Magazine article Artforum International

"In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni": Centraal Museum, Utrecht, the Netherlands

Magazine article Artforum International

"In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni": Centraal Museum, Utrecht, the Netherlands

Article excerpt

THE FIRST and until now only major retrospective of the Situationist International was organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Hotly contested, it was hindered by Guy Debord's boycott and by the withdrawal of his films from circulation. Now, almost thirteen years after the strategist's demise, a show currently in Utrecht and traveling to the Museum Tinguely in Basel next month brings to light some interesting new materials, courtesy of Debord's old allies and his widow. The exhibition addresses the history of the SI with an assortment of objects, collages, printed matter, and a few films, as well as a substantial number of paintings by Asger Jorn, Constant, Jacqueline de Jong, and the German Spur artists, as well as obscure pre-Situationists like Ivan Chtcheglov.

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The first question is, of course, if and how the exhibition uses the various materials to (re)conceptualize the SI. A second question, scarcely less important, is how it legitimizes itself with regard to the SI's rejection of art and its institutions, underlined one final time by Debord's boycott. While hard-liners continue to find any form of musei-fication reprehensible, I would argue that museum shows are one legitimate form of the SI's afterlife, along with and in dialogue with SI-inspired political activism, and that the conservation, interpretation, and presentation of historical materials can also have productive effects outside an institution's walls. However, such an exhibition becomes an exercise in hypocrisy--as well as in bad art history--if it glosses over the SI's struggles over art and its abolition. The large number of works on display here is somewhat misleading: By the early 1960s, the group of people around Debord had come to consider painting--no matter how avant-garde--as the bourgeois and commodified art form par excellence, an integral part of the society of the spectacle, no better than General Motors or Hollywood. But an emphasis on painting is perhaps to be expected in a museum show; a far more serious problem is that the SI's attempt to overcome autonomous art in favor of a liberated life is treated as a folkloristic motif rather than as the crucial Situationist project, and as a result, the organization's history is presented above all as a moralistic tale of youthful revolt ending in failure and melancholia.

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Following a strictly chronological principle of arrangement, Siebe Tettero, until recently the Centraal Museum's head of exhibitions, created a series of densely installed rooms. The first space is devoted to the SI's precursors CoBrA, Lettrisme, Internationale Lettriste, and Le Bauhaus Imaginiste (the names of the latter two groups being misspelled, in king-size letters, on the gallery's walls). Subsequent rooms lead one through the various phases of the SI up to its impact on "May '68," and trace its demise a few years later; the last room functions as a melancholy epitaph, containing some later paintings by Constant and de Jong, as well as a projection of Debord's 1978 film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, which looks back on the SI from the vantage point of its posthistory (and gives the exhibition its palindromic title).

In all this, the place of the SI within the postwar neo-avant-garde remains unclear, as does the distinctiveness of the SI's strategy of detournement vis-a-vis other, less activist forms of appropriation. The SI's oscillation between being an artistic avant-garde and a political avant-garde is suggested only in the broadest of strokes. This is true at least of the Utrecht version, which features only part of the material to be shown in Basel. While the dramatic lack of ambition in Dutch museums and the rarity of their participation in the traveling-exhibition circuit demand that one be thankful for the Centraal Museum's decision to host a version of this show-which was organized by the Basel team of Heinz Stahlhut, Juri Steiner, and Stefan Zweifel--one must nevertheless recognize the limitations of Tettero's subcuration of their original selection. …

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