Work in Progress: Idols of the Market

Several posts on this pseudo-blog are labelled "Idolatry"; the texts in question pertain to a book that will be published early in 2009 by Sternberg Press. Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle reexamines the legacies of modern theoretical and artistic iconoclasm in the context of the current religious-political image wars.

In a letter written shortly after Adorno’s death, in which he attempted to explain why his friend had not been buried according to Jewish rites, Max Horkheimer claimed that critical theory was based on the Second Commandment – the ban on representations of God or, in more fundamentalist interpretations, of representations of all living beings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the monotheistic concept of idolatry had been gradually replaced by modern conceptions of myth and mythology; later it was integrated in critical conceptions of commodity fetishism, ideology, the spectacle, or Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry. This secularization of the concept of idolatry is now increasingly being revoked; the critique of the spectacle is seemingly "resacralized" by various religious factions.

The fundamentalists’ apparent fetishization of their religion’s aboriginal essence is rather questionable; their fight of the idolatrous spectacle takes place within this spectacle and fortifies it—all the while reducing the space for critique and dissent. This book examines both the afterlife of religious elements in modern culture and possible responses to the current religious reappropriation of this critique of modern capitalist culture by both Christian fundamentalists and radical Islamists. Rather than dismissing monotheistic idolatry critique, the aim is to once more set free its (self-)critical potential, in opposition to those “Enlightenment fundamentalists” who save the status quo by creating a manicheist opposition between the secular West and the pure otherness of Islam.

Image: Hans Haacke's Poster Project, 2002.

Krijn de Koning

After spending more than two years in development hell, the monograph Krijn de Koning has finally seen the light of day, courtesy of Veenman Publishers. Designed by Simon Davies and Lauran Schijvens, the book contains an extensive image sequence documenting Krijn de Koning's installations and sculpture in combination with his photographs of a variety of sites and structures—including miniature golf courses. The book also contains my essay Krijn de Koning: Ruining Representation, which was written at an early stage of the book's planning, and which therefore is not quite the text I would write today. It analyses De Koning's practice in the context of art institutions as spaces of representation and abstraction. Some samples:

"Krijn de Koning’s 2001 installation at Begane Grond in Utrecht was one of his most complex works. After the show, which included interventions in De Koning’s structure by other artists, this exhibition space closed in order to be completely renovated; it later reopened under the name BAK. Cutting away some of the raised floors of the main space and adding floors of his own making, De Koning made the space rather more difficult to navigate and to understand, with awkward differences in height and strange passageways. Such works by De Koning give an irrational, Piranesian twist to the work of post-Minimalist installations artists such as Daniel Buren and Michael Asher, who in the late 1960s and 1970s came to use the gallery space not merely as a medium in which to present works executed in other media, but as the primary artistic medium. Far from merely using this medium of representation, they reflected on it; the installation became a mise-en-abîme of the gallery space itself as the medium of representation. While obviously taking up aspects of such practices, De Koning seems less interested in analyzing sites than in ruining them. De Koning’s work is reverse archaeology: it does not peel away layers to lay bare buried ruins, it adds one or more layers in order to turn what is there into a ruin."

"Even though the white cube has become the primary artistic medium in the age of installation art, the art context is no mere constellation of gallery spaces; it is a discursive context, and as such it can be exported to non-art spaces. Artistic interventions transform these sites; the artworks function as de facto white cubes, abstracting and derealizing the site, transforming it into its own representation. As Bas Heijne has pointed out, the work in Hilversum is a reversal of the traditional ruin dear to the Romantics; rather than a human structure (such as a castle) being invaded by nature, nature itself is being invaded and ‘ruined’ by a human structure. However, De Koning’s works function in a similar manner in an architectural context, particularly in art spaces. The effect is that of one culture ruining another one: De Koning’s interventions literally turn sites into ruins, rather than constituting romantic and, in the end, comforting meditations on ruins.

"In 2001 De Koning created an installation for an abandoned hôtel in Metz, formerly a music school, which awaited its restoration as a FRAC (regional art centre). The building was already in ruins, but De Koning’s structure exacerbated this status by making it look like the relic of a long defunct culture with forgotten conventions. De Koning inserted a central yellow volume in the courtyard, with an open roof and windows looking out onto rather uninteresting walls; from this central body, red tunnels led into parts of the building, penetrating through doors and windows, and offering views of the dusty and empty interiors. In a typical De Koning gesture, a washbasin ended up under the temporary floor, the boiler and tap now suspended over an abstract red plane. His floors and walls seem to take no heed of the existing fixtures and ornaments; they cut them in two or make them disappear, as if human use and occupation of the space are irrelevant.

"De Koning’s approach to this not-yet art space highlighted its impending transformation into a medium of representation by turning parts of the ruined hotel into framed images. The piece emphasized the ruined condition of the site by creating a structure that responded to it in subtle and intriguing ways while maintaining a certain bluntness and strangeness. If the building in Metz was still awaiting its transformation, the Fort bij Vijfhuizen had just been renovated and transformed into an art centre when De Koning’s Beeld voor Vijfhuizen (2005) was installed on top of this early- twentieth- century army barracks, part of a defensive ring around Amsterdam. On top of the concrete edifice, De Koning erected an equally grey temporary pavilion, a grid structure whose large openings turned it into a quasi-panopticon offering a variety of views of the surrounding landscape. While the spaces beneath—though stripped down and renovated—still betray their former function, De Koning’s structure took this process of abstraction, which is part of any transformation of non-art spaces into exhibition spaces, much further."

Meanwhile, Veenman Publishers has ceased its activities (that's the third time this sort of thing has happened to its director, or that its director has made this sort of thing happen), but the book is still available on Amazon:

Images: Installations at Begane Grond (2001) and Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen (2005).

Texte zur Kunst no. 68

Texte zur Kunst no. 68 (December 2007) contains my review of the exhibition Forms of Resistance at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (pp. 216-220.).

"Earlier this year, in a presentation that was part of its Living Archive series, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven exhibited a letter by Hans Haacke dated July 27, 1980, addressed to the museum’s director at the time, Rudi Fuchs. In it Haacke, who had exhibited at the Van Abbe in the previous year, criticized Fuchs’ increasing embrace of Baselitz, Kiefer, and Lüpertz, whose painting—so Haacke argued—combined derivative and regressive aesthetic strategies with loaded iconographic elements to a highly dubious effect. Haacke’s letter was duly archived by the museum, and Fuchs went on to make Documenta 7, in which the “new painting” triumphed. As a sobering reminder of the shaky position of any politicized practice in an art world ruled by the cyclical time of fashion, Haacke’s letter might have provided a much-needed element of reflection in the Van Abbemuseums’s show Forms of Resistance, which takes place at a moment when there are signs that the institutional possibilities for critical practices in the art world are dwindling fast.

"As its subtitle Artists and the Desire for Social Change from 1871 to the Present suggests, the curatorial team—current director Charles Esche with Will Bradley and Phillip van den Bossche—opted for a retrospective structure, selecting four crucial historical moments as markers: the Paris Commune (1871), the Russian revolution (1917), the Prague Spring (1968) and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). However, no real effort is made to articulate this chronology and go from a mass of data to something that could actually be called history; the relations of repetition and difference between these moments are hardly explored. [...]

"With its neo-bourgeois aesthetic, this year’s Documenta 12 was a clear indication of a changing climate, personified by the curator as latter-day dandy browsing through the world of forms, de- and recontextualizing them solely on the basis of his rarified taste and the alleged universality of various motifs. In a different way, Forms of Resistance is equally non-committal. The question of the form(s) of resistance is never really addressed; the Bauhaus is swell, but so are the Post-colonial and revolutionary African and South American figurative murals in one of the exhibition’s largest spaces. Anything goes. Rather than question various existing political and artistic strategies and explore their potentials, contradictions and failures, “Forms of Resistance” nostalgically presents even intellectual stagnation and political delusions as resistance."

One small addendum to this review: in the closing paragraph I praise the juxtaposition, on the walls of the central space with its reconstruction of Rodchenko's Workers' Club, of printed matter by Hans Haacke and activist posters, all pertaining to the Shah regime in Persia. In my righteous anger at this trainwreck of an exhibition, it somehow escaped my mind that another space, a far from successful assembly of 1970s and 1980s pieces including Hans Haacke's large Philips tritych, includes a similar montage on one of its walls.