Article | Dark Museum | esse arts + opinions

Article | Dark Museum

  • Boris Mikhailov, Susi and Others series, early 1970s. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • Andrei Monastyrsky, Darkness, 2007. Photo : Andrei Monastyrsky, courtesy Charim Galerie, Vienna

Dark Museum
By Victor Tupitsyn

In the West, the Russian brand of utopian thinking is generally dubbed as apocalyptic and/or eschatological. Right or wrong, I will adopt this cliché (and highlight its shortcomings), while bearing in mind that the texts authored by a number of influential Western thinkers, from Nietzsche and Benjamin, to Levinas and Baudrillard, were messianic and, thus, eschatological. Playing Cassandra is ostensibly fashionable and still in demand in today’s Society of the Spectacle, even if it aims at an ironic re-evaluation of our stale views and criteria. Evidently, Sisyphus has finally learned how to enjoy defeat and celebrate it as victory.

When viewing the paintings of Renaissance artists in the Uffizzi Gallery, one should note that these masterpieces were created in an era of fierce struggle between ideologies in art. The Renaissance was an arena of hostility, not only between artists, but between their patrons — the Medicis, the Borgias, the d’Estes, and the Vatican. Thus, the paintings hanging on museum walls are mimetic residues of these conflicts and projections of warring ideologies. Yet, when placed together, they amazingly reconcile, “forgetting” all about past wars and about the ideologies that generated them. The museum is thus a model of “paradise,” in which each object is at peace with other objects, eternalized through a series of curatorial rituals, and therefore consigned to oblivion, or to recontextualization, which essentially amounts to the same thing. The paradox, however, is that in such a “paradise,” sedimental ideologies are reactivated by the throngs of visitors from all over the world, and this motley audience is an embodiment of ideological variety. Today, warring ideologies no longer meet on a museum wall, but in front of it. Hence, the “visitors in paradise” re-ideologize that which was resting in the arms of a museological Morpheus. Like any paradise, the museum space is whole and indivisible, but the viewer who invades it ushers in the virus of difference. That is why in the “ideal” museum the only image to be shared with the public should be the sign “No admission.”

In his installation Darkness, (Vinzavod, Moscow, January 28, 2007), Andrei Monastyrsky mounted a text on the wall, opposite the entrance. The space in between was large enough to ensure that the viewer couldn’t possibly read the text without standing in close proximity to it. But any attempt to approach the wall automatically made the light switch off, thus plunging the viewer into a sudden darkness and prohibiting him/her from reading the text. (1) This brings to mind the idea of the “dark museum,” a museum devoid of lighting, where the viewer can come in with a small flashlight and illuminate only fragments of artworks, as he or she moves through the halls. In this way, the works are protected from “virus” carriers, and the carriers themselves are protected from ideological inferences, since the fragment makes it impossible to arrive at any conclusion, or even to identify the artwork accurately in its totality. Thus, the paradigm of the “dark museum” could be read as a new opportunity for non-ideological vision.

To follow up on the notion of the dark museum, it is appropriate to compare two “cave” allegories: Plato’s and the one retracted in the works of Cicero. For Plato, the twilight image of the “cave” is optically and ontologically impotent. It is, in the language of Heidegger, a world of inauthentic being, while the space beyond the cave is by definition filled with “the light of truth.” Cicero’s model of the “cave,” on the contrary, reconciles its dwellers to artificial lighting devised for the socialization of darkness. Cicero, like the stoics, insisted on the autonomy of inside-the-cave vision, needing no outside affirmation. The whimsical play of shadows on the walls of the cavern is the world of art, with its luminescent illusions and glittering self-deceptions that obscure the shining of the universal (platonic) light. (2)

In Flesh and the Ideal, Alex Potts mentions that Winckelmann used to give guided tours of Rome at night to fashionable visitors. Apparently, Winckelmann would present the Apollo of the Belvedere to his guests in total darkness, and he would then talk about the sculpture while illuminating it with candlelight. As Potts argues, the Apollo’s body would be fragmented as Winckelmann approached it to light up certain parts of the sculpture. These parts looked like they were caressed (if not “molested”) by a candle-power.

The side effect is the “blur” — the inability to distinguish between art and life. Everything has become creative: work and leisure, fear and trust, violence and retribution, exchange and deceit. Our perception — not only of the outside world, but of ourselves — is hopelessly artified, not to mention the fact that the mentality and terminology of art have taken root in every sphere of life, without exception. Art has been replaced by “creativity,” and creativity at present has no Other. If, given the circumstances, one were to imagine a person who, from the moment of birth, was known to be completely devoid of the creative reflex, such a mythical character would have undoubtedly become an important cultural phenomenon. Both that person’s biography, as well as the person itself, would become museologically objectified and absorbed by the culture industry.

As is known, the principal pathos of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory has to do with its author’s desire to prevent the transformation of autonomous art into the culture industry. Such a transformation is undergone by every artistic phenomenon which leaves the zone of de-reified activity. Given the inevitability of reification (Verdinglichung), the goal of the critically thinking artist is to delay it. However appealing, Adorno’s arguments have, for the most part, lost their effectiveness. The reason for this is the expansion of the culture industry into the sphere of the optical unconscious, as well as the instantaneous mimetic exchange (mimetic reciprocation) between them inspired by new technologies. That which Adorno regarded as non-identical to the culture industry turns out to be contaminated by it even before the moment of reification. Due to the mass media, and also to the phenomenon of instantaneous exchange, the temporal gap between art and its Other has ceased to exist. Having reached this state, art (read autonomous art) has reached its own death, which like everything else, is no longer its Other. A more optimistic view is that “all is not yet lost,” art is dead but the theme itself is art. The most surprising is a display of indifference towards art’s integration into the culture industry, an event that I find reminiscent of a funeral wake. This funeral wake has already become a “new” style, and can go on forever, generating cycles and repetitions, as well as requiring the creation of suitable props and sets. Such is the soil in which the new art will bloom, the art of mourning art. This era may turn out to be longer and more “fruitful” than all the preceding periods.

The Museum is not only a depositary and exhibition space. It is the result of institutionalizing collective judgments about artistic production and criteria that guided the acquisition of its outcomes. With the passage of time, we admit that “because it’s good art, its place is in the Museum.” Another answer was provided by Marcel Duchamp. Thanks to his readymade(s), everyone realized that “if something is in the Museum, it is art.”

Since the dark museum epitomizes the “blur,” the negativity of the symbolic function (e.g., repression of the signified and neglect of contextual referents) is not easy to grasp. It is far more visible in a well-lit exhibition space, where it manifests itself indiscriminately, sparing neither artistic nor curatorial work. Artists act as curators, and curators as artists, in relation to their respective projects. The economy of their collaboration attests to the fact that the work of curatorial art utilizes contributions of group show participants the same way artists use raw materials. From their standpoint, the entire group show (including the curator’s concept, the wall text, and so forth) is an extended frame around his or her piece, and the bigger the exhibition, the more baroque it may seem as a frame.

All of the above can be extended (figuratively, as well as literally) to a variety of value-contexts, kept (somewhat artificially) in the shadow — in order to avoid or minimize an encounter with the Other. According to some Russian artists, translatability of their work is the Radamanthus’ touch, as a result art becomes identical to its market value. In their view, true art’s placement within the walls of a well-lit Museum causes the destruction of the symbolic depository of apodictic values — the destruction of the dark museum. These artists’ concerns are shared by poets, whose verses owe their salvation to the fact that every idiomatic text is a “suitcase with a dual bottom.” The world is penetrable, but not entirely: the instinct of self-preservation makes it less transparent than we would like. In “Living On/Border Lines,” Jacques Derrida comes to the conclusion that “the text [visual or lexical] survives only when it is both translatable and untranslatable... even within the bounds of the same language.” (3) Apparently, it relies on the existence of “blind alleys,” autochthonic zones that make the translatability of the text partial and thus preserve its life. This probably explains the stubbornness on the part of the Russians, as they try to preserve the opaqueness and impenetrability of their contextual referents — stubbornness, rife with misconceptions abroad. The problem, however, is that they chronically over-secure their “stocks,” while forgetting that true art and true poetry can never be fully translatable with or without their help. That is why it makes no sense to exacerbate the difficulties of translation or re-contextualization (which are one and the same). To support these observations, I will recall my visit to Moscow in 1987. One day, Margarita [Tupitsyn] and I attended a dinner party and met the artist Eduard Steinberg, who attacked us (quite literally) for “interpreting Russian art in the West in such a way that it became more comprehensible to Western audiences.” In Steinberg’s words, we “undressed the sacred” and “served it on a platter.” Perhaps, he overestimated our achievements: despite our efforts, Russian art (largely) is still there, in the dark museum. One way or another, I am still amused and equally annoyed by visiting artists from Russia, who couldn’t care less if they are continually misunderstood outside of their native context. Conversing with curators and critics in Germany, France, or the United States, they would refer to the inhabitants of the dark museum and elaborate on related issues, without paying attention to the fact that almost no one can guess what they are talking about or why. Most of them carry this dark museum on their shoulders (in their heads), tirelessly transporting it from point “A” to point “B.” And not only the artists of the 1960s, but also those of the younger generation, including the Moscow conceptualists. The latter aspire to the same mentality, albeit in different proportions and with an assumption that, in small doses, translation is, in fact, quite possible. Spared from demolition, the dark museum continues to go on. Is it nomadic paradise or nomadic Bastille?

Regardless of our response, we are stuck in the double bind of two museological paradigms, nocturnal and diurnal — a twilight situation in which anyone can be an artist, and anything can be art. To accentuate my points, I will (once again) entertain the idea of the dark museum. It seems obvious that the walls of the Holland Tunnel (between New York and New Jersey) aptly fit this theme. For, if artworks adorned the tunnel’s walls, commuters would have a chance to view them in passing, provided that the eye of the beholder didn’t have enough time to snatch their essence. However discouraging, this is precisely the message that today’s art conveys to the viewer. And the viewer to art.

(1) Having heard about this prior to my visit to Vinzavod, I brought a flashlight with me and managed to decipher the “crypt.” Weeks later, I admitted my guilt and promised not to reveal the content of the text. Curiously, a quite similar “flashlight approach” was undertaken by Ahmet Öğüt in his exhibition Wherever I go I see your shadow behind me (Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, 2011).
(2) The “dark museum” is, thus, the birthplace of art history, its “native land.” I’m grateful to the editors of Esse for letting me know about Winckelmann’s “rituals” in Rome.
(3) Jacques Derrida, “Living On/Border Lines,” in Harold Bloom et al., Deconstruction and Criticism, London, UK: G. Hartman, 1979, 102.

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