White on White (cube): Public Museums and Private Spaces

November 8, 2017

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Kazimir Malevich, Black Square (1915). Oil on canvas. 79.5 x 79.5 cm

First Communion

In 1915, artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited his iconic painting Black Square. One hundred years later, several researchers from Moscow’s state-run Tretyakov Gallery, while conducting an X-ray analysis of one of the three versions of the painting, discovered that beneath the brushstrokes, the artist had scrawled a phrase reading, “Negroes fighting in a tunnel by night.” The painting, one of the most visible icons of Suprematism—the radical artistic movement that proclaimed the supremacy of nothingness and the representation of the world without objects—once again became a focus of attention and a new interpretation was added to its avant-garde repertoire. The colorful phrase echoes a prior work, a piece by writer and humorist Alphonse Allais, who was a member of Los Incoherentes, a group of artists who during an 1882 exhibition had, in a more ironic than iconic manner, exhibited a selection of cartoons in rectangular frames featuring monochromatic backgrounds and inscriptions. The red monochromatic painting reads, “Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea”; the blue monochrome reads, “Astonishment of Young Naval Recruits Seeing for the First Time Your Blue, O Mediterranean Sea!”; the yellow reads, “Jaundiced Cuckolds Handling Ochre”; the grey, “Band of Greyfriars in the Fog”; the green, “Some Pimps, Known as Green Backs, on Their Bellies in the Grass, Drinking Absinthe”; the black, “Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel by Night.”

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Alphonse Allais, Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel by Night (1883), reproduced in Album primo-avrilesque

At first glance, one might interpret Malevich’s phrase as racist and joke that the work (like the artist) is not only Suprematist but supremacist (it couldn’t get more white). However, if we read Allais and company as precursors to Malevich—beyond rivalry or debate, and within the broad chromatic spectrum of Los Incoherentes—we expand our understanding of Black Square, something of the solemnity and mysticism attributed to art becomes distorted, purism is stained, the artist’s identity is diluted and it is replaced with an open reading in which variations on a theme flow within a continuum, a play among several hands and several eras, a reversible history that updates the past and reverses the order of the formalist historical canon as we know it. Nicolás Consuegra’s exhibition El espacio del lugar. El lugar del espacio [The Space of Place: The Place of Space] in NC-arte can be read as a white on white. The Project consists of the staging of a one-to-one scaled reproduction of the museum space within another exhibition space, a white cube within another white cube, white on white; so much so that while mounting the exhibition one of the crew members asked, “When will the works arrive?”

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Alphonse Allais, First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow (1883), reproduced in Album primo-avrilesque

The white monochrome from Los Incoherentes’ selection of comic frames bears the inscription, “First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow.” What inscriptions could be read in Consuegra’s intervention? Here, we are assisted by the frugal tautology of the exhibition’s title or the support of the curatorial text, which focuses on the use of the art-critical term “site specific.” However, what scribbles and scrawls might an X-ray analysis of this exhibition reveal?

Two Nothings

A quote from Marcel Proust’s book In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, published in 1913: “[O]ur age is plagued by the notion that objects should be shown only with things which accompany them in reality, thus depriving them of the essential, that act of mind which isolated them from reality in the first place. So a painting is ‘featured’ amid furniture, knick-knacks or hangings from the same period, the sort of insipid interior decoration which yesterday’s ignoramus among hostesses, who now spends her idle hours in the archives and the libraries, is today adept at composing, and among which the masterpiece that we glance at as we dine does not give us the intensity of pleasure we more rightly expect from it in an art gallery, where the bareness of walls unadorned by any distracting detail symbolizes much more aptly the inner spaces into which the artist withdrew to create it.”

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The main hall of Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

In The Space of Place: The Place of Space there is nothing. There are no furnishings, knick-knacks or hangings, no insipid interior decoration. The location being depicted, the main hall of the Art Museum of the Universidad Nacional, is an ample space, typical of modern architecture, constructed from the onset to be a museum, featuring outlines in the shape of rectangles that are replicated over and over again in the floor, the walls and the ceilings. Six raw concrete columns support the structure along with a rectangular skylight, through which natural light filters down to the floor below. The central space is a rectangle determined by an area that is in turn demarcated by a pair of thick steps made of lacquered wood and another frame erected between the columns, in which the wall functions as a bench and resting spot.

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Façade of the main hall, Museo de Arte , Universidad Nacional, Bogotá

The other site, NC-arte, is a former high school space that has been left with nothing more than its republican-era façade as an exterior shell. Inside, its architecture is merely structural, with no correspondence between levels and windows that offer haunting reminders of its previous face. Inside, several sets of raw concrete columns stand out, designating paths through a generous space that is dominated by high white walls and a metallic staircase leading to a small gallery on the second floor, then continuing toward the offices.

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Façade of NC-arte, Bogotá

The emptiness of both spaces does not amount to nothing in the exhibition. On the contrary, out of the merger of the two spaces there materializes an odd architecture of blind spots, small accessible and inaccessible rooms, an abundance of columns, barriers and boundaries. This is clear on the second floor, where the dramatic downslope of the roof—a visual representation of the upper limits of the Art Museum of the Universidad Nacional—makes it necessary to negotiate the incline, causing a paradoxical sensation in which what is gained in height—being able to touch the ceiling—means becoming smaller, since one has to crouch down in order to get through, and only children can walk through this metaphor for human finitude without having to worry about bumping their heads.

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Inside of NC-arte

In the juxtaposition between the two spaces and the materialization of this impulse there is a propensity toward the metaphysical: white on white, the utopian dream of a mystical Suprematist longing to move beyond embodied experience and expand the limits of the pictorial plane to the point where the work becomes space itself. Situated within an anthology on the white cube, this intervention might refer to Baroque painters from various latitudes, who in their quest to fool the eye (trompe l’oeil) realistically painted the reverse side of paintings, copying the texture of the raw canvas or the stretcher frame, and adding stamps and marks pertaining to authorship and commerce. Or it might reference more recent works, such as the piece by artist Martín Creed that altered the exhibition space’s lighting system to alternate between darkness and light, leaving many feeling enlightened and others in the dark when he was awarded England’s Turner Prize for the work in 2001. On the local scene, curatorship of this museum-void might comprise pieces by Santiago Cárdenas, Bernardo Salcedo, Ana Mercedes Hoyos, Elías Heim, Gabriel Sierra, or Ricardo León’s work Vacui, exhibited in Galería Jenny Vilà in Cali, in which a series of white rooms were made, galleries within galleries becoming progressively smaller until the very last one occupied the space of a filing cabinet exhibiting works that were even more barren and empty, and which might now include the work of Consuegra.

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Cornelius Norbertus Gijbrechts, Trompe l'oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting (1670). Oil on canvas

 

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Ricardo León, Vacui (2013). Installation, Galería Jenny Vilà, Cali

Parallel to this learned view, which delights in putting names to the mise en abyme, there is a creole Pataphysics: the exhibition seems worthy of an anthology on the delirious notions of architecture, for example, seen in those sequences of photos disseminated on social media where we see staircases leading to nowhere or ending in impenetrable walls, doors that open into empty space, poorly installed plumbing projects and a vast array of outrageous carpentry embodying a bizarre distortion of the paradoxical spaces created by artists such as Piranesi, Escher, Richard Serra or Dan Graham or Jorge Macchi. This exhibition of architecture’s popular dystopia is echoed in grandiloquent projects in which the vision of the architect, as an enlightened artist of public space, moves from the planned render to the predictable horrender, and the inclusion of an artistic component fails to produce the expected result. An example of this type of brilliant awkwardness can be found in Mariposa [Butterfly], Edgar Negret’s sculpture in the Plaza de San Victorino of Bogotá, a piece that, despite being cleaned and repainted time and again by mayor after mayor so that it could be flaunted as a cultural product for the nation’s contemplation, always ends up being put to other uses, determined above all by the demands of the urban location where it is exhibited: children’s slide, prostitutes’ runway, doves’ perch, bathtub, shelter.

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Left: Colombianadas.net. Center: Architectural sketch and photo of the sculpture "Butterfly" by Edgar Negret, Plaza de San Victorino, Bogotá. Right: Image posted with the hashtap #LugaresRemotos, which asked visitors to share their perspective on the exhibition

The 1:1 model of the Universidad Nacional space in NC-arte is carefully assembled, its awkwardness is controlled; in its details it brings to mind the work of a hyperrealist painter, and only an up-close examination reveals the pictorial tricks of its artifice. One has to knock on the columns and sound out their hollowness to overcome the trickery used by a talented confectioner to simulate the cracks in the concrete, one has to see the thinness of the linen that simulates the floor, see the seams and the painted grains of lacquered wood that appear worn by usage and time, and take in the cleanliness of the entrance and exit doors of the Museum, which give way to a blind angle behind an impassable glass wall—an exit to a place with no exit.

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Inside of Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

This trick brings about a certain astonishment: it is not possible to leave completely. We are not faced with a painting that occupies our visual field and disappears when we blink and turn around, but rather we are within the painting, within a fractured staging, a work that is hunting for people—where, upon entering it, we form part of this theatre of the absurd, accentuated by the fractures emerging from the void between the two spaces.

This fiction is indeed important for the envisioning of potential new worlds, but it is also important when we are able to reveal the fiction of our mental constructs, in this case the staging of art in academies, galleries, festivals, biennials, salons, collections, auctions and museums, which in addition to the works they exhibit seem to be the preferred sites for appeasing one’s horror vacui. The void of this fiction, however, confronts the spectator with the silence of temples bearing neither adornment nor deity, white screens prior to and following the projection. We are faced with a brief and furtive experience dangling from a dead and purposeless time, a void that is quickly filled with displays of objects, opening-night cocktails, curatorial explanations and didactic conversations that attempt to make the dubious and capricious world of art more digestible, justifications typical of consumer society given in explanations, in anecdotes, in the artist’s profile as it accumulates reputational capital, in museum records, in social pages and in the indexed pages of academic journals, in marketing and in collection, in the “institutional critique” of complaint culture and in the corporate culture that uses art as a mechanism of “social responsibility” to whitewash its guilt and garner tax exemptions.

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Meme, Colombian Art Upside Down, 2017, Facebook

In The Space of Place: The Place of Space we could momentarily fall victim to the same deceit that fooled everyone in The Emperor’s New Clothes, another “contemporary art fraud,” since the duality of the nothing—the trace of one nothing over another nothing—is inherent in the ambitious design of an exhibition which only offers problems—as art offers no solutions—in the singular experience of a space that steals spectators away, transporting them to another space, a dream in which the juxtaposition between the two sites traces a spatial continuity that fleetingly connects all voids, the nothingness from which we came and the nothingness toward which we are compelled. An original chimera that goes to the source of what appears impossible, a brief instant of perception, fantasy and madness.

Memory and Opportunity

We might easily confuse art with technique, in which case Consuegra’s proposal, along with its timorous title, would seem limited to an exercise in which aesthetic value takes precedence, the “intoxicating pleasure” described by Proust, the crossing of two museum galleries that “due to their bareness and lack of particularity” reflect “the interior spaces in which the artist secluded himself in order to create.” However, reality is stubborn, and there is no way to seal yourself off from it completely. In the exhibition there are two clear actions, scribbled by Consuegra on the reverse side of the set, that form a couple of cracks in the project that allow other lights to filter through, displaying the ample range of color comprised by the light spectrum projected by the exhibition.

Seventeen moments took place in the space of The Space of Place: The Place of Space, spread over the two months that the exhibition was in place: small groups of musicians assembled to play Eight Weeks for Six Instruments, a score commissioned by Consuegra and composed by musician Rodolfo Acosta, Director of the Ensamble CG. The musicians evoke the everyday sounds of the university campus, in particular the School of Arts, with art in plural. The exterior of the Museum seems to be the obligatory location for students of music, given the ruinous state of so many of the buildings on the Universidad Nacional campus, including the music conservatory.

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Eight Weeks for Six Instruments, composed by Rodolfo Acosta R., performed at NC-arte from July–September 2017

The music in the exhibition is for six types of instruments—flute, clarinet, percussion, guitar, cello and voice—and the musicians are convened at different times in different combinations. Each one finds its own unique and distinct character in response to the overall feeling of a particular time and moment. Their performance is randomized, there is experimentation and a margin for improvisation. The pieces are like a rehearsal that comes before a final piece that never comes to pass, and they evoke the fragmentary character typical of contemporary music in which notation, execution, duration, and repetition are pierced by abstraction, dissonance, complex layered rhythms, and abrupt changes in texture. Perhaps this is a musical echo of the ruptures that have come about in the visual arts in the past hundred years, which correspond to the same spatial breakdowns set out in the temporary architecture of Consuegra’s piece: a constant duality in which the acoustic act of listening that occurs in the university is being emulated even while, when we close our eyes, we can sense the acoustics of the Museum.

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Colección Pizano exhibition, 1973, Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

The other sound piece that Consuegra brings into play unfolds in space, but its dissemination is virtual. It deals with a repertoire undertaken by an involuntary ensemble of professors, historians, curators, cultural ambassadors, and artists brought together in short videos hosted by elespaciosemuevedespacio.com, in which each one of them expounds upon their vision of the Art Museum of the Universidad Nacional, speaking freely but in an edited version. One artist, Juan Fernando Herrán, who has worked on commissioned projects in both locations, explains how he has enlarged previous works to adapt them to the height, width and length of both sites. Three of the others—Germán Rubiano, historian; William López, academic and coordinator of the Master’s Degree in Museum Management and Heritage Administration; and Santiago Rueda, academic, curator and critic—acted as directors of the Museum, highlighting the value of the collections, the academic fabric of the university and this space’s fundamental role in university life, its classes, its projects, its actions, its memory. There is a marked distance in these three videos from the path that the Museum has taken since 2007, when its administration was handed over to the current director of Cultural Heritage for the university, María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, who speaks in one of the videos about her agenda, which focuses on the opportunity to produce a few, highly impactful exhibitions, mostly individual shows with commissioned projects from artists, as well as some group exhibitions that alternate between initiatives pertaining to teaching and those pertaining to academic research.

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Paintings on the external walls of Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

The assortment of videos makes it clear that there is a struggle within the Museum, the eternal return of the same issues, recalling the battle that took place several decades ago, in the late 1960s, when another museum space, the Museum of Modern Art, set up shop within the university, putting together a series of memorable exhibitions (perhaps the most notable being Espacios Ambientales [Environmental Spaces]) under the leadership of writer and critic Marta Traba, while a clash of ideas was simultaneously taking place. There was a permanent divide between a personalist and multifunctional directorship—Marta Traba also had her own personal project, Galería Marta Traba, whose agenda was coordinated with the museum on a rotation that included the commercialization of works—and the demands typical of a university space, enhanced by the constant flow of all types of actors and initiatives, including the critique of a group of professors who had been denied a voice on the museum’s board and for whom it was difficult to understand why a space that belonged to the campus and which received public funds for its operations would encounter so many complications when attempting to open itself up to the active participation of the university community.

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Miguel Ángel Ríos, A morir/White suit [To Die/White Suit] (2008). Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

The collection of interviews shows that there is no middle ground in this battle between memory and opportunity, there is no space for this shared custody and choices regarding the Museum’s current policy—and there are many, with notable individual shows including those of Miguel Ángel Ríos, Clemencia Echeverri, José Alejandro Restrepo, Vicky Newman, or Ryoji Ikeda—go unconsidered, and the person who controls the current policy, in turn, seems reticent to open the space to the initiatives of other actors in the university, beyond a couple of one-time events such as the intermittent Cano Laboratory or the recurring Master’s in Living Arts shows. The dialogue has been cut off, and tellingly, on the Museum’s web site, situated on a tab within the portal for the Administration of Cultural Heritage under “Previous Exhibitions,” the historical register begins with a genesis occurring in 2008, and the exercise of recognizing what other individuals have done, or what has been done by many people working together, is left to those outside the Museum, on other sites, in other stories, in other places (for example, memorable exhibitions such as The Invisible Foundation, on the work of Santiago Cárdenas, curated in 1999 by Miguel Huertas, deserve to be included as part of the Museum’s historical heritage under the direction of the Administration of Cultural Heritage).

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El soporte invisible (1999). Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

These videos share a common staging—they have all been filmed within the installation of The Space of Place: The Place of Space, and at times the gestures of their actors when they speak of the Museum add to and stimulate confusion, using the space of NC-arte to highlight characteristics of the Art Museum of the Universidad Nacional. This confusing duality brings to mind a critical column by Carolina Ponce from the early 1990s, dedicated to an exhibition in a Bogotá gallery: “Ambivalence is part of the identity of Galería El Museo. Its very name is a contradiction in terms that attempts to evoke the identity common to both the commercial and the sacred. It plays with code-switching. The term “gallery” denotes a function: the commercialization of art; the term “museum” suggests a category: what the spectator encounters therein is not just worthy of being purchased, these are exclusive works, “museum pieces.” It is a marketing strategy to ensure a secure investment. The title of the critique is Cat for Hare, and it works for the local art “boom” that was taking place at that time as well as for the one taking place now with the self-proclaimed “boom” in international art in Colombia.

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Meme, Colombian Art Upside Down, 2017, Facebook

Consuegra’s work, which overlaps the monochrome with the space of the Art Museum of the Universidad Nacional within the white cube of NC-arte, could be considered a game of finding differences, an exercise that takes place not only in the shift between the voids of both locations, but rather in the origin of both spaces. For example, both locations seem to share a pedagogical purpose; a glance at the Education tab on the NC-arte web site offers evidence of consistent, ambitious and ongoing programming; indeed—and here we have a problem—it seems even more consistent and better endowed than the educational initiatives currently taking place at the Art Museum of the Universidad Nacional.

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The main hall of Museo de Arte, Universidad Nacional

This would be a worthy case study for an analysis of the shift from the public sphere to the private sphere, in which a private institution with a public calling, through a process of code-switching, can take on the attributes typical of a public institution, emulating and even replacing it. This is a similarity that is exemplary of the positive attributes of cultural administration by the private sector, but that also evidences the dismantling of the public sector: its systematic impoverishment, its internal struggles, its instrumentalization, the normalization of its precariousness, the decline of official state policy, an ongoing revolution that has sought to uphold widespread and ambitious programs with the capacity to implement long-term, far-reaching educational policy. The comparison between NC-arte and the Universidad Nacional of Colombia has its limits, and in light of a rule of law that supposedly guarantees education and public well-being, their differences should be greater than their similarities. That is, unless this university, like so many others, has given up on openness and universality.

One last quote will tie up the text with a bow, and to return to the nothing with which we began. It was written by Peter Gay in his book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett:

“For Malevich, his simple-looking paintings were the incarnation of a spiritual ideology. He wanted to put something in the place of nothing, artistic sensibility as a substitute for capitalistic greed. ‘By Suprematism,’ he wrote, ‘I mean the supremacy of pure feeling or sensation in the pictorial arts.’ As he recalled his awakening, it had been ‘in the year 1913 in my desperate struggle to free art from the ballast of the objective world’ that he had ‘fled to the form of the Square.’ That square, he insisted, was not empty, but ‘rather the experience of objectlessness.’ Such thinking took art—and of course the artist—very seriously indeed. When Malevich maintained that the time was ripe for a new religion, he meant a new aesthetic.”

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Kazimir Malevich on his deathbed, 1935


Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen