Andreas Siekmann made something close to this point by presenting a pile of junk made of compacted “sculptures”–the brightly colored plastic cows, dinosaurs and mythical figures that pollute shopping malls and town squares all over the world. Perhaps the most resolved piece was Silke Wagner’s The History of Muenster from Below (2007): a civic message pole covered in relevant historical information and topped with a large portrait head of a man who, for many years, stood in just this square calling attention to his ill- treatment as a “mentally disadvantaged” youth when the city was under Nazi control. Wagner’s sculpture proves that local statements about local concerns can succeed as both statements and as art, whereas generalization about locality, as we see so often in Venice and Kassel, mostly fails.
We are back to the question with which I went to Europe. In fact, we have never left it. The short answer is this: European cultural institutions, including these exhibitions, seem anxiously aware of how they might look from what they imagine to be the multiple vantage points out there in the rest of the world, yet are increasingly ready to negotiate with these others. At the same time, Europe is, following the 2005 rejection of the proposed constitution, in the aftermath of a definitive moment in its own post-Cold War redefinition. Everyone of conscience senses that these two enterprises are profoundly linked, and is striving to understand how. There are many bleak prognostications, for example, those following “signature events” such as the murder of Theo van Gogh, the threats to Orhan Pamuk and the renewed rage against Salman Rushdie. On the other hand, the recent call by intellectuals such as Timothy Garton Ash and Wim Wenders for a Europe that moves beyond its current economic and bureaucratic forms to (re)discover its “geist” (a secular concept variously translated as “soul” or “spirit”) in a sense of community based on cultural exchange and artistic inventiveness is one sign of a possible shift to a more positive, constructive mood (see Wenders at www.signandsight. com/features/1098.html).
What about the mega-exhibition in these circumstances? Or, more interestingly, what are the challenges facing responsible curatorship at this time? Retrospection–the longer the better–is essential to avoid falling into the narcissistic nowness that historians label “presentism.” But “melancholy modernism,” the insistence that picking one’s way through Modernity’s ruins is the only way to be contemporary while avoiding the superficialities of spectacle culture, runs the opposite risk of emptying the present of all possibility. Returning to the recent origins of contemporary concerns is a necessary step, but staying there would be a mistake. To value only that contemporary art that echoes these earlier issues would be another error–a kind of “pastism.” These are ugly words, for ugly phenomena, however attractive as options these pathways might currently seem. Better to confront–as so many artists, and a few curators, are doing today–the real issue: How might we live now?
Terry Smith, FAHA, CIHA, is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, University of Sydney. During 2001-2002 he was a Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and in 2007-08 is GlaxoSmith- Klein Senior Fellow at the National Humanities Research Centre, Raleigh-Durham, NC. From 1994-2001 he was Power Professor of Contemporary Art and Director of the Power Institute, Foundation for Art and Visual Culture, University of Sydney. He was a member of the Art & Language group (New York) and a founder of Union Media Services (Sydney). He is the author of a number of books, notably Making the Modern: Industry, Art and Design in America (University of Chicago Press, 1993); Transformations in Australian Art, Volume 1, The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation and Volume 2, The Twentieth Century: Modernism and Aboriginality (Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002); and The Architecture of Aftermath (University of Chicago Press, 2006). See www.terryesmith.net.