Remaking the Ready-made

Daniel Spoerri used found objects to explore a city’s history in ‘Le Musée sentimental’. On the 30th anniversary of ‘Le Musée sentimental de Prusse’ in Berlin, frieze d/e asks four artists – Aleksandra Mir, Manfred Pernice, Gitte Schäfer and Danh Vo – to explain their approach to the found object

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„Musée Sentimental de Prusse“, 1981, Ausstellungsansichten

‘Musée Sentimental de Prusse’, 1981, Installation view

Like the refrain from an old pop tune, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ (The sentimental museum) will ring a bell in many minds. This exhibition concept was invented by the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri and developed with the German historian Marie-Louise Plessen in the 1970s. An unorthodox take on the municipal Folk Museum, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ is named after the hosting city and features an array of everyday artefacts organized around key words about the city’s history. Spoerri created ‘Le Musée sentimental de Paris’ for the group show ‘Le crocodrome, de Zig et Puce’ (Zig and Puce’s Crocodome) curated by Jean Tinguely for the opening of the Centre Pompidou in 1977. After that successful debut, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ showed up across Europe, from Cologne (1979) and Basel (1989) to Krems (2010) and Graz (2011). In June 2012, Spoerri plans to orchestrate ‘a dialogue with objects’ at Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum.

This season marks the 30th anniversary of ‘Le Musée sentimental de Prusse’ – the sentimental museum of Prussia set up inside the Berlin Museum from 16 August to 15 November 1981. Co-curated by Spoerri and Plessen, organized by the Berliner Festspiele and supported by the DAAD Berlin Artists-In-Residence programme, the exhibition provided a popular antedote to the weighty historical survey ‘Preussen. Versuch einer Bilanz’ (Prussia. An Attempt to Take Stock), which took place at the same time in the newly-reopened Martin-Gropius-Bau. ‘Back then, “Prussia” was still a dirty word,’ recalls Spoerri, who now lives in Vienna. ‘“Le Musée sentimental de Prusse” was supposed to take the bad smell away.’ Working with a team of students, Spoerri and Plessen came up with 178 keywords which related to Berlin’s faded Prussian past and which were organized alphabetically: from ‘Adler’ (eagle) to ‘Zwangschloss’ (double-bit key). Hundreds of artefacts – tourist trinkets, stuffed birds, embroideries, cigarette cases, horse saddles, memento salt shakers, even potato hoes – were collected for the key words and displayed in provocative combinations.

‘To find objects for the key words is a creative, alert art,’ says Spoerri. ‘You can’t do it scientifically because the objects must work together to maintain a certain suspense, relate an anecdote or tell a joke.’ For ‘Weihnachten’ (Christmas), Spoerri and Plessen began with an undated woodcut showing Kaiser Wilhelm II admiring a Christmas tree. ‘In the image, there was a case, which turned out to be the foldable Christmas tree kit sent to soldiers at the Front during WWI.’ Spoerri and Plessen obtained a kit as well as a collection of 130 cast-iron Christmas tree stands. ‘We set up a few real trees, but they were dead and missing their needles. When one student saw this display, he started crying.’ Neither didactic nor illustrative, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ provoked emotional reactions among visitors by unveiling their city’s secret history. Indeed, ‘Le Musée sentimental de Cologne’ was subtitled ‘Köln Incognito’. ‘People outside of Cologne could not always relate to that show,’ says Spoerri. ‘But Nam June Paik saw it and later told me, “Wonderful exhibition. Never saw so many old women laughing.”’

In the 1970s, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ reflected the growing critical attitude among artists towards the museum, its collections and practices. However conceptual, Spoerri and Plessen’s method was atypical because they relied on common artefacts and collective history. It’s telling that they were not included in the MoMA’s historical survey ‘The Museum as Muse. Artists Reflect’ (1999) with Marcel Broodthaers, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Haacke, General Idea and others. Today, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ appears to have anticipated the interest in not only popular culture but also humble everyday objects – kitsch, family memorabilia, flea market fare – which show up in so many contemporary works, from paintings to sculptures. ‘Le Musée sentimental’ reflects other currents: a fascination with the past, from the re-enactment to what Simon Reynolds calls pop cultural ‘retromania’; a desire to tell stories; and a reconsideration of emotions, whether sadness, joy or revulsion, in aesthetic experience. Above all, ‘Le Musée sentimental’ represents a volte-face on Duchamp’s ready-made: the useful found object presented as art. ‘Our project was not about the ready-made, which was an object taken out of context,’ says Spoerri, who links his concept to his tableaux pièges (snare pictures), which capture a chance assemblage of objects, like the remains of a meal on a table. ‘“Le Musée sentimental” enlarged the territory from a table to a city. The objects have a connection to each other and get a new meaning together, sometimes a meaning that we didn’t even suspect. The interconnec­tedness of objects – from one to the next – was important so that they might reveal what was not known about Paris, Cologne or Berlin. I wanted to get away from historical and intellectual facts, away from scientific data. Each object had a story, and the objects contaminated each other.’

Contemporary artists – like Aleksandra Mir, Manfred Pernice, Gitte Schäfer and Danh Vo – have also rethought the ready-made in a radical way which underscores the limits of Duchamp’s approach. These artists are not necessarily directly inspired by Spoerri’s ‘Le Musée sentimental’, nor do they create artist museums as institutional critique. But they often begin with what others might consider to be private trash, only to unveil layers of collective history, saved from oblivion. In different ways, their works open up the secret existence of the humble everyday object: from the banal (Vo’s totem washing machine) to the kitschy (Schäfer’s domestic ornaments), from the homey (Pernice’s ceramic collections) to the commemorative (Mir’s sport trophies). frieze d/e asked them to elaborate on their unique visions of the found object.

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Alexandra Mir, Triumph, Detail, 2009

Alexandra Mir, Triumph, Detail, 2009

Aleksandra Mir
When I first moved to Sicily in 2005, I spent a lot of time in the local markets and thrift stores as a way of familiarizing myself with my new location and of furnishing my home. A society says a lot about itself in what it chooses to trash at a certain time. Fashions that are novel and trendy in one place might be has-beens in another place, only to be rediscovered as remnants of a nostalgic past in yet another place and then made valuable again. Being a foreigner who already lived through several cultures, I had an outsider perspective that allowed me to revel in yet another layer of the meaning and to discover new values in artefacts that previously had never crossed my mind.

In one thrift store, I picked up a lot of discarded sports trophies for a laugh since I have never been into sports. In school, I was always the pathetic kid who was afraid of the ball and was picked last for every team. But here I had the opportunity to reinvent my identity in a place where nobody knew me, and this also meant to freely reinvent my past. I took the trophies home and proudly displayed them on a shelf as ‘mine’. Never mind that they ranged from kickboxing to golf. Friends who came to visit got the joke, others admired my ‘accomplished career in sports’.

Then one day, I was visiting a friend of a friend who used to be a very prominent athlete in his not too distant youth. Although he was visibly ageing, and maybe because of it, he maintained a room in his house as a shrine to his former glory. It was full of diplomas, plaques, photographs, magazine covers – and trophies that he had rightfully earned with blood, sweat and tears. Passing through this room, I was arrested and struck by the beauty the trophies recalled – all the facets of it: the vigorous energy of a young body in motion, the echo of hands clapping, the sweetness of nostalgia, the pathos of his need to hold on, the inevitability of being replaced by younger talent and, ultimately, the death that would leave only this archive behind. I wanted to capture all these emotions and generalize them as common features in society.

I placed an advertisement in a newspaper, asking people to donate their trophies to my art project for a small symbolic fee. In a relatively short time, I had collected over two thousand. I was equally pleased and shocked about how people were ready to part with these tokens of their past accomplishments. The reasons varied, but, ultimately, the trophies in my collection were all donated because of an urge to ‘let go’ of an attachment to the past: to clean out cluttered spaces; to shed old, stagnant relations; to free oneself from the material burden or the symbolic power of the trophy itself. This psychological state of ‘letting go’ is what interests me the most, next to the seemingly unlimited variety of the designs.

The project ended when I left Sicily last year. By then, I had 2,595 pieces and knew that number could endlessly expand. My collection now exists as the work of art Triumph (2009) and has been exhibited at various art institutions and museums. In the meantime, my main concern is storing and caring for this massive volume of art objects, a burden so great that I sometimes toy with the idea of trashing them all. Eventually, everything will return to dust.

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Manfred Pernice, „Die hässliche Lusie“, 2004, Ausstellungsansicht

Manfred Pernice, ‘Die hässliche Luise’, Installation view

Manfred Pernice
Relationships between objects play a central and sometimes fundamental role in my work. Most of the objects here are used commodities with various tasks and capacities. Liquidation Tischwelten 2 (Liquidation of Table Worlds 2, 2010) dealt with ceramics by Strehla and French Baccarat crystal. What these objects have in common is their ability to open up a time-frame: this space begins with the object’s presumed date of origin and extends right up to the present moment. It expands to the extent that the objects can be attributed with the (commonplace) quality of having been used. This affects the other components and the work’s surroundings (thus the work itself) as a whole.

Some objects can be shown individually, without further additions; they are then supported and filled by the work(s) already there. This was the case in ‘Die hässliche Luise’ (Ugly Louise, 2004), an exhibition of three playground climbing frames and one concrete bath unit from a demolished house on Luisenstraße in Berlin. The ready-made only really exists because (artistic) circumstances of some sort or another are capable of carrying it. In many cases, I use objects to organize effects that have to do with materiality and time-spatiality (where texts and images can be placed), but also as documents or narrative elements in relation to ‘sculptural’ work. Due to the objecthood of the ‘works’ themselves, the effects then overlap and merge into what they are or ought to be.
Translated by Jonathan Blower

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Gitte Schäfer, Alon, 2007

Gitte Schäfer, Alon, 2007

Gitte Schäfer
Alexander Kluge once said: ‘All things are enchanted people.’ Objects speak to us. When I find something at a market, a junk dealers or the side of the road and take it with me, then it’s always a mutual decision. It’s like two dancers: first the one leads, then the other. And sometimes they fuse.

I am mainly interested in objects and artefacts that participate in human life and have already experienced their own history. They are witnesses, carriers of memory; they speak of the culture in which they arose, the milieus, societies and life in which they sometimes played a small and incidental role, and then a large and decisive one again. They reflect and question the gaze we cast upon them today. They do not always display their life openly, visibly, but at times they do it more tangibly.

The hat or the spinning wheel which I used in the sculpture Alon (2007) are such objects. Both embody a collective or even a very special personal meaning. In my childhood, a spinning wheel was a nostalgic ornament in the living rooms or hallways of uncles and aunts. From the 1950s onwards, the increasingly automated household was decorated with relics of a past era which stood in contrast to the modernized lifestyle. The hat makes one think of a person and the head beneath it as well as the thoughts that are circulating in it. In the past, one never left the house without a hat. The hat was a symbol of social status and, in Roman times, even of freedom…

I can only partially imagine the connotations, readings and evocations the objects give rise to, and under no circumstances would I want to anticipate them. It is the layering of often highly contradictory meanings which cross-fertilize and enter into a dialogue – meanings that lead to a mutual questioning, denuding or strengthening.
Translated by Colin Shepherd

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Danh Vo, Oma Totem, 2009

Danh Vo, Oma Totem, 2009

Danh Vo
Maybe ‘everyday objects’ is the wrong term to use for my production because the way I refer to objects in my work is not about the everyday object in itself. I’m interested in building up and sustaining a certain way of thinking which enables you to look at objects in a different manner. Thinking is the starting point for looking at things.

For example, my piece Oma Totem (Grandma Totem, 2009) combines a washing machine, a refrigerator, a crucifix and a television set, which all used to belong to my grandmother. The selection was made on the basis of a conceptual approach: these are the first things that my grandmother received in Germany. Thinking determined the sculpture – not the fact that it was a fridge or a crucifix.

One of my earliest experiences of things not necessary being what they seem to be was my experience of vacation. Half my family lived in Germany, and the other half, including myself, lived in Denmark. Every summer, when all the kids had summer vacation from school, we went to visit our relatives in Germany. My family didn’t really have an idea for vacation. In the summer, they would work either in the strawberry fields or peeling small shrimps that were delivered to and picked up from their homes. I think it was more about spending time together, but that meant work. This was my first idea of vacation, and I have only good memories of it. Like all the other kids returning sunburnt to school. We always look at things through our own history, our gender and social upbringing. Most everyday objects and conventions are very unfamiliar for me. And it’s through this empirical experience that I do what I do.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

Issue 2

First published in Issue 2

Autumn 2011

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