Opacity and Aura of the Display

Published in: Sabine Folie, Ilse Lafer (eds.), "unExhibit", published for the Generali Foundation, Vienna, Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2011


In 1957, Richard Hamilton organized, with Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Alloway, the exhibition an Exhibit at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne; this precedent represents the central point of reference for the exhibition unExhibit held in Vienna in 2011. an Exhibit occupies a special position in the context of the largely retrospective discourses around a critical history of the engagements with the fundamental conditions of exhibiting, or more specifically in this case, with the conditions of the display.


In contrast to the earliest experiments with encompassing display environments in the early avant-gardes—thus in Frederick Kiesler, El Lissitzky, or Herbert Bayer—which worked with a dynamization of the beholder’s perspective in order to enable a more complex experience of the objects on exhibit, an Exhibit was about exhibiting the display as a work. Addressing the display as such may suggest the maneuvers of institutional critique in those Conceptual artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s who—like Michael Asher, Robert Barry, or Daniel Buren—successively interrogated the institutional as well as spatial frameworks of exhibiting, making them the material of their artistic practice and effectively elevating them, time and again, to the status of a work. By contrast, such a reflective and sometimes proto-deconstructivist approach to issues of exhibiting does not seem to have been the object of an Exhibit’s interest. Nor did the show focus on a roughly contemporary development: the ostentatious heroism with which the Situationists refused to produce objects in the face of an all-devouring culture of the spectacle. an Exhibit was not intended as a gesture of refusal to produce a work of art, nor can we attribute decidedly educational intentions to the exhibition. an Exhibit was a work of art whose qualities might be best described by the word “ambiance,” though that term did not emerge until the 1970s.  


The specific hybrid form of an Exhibit, its oscillation between exhibition display and object, between flatness and spatiality, between installation and infrastructure, ultimately pursued an agenda we can also recognize, though in a different articulation, in the works and writings of Allan Kaprow from the 1950s: the evolution of an “environment” that is at bottom an early form of what we would now generally call a “room installation.” In an essay about a Jackson Pollock show, Kaprow identifies the features of an aesthetic that seeks to address the beholders through all their sensual impressions within the coordinates of three-dimensional space: “But what I believe is clearly discernible is that the entire painting comes out at us (we are participants rather than observers), right into the room.”(1) Yet his expansion of the pictorial space in Pollock, Kaprow argues, has to do not only with the sweeping performative painterly act of action painting; it more importantly effects an activation of the beholders, or rather: the beholders’ action that has been a calculated part of the art from the very beginning, their quasi-physical reenactment of the artist’s acrobatic movements, constitutes that “dramatic activation of the beholder’s participation”(2) that ultimately distinguishes the environment from the object or the assemblage. “The scale of Pollock’s paintings results in ‘our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in’; and Kaprow insists that to ‘grasp Pollock’s impact properly, one must be something of an acrobat, constantly vacillating between an identification with the hands and body that flung the paint and stood “in” the canvas, and allowing the markings to entangle and assault one into submitting to their permanent and objective character […] The artist, the spectator and the outer world are much too interchangeably involved here.’”(3)(...)



(1) Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” [1958], in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), p. 6. (2) Sotirios Bahtsetzis, Geschichte der Installation. Situative Erfahrungsgestaltung in der Kunst der Moderne, phil.diss. (Berlin, 2006), 48; see Digitales Repositorium. Technische Universität Berlin, opus.kobv.de/tuberlin/volltexte/2006/1305 (01/14/2011).

(3) Amelia Jones, Body Art. Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 56–57.