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Spirits of Internationalism

James Lee Byars Hear TH FITO IN PH Around This Chair, installation view, 1978, chair, light and curtain

James Lee Byars Hear TH FITO IN PH Around This Chair, installation view, 1978, chair, light and curtain

Founded in 2009, L’Internationale is a coalition of six European institutions with grand ambitions. By sharing expertise and collections, the network wants to ‘instigate new narratives, latitudes and chronologies’ that will add up to a more pluralist art history. In its geographical sweep, L’Internationale has the pan-European feel of the early Manifestas, though it’s a set-up that – with squeezed acquisitions budgets and research departments – is pragmatic as well as ideological.

‘Spirits of Internationalism: 6 European Collections, 1956–1986’ is the last in a trilogy of exhibitions developed by the initiative, and features work from all six members, two of which – KwieKulik in Warsaw and the Július Koller Society in Bratislava – are artist’s archives. The others are museums with collections of varying depth and focus: MACBA in Barcelona, the Galerija Moderna in Ljubljana, M HKA in Antwerp and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The survey aims to chart avant-garde activity from what the curators define as ‘the decline of Modernism to the rise of globalization’ – so a period that constitutes a carefully calibrated break from the usual bookends of 1945 to ’68, say, or ’89. ‘Spirits of Internationalism’ instead begins in 1956, a year which saw both Nikita Khrushchev denounce Stalinist mythology and President Dwight Eisenhower’s aggressive handling of the Suez Crisis; the story ends most of the way through the Reagan-Thatcher era, in the year of the so-called Big Bang day (i.e. the deregulation of the markets in 1986). Today, after a decade of catastrophic US-led interventions in the Middle East, and with a teetering Eurozone, both years have a special resonance.

Split between M HKA and the Van Abbemuseum, ‘Spirits of Internationalism’ works hard to make the Iron Curtain feel porous, establishing conversations, correspondences and coincidences among far-flung areas of Europe. London, Paris, New York and Düsseldorf have less significance in this tale than Brussels, Ljubljana and Barcelona. Divided into eight tentative categories, or ‘spirits’ (e.g. ‘The Transcendental’, ‘The Positioned’), the survey mingles movements and regions: Italians like Mario Merz and Luciano Fabro rub up alongside Marcel Broodthaers and James Lee Byars, sharing spaces with less well-known artists from Belgium and the Netherlands. Indeed, many of the artists from the Benelux region – such as Alain Arias-Misson, Guy Mees and Luc Deleu – were welcome discoveries for me. A stand-out section at the Van Abbe brings together an extensive selection from Koller’s archive with works by Mladen Stilinovic´ and Jef Geys that share some serious jokes about absurdity and artistic endeavour. For me, the most compelling piece in the exhibition may be Catalan artist Fina Miralles’ Mar de Hierba (Sea of Grass, 1973), a project to start a new country – a tiny floating island – presented in a briefcase. Made under the last days of Franco, the work’s dream of freefloating movement felt as though it lay at the heart of the exhibition’s concerns with dispersed communities and correspondences.

The collaborative nature of L’Internationale is visualized by an exhibition plan that pushes M HKA and the Van Abbe – in actuality about 80 kilometres apart – alongside each other, conflating them into a bi-national museum. But while ‘Spirits of Internationalism’ is conceived and presented as a single show, the two halves are more like a complementary pairing than a unified survey. There are, for example, notable differences in presentation – colour-coded walls and sometimes spare displays at M HKA; wall texts and a dense hang at the Van Abbe – and selection, with more painting and sculpture at the former museum and an emphasis on Conceptual and performance work at the latter.

The ‘spirits’ that the exhibition is divided into are occasionally tendentious – e.g. a section titled ‘The Universal’ is overrun with maps, seeming to equate a bird’s-eye-view with the universal – and sometimes arbitrary. For example, the Ljubljana-based performance collective OHO were included in a section at the Van Abbe titled ‘The Concrete’, which otherwise mostly comprised Op Art, kinetic pieces and monochromes. Why they weren’t shown in sections devoted to ‘The Positioned’ (i.e. performance) or ‘The (Dis)Located’ (relating to place) remained obscure. But then ‘spirits’ are evocative of nebulousness – rather than presenting an unassailable, diagrammatic account of movements, this is an exhibition predicated on fluid states.

The curators – Bart De Baere, Jan De Vree and Anders Kreuger from M HKA; Charles Esche and Steven ten Thije from the Van Abbe – are specifically critical of how the Low Countries ‘actively celebrated US domination of the arts and otherwise’ in the postwar years. American cultural hegemony over this period is of course indisputable, but the way in which the case is assembled here is misleading. One section at M HKA, titled ‘The Essential’, comprises a magisterial display of all-American Minimalist and Conceptual art, including signature pieces by Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner. This account of the North American art of the 1960s and ’70s – as all-male, all-white – is of course not representative of the period, but more significantly neither is it representative of how it’s typically shown in museums today. Instead this display feels like a strawman, a reminder of the bad old days of US-centric history that was perhaps never so monolithic as the contemporary moment wants to believe.

This rhetorical move would have been justifiable had ‘Spirits of Internationalism’ produced an account of the same decades that wasn’t predominantly male. But this was not the case: only around ten percent of the 65 or so artists included in the exhibition are women. Three of them – Martha Rosler, Nancy Spero and Jenny Holzer – are American and limited to a single section, ‘The Engaged’, which considers political and social engagement. In that same section can be found the only Latin American artists in the exhibition: Cildo Meireles and several vitrines of documentation of Grupo de artistas de vanguardia’s actions in Argentina. Of course, because ‘Spirits of Internationalism’ is based upon work from the participating institutions, it’s shaped by the contours of specific collections, but this selection would make it seem as though female and Latin American artists are only eligible when making work of a certain politically engaged stripe. Within the context of such an exhibition and remarkable broader initiative, this is more than a misstep. The challenge that ‘Spirits of Internationalism’ presents to established art-historical narratives is in some serious ways substantial, not least in its convincing reassessment of chronologies and latitudes, but in others troublingly slight. This new art history sometimes feels a little like the old.

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, and a contributing editor of frieze

Issue 147

First published in Issue 147

May 2012
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