The museum says no!

Two related articles in the art press this month prompted reflection and cast light on the direction my dissertation project might take. The first was the opening of an exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art of the Irish artist Duncan Campbell which runs from 8th November to 29th March and includes the artist’s film It for Others (2013) originally commissioned by The Common Guild for Scotland + Venice 2013 (the Scottish representation at the at the 55th Venice biennale) for which Campbell was awarded the Turner Prize 2014. It for Others is a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 documentary, Les statues mourient aussi (Statues also die) that, as is characteristic of Campell’s practice, combines archive material with his own footage. The two films have been shown in tandem with Les statues mourient aussi presented as a ‘found film’ with an English transcript available.

Resnais and Marker’s ‘essay-film’ was commissioned by the journal, Présence Africane, associated with the ‘negritude’ movement. Such was their critique of French colonialism in Africa that the film was not shown in France for fifteen years as Resnais refused to accept the French censor’s cut. One celebrated sequence, made with the help and expert advice of the British curator, was filmed in the vaults of the British Museum; a parade of Benin Bronzes glitter in Eisenstien-like high contrast and float out of the dark as the voice over intones:

An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum.

However Campbell, seeking to revisit these ideas about the commercialisation and commodification of African art, found it difficult to have permission granted to film the same objects; access, if not denied outright was not facilitated either. The strategy he adopted in the end was to film using ‘approximate replicas’ of traditional West African sculptures. In fact, from my point of view, the decision only serves to reinforce the point – the systems of exchange, histories of collection and practices of display that have determined their value as artworks in western museums can be linked to their ‘death of purpose’, detached from their religious and social contexts. In an excerpt used in the Tateshots profile of the artist below, we can see the critical effect of the reversal of the principle of the spectator gaze, ‘seeing not being seen’: the camera is placed behind the eyes of the masks looking out.

All this brings me to my main area of research interest – the issue of the repatriation of cultural artefacts– and to the second art-related announcement of note: the British Museum’s loan of a Parthenon sculpture of the river-god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. In the words of the British Museum’s director, Niel McGregor, the artwork

…embodies the belief in the supreme value of rational debate among free citizens. There can be no better celebration of the Enlightenment ideals which the British Museum and the Hermitage have shared for 250 years.

McGregor has perhaps been the most eloquent in defense of the concept and mission of the ‘universal museum’ in the face of post-colonial critiques, emphasising the ‘pre-imperial’ foundation of the British Museum and the cosmopolitanism of its address to publics. The ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ (2002) sets out the official line:

The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones. Over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift, or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension, part of the heritage of the nations which house them.

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while not a ‘sister museum’ like the Hermitage, is also a fellow signatury to the declaration. Negotiations with the Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan (whose work I discuss below) were not protracted, they were simply denied permission to film the Pergamon altar or access to archives, stating they had no interest in stiring debate about repatriation. So much for ‘rational debate among free citizens’! The artists had proposed ‘to produce a film work, which reflects upon the contemporary condition of displacement from a historical perspective’. That would include the monument’s own layered history, transported to the Berlin, capital of the German State from Bergamon in modern day Turkey in the late 19th century, taken to Moscow as war booty and then returned after the death of Stalin.
Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland (2008-12) was commissioned by the Project Art Centre and shown in Dublin in 2009. The installation consisted of two parts: the first, a 35mm film, Revolt of the Giants – Reconstructed from Reproductions (2008 -2009), the second, a 16mm film Revolt of the Giants – recited by prospective Germans (2008). From the film, below, of the Project’s visual art curator, Tessa Giblin, introducing the work, one can get a sense of the imposing size and sound of the film projector in the centre of the room.

In the essay Follow the Hybrid, the artists set out their thinking and process. Firstly, they recreated the altar from over 100 print reproductions culled from art historical and archeological texts and guide books found in libraries, street markets and even the museum’s gift shop. As the 35mm film slowly pans the sculptural frieze, one is aware of the various photographic forms in which it has been inscribed in since the 1880s, ‘with their diverse grids, qualities and illumination … and formal qualities, such as contrast, printing technique and texture’.

Secondly, in a move to counter or make visible the exclusionary position of the museum, the 16mm film shows, in a screen test format, students on a language proficiency and intergration class (required for all aspiring Turkish migrants to Germany) in the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul. They read, in German, art historical descriptions of the frieze, grappling with difficult pronunciation and unfamillar terms. Maeve Connoly’s review in Artforum, describes how, in contrast, to

the methodical, relentless progression of the camera across the surface of the monument in the larger projection, the static cinematography in the second film reveals smaller and more hesitant movements, the facial gestures of the readers who attempt to decode the words shown them.

The effect is open-ended and nuanced but points to language as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that underpinns the appropriation of cultural heritage and in particular the German value of Bildung, the individual internalisation of high culture.

So from negritude to Bildung, what does it add up to? Well, having prepared an outline proposal for a digital art project, the viability of which depends in large part on the degree of access granted to me by a national instituion to its archives and storerooms and phyical holdings, I’m heartened to see the creative possibilities, solutions and critical strategies of artists working within beauracracy or around refusal. Sometimes it’s more interesting when they say no!

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