‘The museum was a discredited institution from its very inception,’ stated art historian Douglas Crimp in his collection of essays, entitled On the Museum’s Ruins. This accusation of discredit appears to have found material expression in Marcel Broodhaers’ seminal installation ‘Un Jardin d’Hiver’ (A Winter Garden) (1974). The exhibition, which was first staged by Hauser and Wirth Zurich in 1998, finds itself in a new iteration twenty years later in London, as a tribute to the artist.
Drawing on Europe’s dark imperial past, Broodthaers’ conceptual composition of a colonial-era museum display – complete with glass vitrines, framed categorised prints of foreign animals hung uncomfortably above eye level, and an array of 30 potted palms – acts as a subtle aide-mémoire to the origin of the art-museum, which was established in an era of conquest, collection and colonisation.
As one enters the gallery’s large glass doors the space feels immediately ironic. The installation appears both tired and tempting, accusative and understanding.
This recreation of a late 19th-century pseudo-museum does not lend itself willingly to the sterility of the white-cube. From the hostility of the plastic pots that house the once ‘exotic’ palms, to the awkward and unpleasant folding chairs placed sparingly across the two rooms, the space is unnatural, eerie and insincere. This induced unease is further intensified by the inclusion of a surveillance monitor in the corner of the second room; displaying a live film of the space, making the viewer intensely aware of oneself, and too perhaps, of one’s own compliance within this narrative of the art institution. Amid this, a collection of folding chairs and potted palms are placed in a circle in the middle of the installation, facing inward toward an empty centre in celebration, or maybe irreverence; the fetishisation of the museum object ultimately being questioned in its absence.
Broodthaers’ usual practice largely concerns the impact of the museum on discourses surrounding artistic practice and subsequent reception, as well as the status of art as a commodity to be acquired, owned and exhibited; what are we really appreciating in our nation’s museums and cultural institutions? Is it the Art itself? The theft of Art? Or even perhaps, the art of theft? Layered with historical connotations, Broodthaers forms a witty and theatrical exploration of institutional authority and its legitimacy.
In 1963, after 20 years writing poetry, Broodhaers declared, ‘I, too, wondered if I could sell something and succeed in life… the idea of inventing something insincere came to me and I got to work immediately’. This insincerity found a place in the art world, and Broodhaers became an important player in the narrative of conceptual art. This incongruous nature of the work is made clear through its sharp questioning of its own institutional compliance. Whether Broodthaers bolsters the institution’s authority or denies it, one leaves ‘Un Jardin d’Hiver’ with a critical eye; perhaps suggesting, as argued by Adorno, ‘museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association.’
Un Jardin d’Hiver (A Winter’s Garden)
Hauser & Wirth London
7 Sep – 18 November 2017
By Aoife Fannin