Review by Rye Holmboe
The third in the Curator’s Series at the David Roberts Art Foundation, Mihnea Mircan’s exhibition explores the future direction of art historical understanding. The exhibition’s title - Art History, The - is symptomatic of this endeavour. Instead of accepting the history of art as a ‘given,’ the artists gathered by Mircan, which include Alison Gerber, Alon Levin, Benoît Maire, Pavel Buchler, Jill Magid and Luc Deleu, amongst others, have endeavoured to uncover the various ways in which art history has validated and normalised itself in order to conceal the ideological foundations upon which it has been constructed.
Alison Gerber’s Artist’s Work Classification (2006), for instance, a book that documents the daily activities of artists, explores the question of the archive and its impact on historical understanding. Firstly, Gerber’s book classifies artists’ activities in order to produce a ‘standardized, comprehensive list of artists’ work practices (my guess is that we are meant to take this encyclopaedic undertaking with a pinch of salt); secondly, and more importantly, her own work is then classified and standardised according to the indexing system used by the library or archive to which it has been sent (500 in all), in this case the Manchester City Library. Gerber’s work is exhibited alongside other books in accordance with the library’s archival system.
The issue the artist raises, however simply, is in my eyes of immeasurable importance to our understanding of the past. Classificatory systems decide whether a text is of philosophical, literary, historical, political or scientific importance, overlooking the fact that the lines of demarcation are always blurred, if not arbitrary. This then determines, in part at least, what gets included as ‘fact’ and what gets excluded as ‘fiction’ in the construction of historical narratives, which in turn deny their own historicity and ‘literariness.’ In other words, the structure of the archive, the way archival material is classified and differentiated, determines the way in which history is written and so determines the past. One might also say that how we structure the archive in the present will alter the past which will determine the future, and so on. ‘Truth,’ subject to the vicissitudes of time, is shown to be historically contingent.
A similar question is explored by Alon Levin in Or Why Not Celebrate the Past Before the Future Will Come (hence, perhaps, the jarring of tenses in the work’s title). The protruding geometric shapes, evocative of a visual archive, are ordered so as to suggest a certain coherence. And yet the work’s meaning remains equivocal since there is no text to anchor it, no classificatory system to contain it. In this way it fluctuates between sculptural geometric abstraction, reminiscent of Mondrian perhaps, and an indecipherable collection of geometric forms. The work resists singular interpretation, favouring instead multiplicity of meaning.
In a similar vein, Luc Deleu’s 1979 The Last Stone of Belgium explores the question of monumentality, commemoration and time. The work comprises of a photograph of a tombstone etched with the words La Dernière Pierre de Belgique. Bearing in mind the ambiguous temporalities explored by Gerber and Levin, there is probably a certain irony to the work’s title. A monument will always claim to be the ‘last stone,’ i.e. the final word on the subject. A monument buries as it commemorates; it eliminates ambiguity as it celebrates; it censors as it honours. And yet a monument remains historically contingent. What was once intended as a celebratory symbol of imperial might becomes a document of brutality. A monument’s monolithic intransience gradually reveals the violence concealed in its fabric, if not now then in the future-to-come. So The Last Stone of Belgium should be taken as a parody of memorial culture. It operates as a reminder of the ideological foundations upon which we construct our history.
The history of art emerges from Art History, The as yet another discursive formation that legitimates itself through processes of canonisation, exclusion, authorial myths, commodification and the construction of teleological narratives that imply a ‘progressive’ or ameliorative movement toward a One-and-Only-Truth, what Mircan describes as art history’s ‘Vasari syndrome.’ These issues, of course, are not new. But Mircan’s inclusion of international and often marginal contemporary artists proves refreshing, and the distinctive ways in which each artist broaches these questions keeps you guessing and on your toes. In the end the message, as is always the case, is as much political as it is aesthetic - as someone once put it:Where you end and I begin’, Navid Nuur, ink on paper, 2010