Kunstverein Munich, Munich, Germany
‘Modern’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Modernism’. These days it seems that you can’t read a magazine on contemporary art or a text from an exhibition catalogue without finding one, or often all, of these words. As in the recently published Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, 20th-century art history is often structured as a two-way system: for and against Modernism. Artists either continue a tradition that stresses the formal aspects of art-making or oppose it (during or after its alleged conclusion) through a practice that has social or political aspirations.
This genealogy, which finds support in the writings of not just the October theorists but also historical figures such as Clement Greenberg, Peter Bürger or Theodor Adorno, offers an extremely partial history of art, one that fails to take into account the strong continuities in the discourse of artistic production and reception between the 19th and 20th centuries. Its fundamental problem is the acceptance of the idea that there were such things as Modernist art disciplines, autonomous formal investigations that constituted their own end. But that was never the case. The notion of an autonomous aesthetic experience (originated at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries), inasmuch as it is a suspension of the relationship to the world, contains an implicit political promise, constructing the basis of its own heteronomy or relationship to external laws. What is called Modernist art is not a hermetically sealed world; it is just a set of practices that situate themselves between the two poles of autonomy and heteronomy that have articulated art since Romanticism.
This makes a rewriting of dominant art history an urgent task, and ‘Icestorm’, Stefan Kalmár’s first exhibition as Director of the Kunstverein Munich, is a good step in that direction. The terms ‘Modern’, ‘Modernity’ and ‘Modernism’ still plague the texts that accompany the exhibition, but this time not to establish a taxonomy but in order to complicate the historical narrative. Through the work of eight contemporary artists – six European, two from the USA – ‘Icestorm’ looks at cultural forms that throughout the last century have combined strict formalism with a perhaps hidden, but always present, political intent.
The title of the exhibition is taken from Ang Lee’s 1997 film The Icestorm, a reflection on emancipatory movements of the 1960s and 1970s within Connecticut’s upper middle class. In that environment the stability of the social structure is challenged not just by radical liberation but also by the alternative orders proposed by architectural forms and divergent narratives. The ‘icestorm’ of the title just offers a moment of stillness in which an analysis of the complete structure is possible.
Gerard Byrne’s New Sexual Lifestyles (2003) and Dorit Margreiter’s Case Study #22 (2001) are perfect examples of how this works within the show. The two video and mixed-media installations – one a re-enactment of Playboy’s 1973 discussion on the ‘sexual revolution’ set within the frame of Ronal Tallon’s 1970s’ Goulding House, and the other three interviews and a film around Pierre Koenig’s CSH 22 house in Los Angeles (from 1960) – display the tensions between Modernist architecture’s formalism, its political aims and the diversity in the results. Those buildings, with their straight lines and simple spaces, were created as venues for emancipation, and any truthful documentation needs to reflect their function as performance stages – for the borderline comedy acting in New Sexual Lifestyles or the many films shot at CSH 22.
But those kinds of fictions, as also shown by Florian Pumhösl’s Village, Museum (2002–4) and Christian Philipp Müller’s Vergessene Zukunft (Forgotten Future, 1992–2005), can directly affect reality. Pumhösl’s four-screen installation examines socialist initiatives in post-colonial Tanzania through the 1970s’ urbanist projects of President Julius Nyerere. Müller combines Le Corbusier’s office design, Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique (1957–8) and Veit Harlan’s film Anders als Du und Ich (Different from You and Me, 1957) to show how intertwined narratives of progress and decadence can shape cultural and living conditions.
This relation to the ‘real’ isn’t limited to 20th-century architectural or cinematic practices. It would be a mistake completely to dissociate Peter Behrens’ designs from Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems, or Gerrit Rietveld’s red and blue chair from Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White (both from 1918). The production of Minimalist forms, as shown in the exhibition by Jim Isermann’s 2005 wall piece Untitled (0101), is fundamentally an attempt to create a universal language, with all the political implications that carries.
Outside the Kunstverein, Cerith Wyn Evans’ Cleave 05 (On the Employment of Copies in Astrophotography) (2005) sends a Morse text to the Munich sky from a World War II searchlight. The text, a consideration of accurate ways to replicate unique photographs of astrophysical measurement, does away with the last possibility of autonomy: scientific techniques and procedures are not so different from the set of rules that define art practices. If even science has a poetic, or rather literary, aspect, then art forms, even those that loudly voice their autonomy, must come to terms with the intimate relation to the world of which they are part.