BARCELONA — The study of the history of exhibitions allows us to “shuffle the deck of art history,” as Robert Rosenblum wrote in his essay for the 2000 exhibition 1900: Art at the Cross-Roads. Thanks in part to artists and scholars’ interrogation of the institutional authority of the museum, the growing importance of museum studies, and the boom in writings by and about star curators, the history of exhibitions has become an important area of study. The study of exhibitions and the reconstruction of landmark examples can shed light on institutional histories and allow us to rethink received artistic categories, question canonical narratives, and rediscover forgotten artists. Such potential, however, has its limitations, since it depends on access to archives or eyewitnesses. Those institutions with resources preserve their records, thus reifying their own importance as subjects for study for scholars seeking documentation.
Publications by art historians about landmark museum exhibitions or biennials — notably my collague at New York University Bruce Altshuler’s two-volume Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History — provide a model for this kind of research. Since the early 2000s, museums and kunsthalles have presented exhibitions of exhibitions, which include photographs, archival documents, and artworks to represent landmark exhibitions. Recent examples in New York include the excellent Neuegalerie exhibition Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany or the revisionist Jewish Museum show Other Primary Structures, both held last year. Although the latter sought to redress the omissions of Latin American and Non-Western artists in the original exhibition, the majority of this scholarship and exhibitions of exhibitions focus on events held in the West that are points of reference for canonical art history. Ironically then, although the study of institutional histories and exhibitions can shed light on blind spots in standard narratives, it can still serve to exclude events held outside Europe and the United States.
For this reason, Past Disquiet: Narratives and Ghosts from The International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978, now on view at MACBA, Museu d’art contemporani in Barcelona, and curated by Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti, is an important corrective to this academic and curatorial trend — both timely and groundbreaking. It is notable that they refer to themselves as both curators and researchers in the exhibition brochure, since they undertook the impressive and exhaustive process of recuperating this event.
The exhibition evokes the event within broader contexts of international artistic and political alliances, presenting archival documents, photographs, videos, and interviews. Organized into four sections— Catalogue of The International Art Exhibition for Palestine, Beirut, 1978; Exhibition History; Portraits and Characters; and Map of Actions, Events, and Agents from Japan to South Africa to South America and Other Museums in Exile — it evocatively reconstructs an ephemeral event that left few traces. The beautiful installation design leads visitors through an enveloping trajectory that puts them in the place of the curators and researchers. At the same time, as visitors walk through the archival materials, they may reflect on their own memories of visiting exhibitions.
The evocative reconstruction of the 1978 exhibition was in part drawn from visitors’ recollections, creating a living archive that the curators drew on in their research. Reproductions of catalogues, photographs of artworks, intallation views, and events cascade from the ceiling, while others run along the walls, alongside videos that present interviews with participants, vistors, and images from the period. Extensive text panels shed light on the documentary materials, but do not overwhelm the viewer with excessive reading material.
Posters announcing the exhibition and contemporary events are evidence of global networks of political solidarity during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The denunciation of Apartheid in South Africa, United States foreign policy during the Vietnam War, Pinochet’s dictatorship, and Israeli attacks on Palestine led artists to take sides, using exhibitions as platforms to disseminate information about struggles for social justice worldwide. Given the venue, it would have been appropriate to indicate exhibitions denouncing Franco’s dictatorship held in Paris and other cities during the period, or the participation of Spanish artists such as Equipo Crónica in Salons de la Jeune Peinture or exhibitions denouncing US intervention in Vietnam.
Maps on the walls and archival materials vividly indicate locations of such events. Artists’ commitment to progressive causes is evoked through quotes from artists’ such as Roberto Matta’s letters, publications and photographs of the artwork they donated for the exhibition and a “future museum in solidarity with Palestine in exile,” as the curators explain in the brochure. A video depicting the process of drawing a diagram of these events evokes the process of research and historical reconstruction. It also ironcially alludes to the provincial blind spots of Alfred H. Barr’s canonical 1936 flowchart depicting the development of Cubism and abstract art.
This Palestinian solidarity museum was modeled on the International Resistance Museum for Salvador Allende, established in Paris in 1974. Khouri and Salti recount their challenging research process — artists donated works to the planned museum in exile but these are not on view, because they were destroyed in a 1982 Israeli military attack on Beirut. Thus, the materials in the galleries are poignant and partial evidence of artistic collaborations, political alliances, and utopian museum projects. At the same time, they provide a behind the scenes look at curators’ process of archival research. This exhibition takes on added importance as graphic evidence of the effects of attacks on the Palestinian people in light of recent political events in Gaza. At the same time, it sheds light on the work of both well-and-lesser known artists and underscores the challenges and the urgent necessity to document exhibitions held outside Western Europe and the United States.
Ironically, while such an exhibition would most likely generate controversy in the United States, MACBA’s director Bartomeu Marí cancelled The Beast and the Ruler, a concurrent exhibition, the day it was to open. (When two days ago, the introductory wall label was still on view, with a small sign indicating that the exhibition was being de-installed, and stanchions blocking access.) The latter exhibition included 31 artists and was co-organized with Stuttgart’s Württembergischer Kunstverein by curators Hans D. Christ, Iris Dressler, Paul B. Preciado, and Valentín Roma, who refused to comply with the director’s order to remove a sculpture.
Titled “Haute Couture 04: Transport,” the work (pictured above) by Austrian artist Ines Doujak was recently exhibited at the 2014 São Paulo Biennial. It depicts Domitila Barrios de Chúngara, a “Bolivian feminist activist and labor leader,” atop King Juan Carlos I of Spain, shown on all fours on top of helmets identified as belonging to Nazi soldiers. Barrios is shown being sodomized by an animal. This act of censorship has, unsurprisingly, created controversy, including a protest attended by over 100 people on the day of the opening and calls for the director’s resignation. Many speculate that the director’s decision was motivated by a telephone call ordering him to remove the work, since Queen Sofia, wife of Juan Carlos I and mother of the current monarch Felipe IV, is the head of the museum’s board. Others suggest that indirect pressure from members of the board may have led the director to preemptively cancel the show.
In a telling example of the troubled state of Spanish democracy under the rightist Partido Popular and the pervasive power of the Spanish Royal family, an exhibition reflecting on relations of power was censored. It is important to note that Mari had reasons to fear responses to the image of Juan Carlos I. A July 2007 issue of the satirical weekly El Jueves featuring an image of the heir to the throne, Felipe, and his wife, Letizia, performing a sexual act was confiscated, the website temporarily shut down, and the artists fined 3,000 euros. According to the Spanish Penal Code, anyone responsible for any “calumny or injury” to the King and Royal family may be condemned to a fine or prison sentence. Following widespread condemnation of the cancellation, Mari changed his mind — it turns out that it had not been deinstalled after all and it opened to the public this past Saturday. Mari offered his resignation this afternoon following a meeting of the various government and private entities that make up the MACBA Consortium. Prior to resigning, Mari dismissed the two curators. All three will remain at the museum until replacements are hired.
Recuperating Artistic Networks of Solidarity with Palestine in the 1970s continues at MACBA (Plaça dels Àngels, 1 08001 Barcelona) until June 1, and The Beast and the Sovereign continues throughout the spring.