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One cannot refute nor ignore the importance of post-postmodern discourse in the context of the contemporary exhibition. While Modernism and Postmodernism prove possible to define and identify, what comes afterwards – what is happening now – is near impossible by its very nature to pigeon-hole stylistically. This incongruence is hugely hostile towards mankind’s need to conjure up grand narratives of cotemporality. If we can concur that the core descriptors of contemporaneity may indeed be its indefinability, and moreover a sense of ‘what it is to be with time’, what it is to be occurring now but coexisting with varying temporalities, and the pure proliferation of making art in contrasting ways, we are able to conclude that while the contemporary should be understood in light of its predecessors – within the topography of ‘Art History’ – it does not want to be dissected, analysed or considered in the same way.
This may be why, while in a vacuum, contemporary art is perceived as unreadable and esoteric by the general masses; yet, within the framework of the thematic exhibition – often quasi-educational – the work is communicated more successfully through historical and inter-material juxtapositions, whereas the un-contemporary may be deciphered more coherently within a chronological exhibition. [email protected]: Archeological Material is curated thematically, and will be discussed in its clear engagement with past museology and cross-disciplinary curation.
The cynosure of every formal and thematic aspect of the exhibition is the ancient yet seismic event of the Vesuvius eruption and the ruins it left in its wake. The contemporary significance of the archeological matter has acted as a vector between time, space and cultures, and has further inspired generations of creatives to pour their imagination into the city’s story, sustaining it and keeping it contemporary, beyond the conservational effort to keep the dead city alive as a heritage site.
The genesis of this exhibition is the ‘modern obsession’ with Pompeii. The awe of something destroyed yet paradoxically preserved permeates this exhibition. The archeological sites offer a cornucopia of ideological and visual material for contemporary artists to appropriate. From room to room of the white-walled gallery, on show are generations of artists who have found inspiration in the icon of Vesuvius. A curious column hangs from the ceiling and emerges from the gallery floor but borders a negative space in between. Maria Loboda’s ‘Interrupted Pillar’ shows a fascination in ruinous material and exemplifies how the past is delivered to us in fragments: “I saw the image of a pillar with its middle part missing in a catalogue about the Temple complex in Karnak, and it struck me as such a paradox and elegant composition. This pillar was supposed to hold the temple, but it clearly didn’t. It was decorative. So, although you think something is there to bring stability, sometimes it’s just a mirage.”
Vesuvius itself is revered in a space displaying Neoclassical oil paintings – representational depictions of the volcano in eruption – epitomising the sublime and glorifying the natural disaster, while centre stage are two boxes of destroyed and fragmented archeological material, one the product of the eruption, and the other the later product of WWII bombings. The sublime and the uncanny confront each other. Paintings exhibited in the presence of archaeological material shows a clash in cotemporalities and reincarnates Pompeii in modern guise through both scientific archaeology and fantasy, as each successive cultural reality superimposed its values and ideas on the distant past. Although the so-called ‘ruin lust’ has prevailed from Neoclassicism to the present, the tone of expression is different. We have gone from sublime painterly reverence to architectural and archeological revivalism Modernism (as seen in Le Corbusier’s sketches), to the irony and critical eye of Postmodernism, then to the optimism of preservation.
Although lacking a unifying style, contemporary art is consistently referential to modern and post-modern art. The accomplishments and faults of modernist, colonial, and indigenous art still poses unavoidable challenges to current practice. As in [email protected], there exists a post-colonial emphasis on basing practices “around exposing sustainable relationships with specific environments, both social and natural, within the framework of ecological values”. Ultimately, the concern for preservation and conservation is a symptom of interdisciplinary collaborations and curation attitudes. What becomes a feature of the contemporary interdisciplinary exhibition is the hint of a future vision, a scope to build a sustainable project, interdisciplinary exhibitions exudes innovation and research. In the last gallery of the exhibition grows a real garden, taken from the organic materials surviving at Pompei, which is the work of various archaeologists, botanists, zoologists, chemists etc. Laced with Modernism’s optimism and ‘love of the natural’, these remains may allow a rejuvenation of life at Pompeii, unfreezing and enabling the city to always be a contemporary matter.
The interdisciplinary exhibition creates an arena for the polymath artist. Goshka Macuga – known to place emphasis on Modernist values – reevaluates the artist’s identity by embodying the creative, the collector and the curator. The room adjacent to Allan McCollum Pop-Art worthy multiplication of the infamous cast of the Pompeiian dog (1991) exploring how artefacts could incite an emotional response but then diffuse by acknowledging the inauthenticity embodied by the seriality of the installation, displays a niche in which Macuga’s sculptures stand alongside the Pompeian artefacts they are formally based on. Macuga is revisiting the twentieth century, embodying it within icons such as Pussy Riot, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, from whose concrete and jesmonite heads flowers germinate. Her installation realises a fictitious encounter between influencers of varying historical and cultural backgrounds, whose ideas contemplate the complexities of humanity. She acknowledges the concept of reanimation, rather than McCollum’s focus on replication that strive to amplify the distance between ancient and modern.
There appears a devotion to a conception of the contemporary as absolute ‘simultaneity: all its moments existing at once’. The construction of histories and the knowledge bestowed by engaging with cultural artefacts lies at the heart of her practice. In terms of reshaping existing institutional practices, Macuga selects objects based on content, form and meaning rather than value. As shown in her MADRE installation, artefacts and works are presented with little regard for factual classification and hierarchy. They shatter traditional analysis and suggest contemporary narratives. She places ‘pre- and post-Enlightenment methods of collecting, classification and display into a productive dialogue with the contemporary white cube’ turning it into a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, and exploiting the found object and the temporality of the exhibition. This brings our discourse towards the realm of ‘new museology’.
A review of [email protected]: Archeological Material in the New York Times highlights how putting ruins in contemporary confines creates a ‘mutual resuscitation’, and each form garners a new meaning. Horowitz describes the exhibition as a positive ‘confrontation’. To him, the theme of the show is context itself and the role of the museum – this institutional self-awareness and the unseen artefacts coming into the public view is found highly contemporary and refreshing.
It must be reiterated: these objects materialise trajectories, and the layout of the exhibition uses a chronology beyond the traditional ordering of date; in each gallery work is displayed regardless of provenance or formal attributes, there is solely a subtle thematic allusion between works in the same room, manifesting a tangible legacy – a catapulting through art history alongside an intricately documented historical evolution of the archeological site. It is noted how “the modern art museum has created its own, purist display aesthetic, a highly self-conscious viewing space which proclaims the institutionalisation of art”, i.e. the much polemicised ‘white cube’ gallery, a space built in response to the growing trend for the minimalism in the twentieth-century.
The antithetical dense accumulation of objects found in the nineteenth-century approach is a method at odds with the modern art museum; however, a connection is drawn between the distinctive methods of display. As a background to the particular display of [email protected], the layout of the exhibition is a sequence of white-walled cubic rooms, varying only slightly in size and connected through doorless portals – essentially a blank canvas. Artworks and artefacts are displayed in varying ways – from eighteenth-century landscapes in gilded frames to twentieth century painted canvases hung on walls, sculptures and artefacts displayed together on shelves within a cuboid niche in the wall, to ancient and contemporary objects side by side and in conversation within a display case. The exhibition combines multiple presentation aesthetics to stimulate new dialogues between the objects themselves and further between artistic and archeology traditions.
Putnam writes extensively on the use of the vitrine by the contemporary artist and sieves through the cabinet’s connotations. He addresses it as a vessel with implications of archeological display: something that “illustrates the desire to suspend time and stabilise objects against decomposition” – pertinent in relation to the conservation of a dead city. Similarly, Putnam points out how the practice was originally adopted by the Church for the preservation and veneration of the relics of saints and thus possesses a “melancholic funereal quality”. Consequently, a piteous aura is placed on the ancient artefacts charred and encrusted with volcanic deposit when viewed beneath the glass division. A gallery devoted to a conjectural museography features a peep-show which seduces us into gazing at the untouchable innards depicting the landscape of Pompeii mid-eruption, and display cases made by Mark Dion, mixed with real findings and contemporary objects.
Dion, has been concerned with exploring the social and political agendas concealed behind the museums supposedly neutral facade. He shows how artists have questioned the role of museums and how, when taking over the role as curator, they are able to redefine them. In his practice, Dion metamorphoses into ecologist, bio-chemist, detective and archaeologist; like Goshka Macuga, his practice is purely interdisciplinary. In his manifesto, Dion addresses time as an important factor in contemporary art Understanding the past’s traditions of nature… is a source of illumination for the present and also the future. The beliefs of the past form the foundations for contemporary institutions and more often than not, still persist in their own operation.” Artists must resist nostalgia. We never do ‘golden age’ history. When we reference the past it is not to evoke ‘the good old days’. Our relation to the past is historical, not mythical.” To Dion, a knowledge of past institutional tradition is necessary to advance into contemporary thought; additionally, he criticises the – commonly Neoclassical – elevation of historical events, so we may read his peep-show depiction of the ‘sublime’ event as purely ironic.
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