And Return, Return, Return

Or perhaps we should say re-turn? Like that prefix that can indicate both repetition and regress, modernity is a theme which returns insistently. When we still have much to debate about what the last Documenta only hinted at, MACBA presents Modernologies, ‘a map of the critique of modernity’. But if Documenta11 asked itself about its antiquity, here the curator Sabine Breitweiser asks about its actuality. How? Not with melancholy looks or revelatory returns but by showing modernity as a commonplace of contemporary art. Far from the now classic assertions of Rimbaud (‘One must be absolutely modern’), Barthes (‘All of a sudden it didn’t bother me not being modern’) or Latour (‘We were never modern’), Breitweiser returns to modernity like someone who returns to the Barthesian text, immersing herself in the open process of artistic practice.

Organised in three sections (the production of space, the idea of a universal language and the politics of display), Modernologies insists on the relation between political interest and aesthetic resolution, from the appalling effects of colonialism to the architectural and urbanistic objectification of the Modern Movement, all the way to the ideological load of abstraction or the expository system.

Regarded as a testing ground, Africa is an instance of how the avant-garde could be domination, be it with the implanting of prefabricated housing (Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, reworked by Ângela Ferreira) or through a mutual influence that would end up equalising the urban peripheries of Morocco and France (as Marion von Osten shows). For his part, Christian Philipp Müller analyses the modern architectural utopia as the ruins of a Forgotten Future, while the Labor k3000 collective investigates the new uses that its inhabitants give it on, a title that serves as a reply to Müller’s melancholy. Questioning Le Corbusier’s unité d’habitation, Martha Rosler asks How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, and Domènec seems to answer the question with his Existenzminimum, the minimum expression of a home – collapsible and scaled down to the individual occupant – which replicates Mies van der Rohe’s monument to Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht.

The speculative value of abstract language, which goes from design to typology, from object to atlas, is examined in a series of works that analyse the medium itself. Dorit Margreiter, Runa Islam, Mathias Poledna, Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann this represent the self-reflection and historicity of modernity. In similar fashion, the socio-political connotations of the expository apparatus are considered in terms of context (Louise Lawler), emplacement (Marine Hugonnier) and reception (Falke Pisano), while the criteria by which artists are selected invokes an unofficial history of art: Paulina Olowska champions Zofia Stryjenska, dismissed as quaintly folksy; Anna Artaker gives voice to an Unknown Avant-garde, one that is female, by replacing the photo captions in art books; Armando Andrade Tudela imagines a Peruvian modernism in the geometric drawings of the trucks that ply the Pan-American Highway; the IRWIN group invents the Retrovanguard, a movement that traces a genealogy of modern and contemporary art in the former Yugoslavia.

What’s new, old man?

Breitweiser lets the artworks speak for themselves even in the knowledge that the exhibition may prove diffuse, composed of isolated pieces without a theoretical base on which to situate them; in other words, an imprecise map, as befits what has come to be called modernity. And we return. Because the instability of the concept, the dates, the names and even the necessary vocabulary for referring to the modern all condemn it to being something floating – much like Isa Genzken’s astronauts, hanging in the entrance to the museum and on the cover of the catalogue (not available in Catalan). Directionless, suspended, these characters embody the ambiguity already present in the title of the exhibition, in that Modernology is a neologism by analogy with ‘archaeology’, used by Florian Pumhösl for his homonymous work.

Between works and texts, modernity and modernisation, modernism (false friend of Catalan Modernisme) and avant-garde merge into each other. Criticism is often directed at the unfulfilled promise of the avant-garde, instrumentalised by capitalism, and at its obsessive urge to break with the past, which ended up in that ‘tradition of the new’ of Rosenberg’s that has come down to our own day, in which the epithet Putos Modernos – Modern Bastards – is a registered trademark for button badges and T-shirts.

Reviewing the modern legacy involves thinking what’s old in the new and vice-versa, what has been left behind, exhausted, and what deserves (or asks) to be reactivated. Only by understanding modernity as a tradition, something that has been integrated and passed on, can we critique it, identify its omissions and put forward current alternatives. Modernologies posits this possibility, that of a modernity destined to be past and present at the same time.