The exhibition, à rebours

First and foremost, let us congratulate Martí Manen on his excellent new book of essays Salir de la exposición (Si es que alguna vez habíamos entrado) [Leaving the Exhibition (If We Had Ever Entered)]. Manen has produced a well-written book, intelligently structured, elegant in rhythm, clarity and synthesis. In short, a book that defies the pervading post-modern haze. This young critic, who lives in Stockholm, is the first in our country to provide a compendium summarising each and every one of the elements that form a contemporary exhibition. Manen’s ideas about curatorship begin where the traditional exhibition ends. The consolidation of ready-made, the relational aesthetic, video, performance, workshops, have made the old exhibition model – the Anglo-Saxon White Cube – obsolete when it comes to tackling living art, representing a multi-communicative, hyperstimulated reality. In thirty-three short pieces, Manen summarises his theories about exhibition rhythm and tempo, research, discourse, transversality, technology and parallel activities revolving around a contemporary exhibition project.

Manen’s instinctive urge to deconstruct exhibitions is generated by the fatal alliance that the critic notes between the modern art show and bourgeois conservatism. According to Manen, classical visitors do not seek surprises, but the reassurance provided by recognition of exhibition codes that are already familiar to them. Behind these analgesic purposes there is no chance for a discursive replica and, meanwhile, says Manen, the institution stealthily takes advantage of this situation to impose a discourse of power, economic or ideological in nature. The alternative that Manen proposes is supported by three ideas, all clearly influenced by Marxism: the one-directional commitment to novelty, the critical fusion of exhibition and reality, and the visitor’s active participation. Accordingly, the exhibition should be a place for investigation into and production of the unknown, rather than a space for presentation and contemplation; a hybrid territory traced out by the new technologies – video, radio, Internet, etc. – and radically conceptualised. An exhibition cannot be a neutral place or a distraction for the spirit: it must be a political arena generating critical, social and urban content. Moreover, the exhibition space must, of necessity, involve participation by spectators, who become actors and assets in the show. Manen’s proposal makes clear reference to an ideal model of the citizen: one with a critical, engaged outlook, which clashes with the enlightened education of taste for enjoyment and private consumption.

Reading Manen’s book, we miss a more critical attitude towards the discrepancies between the post-modern curatorial ideal and its practical resolution that have occurred in no small number over the last twenty years. Do dematerialised projects make any sense at institutional museums? How can a relational exhibition be justified if there are no more visitors than those from the same sector? How can we resolve the conflict between leaner museums and the increase in resources required by this new model in order to meet the costs of production, technology, curatorship, debates and so on? Why are research, debate and discourse denied in a conventional exhibition? Why the systematic demonization of museum exhibitions if most curators make their living from institutional capital? Is no possibility given – as it is abroad – to the function of the autonomous artwork to disturb, without textual buttresses?

In any case, Salir de la exposición is a book that can be recommended for those with all types of sensibilities and beliefs within the artworld. To the apocalyptics, legitimate champions of the contemplative exhibition, it will provide a searing source of aesthetic confrontation. For the integrated, a reference book, a fluent manual for consultation. And for all of us, stakeholders in the world of art, it should be a stimulus to write down our own convictions about art in essay form.

[Bonart, October-November 2012]