Film/Art | Oh, Broodthaers, Where Art Thou? 

By Andréa Picard

“Fiction captures the truth, and at the same time, what it conceals.”—Marcel Broodthaers

“All the World’s Futures” is a pretty grim supposition, if not a dismal, somewhat dizzying “iterative choreography,” to quote this year’s Venice Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor. Those futures are in fact meant to be a barometer of the present, with evidence of the current tumult reverberating around the globe, in some cases, the symptomatic, cyclical manifestation of post-colonial mess and melancholia. It’s no big secret that the world is in a state of disorder (as it has been before, and worse, say between 1938-45 or during successive genocides), and shall be in those plural future tenses—future proche, simple, antérieur, et conditionnel—with a diversity of experience ripe for the dissemination of societal trauma and states of emergency. With a determined focus on “epic displays of orality,” an arena was erected in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini meant to “pre-occupy” the public’s presence and criticality. With nary a dose of irony, live, continuous readings of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital were delivered daily as a complement to Isaac Julien’s two-screen installation KAPITAL (2013), alongside a program of performances and various lectures, with varying ebbs and flows of audience members. If Das Kapital is read aloud to an empty coliseum at a bustling biennale does anyone hear it?

Temporarily tossing cynicism aside, the thought that Marx’s critique of political economy might strike a chord with an earnest, Balenciaga-clad Biennale attendee further approbates the discursive layers of paradox inherent in Enwezor’s exhibition. Bulimic, not unlike the Paris Triennale he curated at the Palais de Tokyo a few years ago, the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale had far too much to consume, and inevitably drew on parallels with Marx’s notions of merchandise, exchange, value forms, and fetishistic quality. But by now, there seems to be little point in critiquing the elite, money-driven forces at play behind and within such a posh forum. It’s sort of like taking cash from Wall Street to enact social change as president, or toughing it out and biting one’s tongue in a large institution where compromise is endemic, only to enact inconspicuous subversion in tiny, crucial increments. It’s simply part of the system. So was it a stroke of curatorial brilliance and bravura that one of Marcel Broodthaers’ famous Décors, the Jardin d’Hiver (1974), was installed atop the arena, or was it merely a meta gesture that got lost amid the 36 potted palm trees scattered pretty willy-nilly and the 16 wooden, beaten-up garden chairs? A tongue-in-cheek, social-model scenography, the in situ mise en scène ironically offered a literal and metaphorical dead end: enter the Marx-filled auditorium, turn around and go back down the stairs from the labyrinthine art-filled maze that led you there, or find solace in the winter garden.

Benjamin Buchloh identified la blague (the joke) at the heart of Broodthaers’ inherently contradictory work and position as artist—chosen, he said, because he could not afford to collect, and therefore created himself a collection. Broodthaers, who died in 1976 at the age of 52, was an installation artist, filmmaker, photographer, and theorist, or rather, a man of letters, at the age of 40. His inter-media approach has often been resuscitated during debates about the medium’s specificity, most famously by Rosalind Krauss in her 1999 Thames & Hudson lecture “A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition,” an update of Walter Benjamin’s bailiwick. A conceptualist in the line of Duchamp and heavily influenced by Magritte and Mallarmé, Broodthaers has become an essential figure in the ongoing dialogue about the sometimes thorny, sometimes auspicious relations between works of art, museums, and the public. From the mythic throes of revolutionary 1968, the artist founded his fictitious and subsequently itinerant museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne—Département des Aigles in his Brussels apartment. Named after one of his poetic verses (“Ô mélancolie, Aigre château des Aigles”), the Musée was re-mounted and legitimized as an artwork in the Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, four years later in 1972.

Broodthaers’ inclusion at this year’s Venice Biennale could be interpreted in several ways: certainly, he’s au courant and de rigueur, but also his wry commentary on exhibition-making—on installation conditions, site-specific locations, and research-as-content-as-collection—is as germane and thought-provoking as ever. Broodthaers’ prescience in wrestling with how to integrate the seventh art within museum spaces finds fitting resonance in a Venice edition whose highpoints are arguably provided by filmmakers, including Chantal Akerman (Now, 2015) and Steve McQueen (Ashes I&II, 2014-15), both shown at the Arsenale, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Sector IX B, 2015) in the Giardino delle Vergini (not far from a surprising and significant Jean-Marie Straub “intervention” into the Italian Pavilion), and, at the off-site collateral event, Catalonia in Venice, Albert Serra, whose Singularity (2015), a sumptuous, monumental film projected on five screens, reveals a seductive, barren, yet baroque beauty over its consistently engaging three-hour duration. This is a feat of prolonged attention-grabbing for any gallery work, let alone one found at the most harried and frequented of the world’s biennales.

With his visual and tonal semblances to Fassbinder and his subdued, corporeal cris de coeur, Serra has created a visionary installation experience. Singularity is a film that charts its space and demands that we do, too, as we seek to retain intimacy with its characters, who are often lovingly shot by candlelight or in diffused chiaroscuro and tight crops emphasizing their bodily presence and their physical and spiritual yearning. “Singularity” is a transitional concept in which artificial intelligence begins to supersede that of humans, and the film incidentally returns us to Marx (and Engels) with its gold mine and whorehouse settings from ’30s Ireland through to the omniscience of drones in the 21st century. With production and merchandise formerly linked to the body in the pre-machine era, Serra bodily revives autonomy, its dominating presence and its capacity for human transformation, doing so while summoning quiet moments of grace and transcendence, from rugged, reddening skin-on-skin friction though uncanny, terrifically bizarre and tender encounters, such as the two men we know as Sancho and Quixote chilling in a Porsche or cuddling in bed.

Serra has always worked with bodies—those of his friends—and has moulded his films from their shapes, gestures, and movements, from their determination as well as their hesitations. The approach is highly conceptual, but never removed from the personal and intimate, from admiration and respect, the temporal dimension of cinema contributing to a mutual form of encounter and creation. Reproduction is potentially thwarted by all the couples being homosexual in Singularity, complicating the sensual aura of rococo gold droppings with the advent of “all the world’s futures,” with a pull between tradition (Serra’s neo-classicist tableaux) and a pulsating present so profound that it temporarily eludes the drive toward destiny. Are they enacting the end of capitalist logic? Cinema, thus, is used not simply as a narrative storytelling device, but as a parallel world, fully formed, one that keeps multiplying and morphing over five screens, thereby confronting our ultimately limited gaze. Like a time machine shuttling between eras and drawing us in with both a moody, ornate, unfurling tapestry and febrile fragmentation, Singularity is a major reconsideration of cinema’s possibilities of self-realization and reception. And it’s ravishing in its filmic beauty.

Serra cleverly confirms the importance of thought, feelings, and sentience in our computer age, and avoids all didacticism by way of a fleshy, Romanesque fresco in which capitalist production can be both dictating and upsetting. Broodthaers’ intellectual gamesmanship mined similar territory during his heyday, his humour less nuanced than Serra’s but always on point, his obsessive, joyous tendencies fully committed to the cause, and his parody of scholarship prophetic. Never has this been more apparent than at Broodthaers’ landmark exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris, which might just be the best and most comprehensive staging of the artist’s work to date. Curated by Chiara Parisi in close collaboration with Maria Gilissen Broodthaers, Marcel’s widow, the Monnaie has reconstructed a large-scale version of Broodthaers’ Musée d’Art Moderne—Département des Aigles—a work that both made apparent and elided a work of art’s market economy—to France’s oldest, functioning (financial) institution.

Founded in 864 under Charles II, Monnaie de Paris is the sole mint entrusted with the striking of official French currency coins, a magnificent musée monétaire. It also now has a mandate to showcase radical contemporary art, its aim to present “impossible art” in the Monnaie’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, coffered exhibition halls on the bank of Seine. So far, the Monnaie has an impossibly great track record, including hosting Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet for Nuit Blanche in 2013 and last year’s much debated-celebrated Chocolate Factory by Paul McCarthy, timed to coincide with his sadly vandalized forest-green blow-up butt plug at Place Vendôme.

Broodthaers’ legendary decade as a practicing artist yielded one of the most important bodies of work in 20th century art history. Through his scenographic, museological installations, he actively questioned, with a mix of melancholy and sly absurdity, the notion of an artwork’s authenticity and its monetary value. With major “Sections” of his Musée displayed throughout the Monnaie, the full range of his interests and the terrifically eccentric nodes of his thinking emerge in what perhaps also serves as a fascinating portrait of the mythic artist. The exhibition begins with an elegant and entrancing installation of his Jardin d’Hiver II (1974), its displaced oasis of green perfectly at home atop the grand staircase, the vaulted landing enveloped in soothing nostalgia provided by the looping melancholic soundtrack to Broodthaers’ film Un jardin d’Hiver (A.B.C.) (1974), shown on 16mm. Six framed photographic enlargements of 19th-century gravures of various animal and insect species hang high upon the walls, which bear the institution’s historical coats of arms and the inscription, “1803 Napoléon 1er.” The seamless fusion of Broodthaers’ work with the stately imprimatur and formal insignia of the venue provides endless instances of contradiction, witticism, and clins d’oeil worthy of the artist’s mischievous and brainy endeavours.

Room upon room recreate seminal installations and the various Sections from his shape-shifting Musée, the recurrent references zig-zagging between masters like David, Ingres, Wiertz, and Courbet, whose iconic paintings are projected as slide representations upon wooden crates and figure as postcards affixed to the wall, through Mallarmé and Magritte, whose fonts, spacing, and edicts make uncanny appearances, the declarative “This is not a work of art” proudly displayed on the industrial plaques. Then there’s the astonishing array of collectibles in the Section des Figures, whose vitrines teem with eagle-encrusted medals, eagle Adler typewriters, eagle everything as the most recognizable and nefarious symbol of imperial power. There’s even a wooden Sachertorte box from Vienna’s famous Hotel Sacher, whose logo once bore an eagle. Broodthaers’ Section de Publicité foresees the present-day dominion of marketing over programming, of product over culture. Most remarkable of all, given the venue, is the Section Financière (1970) in which Broodthaers, upon declaring his museum bankrupt, attempted to sell editioned one-kilo gold ingots stamped with an eagle, along with a contract declaring it a work of art, setting the price at double its value. The precious, gleaming metal is certainly at home in the Monnaie, but the ingot in the show is a work twice removed by Vietnamese-born Danish artist Danh Vo, heir apparent to Broodthaers if ever there were one.

The final room-and-a-half are devoted to Broodthaers’ love and consideration of cinema. His Section Cinéma (1971-72), which he inaugurated in a basement in Dusseldorf, is oft-cited as a determining moment for artist’s film, its conferred status as work of art within the infrastructures and philosophies of the museum system (albeit a fictitious one!) henceforth a reference for how film and video are shown and considered within an exhibition context. La Monnaie’s Cinéma Modèle takes inspiration from Broodthaers’ Section Cinéma and includes a program of five of his films, which pay tribute to his models Schwitters, Magritte, Baudelaire, La Fontaine, and Mallarmé. All (save one) projected on 16mm in close proximity, the whirring sounds of the projectors combined with the individual soundtracks to form a Schwitters-like sound poem. The somewhat chaotic nature of the installation, with the films criss-crossing each other and the overlapping sound bleed, challenged the “proper” conditions we have come to demand of the museum. Still, magic was in the air. Broodthaers knew it was time to get out when his fiction became reality, and the system he was critiquing itself transformed into a system. The tote bag was tempting, and is still for sale at the Monnaie gift shop.