Fictions critiques

Giovanni Carmine



The isotropic heritage

From the windows of the studio flat allocated to Frac Lorraine guests, every hour a small train full of tourists can be seen passing by. Announced by the orange reflection of the revolving light on the walls, it goes up the Rue des Trinitaires, one of the final stages in the city tour that ends almost immediately in the square in front of the cathedral. The curiosity of the miniature train passengers must have been aroused at the unexpected sight of a long list of names inscribed on the wall of a mediaeval building looking onto the street. That at least is the way it looks, for many of them swing round to whip out their cameras and make a record of what they have just seen. One sure thing is that the audio commentary taking them through the streets of Metz is not responsible, as it completely ignores the purpose the Hôtel Saint-Livier is now being put to as a contemporary art venue, merely supplying a little background history.
Maybe one of those tourists managed to catch a few of the names, although they might have meant nothing to them. It is in fact a list of the artists whose works make up the Fonds régional d’art contemporain’s collection, in chronological order of their acquisition, and destined to be added to as and when further purchases are made. A kind of monument celebrating both the history and the future of the collection, but which, owing to the fragile material used to write the list (whitewash), also recalls its precariousness. This is a clear signal sent out into the public space, a signal that is both programmatic and political, for an institution that has adopted direct confrontation with social and urban reality as one of its guidelines.
There is no point however in deluding ourselves: contemporary art remains a fringe, almost a caste phenomenon. It would be arrogant for the players in this sector, and hence also for the present writer, to think that art can and must have the same importance for everyone. Maybe, in fact, the certainty that contemporary art plays a crucial role in understanding – indeed in defining – reality and society, makes artists, curators, critics, collectors and everyone involved in art, in a way fundamentalists whose reasons escape the majority of their peers. Theirs is an impulsive, passionate conviction built on such an irrational basis as to become almost mystical or at least metaphysical, and so way beyond the idea of the artwork in the sense of a material product. And if every active player in the arts world ought to have a clear idea of the aims of their work, their combat is often against the formally codified and limited means usually used in self-mediation (texts, institutions and exhibitions).

Against this backdrop, Frac Lorraine has somehow contrived, these last few years, to shape up in a uniquely original way – and not just at local and national level. This has been both in relation to the idea of the art venue as a space for creation and experimentation, with regard to its legal status as a place invested with the role of mediator, collector and keeper of contemporary art. In this sense, some Frac initiatives I find interesting in seeking to define a concept of the heritage unrelated to the quantity and quality of a collection, but rather to be understood as an isotropic entity, meaning that it spreads out in all directions while preserving its initial properties. Every Frac operation thus ends up becoming an element in the collection itself. Two examples will illustrate this point; one is the thought given to the physical space of the Hôtel Saint-Livier; the other is the invitation extended to young critics and curators to stay for a few weeks at the institution where they can think about the collection.
In the four Cahiers théoriques (theoretical notebooks) Frac Lorraine brought out in the period 2002–2005, the notion of the exhibition space is extensively analyzed and further lists a string of art projects that accompanied the conversion phase on the private mansion located in the historic centre of Metz. While it is impossible to do justice in a few lines to the conceptual approach, the spirit of analysis and the purposefulness of these notebooks (I would say: just read them), I do feel it is important to stress how they function as elements capable of extending the Frac’s art heritage. Above and beyond the didactic duty of reaching out to the public, these notebooks also show the need to conceive a physical place as a space for intellectual and artistic experimentation. The mediaeval architecture is thus freed of its purely functional role as a support and receptacle for art, acquiring an ‘open’, conceptual dimension – definitely a more interesting space for the artists themselves.
The Hans Schabus installation for the inaugural White Spirit exhibition (2004) thus becomes emblematic of an insight into the museum space and creative art. And although the installation no longer physically exists, it is an integral part of the Frac Lorraine heritage. Indeed, the radical option of preventing the public from accessing the only just opened space (forcing them to follow a specified route laid out as a maze, and devising an architecture within the museum architecture) should not be viewed as a merely subversive and negative gesture. Beyond that aspect, the proposition highlighted, beyond its physical and spatial qualities, the importance of the place in which the installation was set. The henceforward virtual existence of this work, both in the collective memory of visitors to the exhibition and in the imagination of people like myself who only heard about it, this ends up taking on a much more suggestive and dynamic value than that of a work condemned to perpetual preservation in a wooden crate in an air-conditioned storeroom.

It may even be to thwart the unavoidable fate of ‘inert material’ awaiting artworks when they join a collection that the people in charge at Frac Lorraine decided to set up a residential programme for critics. In exchange for hospitality, the institution requires critics to devise an exhibition scenario based on the works in the collection. A straightforward request, it may seem; that is the theory, but it is harder to put into practice. The quantity and quality of the works that make up this collection no doubt permit a thematic, conceptual or formal path to be taken, grouping a series of works to form the coherent unit any art exhibition is supposed to be. But the number of variables at work makes for infinite possibilities. Not counting the virtual character of an exhibition, which in text form would be no more than a concept, can make it a rather frustrating affair, especially for someone who, like this writer, gives preference to a curatorial practice relating to the devising and production of art projects ex novo, by seeking to integrate artists’ approach into the architectural and sociocultural context.
Viewing the page as an exhibition space in any case reflects the idea of the collection as an isotropic heritage. By offering a journey, virtual though it may be, between the works and the critical views, such scenarios end up enriching and extending the collection itself. Thus one can imagine an exhibition called Chimera which might appear as if by magic in an imposing space for just a few hours. Through the fog of Ann Veronica Janssens’ MUHKA, Anvers (MUHKA, Antwerp 1997), we see, almost floating in the distance, the kite of the Gloria Friedmann installation Les Représentants (The Representatives, 1992) and the dog Misfit (1996), with a fox’s body and hind’s legs, a hybridized piece of taxidermy by Thomas Grünfeld. An exhibition looking like some naturalist fable, reflecting the current tendency of many curators to design exhibitions conceived as visual compositions or ambiances. A seductive trend which all too often, however, indicates a lack of respect and sensitivity towards the actual works, which are sacrificed on the altar of the mise en scène.
Nevertheless it is possible to use the Frac Lorraine collection as a starting point for an ironical, metacritical theme exhibition on the arts system, by adding to the dialectical delirium of the art critic, played by Philippe Parreno in the video No more reality 1 (1995), the ten minutes of sheer entertainment in Artist (1999), a collage of Hollywood stereotypes on contemporary art and slightly mad, unconventional artists, edited by Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg. To complete this theme, it would have to include certain works by artists that do not belong to the collection. For instance, the photographs of Louise Lawler showing artworks in the exhibition situation, or the Christian Jankowski video Telemistica (1999), in which the German artist, on being invited to the Venice Biennale, interviews Italian local TV fortune tellers to find out whether his participation in the exhibition is going to be a success. Noritoshi Hirakawa might also be asked to redevelop Fowls in the dark, a project dating from 1992 in which he had the public fill in a form assessing the works on show in the group exhibition of which he was a part.
While the two projects outlined above reflect fairly widespread, well-tried curatorial practices, it may be worth devising a project that questions the very idea of a collection. It is at any rate the context of an institution which is striving, through its exhibitions and its recent purchasing policy, to act as mediator of a conception of art as an intangible value, whose strength lies in its ability to devise projects. This is exactly what makes the mysterious disappearance of the sculpture Feutre (1968) by Robert Morris from the Frac collection so intriguing. This occurrence was one of a string of misunderstandings linked to the forms used by 20th-century artists and which have led to the accidental disappearance of numerous artworks. What probably happened was that the felt covers that formed the body of Morris’s sculpture were mistaken for packaging material, just as in 1988 a cleaner took away a work by Joseph Beuys from some corner of the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, thinking that the grease of Fettecke was dirt. At any rate, there was no theft involved, nothing to inspire the plot for a fast-moving whodunit.
However, regrettable though the disappearance of Feutre may be, making it the subject of an exhibition centred on documents and reconstitutions would reveal the more technical and bureaucratic aspects of a collection, while bringing into question the very notion of conservation and heritage.
The Frac Lorraine collection thus offers material that obviously reflects the critical tastes and obsessions of the people running it over the years, while also opening up various unusual courses such as would show it in a new light, enhancing meaning and function. And maybe even dynamic management of the heritage, considered in its full potentiality, is the only way to fully express its value. So that one day, tourists getting off the miniature train in front of the cathedral, will walk back up the Rue des Trinitaires, impatient to visit the Frac.

Giovanni Carmine, Switzerland. Curator and art critic. In residence at the Frac Lorraine from July to September 2005.