Politics of Installation
The field of art is today frequently equated with the art market, and the artwork is primarily identified as a commodity. That art functions in the context of the art market, and every work of art is a commodity, is beyond doubt; yet art is also made and exhibited for those who do not want to be art collectors, and it is in fact these people who constitute the majority of the art public. The typical exhibition visitor rarely views the work on display as a commodity. At the same time, the number of large-scale exhibitions—biennales, triennales, documentas, manifestas—is constantly growing. In spite of the vast amounts of money and energy invested in these exhibitions, they do not exist primarily for art buyers, but for the public—for an anonymous visitor who will perhaps never buy an artwork. Likewise, art fairs, while ostensibly existing to serve art buyers, are now increasingly transformed into public events, attracting a population with little interest in buying art, or without the financial ability to do so. The art system is thus on its way to becoming part of the very mass culture that it has for so long sought to observe and analyze from a distance. Art is becoming a part of mass culture, not as a source of individual works to be traded on the art market, but as an exhibition practice, combined with architecture, design, and fashion—just as it was envisaged by the pioneering minds of the avant-garde, by the artists of the Bauhaus, the Vkhutemas, and others as early as the 1920s. Thus, contemporary art can be understood primarily as an exhibition practice. This means, among other things, that it is becoming increasingly difficult today to differentiate between two main figures of the contemporary art world: the artist and the curator.
The traditional division of labor within the art system was clear. Artworks were to be produced by artists and then selected and exhibited by curators. But, at least since Duchamp, this division of labor has collapsed. Today, there is no longer any “ontological” difference between making art and displaying art. In the context of contemporary art, to make art is to show things as art. So the question arises: is it possible, and, if so, how is it possible to differentiate between the role of the artist and that of the curator when there is no difference between art’s production and exhibition? Now, I would argue that this distinction is still possible. And I would like to do so by analyzing the difference between the standard exhibition and the artistic installation. A conventional exhibition is conceived as an accumulation of art objects placed next to one another in an exhibition space to be viewed in succession. In this case, the exhibition space works as an extension of neutral, public urban space—as something like a side alley into which the passerby may turn upon payment of an admission fee. The movement of a visitor through the exhibition space remains similar to that of someone walking down a street and observing the architecture of the houses left and right. It is by no means accidental that Walter Benjamin constructed his “Arcades Project” around this analogy between an urban stroller and an exhibition visitor. The body of the viewer in this setting remains outside of the art: art takes place in front of the viewer’s eyes—as an art object, a performance, or a film. Accordingly, the exhibition space is understood here to be an empty, neutral, public space—a symbolic property of the public. The only function of such a space is to make the art objects that are placed within it easily accessible to the gaze of the visitors.
The curator administers this exhibition space in the name of the public—as a representative of the public. Accordingly, the curator’s role is to safeguard its public character, while bringing the individual artworks into this public space, making them accessible to the public, publicizing them. It is obvious that an individual artwork cannot assert its presence by itself, forcing the viewer to take a look at it.