. The copies of seminal artworks/masterpieces of the 20th century the artist reproduces in the Second Papers series (2006), as well as the excerpts from fiction films and interviews of famous artists in the work Art Seen – Art Scene (2006), redefine institutional criticism as the dominant visual subject in the overall oeuvre of Potamianou. One can see how the debate around the ‘sanctity’ of art—which, according to Hegel but also partly to Malraux or Blanchot, remains the only religion in our time—runs through her entire work.

In the Re-view series (2008-10) the starting point is not just a reinterpretation of the institutional framework of presenting art, the aesthetic and the ideology of the postmodern white cube, the myth of the masterpiece and the adulation of the ‘creator’ as an authority. The reference point for these works is the concept of cultural memory as it is managed by the mechanisms for the digital recording and dissemination of information and the other powerful mechanisms of the cultural industry: a management whose nature is empirical, chaotic and inhomogeneous. What are the works of Potamianou? First, a conventional photograph from a museum space she has visited herself undergoes a heavy computer processing. Only the structural elements of the exhibition area—walls, floors, ceilings and partitions—remain visible, as the exhibits in the room are removed from the picture. Then this interior image is further processed by the digital pasting of human figures which may be either sculptures or recognisable figures from famous paintings, isolated from their original setting. Often, where the gaze falls on an outdoor scene the image is filled in with a painted sky or landscape. In the work Re-view series: Cold War Night Life, for instance, the figures from well-known works by Goya, Manet, Velasquez and Delacroix appear to be taking part in a strange gathering outside the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, under a Van Gogh clear night sky.

The new work of Potamianou poses several questions. As technology has advanced considerably since the time of Malraux, this kind of ability to get a general overview of art—through encyclopaedic-like, illustrated synopses of art history and all other publications of archive material—which we described as a condition for the imaginary museum has found its utmost ‘democratic’ expression in the virtual museum of the Internet which seems to have replaced the in-situ contemplation of art. At any time we can get an image of anything we like. And it is in this newly acquired instantaneous access to image substitutes that the problem may well lie! Our mnemonic reconstruction is now interwoven with what we are offered (and what we are denied) by this kind of automation which proposes in place of a first-hand, in-situ experience of the original a fleeting and incomplete image on a screen; an image provided by someone else who ‘saw’ the original instead of us. And then what is the aesthetic experience in one who believes to know the ‘masterpiece’ from having seen just a photograph of it? This kind of question may appear pedantic or didactic, but it touches on the issue of meaningful aesthetic experience and the ability for emancipation through culture: could this huge but uncritical oversupply of visual information be described as a contemporary visual illiteracy or, more precisely, as a special form of “socialised semiculture”? Theodor Adorno is highly critical on this point: “In a climate of semiculture, the facts of education that have reified into commodities survive at the expense of their truth content and their living connection to living subjects.” [3] The somewhat caustic collages of Potamianou appear to comment on this very condition, since our relationship with cultural treasures often seems to be mediated by an inadequate mechanism of information supply tuned to our ephemeral consumer needs, so that the imaginary museum of Malraux ends up broken down to myriads of incomplete private fantasies around the museum and the work of art.

Of course, Artemis Potamianou’s visual comments on these erroneous personal projections and chaotic subjective obsessions are not denunciatory or ex-cathedra, as a philosopher might be justifying in going about it; they are made with a gaze of sympathy towards her viewer, in they way an artist would do it. Through the digital processing in the Re-view series, each exhibition space sheds the neutrality it is supposed to possess and turns into a theatrical stage set in which another kind of dramatised narrative unfolds. The works that Potamianou employs as the raw material in her collages—often major reference points for art historians which are actually retrieved from an ‘imaginary museum’—acquire new properties as they are recombined with one another and set into a new context which often reveals some new and hitherto concealed aspects in them. The resultant image constitutes a new presentation in a collage-like format, a new way of looking at them. Ultimately, this kind of visual ‘curating’ in the artistic work of Potamianou may serve to subvert the established, official and conventional reading of artworks as well as their ‘anything goes’, commercialised and unthinking peddling to an often passive audience. If the imaginary museum is the springboard for a contemporary artist, then this small, virtual private collection that Potamianou proposes may constitute a path towards the emancipation of contemporary audiences. What these works reflect is indeed an attempt to establish a live relationship between the contents of cultural tradition and their live recipients, although the education they imply may well differ from what is proposed by the gloomy enlightenment of Adorno.

Blanchot goes back to the relation between museums and the public in a brusque way: “Why do artistic works have this encyclopedic ambition that leads them to arrange themselves together, to be seen with each other, by a gaze so general as well as confused and weak, since this can only lead to a compromised communication?” [4] So by reference to the two thinkers’ positions, the dilemma comes down to this: How can a museum-type presentation of works preserve the live relationship between art and spectator? What kind of presentation would resist both the conventionality of a museum and the unthinking hoard of images imposed by the culture industry? The works of Potamianou seem to provide a dialectical kind of answer. Ultimately, personal choice, the “personal archive of memoranda rather than mementos [5] which relies neither on the historicism of the museum and the artistic event nor on the unhistorical relativism of the internet, could be a way of escape or even emancipation. Jacques Rancière recently described one’s involvement in art as a way of intellectual emancipation and placed special emphasis on the catalytic role of the viewer: "Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed. There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point. We do not have to transform spectators into actors, and ignoramuses into scholars. We have to recognize the knowledge at work in the ignoramus and the activity peculiar to the spectator." [6]

So it is no accident that Potamianou’s recent work Utopia: You are always in my mind (2010) —an installation of showcases with various objects, shelves with books, notes, models and studies— functions as a modern-day Wunderkammer, a personal archive and at the same time as a call for de-sanctifying the museum and de-mystifying today’s virtual collections. In Renaissance Europe the Wunderkammern or Cabinets of Wonder were private spaces for the display of artworks and curiosities collected on the basis of subjective, personal criteria of learning and aesthetic pleasure. And in a way this kind of “museum of private fantasies”, as exemplified in this work, seems to be the artist’s optimistic proposition for the future.

 

Sotirios Bahtsetzis

 

 

[1] Maurice Blanchot, “The Museum, Art and Time”, in Friendship, transl. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford University Press 1997, p. 17

[2] idem, p. 20.

[3] Theodor Adorno, “Theorie der Halbbildung”, in Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972, p. 103; English transl. Alex Demirovic, www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0101-31732004000100003

[4] Maurice Blanchot, op. cit., p. 45.

[5] Thalea Stefanidou, RE-MADE Artemis Potamianou, 2007.

[6] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, London New York: Verso, 2009, trans. Gregory Elliott, p. 17