“Could it be that technical means from a distant period, when used at the present time to recreate certain events, touch us even more than the awareness of the events themselves?” (1)
This is the last sentence of Philippe Poirier’s introduction to his performance Leaving Pictures. It points at what is at stake for me in the few reflections that I am going to submit to you. Is it possible to deal with the past “truly” and also “aesthetically”? Is there an ethical necessity, for the researchers and the artists that we are, to be fairly unfaithful to “our” past, beyond being the witnesses and the representatives of a history that is, as such, “our own”? Is there an aesthetical approach which, going beyond the due witnessing, and being both surgical and lyrical, could take us to a fertile destruction of the past, far away from the aesthetisation of memory?
Or should we pay respect to our ancestors –be they victims, persecutors or spectators – and to their feelings and deeds, committing ourselves to the collection and the preservation of what has been left to us? Should we, again, build museums and museums of museums, or should we erect warning memorials and sensible pieces of art? Should we, perhaps, produce monuments out of monuments, like parodies of these protected works of art during the last war?
I already mentioned in a previous talk that last year I was asked to organise an event in Naples, that was to be housed in the building of the ex Asylum for the Poor and that was meant to celebrate the first “Day of the Memory” of the Holocaust. The call that came to me was based on a linguistic misunderstanding and on an incorrect translation. The person who invited me did not register that, when they said “find us an artist”, the people who were running the ex Asylum meant –as is common by the older generations and in Southern Italy- a performing artist, a man of the scene, an actor, a theatre director. Only after accepting the job did I realise that I was possibly not the man they were looking for, a fact which led to several discussions and confrontations and eventually to indispensable compromises, because we all had to give up our respective aesthetical radicalities. A performative part remained in the final event, but this was limited to the opening and I tried to make it as meaningless as possible. Voices recorded in the streets and arbitrary tableaux vivants were the main elements of this evening.
The permanent exhibition was set up, instead, in a less noisy environment. We didn’t make up the spaces, we didn’t paint a walls and didn’t drive a nails into them. As furniture, we used what was left in the same building from its previous functions. The place stayed as it was; bare, naked, transparent through history. We arranged a collection: gathering and displaying documents, films, books, internet connections, data bases – with the result that many visitors complained that there was nothing “to see”, while a few came almost every other day.
I do not suggest that this setting wasn’t an aesthetic choice -we always deal aesthetically with the past, if we are not just observers of it-. But our choice was anti-representational. Place and documents, context and text, should speak for themselves, once put into the conditions of speaking. Our assignment was the one of establishing these conditions, being aware that they were precisely determined by the encounter of a particular container with a specific material, where both would be transformed.
Our task wasn’t one of pointing at ethical models -let’s say erecting a monument- nor one of showing evidences and proofs –let’s say building a museum. We weren’t putting together an archive either: while a museum is a place intended to put on view original traces of the past, an archive is an accumulation of original traces kept for a possible upcoming use, with the aspiration to be comprehensive. What was collected in the spaces of the Asylum were representational items, second-degree objects that dealt with the definite subject of the Shoah. Within this process of choosing, gathering and making available, these objects were seen as tools of a potential intellectual engagement. What was being presented was an installation, or a mechanics of documents, or a projection of history.
The aim of this installation was not to “preserve” memory – I still believe that preservation has a strong relation with falsity and therefore is a practice of kitsch – and I still take kitsch to refer to any kind of bad art. Neither did this installation aim at “touching” emotionally –even though there is nothing bad in wanting to “touch”, in art as well as in historiography-. This installed collection offered equipments for thought: rather than proposing aims, it was providing means.
I still ask myself why an artist was needed, to animate the commemoration of a specific historical event like the Holocaust. The answer that I give myself is that to such an emotionally overwhelming and rationally non-understandable occurrence people feel like being able to oppose only the emotional and non-understandable fact of artistic creation. This is the reason why people commit monuments to artists.
Monuments are things that point in some direction with their fingers, they express ultimately the confidence that something can be pointed at, that there are lessons to give and teachings to take, and historical examples to condemn or emulate. They assume that the social body can be moulded by the call to remembrance. Monuments, like museums, are nationalistic inventions. A monument, like Leopardi said, is always optimistic, always addresses itself to a future that is taken for granted, that is embodied in the icon of a collective identity, and inevitably states for its sake a positive message. A monument is always “to” something. A monument that would be “with” something would be either self-erasing or withdrawn; this is the kind of monument that I would like to see. I wonder if it is this being “with” that engages me before Poirier’s performance, not only for its use of the original materials and devices, but for such a use that, while destroying them, creates and projects in the air a new sound which is made of their ghosts. That would be a fruitful betrayal, if it could allow us to touch the past, beyond memory and beyond evidence. Or would this be another idealistic wish?
But what would these non-assertive, these non-identitarian monuments look like?
Having asked myself this question, I made an experiment last year, when I was invited to take part in the Models of Resistance show in Copenhagen. As this city had been, a few years ago, the theatre of a personal experience, I went out overnight and marked the locations of this past experience with the symbol of the monuments protected by the United Nations. Roaming the town in order to find again the places where I had been, I somehow placed the landmarks of a biographical anamnesis that was no more noteworthy than any other.
Rather than as a piece of art, I consider what I made as an exercise, and not only because it was not taking place in an environment devoted to art. These UNESCO signs were mixed up with all the signs that in an urban topography indicate locations, zones, functions, memories; they would hopefully provoke the questioning of some passer-by. What was being applied was an outsider attitude, the appropriation of a procedure and a signalisation that one was not entitled to. At the opposite of the Avant-Garde gesture that raises to the status of art what is originally not art, this spreading the traces of a passage was a rhetorical call to the democratisation of recollection. Instead of an iconic, significant, sublimating sculpture, a fragmentary, mobile, non-systematic tracing out.
“There is no kitsch that ends with a question. All kitsch ends with a statement.” (2)
I agree with Saul Friedländer’s statement, but I also think that one shouldn’t be afraid of kitsch. For instance it could be taken and used as one element of a work, among others; just as successive reproductions can lead so far away from their model as to create another original matter. And I could imagine, as well, a work so absolutely kitschy that it would become a pure art piece, a mere questioning in process.
Very few museums today are built in such a way that the circulation inside their spaces arouses thought and also lays down ambiguities: ambiguity is a good detonator for a process of interpretation. Most historical museums are either mere places of conservation, perhaps with an educational section, or sites for cultural entertainment, where the last thing that should happen to a visitor should be to induce him into boredom. For instance, the young stewards of the new Jewish Museum in Berlin are instructed to say “enjoy” when they check your ticket, and actually once inside you find a number of drawers to open and buttons to push. At the end of the visit you know what you knew already, so to say, that German Jews were also Germans. This is what Friedländer would call “to end with a statement”.
Either conservative or entertaining, a museum that would not be discursive could not be of interest. The only acceptable museum is the one that preserves what doesn’t exist yet, the one that preserves the imaginary of the viewer, the one which really takes its visitor as “a historical subject” (3), the one which would eventually take itself as a historically determined object and would accept its own disintegration.
I wonder why I like to use this adjective “kitschy” in regard to most museums. Is it because they stand for a linear, derivative vision of the historical facts, and mostly portray a narrative which is the one that justifies their own existence? Or simply because of the “inauthentic” relation between the objects and their unoriginal background, and the interrupted prolongation of these objects into time? Archives, actually, cannot be kitschy; they are the “natural” place for dead documents. They do not represent, they stay. Why can’t we show them as they are? Not only because they wouldn’t be readable, but because there is nothing to stage with a storage room. That would look like a piece of art à la Boltansky or à la Kabakov, but not like something to be used for anything else than aesthetical appreciation or nostalgic longing.
The storage room, perhaps, can be presented as a museum. Anyhow every museum is a fiction. What makes the difference is the degree of intellectual freedom that is allowed to the viewer, the degree, so to say, of democracy within the museum.
Places where everything means something are unbearable (by the way, it is the same with people and with books). This is probably the reason why, being a historian and feeling embodied myself in history, I grew tired of a historiography practised as a demonstrative explanation of signs. The intensity of my relation to history, also in connection with my personal biography, forced me to leave my fellow historians and become something else, as well. What was to be given up was the attempt of making sense of our past, of looking for more or less linear consequences and causes, of trying to renew an “objective” approach to what has been. I would, instead, understand history without understanding. I would instead become an artist.
The last work I would like to mention here is a two-days museum, a recent installation at the Society of the Industrials of Sainte Marie aux Mines, in France. This building housed an interesting collection of naturalistic and archaeological items, put together, at the turn of the 19th Century, during the golden and positivistic age of textile manufacturing. Yet with the decline of this industry and the disappearance of its main figures most of the collections ended up in cellars and attics, where we found them. I decided to make a collection out of the storage room and to present it like a Kunstkabinett: as you know, things in a curiosity cabinet are displayed without any inner hierarchy and with no evolutionary method or respect for the differences between the genres and the fields of knowledge.
In French, the Latin word “museum” can only mean a museum of natural history. This is why I named my installation “Museum of Industrial History”: as a promise that had to be disillusioned -because there was no industrial history to be seen in those spaces-, but also as an allegory of what the heritage of a past life had become. An ever too readable sign of this becoming was a circle of stuffed animals set in the only space still in use, the meeting room. On the walls of the opposite room I hung framed photographs of the meeting room as it was just before my dislocations, and in the middle of the space I “reanimated” an encounter of the ex-members of the Society. I was trying somehow to mix up the times, present tense with past tense with future tense: a conference setting in the demolition site, a ghostly reunion in the depot, old preys in the meeting room. I also combined pieces from my own past work with the leftover collections: would somebody be patient enough to try to recognise what was ”true” and what was not?
I wasn’t fully aware of what I was factually undertaking, I was moving things from one place to another with haste and improvisation. Like in Poirier’s performance in Rome, I was displacing and recomposing original matters “from a distant period”. I knew that I was arranging signs that were not meant for any explanation. I think that I acted like the invited foreigner that I was, as I had been in Naples and Copenhagen: a stranger to a local tradition and largely unaware of its rules, I felt free to misunderstand them. Not having status nor symbol to preserve, I had no discourse to give, but I had the liberty of being one pole of a discourse, as I am here today.
(1) “Poirier’s Sampling“, in S. Puglia ed., Leaving Pictures. Towards an Art of History, Salerno 1999, p. 65.
(2) Saul Friedlander, Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, New York 1984, p. 97.
(3) Michael Fehr, “A Museum and its Memory: the Art of Recovering History”, in S. A. Crane Ed., Museums and Memory, Stanford 2000, p. 59.