The Ghost at the Feast: Theater, Visual and Material Culture at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona

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For anyone who hasn’t been to MACBA, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, a treat awaits. It is set in the heart of Barcelona in a stunning neo-modernist building designed by Richard Meier & Partners and opened in 1995.
It has a rather fine permanent collection, and works by Allan Sekulla and David Goldblatt (particularly his relatively recent Monte Casino from the North…) are set beside contemporary works by Spanish and Catalan artists.

So, what’s not to like?

The main exhibition running until early September is A Theatre Without Theatre which, as the catalogue explains:

examines the relationships and interchanges between the theatre and the visual arts during the 20th century. Starting out from the theories expounded by Vsevolod Meyerhold, Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett and Tadeusz Kantor, among others, which profoundly transformed the classic theatre space, and their correspondence with historic avant-garde movements (Futurism, Dadaism and Constructivism), a story is structured that finds its point of inflection in the inventive fervour of the nineteen-sixties.

It continues:

This was a time in which numerous contrasts were formulated between the two disciplines that continued up to the late eighties. The exhibition presents a critical reading of the consequences of these contributions to art by highlighting paradigmatic moments and authors through itineraries that reconstruct a complex fabric going beyond the linear, chronological reading; from Hugo Ball and Dadaism to Mike Kelley, from Oskar Schlemmer to Dan Graham, from Minimalism to the post-Minimalist generations of artists such as Bruce Nauman and James Coleman.

In a way the catalogue does not do justice to the exhibition. There is a vast array of materials on display, from photographs, videos of experimental performances, illustrations and larger works of art, catalogues, brochures, books and so on which provide a broad descriptive narrative of the intertwined story of theater and fine art.

Yet, as consideration of the list of materials given above will demonstrate, there is much here that will interest not only those whose main focus of engagement is with theater or fine art but also visual and material culture and visual communication. Because, and this is clear from even a cursory examination of the exhibition, the number of fine art artifacts is actually quite limited in the earlier part of the century and mainly restricted to photographs or film of performance. The supporting material, the posters, books and catalogues is what largely underpins the exhibition.

Perhaps the curators are aware of this paradox, because the catalogue notes:

As the 20th century seems to have constructed a visual culture dominated by the paradigm of film, an appeal for the theatre to take centre stage may seem anachronistic. But it is the theatre, considered as a craft, which offers us a new prism through which to approach a rereading of the history of recent art.

Yet for those of us engaged in material culture studies this is as much an opportunity to use a ‘new prism’ through which to approach a rereading of the intertwined history of art and the broader visual and material culture.

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Here are Dada pamphlets and posters. There are Constructivist influenced materials. The Fluxus movement of the 1960s is represented almost exclusively by printed materials. The Situationists and Provos likewise. There is a fascinating Spanish poster from the late 1960s advertising ‘Happenings’ and an exhibition by Picasso which is produced in psychedelic shades of purple and with the ornate Haight-Ashbury styled teardrop/flower letterforms of that movement.

And how could it be otherwise? These were discrete movements, many overlapping both the cultural and political spheres, who utilised many of the tools of publicity and sought to engage with concepts of a slowly developing ‘popular’ and mass culture while remaining to some extent aloof from it. The catalogue implicitly recognises this in the second part of the following paragraph.

The exhibition is organized along two essential lines. The first focuses on artistic attitudes that take the performative as a fundamental part of their practice. This requires the assimilation of “real time”, the multiple aspects of action and the ephemeral, together with recovery of elements of event culture, street parties and popular music.

Yet the relationship is more profound between these movements and the visual materials that represent them than a simple instrumentalism. One can point to numerous individuals within such movements who worked across the broad sweep of visual and material culture. Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) worked produced paintings in De Stjil and poetry in Dada. Yet he also worked as a designer and typographer. And he is in no sense atypical. Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) would be equally prolific being both collage artist, creator of sound poetry and founder of an advertising agency Merzwerbe.

In other words the various areas of visual culture, spanning fine art, performance and visual communication were inextricably linked.

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The same is true of Fluxus. Contemporary designers such as Gert Dumbar (see below) were heavily influenced in their work by that movement and the use of installation-like pieces in the work produced by Studio Dumbar was close to a homage. Yet this should be in no sense a surprise. Fluxus itself was not simply a reiteration of previous attempts to fuse artistic areas, but was to some degree a natural development of a cultural environment developing in the 1960s. The term ‘intermedia’ applied to Fluxus, could as appropriately been applied to Dada or the Constructivist or any one of a number of previous, and subsequent, artistic movements.

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Alternatively consider the work of Mike Kelley, the Los Angeles based artist, which is centred on installation, performance and video (his cover for Sonic Youth is shown below). He has engaged with popular culture through his band Poetics and Destroy All Monsters!. His is work that directly links into aspects of visual and material culture, yet, once again there is no explanation of that linkage in the exhibition.

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And this subtly different narrative, despite the profusion of material drawn from visual and material culture is not referred to. Tellingly there are no labels for the material in large flat display cases in the Museum. The spectator is expected to interpret them with no element of mediation by the Museum.

I would argue that a synthesis of the strong and weak senses of ‘visual culture’ – as the terms are used by Malcolm Barnard – is necessary in order to contextualise visual material, and this is central to the objectives of the Design Research Group. In this exhibition one can see the possibility to engage with distinctive, yet related, areas that largely incorporate much of what we mean by visual culture.

So despite the remarkable material on display, something of an opportunity missed.

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