Barcelona Gallery Weekend
Antiga Escola Massana, Barcelona
28.09 – 07.10.2017
With works by collector gallerists, anonymous or artists such as Tacita Dean, Cildo Meireles, Peter Piller, Hans Peter Feldmann, Perejaume, David Shrigley o Daniel Steegmann Mangrané.
What does a gallerist collect? Putting on show some of the artworks that the gallerists taking part in Barcelona Gallery Weekend actually live with and bringing them together is the basis of the programme D’esquena a la galeria, a selection from these private collections which is exhibited in a different place and with a different approach each year. For this second iteration, the show is in the former home of the Escola Massana. The semi-privacy of the art school is the origin of the collective bargaining of the art that may end up in a public or private collection. What is more, almost all of the collections include works in which, as in the classroom, authorship and value are under suspicion.
For Boris Groys, suspicion is the medium of contemporary art. ‘Its works – generally ordinary, vulgar, profane in appearance – attract our attention because behind this appearance we suspect a mystery.’ Take, for example, Malevich’s painting White on White or Duchamp’s Fountain. A white painting and a urinal in an art museum engender what Groys calls an ‘effect of sincerity’ because what we see is what is usually concealed from us: the medium, the support that sustains the painting or the art institution. If this is here, it’s for a reason, we think; a reason that is beyond us, and will always be beyond us, says Groys, because the medium does not become a message, nor does it conceal any hidden meaning that we have to discover: rather, it is the suspicion itself that is never fully revealed.
But what happens if we take this out of the art museum and bring it home? Always with the intention of shedding light on the most private aspects of those who work in front of the gallery, face on, with this exhibition we have sought to show a selection of all the suspicious things that some BGW gallerists have at home. That is why, first of all, we have reproduced the effect of walking into an art collector’s house, where works of art share the space with all that is most familiar. Because on the walls of the hallway or the shelves of the living room, among so many other things, the suspicion not only increases but spreads: we see a black painting next to a poster, an antique sculpture next to a souvenir; pre-Columbian carvings rub shoulders with postcards, but among a load of vases we think we spot an Artigas; an old still life bought online partly covers another signed picture that was a gift from someone, while a Madonna acts as a jewellery box next to a bottle rack and a cushion with a Miró print sits beneath a row of kitsch plates. Inheritances, gifts and bits and picked up bought on a trip or in an old market: in other words, odds and ends of everyday life coexist with antiques and works of art in an undifferentiated way. Contrary to the Hegelian idea that we have a day off every so often, to rise above daily chores, today, that work and leisure are (con)fused more than ever, we have brought the gallerists’ everyday chores to a Sunday outing to the flea market. How? By bringing everything down to earth, intensifying the absence of distinction between their properties to place them all on the same level as one another and the same level as all of us, spectators and owners.
However, inverting the gesture of decontextualization proposed by Duchamp is not to put the thing back in its place, because it will no longer be the same, but rather to question the conditions of this process. This being so, we made a second trip and went from home to school. Questions of what belongs in or is excluded from the art system and what aspires to a place in it are are debated in classrooms like this, but this is not where they are decided. Is what we see in the art school art? The transfiguration of an object into an artwork is not solely in the hands of the artist and therefore it does not place in the studio. It is the exhibition system and its codes that bestow meaning and value on art. Behind the supposed impartiality of the so-called white cube is a black box that goes from the offices to the repository, from the interests of the curator to fluctuations in the market, and all of these bounded by the cultural frameworks of the particular time and place. Like any shop window, its transparency is as false as it is contingent: it determines what is on show, legitimating what is art and what is not, while controlling our gaze with the intention of fixing a collective imaginary of the past and the future. The museum is an ideological apparatus with no place for sentimental value – as too haphazard – in dictating an aesthetic and historical value that presents itself as unquestionable but is as changeable as material value. That is why it adopts and adapts as much as it excludes: if the counterfeiter, the craftsman or the amateur and with them the copy, anonymity and affect have entered or been left out of the museum at some point, it has been in the name of authenticity, authorship, technique or antiquity, criteria agreed upon by our historical and cultural context.
This is something because it’s on display here, in this way: that is the museum’s response to our suspicions. If the place makes the thing, then suspicion goes with the place, and that means with us. Where and how a thing is presented shapes our perception. To take this back to where it originally came from – be it the flea market or the art school – is to invite us to question the value system in and on which art has installed itself. Because in the market and in the classroom, where everything is yet to be defined, the critical eye does not have spectators but actors. It is up to us to decide what is art and what is not, but to do that we first need to think: what criteria do we follow here? What is the value of all this?
To adopt the hierarchy-free presentation of the bazaar and to do so in the indeterminacy of the classroom, far from pedestals, display cases or wall labels, aims to bring out not the singularity of these things, but all that appears and disappears in grouping them together; that which is conjured up or away by the mere fact of placing them side by side. Breaking with the logic of the museum invites us to see beyond what the showcase showcases, to enter the imaginary museum that André Malraux called for back in 1947. A museum that is valued not for the works it possesses but for the ideas and connections that it activates in each visitor. By isolating and directing our gaze, museal sacralization makes it easy for us; confronted with disorder, our gaze gets lost … and invents.
This is exactly what private collecting and contemporary artistic creation have in common: the pleasure, the skill, and the fortune of discovering and displacing the known so as to see it again. In Balzac’s novel Le Cousin Pons, the collector is a failed musician who achieves artistic fulfilment through the work of others. According to Walter Benjamin, they both share an almost obsessive passion for rescuing and redefining the ruins of the past: the artist as a flâneur in the passages of the modern city and the collector – as Benjamin was – in private. In a Surrealist collage or in a home library, each thing is that thing and what we want it to be: the fantasies it gives rise to are the reason we appropriate it and complement it with others. Arriving at the garden of delights is the arduous and patient labour of the enthusiast and at the same time a transformative operation, both for the artist and for the private collector, because to endow it with a new order or invent for it a new context is to give it meaning, fashioning a world of one’s own. To possess is to domesticate, to make
a thing our own, but not necessarily to embalm it. And if the collector is suspicious it is precisely because he knows that the change of place and hands changes everything. Beyond vanity, greed, prestige or snobbery, motives that drive many collections, all of these things we see here are joined by the ‘just because’; ‘because I like it’: a valid enough criterion for letting whatever it may be into the house and not wanting it to leave.
We can say that, since the Renaissance, there are basically two main types of collection: that which takes in and piles up everything, compulsively, and that which systematically selects and catalogues. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when private collections started opening to the public, the two typologies would be found in the same place, until slowly but surely one of the two prevailed. Nowadays, the Romantic sentimentalist that contributes to increasing the chaos is looked down upon, diagnosed with a Diogenes complex and relegated to the fringes, the eccentric’s basement or the car boot sale, while the rational maniacs committed to imposing order on this chaos have triumphed in the rigorously pared-down presentation of the museums. In this context, many artists have co-opted the forms of the collection to make visible the ideological and affective transfers that characterize artistic practice, in a critique of the apparent neutrality of the museum that seeks to make possible an emancipated spectator. Whether reintroducing the affective (Spoerri or Boltanski), creating ironic museums either portable (Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise) or fictional (Broodthaers’ Musée d’Art Moderne), or blowing sky high the notions of originality and authorship through large-scale appropriations of objects, images or words (from Arman’s accumulations to Martin Parr’s souvenirs and from Hans Peter Feldmann’s albums to Joan Fontcuberta’s Googlegrams or Ignasi Aballí’s lists).
Indiscriminate accumulation engenders the ‘effect of sincerity’ of which Boris Groys speaks, and which ranges from ‘there’s nothing to see here’ to ‘I’m showing you everything.’ Like reading this text in full in 12pt Times New Roman or seeing the working papers for the production of the exhibition. The gallery guide tells us why everything is on the floor, while the Excel sets out the information that the gallerists supplied for the insurance policies. A document – this one – that orders what we see, putting a name and a price on each thing, but which is the basis of all our suspicions: by consulting it we can distinguish real art from worthless junk, and therefore it will be no secret. The paperwork, the secondary material that is not normally made public, reveals not arcane mysteries but the unresolved debate that is at the heart of the exhibition. A paradox that can be summed up in the incompatibility of criteria and values between the gallery and the private house, between collecting as it always has been and the contemporary art system.
Many loans have been complicated or refused because the gallerists concerned were embarrassed about showing such personal things or afraid of losing them or because the insurers found it impossible to ratifying such subjective values. Both parties asked for the guarantees customary in the art world (on wall-to-wall transport, conditions of the exhibition space, 24-hour surveillance…) but both know that this is an exceptional case and that peace of mind can only be fictitious, because many of these things are unique in so far as they are special, and this is the cause and consequence of their incalculable value. In the end, the gallerists have assumed the risk, while the insurance company has set a maximum of €3,000 for everything that cannot be certified, which has led to the withdrawal of more works – and that is why the insurance policy is also on display.
We wanted to put on a lavish exhibition, to emulate the rooms of Citizen Kane in order to show what we share with every collector and what he or she shares with the artist: the passion to possess something without distinctions and create limitless relationships. In the end, though, with so much bureaucracy, we have been left with a conceptual exhibition. This is what happens when you try to turn the system around: at times, the tables are turned on you. We have imitated a second-hand street market to question the expository premises of the art world, but the most mundane things to be seen here are not on the market: the gallerists regard them as irreplaceable and the insurers don’t consider they can be worth much. Sentimental value is priceless, in the same way that personal reasons, sympathies, obsessions or elective affinities are unthinkable for the art discourse we have inherited, detached from the emotional factor and attentive to the laws of the market.
Malevich’s White on White and Duchamp’s Fountain date from the same year, 1917. A century has passed, and despite the time and the insistence of some practices that have followed the same path (from conceptual to Pop art, from performance to post-production), fetish and signature continue to dominate the game. Artists can criticise the system from within, even using the practices of the collector, but vice versa? All that is oldest, most private and most common in any collection has no place in the exhibition system, not even in an abandoned classroom. We wanted to place ourselves outside the security that the museum offers with its responses, but there is no exterior here worthy of the name, just as there is no solution to so much suspicion.
Participating galleries: ADN Galeria, Ana Mas Projects, àngels barcelona, Bombon Projects, etHALL, Galeria Balaguer, Galeria Joan Prats, Galeria Marc Domènech, Galeria Senda, N2 Galeria, Nogueras Blanchard, Tasneem Gallery, Tat Art Barcelona.
Montage: Marc Quintana.
Acknowledgments: Iris Oña, Hana Boukalam, Susanna Corchia and all the gallerists who have invited me into their homes.