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Play Van Abbe

November 22nd, 2009 by Charles Esche

By Charles Esche

Here is a text, not yet published, that I hope gives a little background into the thinking behind the project

Why Play? Why Van Abbe?

“it’s all about the thing itself”, he said in Dutch, arguing that what we are doing with the Van Abbemuseum and its collection transgresses the rules of art. He was a fellow museum director, this man who confronted me, but he deserved a hearing. “I honestly don’t think it is” I replied “it’s about the context at least as much, possibly more – and as museums we should to give people a chance to make their own mind up.” He offered me a lift in his car, but we didn’t talk about art and context anymore. It seemed our two points of view couldn’t be reconciled, maybe because they emerge at different historical moments and in response to different understandings of what art represents in the world at large.

Play Van Abbe is in some ways a long response to my colleague director. It is an attempt to show why context is crucial, while not excluding the possibility to contemplate individual objects. In general, this 18-month project suggests fairly firmly that art is not a straightforward choice between either the thing itself or its context. Rather we understand that the one cannot exist without the other, and that the traditional context in which art is presented, such as the white cube, make it hard to see it as anything other than a isolated, autonomous thing that is disconnected from daily experience. Yet, it is obvious that art is a product of its history, its conditions of display, its viewers and the societies in which it is made and received. The uniqueness of an object or its maker’s autonomy only really come to light when they are seen in relation to what surrounds them politically, economically and physically. At the same time, that object can, and regularly does, surpass the conditions in which it is formed. However, the wish to let the ‘object speak for itself’, is counterproductive if it tries to hide the penumbra of influences and conditions external to it, in an environment like the idealist “white cube” of the museum. This distils complex meaning to essences, while not allowing the artwork to be enriched by its context in its struggle to surpass it. The most direct consequences of this is that the artwork’s commodity value becomes the most accessible measure of its value and meaning, there being few other useful comparisons or connections to the rest of life.

What Play Van Abbe attempts is to recognise that our awareness of the condition of art in a museum must include the staging or making visible of the context in which we operate. If we do not do this, we sell ourselves short and diminishing the possibilities of contemporary art to express itself in the here and now. I use “we’ here because art is defined collectively, even if individuals make it. This fact of collective judgement is crucial to understanding how art changes, and why it is always in an entangled web of relations with other things and people. Acting together as a field means change in art is probably much more socially meaningful and reflective than we really understand or can trace back to specific exhibitions or artworks. Play Van Abbe is our attempt to deal with what this museum sees as its collective task, which is to create the stages on which a possible public museum of the 21st century can be enacted.

But why this “need for change” at all? What is it that has made us more aware of our contexts and conditions than before. To answer this, we have to look at the world at large.

I began working in this museum with a series of questions that I believe are shared with many others. What should a museum look like today? How does it behave towards the art of the present moment? How does it respect and animate its past? I had the feeling that the museum was starting from a story of art and its place in the world that was no longer so recognisable to its society and intended visitors. In 2004, the new building of the museum had just opened in Eindhoven and entered a world that was very different from the order under which it had first been planned. Those changes have come to be symbolised by the year 1989, which represents both the so-called end of ideology and history, as well as accelerating, new forms of globalisation. The modern art museum, by virtue of its contemporary ambitions, needed to reflect these changes in terms of geography, time and thinking about the public sphere. Perhaps only now, after 20 years, can we begin to take a more detached view of what we think happened then, as a way to help explain why “the thing itself” stopped being the main focus and why making contexts visible seems such an urgent task today.

Let’s start by oversimplifying, to help sketch out a process that can be modified with experience. Before (roughly) 1989, the modern and later contemporary art world was small, confined largely to the big cities in a few North American and West European countries as evidenced by major self-proclaimed ‘international’ shows like Westkunst (1981), Documenta (1982, 1987) and Skulptur Project Munster (1987). Artists from elsewhere needed to move to Paris (Picasso) or New York (Kawara) or a few other urban hotspots in order to find supportive conditions and a community of common interests. Within this community, the basic narratives and the terms of iconology, form and method were shared. It wasn’t generally necessary to spend hours explaining the context of a work or how it related to history, economy, society etc. because these things were known. Even most museum visitors, though on the periphery of the common interest, shared enough vocabulary not to need extensive background information, and when they did education programmes knew what story to tell. After 1989, contemporary art went slowly global and many more artistic positions entered the arena. With this growth came a breakdown in the common language that had been built up through modernism and artists had to start to tell stories about where they came from and what there work meant in different situations as it was moved from the place of production or inspiration to an exhibition elsewhere. Thus, the narrative media of video, artworks explaining themselves and their areas of research and personal testimony exploded and created the expanded, complex art world we have today, This is one in which viewers who are often quite locally grounded are asked to consider and respond to global conditions and differences in a world that extends fromn Helmond (a city near Eindhoven) to Helmand (a province in Afghanistan), and where artists are often not locatable in one place but move between cities and cultures.

The problem is only that most of the tools we have to show these artworks – perhaps with the exception of the biennale – are built for that small, common artistic field of 20 years ago. The questions we are faced with, and that we try to answer in Play Van Abbe are these: could the ideological architecture of the museum reconfigure its universal claims and still make sense of itself as a museum of contemporary art? Might the recognition of international localisms and our own provincial status allow different forms of understanding to arise in different places, and still allow our visitors to feel connected to something bigger than themselves? In the museum, the initial response to deal with these questions were temporary exhibitions like Eindhoven-Istanbul, Be(com)ing Dutch and Heartland but the core task of the museum is to display the collection, and for that we developed the Plug In principle.

Play Van Abbe emerges out of our experiences with the Plug Ins. The latter were singular presentations, confined to one room, where an artist, a curator, a writer, a museum employee and even a visitor could determine how the collection would be installed and what works would be shown. There were some notable successes and failures but what the Plug Ins did achieve was the fragmentation of that old universal narrative of modernism and the possibility to see artworks in unexpected configurations that addressed social or economic history, political change or cultural difference – and sometimes they even allowed “the thing itself” to be seen in a new light.

With Play Van Abbe, the team in this museum wants to start to put the fragments into new forms of order and to suggest lines of development as well as fundamental historical breaks. It means that we need to tell quite complex stories of repetition and discovery while ensuring that the experience of the art remains paramount for the viewer at first glance. Art itself is not always easy in that respect, because art’s power largely lies it is ambiguity and in never being able to pin it down to one specific meaning. At a time when simplification is greatly prized, it seems almost perverse to produce things that are deliberately uncertain, but this layering of possibilities is the best way to generate personal response and collective discussion, as well as the main reason to keep going back to a single work of art. Complexity is part of our everyday experience after all, when we take the time to see it.

It is our ambition in the museum to create the conditions in which you as a visitor are helped to think critically about the world and the museum’s place in it, as well as the art that our young global culture has produced. We hope you can enjoy the experience of looking at works of art in our collection and constructing your own narratives around them, while being aware of how meaning is constructed out of the things that we value. We would ask you to keep both levels – the artwork and the context – in mind and to switch your gaze between them when you visit. In this way we hope that the question of relations between artworks and between these artworks and the world around them can be more helpfully framed. Ultimately, this museum is here because this society (you and me) agree that it is important and worthwhile. That worth must be judged in terms of the experience of art that it offers and the possibility to access artworks that change opinions and inspire new ideas and behaviours. In the museum, we believe absolutely that this is possible because it happens to us regularly, and with Play Van Abbe we want to share it with as many people as we can.


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