Seth Siegelaub: Exhibitions, 2069
Collection of paintings from the Museum of American Art in Berlin
by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
In a 1999 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Seth Siegelaub talks about his reluctance to repeat himself by doing exhibitions about the kind of ‘concept art’ he is best known for. Unfortunately for Siegelaub, the matter has been taken out of his hands. As the inaugural exhibition at xero, kline & coma makes clear, he is doomed to repeat himself well into the future.
From the moment of its birth, modern art was defined by a dialectical interplay between style and concept, or, in a different configuration, aesthetics and politics. Various art movements, artists, curators and philosophers have redefined the boundaries of art, its institutions, audiences, production and procedures. But every time the concept of art was taken from the hands of those who were already included in it and redistributed along different lines, this intervention could not be prevented from becoming simply a new historical style, a unique frozen moment in art history. This uniqueness represents the failure of modernism in its universal mission to democratize art.
Although alluded to in the writings of Jacques Ranciere and Boris Groys, this impasse has been most succinctly theorized by Walter Benjamin, as posthumous spokesman for the Museum of American Art – Berlin, whose project largely consists in the reiteration of Modern Art as consecrated by the international exhibitions of the Museum of Modern Art. In interviews, essays and on film, Benjamin, the definitive thinker of repetition and reproduction, explains that as soon as the new concept becomes a relic, it can only function as a testimony to the impossibility of its own repetition: to paint a Mondrian today cannot be seen as an attempt to redefine art in terms of abstraction, spatial geometry and so on, but simply as a reference to Mondrian’s style. This dialectical process is the force that throughout the last century has driven art forwards towards an open and always deferred horizon. Every new idea about art has found itself preserved in art history books and museums, inviting new interventions and new conceptual challenges.
The problem is that this play of style and concept can only have been played until the birth of a particular reflexivity. Once one recognizes this dialectical relationship as central to the production of art, the game can no longer be played. Viewed this way, the very notion of a dialectical progression is marked as historical, as belonging to a particular regime or a particular era. The result of this post-modern reflexivity is that today, nearly fifty years after the conceptual art movement, art remains locked in a debilitating paradox that threatens the very core of its self-definition. For Boris Groys, the impossibility of the new is counteracted by the curatorial recontextualisation proposed in museum display: the museum can always make the old new and introduce new differences between objects within and outside its collection through its institutional power. To defend progress in art, artists must therefore counter-intuitively give up the struggle against the institutionalization represented by the museum.
But the Museum of American Art proposes a rather more Hegelian solution to this problem. Its contention is that we need not seek to defend the linear trajectory of artistic movements, but rather accept a new phase in which the individual artist is no longer the driving force of art’s meta-narrative. During the Renaissance, the meaning of art shifted from religious content to artistic technique. Thenceforth, instead of believing in the story of the last supper, we might look instead at the surface of the canvas for an affirmation of a new faith in the artist’s hand. Today this meaning, too, has receded from view. The story of the artist has been overshadowed by the story of art as narrated by the museum. We might not longer believe in the possibility of artistic progress, new movements and innovative styles, but art can retain our interest as a relic, in the same way that religious relics continue to be studied and appreciated after the belief systems that produced them no longer hold sway.
From this perspective, the prohibition against repetition inherent in modernity’s obsession with the new is lifted. More emphatically, repetition is necessitated by the heterotopic timespan that succeeds modernity. Groys cites Malevich’s proposal to burn all the Rubens in the museum to enable artists to once more create Rubens without fear of repetition. But if the story of the artist as genius has been consumed in its own flames, the need to burn the actual painting is removed. A painter mimicking Rubens today would necessarily be read as appropriating Rubens in the name of a conceptual agenda totally alien to Rubens’ time. Since after conceptualism, we cannot help retroactively inscribing new ideas into old methods, we can endlessly appropriate existing form even as their significance morphs with the shifts in the story of art that we are telling and retelling. Groys urges us to hold on to the museum in order to defend artistic innovation from the a-historical immanence of mediatised visual culture. The Museum of American Art asks us to see institutions as themselves subject to infinite appropriation and proliferation. If the museum of modern art is no more than a framework for the telling of its story, its physical space is in fact threatened by the open-endedness of this story: how many rooms might the new acquisitions of the future require MoMA to add, and where would we store the heritage we keep accumulating? And if we no longer believe in the story as the definitive version, since this story must always be re-edited, why would we not simply write other stories through alternative iterations of the institution?
It is against this post-conceptual background that the rematerialisation of Seth Siegelaub’s catalogues and ephemera must be understood. In 1969, Siegelaub realized that far more people saw exhibition catalogues, invitations and so on than actually visited their spaces. He consequently produced the Xerox Book, an exhibition in catalogue form, where the printed matter that normally accompanies the gallery presentation takes precedence and the physical show is dispensed with altogether. This move is commonly understood in terms of what Lucy Lippard has termed the dematerialisation of the art object. The subsequent value accrued by such conceptually driven projects has been interpreted by Lippard herself as a failure of short-sightedness, since the artists involved should have known that no art form, however, immaterial, is impervious to the valorization of the art market. However, in a more recent essay on the legacy of conceptual art, Dave Beech has argued that this emphasis on immateriality and market value has been misguided. Instead, the contextual framework insisted upon by conceptualism forces upon the inert object a social sphere that contradicts the exclusion represented by the operations of cultural and real capital. Thus, the publicity materials produced as supplementary to the main event of the exhibition undermine their own premise of insignificance by generating greater mobility and dispersal power than the inert art object could ever muster. The invitation postcard or magazine ad that must seduce an audience to come but then step back and allow the art to come forward in all its auratic glory retain more force than they should by virtue of their publicness, and it is this force that Siegelaub initially harnessed.
From the future vantage point of his 2069 exhibition, courtesy of the Museum of American Art, Siegelaub, like a latter day Malevich, no longer needs to physically dispose of the painted canvass on the wall. If the legacy of conceptual art is precisely the reprioritizing and reorganizing of art’s socio-cultural context at the expense of the experiential affect of the autonomic art object, then unstretched canvases painted with facsimiles of pages from the Xerox Book will do just fine. The provisional materiality of post-conceptual art has been repurposed for a new, non-linear timeline, in which the shock of the new, to quote Benjamin 2.0, is replaced by the shock of the old and the known becomes the unknown.
 Obrist, Hans Ulrich and Siegelaub, Seth, “A Conversation Between Seth Siegelaub and Hans Ulrich Obrist”, TRANS> #6, 1999, Pages 51 – 63, available at: http://www.e-flux.com/projects/do_it/notes/interview/i001_text.html [accessed 10.4.11]
 Benjamin, Walter, “Mondrian 63-96, Lecture at Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana 1986”, in: What is Modern Art [Arns, Inke and Benjamin, Walter – eds.], Revolver: Frankfurt am Main 2006.
 Groys, Boris, “On the New”, Art Power, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
 Rau, Milo, “Walter Benjamin: Places of Re-remembering”, 2009, available at: http://www.althussers-haende.org/walter-benjamin-places-of-re-remembering [accessed 10.4.11]
 Groys, Ibid., pp. 26-7.
 Beech, Dave, “Words and Objects after Conceptualism”, Art Omma, issue 11 - Art &Text: Inscription, 2005, available at: http://www.art-omma.org/NEW/issue%2011/theory.htm# [accessed 10.4.11]
 Rau, Ibid.