Samstag, 19. Januar 2013

Signs and Wonders. Theory of Modern Art/Theory of Damned Art

Guillaume Désanges, Signs and Wonders. Theory of Modern Art/Theory of Damned Art. Lecture-performance.

January 18, 2013, 7 p.m.
A lecture performance by Guillaume Désanges, assisted by Alexandra Delage

Signs and Wonders is a new work following two recent experimental lectures developed by Guillaume Désanges: A History of Performance in 20 Minutes and Vox Artisti. This new project proposes a subjective study of some major figures of modern art, as well as Minimal and Conceptual art, in the form of a mystical investigation. The work will question the links between forms and signs, art and kaballah, nature and culture, and coincidences and symbols. The lecture promises to shed light on how certain elementary geometric patterns related to rational and mathematical models have fed into twentieth-century avant-gardes and modernity in general. Désanges suggests that nowadays these patterns remain objects of representation and of knowledge but also of cult and worship. Considering artists from Marcel Duchamp and Kazimir Malevich to Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, and Dan Graham, the lecture investigates, in a spirit of adventure, how repetitive signs and their archaic symbolism might open up a secret history of modernity, a hidden language, a code, or a mystical tradition, with initiates, filiations, occult rituals, and heresies.
Speculation based on a game of coincidences, the lecture is entirely illustrated through a shadow play, realized onstage without virtuosity, yet with a desire to demonstrate and work with shapes, light, and darkness. An opportunity to measure the illusionistic and magical potential of practices that we sometimes too easily pigeonhole in the category of rationalism. What you see is not always what you see.
Signs and Wonders is coproduced by Halles de Schaerbeek (Bruxelles), Centre Pompidou (Paris), and FRAC Lorraine (Metz). It was presented at Tate Modern (London) in February 2009

Mittwoch, 16. Januar 2013


The Generali Foundation, an institution that produces exhibitions on conceptual art and issues of political and social relevance as well as debates, publications, and research, is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2013. This was the occasion for us to question the work of the institution in a specific cultural context over the past twenty-five years: its policy of collecting as well as the history of exhibitions, publications, etc. And it was also the reason why we asked three guest curators—Guillaume Désanges, Helmut Draxler and Gertrud Sandqvist—to present their views of the collection and the institutional work of the Generali Foundation in the form of three exhibitions, accompanied by a series of roundtable debates, symposia, lectures, performances, etc. The main questions the exhibitions raise revolve around issues of defining, curating, and collecting conceptual art and conceptualism and, by extension, around discussions over canonization, reterritorialization, representation, the paradoxes of conceptual art, alternative genealogies, etc.

Sabine Folie, director of the Generali Foundation and curator, talks to the French curator and critic Guillaume Désanges, who is in charge of curating the first of these exhibitions at the Generali Foundation, entitled Amazing! Clever! Linguistic: An Adventure in Conceptual Art, which will be on display from January 18 through April 21, 2013.

Exhibition view: Amazing! Clever! Lingustic! An Adventure in Conceptual Art, 2013 © Generali Foundation. Photo: Margherita Spiluttini
Exhibition view: Amazing! Clever! Lingustic! An Adventure in Conceptual Art, 2013 © Generali Foundation. Photo: Margherita Spiluttini

Sabine Folie: You’ve described your approach to the show on selected works from the collection of the Generali Foundation as “deskilled curating.” The expression derives from “deskilling,” a term coined by modernists and reanimated by early conceptualists. In early conceptualism, deskilling was a response to the age of the so called post-medium-condition: the artist choosing the medium appropriate for each actual “idea” and not the one medium in which he or she was skilled, that was seen as demystifying authorship and craftsmanship. Photography was one such medium, a quasi-neutral documentary method, with a machine taking the photographs and not the artist’s hand. The idea was to avoid virtuosity and to register the real with a possibly neutral underlying protocol. Why did you use this term, and what exactly do you mean by “deskilled curating”? And what are your “deskilled” tools?

Guillaume Désanges: I heard about the notion of deskilled photography last year through Claire Bishop, and I immediately thought it could apply to what I was doing or I would like to do as a curator. That means I did not choose to be inspired by it; rather, this word described well a certain spirit I was already working in. The more I work in the arts, the more I am suspicious of skills and virtuosity, including my own. For me, each exhibition must be a new situation, posing a new problem, and in order to find the good solution, I must avoid reflexes. So, deskilled curating means inventing your own tools for each exhibition, working with a certain discomfort, and taking the risk of ignoring precisely the coordinates of your object in a system of forms while working on it. In that perspective, although my show at the Generali is not at all formally close to how conceptual art was shown, it might paradoxically be a good echo to the spirit of the pioneers of conceptual art. Here, my first tools were a collection of images I took over the past few years of non-artistic exhibition forms: pedagogical and propaganda exhibitions, scientific and archaeological museums, amateur displays, etc. It is important to accept, though, that “deskilled” does not mean “unskilled.” That was one of my questions during the preparation of the show. First, it could be artificial to materially or formally mimic an amateurish implementation just for the pleasure of forms, to ask the installers to do it badly. The deskilled aspect of the project is, I hope, deeper than the formal surface.

Sabine Folie: Deskilling in early conceptual art did not really work out, as it became clear that this non-intentional approach, avoiding artistic decisions, ultimately failed. Just let me quote Camiel van Winkel from his book During the exhibition the gallery will be closed: “… deskilling and dilettantism were not goals in themselves, but a means to demystify artistic practice. It seems clear by now that this operation failed: since the mid-1970s the art world has successfully neutralized the eroding of its qualitative criteria by conceptual art. Exactly the opposite has occurred: the instrument of the dilettantes—photography—has been incorporated within visual art. The paradox is that the potential demystification of artisthood through the conceptual use of photography has made the medium acceptable within the domain of visual art. The suggestion that photography could undermine the bourgeois concept of art was sufficient to give the medium a definitive place in art. But the promised revolt has never materialized.”

Guillaume Désanges: Does the fact that deskilled and demystified practices have entered the legitimate art world imply failure? Camiel van Winkel also considers that after conceptual art, almost all art is conceptual, because it changed our way of looking and we cannot be unconscious anymore—it’s as if we’re all unconsciously conscious. What a revolution, indeed! I am interested in how conceptual art seems to have remained distant to the mass audience, and at the same time has almost become a nickname for contemporary art in general. That’s what I referred to when I wrote that conceptual art had won the semantic war. I like the idea that the artist wants to leap beyond the limits of its practice, in an attempt to escape it, but in so doing, he brings the entire art field with him. As he runs, he moves the frontiers and makes the territory broader. Because you cannot leap over your own shadow.* In any case, I’ve always considered the art I love as active and not reactive. I mean, its position within a professional and cultural context is, to my mind, secondary. The amazing revolution of Conceptual art, I think, is more a matter of perception and affects.

* I love this expression coined by the philosopher Marlène Zarader about the philosophy of radical transcendence.

Sabine Folie: To respond to the first part of your answer: I think that what van Winkel meant was that deskilled photography turned out to be quite skilled, and so authorship came in again and people, like the Bechers, who were not artists but documentarists entered the framework of minimal and conceptual art by chance, as they unwillingly fulfilled an agenda of qualities like seriality, neutral black-and-white photography, documentary style, no composition. Non-composition was a generic mode, but at the same time once again constituted a genre.

But to move on: Do you think you can demystify curatorship with what you call deskilled curating? Doesn’t this kind of curating on the contrary emphasize the curator as an artist?

Guillaume Désanges: I don’t want to demystify curatorship. Nor I am addressing specifically or challenging the professional art world. I knew art through institutions and curators without being aware of them. And I love them. I just want to use all the possible means to serve a purpose, to share my love of art with the viewer without choosing between intelligence and sensuality. But of course I know those gestures have consequences that can be commented on and criticized, and I am ready for that. But they are precisely not meant to create one type of professional debate, which to my mind would be a wrong goal. However strong and experimental, I wish that every one of my curatorial gestures be invisible, subliminal. That it touch without coming under consideration as itself. Sometimes, paradoxically, the more radical the forms or the protocols are, the more they are invisible. All curatorial decisions remain a trick to get the viewer into a purpose without him or her being conscious of this layout. If that is not the case here, then that’s my failure.

Sabine Folie: It’s difficult to see maps, reference boards, diagrams, slogans all over as subliminal … You are using handwriting on the walls as an alternative to the white cube aesthetics and the sober writing of a typewriter. The body comes in, the text is not autonomous as the emotion of the hand doing the writing affects the slogans, sentences, etc. by poets, philosophers, critics, you …

The sobriety of the works, even if they are witty or ironic, is being counteracted by the personal, sometimes awkward handwriting of different people. It has something of an exercise in school—is that your intention? And is the handwriting a hint at the corporeality that comes in through the back door, so to speak, while trying to rationalize, scrutinize, and filling in lists? What’s your view of the ambivalence between rationality and the irrational in early conceptualism?

Guillaume Désanges
: The writings on the walls are a way to recontextualize the works of art in a network of slogans, quotations, in a mix of didacticism and propaganda. The same goes for the boards of references. The handwriting with chalk was chosen for pragmatic reasons, because it is easy to write and correct, and creates an impression not of dogmatic and engraved discourse, but of something more spontaneous, intuitive, and precarious, like oral language. It is like multiplying arguments in a discussion, in all directions, in order to convince your interlocutor. As you know, we had technical problems with the chalk during the installation, because it turned out impossible to erase. Then I had to make decisions in an emergency, and the resulting handcrafted look is now part of the aesthetics of the show. I totally accepted it, because what’s most important are the sentences, their content, the instant meaning they create with the artworks. About rationality and irrationality in minimal and Conceptual art—this is something I tackled more extensively in the lecture “Signs and Wonders,” though more in a regime of reception than intentions.

Sabine Folie: Our collection comprises works of early conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s, but half of the works represent later conceptual tendencies of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. It is obvious that you chose almost exclusively works of the early period. Did this just “happen” as a matter of “taste” or predilection, or was it a deliberate choice to focus solely on this early period?

Guillaume Désanges: It is directly linked to the theme of the exhibition. To shed light on the conceptual as a historical revolution, I had to focus on the historical artists, those who were the closest to those seminal works of the mid-1960s. There are many artists that I really love in your collection, but I had to accept that I would not be able to include them here, because the show is an autonomous object that imposes its own logic. Also, my project is a re-encoding of the mainstream and official history. As you know, I discovered conceptual art a little by chance, through books, not through shows, and mainly heard about the mainstream story, the important names, the basic notions, which was a revolution for me. This project is not to propose an alternative story of conceptual art, but to go back to this idea of conceptual art itself as an alternative story. Then it is more about willingly celebrating this story, and precisely seeing critically how its main scenario can still stand today.

Sabine Folie: And do you think it can—besides being a historical phenomenon? Do you feel that the forms and ideas are fresh despite the historical patina, and that they have an impact on a younger generation of artists?

Guillaume Désanges: Of course, Conceptual art has an impact on younger generations, but often as an iconographic and nostalgic reference. In the show Amazing! Clever! Linguistic! An Adventure in Conceptual Art, I try to go back to the fundamental stakes of the movement, trying to avoid nostalgia, and share how this was indeed a revolution which is still active today. This is where I think Jalal Toufic’s idea of resurrection of the document is very interesting. Some material that seems to be present, preserved around us, that’s there but not active anymore. Like a ghost. It needs to be reanimated through a kind of active consciousness.