Fictions critiques

Will Bradley



An approach to the Frac Lorraine and its collection

The Frac Lorraine has been in existence for just over two decades, during which time it has assembled an extensive and enviable collection of international artwork that represents the major tendencies in the art of this period. However, the recent transformation of the Frac from a collection conceived as a resource to a large and active public gallery, art centre and archive brings with it many new opportunities, questions and responsibilities. The Frac is now a site for a dialogue between the public and contemporary art. It has claimed a central role in the city’s cultural life, with a mission to inform, entertain, educate and enrich the lives of its citizens. At the same time, it is also part of the international discourse of contemporary art, and indeed it is in a position to make a significant contribution to this discourse. For me, these two situations are closely related, with one role of the Frac being to connect the public with this international discourse without compromissing the work presented or patronizing its audience.
I would like to propose that the collection of the Frac itself is, in fact, an ideal tool for examining these new opportunities, questions and responsibilities. Art is a vital sphere for critical and creative thinking about the world at large, and this can be very well demonstrated by using works from the collection to explore the new concerns of the Frac: to examine the institution and its space; to question how it might evolve and why; and to continue to construct a framework for the future.
I will suggest three themes from the collection – presented as three groups of artworks that would each function as a self-contained exhibition – that move from the structuralist examination of the production of art in terms of techniques and materials, through an investigation of the space of the building itself, its relationship to the city and the conventions of contemporary art exhibition, to a discussion of truth and fiction, the construction of identity and ultimately the role of culture in constructing and mediating the representation of society.
First, I would like to offer some brief art historical notes on the evolution of this kind of critical practice, which constitutes one of the central narratives in the development of 20th-century art.

Art historical notes

The question of the active relationship of artists and art institutions to the wider society has been an explicit area of critical and artistic concern since the early 20th-century. The manifestos of the Futurists, Constructivists and Surrealists had in common a demand that artists consider immediate, contemporary social and technological conditions vitally important to the development of new aesthetics. These early avant-garde movements also promoted the idea that artists should consider their work to be a tool for the persuasion and education of the viewing public – not simply persuading the public of the artistic success or quality of the work itself, but educating the public in a new worldview, describing new social models and presenting the results of research into alternative descriptive systems. Despite in some cases rhetorically challenging the very grounds for the existence of museums and galleries, in practice these movements largely presented their findings in the form of supposedly autonomous works that conformed to many of the conventions of earlier painting and sculpture.
The Fluxus movement extended the scope of these avant-garde practices, proposing games and exercises for the audience that were designed to create an awareness, and test the boundaries of, circumscribed social structures, habitual behaviours and the role of the art gallery. But, while Fluxus sought to break down the boundaries of the category of art, it did so using poetic, romantic, and metaphorical methods – it was a literary movement in this sense, concerned with ideas in the form of scripts and proposals rather than concrete situations.
In the early 1960s, practioners of what became known as Minimalism and Structuralism in art began to question the formal qualities that had hitherto been considered as central to, indeed as defining, modern art practice. In this context, the Greenbergian requirement that artists restrict themselves to the supposed specific formal qualities of their chosen discipline was transformed into the investigation and enumeration of the range of formal possibilities offered by materials and media in the new context of an interdisciplinary art production. Conceptual art went further, suggesting that, in the words of Sol LeWitt, ‘Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.’
The US performance-art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s developed Conceptual art’s privileging of idea over form and the performance experiments of Fluxus into the concept of the ‘dematerialization’ of the art object. Undocumented social interaction presented as artwork (Vito Acconci’s Following Piece, 1969, Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’) introduced the idea of work made for a ‘split’ audience, that doesn’t have a single access point but is made, at least partly, for an audience with no awareness that the action they witness has been conceived as ‘art’. At the same time, artists such as Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler and Gordon Matta-Clark began to acknowledge and critique the political and economic relationships underlying the production, presentation and consumption of art using language and strategies drawn not from art history but from the relatively new discourse of sociological theory.
Ultimately, this investigation was broadened beyond the immediate art world, and currently the concerns of contemporary artists are not constrained by formal definitions of art, or by the boundaries of the art world. Contemporary art is a critical discipline as much as it is a creative endeavour, and it is this aspect that I propose to highlight in the Frac Lorraine collection.
Three critical themes in the collection of the Frac Lorraine:

The thing itself as itself – structuralist concerns
in sculpture and film

Daniel Buren // Lili Dujourie // Ceal Floyer // David Lamelas // Mathieu Mercier // Dominika Skutnik // Frank Stella // Wolf Vostel //

This first theme is concerned with works whose primary subject is the process of their own production and the nature of the techniques and materials employed. In one sense it parallels the history of the deconstruction of the traditional forms of painting and sculpture – this deconstruction was instrumental in demystifying art and allowing artists to reconnect with the materials and situations of everyday life.
Two historical works in the collection engage directly with this deconstruction of painting. Wolf Vostell was one of the founders of Fluxus. Grosse Sitzung mit da (1961) demonstrates his technique of décollage, which itself launched a small school of followers. Torn posters are used to create an abstract pictorial space from the material of everyday life, the process of production is clear, and the fragments of printed words and images maintain a connection to contemporary events. Frank Stella’s Konskie II (1971) is a good example of the way Stella not only denied the pictorial function of painting but also disrupted the frame, ultimately breaking the sharp distinction between painting and sculpture.

Works by David Lamelas and Lili Dujourie undertake related explorations of the media of film and video respectively. Lamelas’s Projection (1967) emphasizes the fact that a film projection is dependent on, and is partly defined by, its relation to the physical space in which it takes place. Foregrounding the technical demands that the distance from projector to screen be equal to the focal distance of the lens, and that the screening room be darkened, Lamelas offers an alternative possibility in which the projection is allowed to diffuse out into a distant, brightly lit space. The pictorial information is lost, or rather it is poetically converted into lost potential.
The immediacy of what was, at the time, the new and hi-tech medium of video enabled Dujourie to work in a way that would not have been possible with film. Performing alone, without camera operator or crew and using available light, Dujourie watches herself on the monitor screen in real time, and her works are among the first to explore the nature of the instant image, which has become a defining feature of 21st-century culture.
Several contemporary works from the collection can be seen as continuing these kinds of investigation. Ceal Floyer’s Title Variable (2000) and Mathieu Mercier’s Mur de chevilles, motif #5 (1994) employ banal materials in unexpected ways, but their main concern is that the process of the production of the work be immediately and clearly understood. The philosophical, structural investigations in the works mentioned above has, over two decades, given rise to an aesthetic based on an elegant economy of means. In keeping with the ideals of Fluxus, these are works that anybody could produce using materials found in an average household, but their ingenuity and formal economy nonetheless allows them to succeed aesthetically as both conceptual works and minimalist sculpture.

Dominika Skutnik’s One Ton in the Air (2003) is a more recent development of this aesthetic of ingenuity and formal economy. Like the works mentioned above it is characterized by an attention to the properties – the logic – of the materials used and titled descriptively to remind the viewer that it is primarily intended to be viewed as the embodiment of an idea or a process, rather than as an image. Nonetheless, it presents a powerful image to the viewer – creating a potentially threatening situation that also has some of the attributes of a landscape – and it can be seen that these reductive investigations of the properties of particular materials also offer opportunities for metaphorical and poetic contemplation.
I include Daniel Buren’s Bouquet (1988) under this heading in part because of Buren’s important contributions to the redefinition of painting and sculpture, in part because it turns a painting into an object that is between sculpture and function, and in part because in the context of an exhibition at the Frac, it would activate one of the external spaces and create a social setting.

The exhibition space and the conventions of the art exhibition

Monica Bonvicini // Willie Cole // Andrea Fraser // Jeppe Hein // Vera Molnar // Roman Signer // Thomas Struth // Joëlle Tuerlinckx // Pia Wergius //

The Frac occupies a fantastic, historic building that has been very well converted in accordance with the current ideals for the display of contemporary art. It is, however, important to recognize that these architectural standards are simply conventions that will themselves, in time, become history, and that these conventions also to some extent define the expectations of the kind of work that should be displayed in a particular space. Contemporary art often depends upon these and similar conventions in order to function, and artists often assume their existence to the extent that the conventions become, in fact, part of the work itself – many artists in the past decade, for a simple example, have made works that rely on a quiet, white-painted room for their effect and that would be invisible or irrelevant in other contexts.
This second theme uses works from the collection to explore the Frac building, the conventions it embodies, and the range of possibilities that nonetheless exist for creatively using, extending or subverting the space and its ideological foundation.

Monica Bonvicini’s works Plastered and Hammering out (an old argument), both from 1998, propose active physical destruction as one response to the perceived restrictions of the contemporary art environment. Plastered invites the audience to take part in the simultaneous creation and destruction of a sculptural work whose form and materials echo the typical construction method of contemporary gallery spaces, activating the encounter between the viewer and the institutional space in a way and potentially creating a new social setting for the audience. Hammering out (an old argument) does not invite such participation but neatly underlines the constraints of the institutional setting.
Willie Cole’s The Elegba Principle (1997) refers to Legba’s status as god of doors, gateways, paths and crossroads. It turns the exhibition space into a labyrinth in which every turn is a doorway and where the visitor’s decisions, and the path chosen, become an essential part of the work. It’s a metaphor for a journey through life and reflects Legba’s role as gatekeeper of the spirit world, but at the same time it can be seen as reflecting on the art context and the decisions made within a particular space.
Jeppe Hein’s Changing Space (2003) explicitly disrupts the gallery architecture and draws attention to the character of the space itself. The moving wall not only reminds us that the space always plays an active part in the way that art is displayed and received, but, in line with the speculative architectures proposed by artists and theorists in the 1950s and 1960s, suggests that new ways in which space can be used and experienced are also connected with new ways of thinking about social models.
Andrea Fraser and Thomas Struth both address the discourse of the museum and the collection. Fraser’s Little Frank and His Carp (2001) records a performance that breaks the behavioural conventions surrounding the museum by the simple method of over-enthusiastically responding to the museum’s suggestions for enjoying both the work and Frank Lloyd Wright’s building itself. The gallery visitor is supposed to play a well-defined role that preserves the integrity of the museum and effectively greatly narrows the possible interpretations and responses to the work on display. Fraser’s performance reminds us that the meaning and value of art is in part created and guaranteed by the audience’s response to it, and so that response is often tightly controlled. Thomas Struth’s photograph Kunsthistorisches Museum III, Wien (1989) subtly connects the historical bourgeoisie depicted in the painting with the wealth and power of the museum and the middle-class cultural capital required to particpate in the museum world. The image is a perfect example of the way that artists can reflect on the conditions of the production, collection and display of their own work without resorting to overt political statements.

Roman Signer, Joëlle Tuerlinckx and Pia Wergius each approach the relationship between the gallery space and the world outside from a different angle. If installed within, for example, the Frac’s courtyard or garden, Signer’s Untitled (1999) would connect the space of the institution directly to the daily life of the city. The bubbles in the pool are created by the motion of passing traffic by a simple but enjoyably ingenious mechanism, and in a way could be seen as bringing the organic pulse of the city itself into the gallery. Tuerlinckx’s work FAUX SOLEIL (2000) examines both the artificiality of the exhibition environment and the artist’s traditional role of creating representations of nature, while the video-recorded performance of Pia Wergius’s Sketch for Angels (2000) suggests an escape and a trap simultaneously, a physical, life and death engagement with architecture that is also a commentary on the process of making art.
Finally, Vera Molnar’s Promenade (presque) aléatoire (1998–1999) is an example of a work that depends upon and augments the conventions of the gallery space. Using the white wall of the gallery as the ground for an extended, abstract drawing, it encourages attention to the architecture and to the viewer’s passage through the space. It depends upon the creation of exactly the kind of quiet, contemplative atmosphere and apparently immutable architecture that exists at the Frac, with its medieval stonework and clean modern exhibition spaces.

The construction of reality – truth and fiction, identity and society

Chantal Akerman // Judith Barry // Madeleine Berkhemer // Thomas Hirschhorn //
Philippe Parreno // Ana Torfs // Ingrid Wildi //

The third and final theme I wish to propose turns the discussion outwards from the production and display of art to the production and display of identity and social roles. Our representations of society are constructed within culture and mediated by it. These processes of construction and mediation are ideological in nature and throughout the 20th century, though more particularly since the 1960s artists have been concerned with examining, questioning and critiquing both these processes and the structures that enable them. Artists have explored the way in which media representations of society and our own image of ourselves depend upon an interaction with culture and its codes. An institution like the Frac is, to some extent, in a privileged position, able to shape a part of this cultural discourse. The works considered here all in some way question the ways in which this kind of authority is ascribed to a representation, and demand an active engagement with these questions from the audience.
Chantal Akerman’s now-classic film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) disrupts the traditional authority of the cinematic narrative with a strongly subjective viewpoint, and develops formal strategies that can be seen as a feminist response to the dominant conventions of an artform that remains disproportionately in the hands of male producers. Judith Barry’s Voice off (1998–1999) uses a double screen projection to explore the artist’s relationship with their medium and with the culture through which they must speak.
Madeleine Berkhemer creates alter egos that both represent and subvert conventional feminine roles, and her sculpture Red – Yellow – Blue (2001) revisits early modernist prescriptions for art and design – explicitly quoting Mondrian and referring to the colour theories of the early Bauhaus – in order to subvert their geometric purity with eroticised, organic constructions.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s M^2^ social, Metz (1996) demonstrates that it is not only modernist geometry nor the male gaze that construct the lines of power within society. Corporate imagery is all-pervading, and M2 social is a half-radical, half-despairing catalogue of the extent to which our environment, our daily life and even our visual field, is owned and manipulated for the purpose of reproducing capital.

In DU MENTIR-FAUX (2000), Ana Torfs examines how the conventions of the cinema and the advertisement work to associate ideas with images, building an imaginary but seductive portrait of a fictional Joan of Arc at the same time as she shows exactly how the trick is done. Ingrid Wildi’s Si c’est elle (2000) also concerns the shifting, subjective portrait of a woman, though in this case the subject is never represented visually but almost disappears in the conflicting descriptions. Her identity is shown to be something mutable, dependent both on the perspective of others and on language itself.
Phillipe Parreno’s L’homme public (1995) is also concerned with the way identities are constructed. Working with an actor who is best known for impersonating public figures, Parreno investigates the multiple levels of self-representation – personal, social, public and media images – through the image of a man who has partly surrendered his own identity. The filmed event No more reality is both a comment on the perceived powerlessness of public political demonstration and a poetic image of optimism, the potential beauty of human lives before they become enmeshed in the existing social structures.

Will Bradley, Scotland. Curator, art critic and musician. Artistic director at the CCA, Wattis Institute for Contemporary
Arts, San Francisco (US). In residence at the Frac Lorraine from April to May 2005.