Landmark Exhibitions

By Gleadowe, Teresa | Art Monthly, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Landmark Exhibitions

Gleadowe, Teresa, Art Monthly

In his keynote address at the start of this two-day conference, Hans Haacke focused first on the early years of Documenta, perhaps the quintessential 'landmark exhibition'. He recounted how he became involved in working on Documenta II while studying at the art academy in Kassel and how, through this experience, he was able to observe the ways in which Arnold Bode and his colleague Werner Haftmann set the terms for the exhibition--how Bode's choreography and stage management of the Fridericianum spaces articulated rankings between artists and art movements, how Haftmann became the exhibition's 'ideologue', and how the Documenta exhibition was used over the years to transform Kassel from an isolated backwater just a few miles from the Iron Curtain into a destination of national and international significance.

Haacke illustrated these points with some of the 300 or so extraordinary black and white photographs he made in 1959--each observing relationships between works of art in the exhibition and the exhibition's visitors--and he suggested the many ways in which this early exposure to the workings of a great exhibition machine contributed to what he described as his loss of innocence, laying the ground for his subsequent preoccupation with interrelationships between 'symbolic' and economic capital.

In the final session of the conference Walter Grasskamp, a key figure in the development of a history of museums, collections and exhibitions in the postwar period, also referred back to Documenta, describing the work he undertook in the exhibition's archive in the early 80s. He spoke of how he 'stumbled into the history of exhibitions' through his work with this unsorted hoard of photographic images; his growing fascination with the ways in which Bode and his team installed the exhibition; and his admiration for Bode's foresight in understanding that a high-quality photographic record would be necessary to ensure Documenta's place in history. Grasskamp then told the story of how, among the images he had selected from the archive for publication in 1982 in his magazine Kunstforum, there was one that was clearly not taken by the official photographer, and for which he could find no information. He described how he had been drawn to this image, taken at Documenta II, because it showed the lingering influence of National Socialism, expressed in the fraternity uniforms of two students in front of a Kandinsky painting of 1929. And gradually he revealed how this photograph, with its exemplary juxtaposition of two ideologies, turned out to be the work of none other than the young Hans Haacke, taken in 1959 and subsequently misplaced in the official archive.

These two presentations provided eloquent bookends for the conference and encapsulated some of its most important themes, among them the crucial importance of installation images and layout plans for the telling of exhibition histories, the ways in which artists' perspectives illuminate the recollection of exhibitions in which they participated, and the overlapping of agendas--art, politics and economics--embedded in the initiation and development of large-scale international exhibitions.

The conference brought forth rare and wonderful visual material. Daniel Buren's elegantly orchestrated PowerPoint presentation showed photographs of works made in situ since the late 60s, including images of a project for the exhibition 'Kunst bleibt kunst' in Cologne in 1974, referring directly to the censorship and cancellation of Haacke's proposed exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in the same city.

Lucy Lippard presented a rapid montage of slides and aphoristic observations relating to the development of the so-called 'number exhibitions' she organised between 1969 and 1973, a series of shows with unbound card index catalogues and with titles taken from the population figures of the cities in which they were first presented. She spoke of her interest in formulating frameworks for exhibitions rather than controlling their outcomes, and her desire to bypass the museum, siting artists' works to produce unexpected encounters in the wider world or making 'suitcase exhibitions' that would, at least in theory, need no institutional mediation. …

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