A visitor to MoMA’s current Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective exhibition must traverse a sea of potted palms to enter the galleries. The palms, along with a series of prints hanging on the surrounding walls, comprise a work entitled L’entrée de l’exposition (The entry to the exhibition). From this first moment, we are confused: where does the art stop and the museum begin?
Broodthaers never used the term “institutional critique” to describe his work. Nonetheless, he is often cited as one of the forebears of a reflexive mode of art making in which the artist engages with the structures of the art world in order to understand them, parody them, or subvert them. (Others include Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and, working a bit later, Andrea Fraser.)
Perhaps Broodthaers’s most audacious move was to found his own (quasi-fictional) museum, the Museum of modern art, Department of eagles. On view in MoMA’s retrospective is one intact “section” from that museum, the Section Publicité (Publicity section). Broodthaers fills vitrines and plasters the walls of the space with images of or relating to his museum. While a museum’s traditional function is to collect and preserve art, in Broodthaers’s work the museum is collecting and preserving materials related only to itself: a museum of the museum.
This March, thanks to a generous research grant from MoMA, I traveled to Spain, seeking to understand how exhibitions take on new life in different spaces. The Broodthaers show will be traveling to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid this fall, and I was thinking about what it would mean to show much of the same work in the Reina Sofía’s converted 18th-century hospital building, and in a Spanish rather than American context.
My meetings with the exhibition team at the Reina Sofía, though, led me on a slightly different trajectory, as I began to wonder what it means for a museum to display work that critically addresses the status of the museum.
At the Reina Sofía, I saw Duty-Free Art, an exhibition of work by the German artist Hito Steyerl, which indicates a skeptical approach to the art world in its very title, a reference to the practice of keeping art in free-port storage spaces in places like Geneva as a means of avoiding hefty taxes. The art then languishes there, appreciating in value but unseen.
With Broodthaers on my mind, I was fascinated by Steyerl’s approach to the museum in which her art was displayed. In an interview with João Fernandes in the Duty-Free exhibition catalogue, Steyerl comments, “Instead of allowing the museum to remain in a position of false innocence and trying to dissociate ourselves from it, we should struggle to make it the space we want it to be.”
But how can an artist engage in such a struggle? Where to begin? Sometimes, Steyerl suggests, the gesture of transforming the museum is a simple one.
In Duty-Free Art, visitors can watch Steyerl’s videos while seated on sandbags, piled high like field fortifications, or reclining in bright red lounge chairs whose geometric forms evoke a Space Age bachelor pad. Steyerl, a theorist as well an artist, has written about the tricky situation of institutional critique in the museum and lectured on the links between museums and the military. With her video installations, though, Steyerl extends her rethinking of the museum beyond the theoretical to the physical—to the actual bodily space occupied by the museumgoer.
The replacement of a standard-issue wooden bench with a heap of sandbags might seem a minor, cosmetic twist on the typical museum visiting experience, but Steyerl, like Broodthaers, understands that the conventions of museum display utterly shape the way we perceive art. To play with those conventions is to make possible a new kind of art—and a new kind of museum.