James Putnam
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press   Cabinet of Curiosities, 'Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium' by James Putnam, Thames & Hudson £29.95

reviewed by Lisa Corrin, Tate Magazine, Spring 2002.

James Putnam is forthright about the irony inherent in his effort to inventory, classify and label works of art that exhibit a "museological tendency", that is to say polemical works that take the practices, policies and the architecture of the museum as their subject. Let’s call it a book about "museumism". Like a sweeping exhibition of an art historical "ism", Art and Artifact provides a panoramic overview of museumism as an artistic impulse to explore and critique how the accoutrements of display –the vitrine, the label, the theatrical spotlight, the will to order and compartmentalize- shape our relationship to objects and, in the process, our cultural values. The exhibition metaphor extends to the book’s design, which parodies display conventions with an "explanatory label" beside each illustration.

The book is divided into six chapters in an effort to order the prolific production of artists internationally working in this genre particularly over the past decade. The strength of Putnam’s work is his discovery of a most unusual range of examples beginning with the "precursors": Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Boite-en-Valise’ (1941), Marcel Broodthaers’s ‘Musee d’art Moderne, Departement Des Aigles’ (begun 1968), Joseph Beuys’s ‘Beuys Block’ at the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt (1970) and Andy Warhol’s ‘Raid the Icebox’ (1970), to cite just four.

The American artist Fred Wilson traverses a number of Putnam’s categories with ease and is clearly, for the author, a pivotal figure for the current generation. Wilson’s installation ‘Mining the Museum’ (1992), presented through an unexpected collaboration between Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Historical Society, investigated the connection between museum collecting policies and institutionalized racism using objects from the Society’s permanent collections. Unlike many museumist works for whom the joke is lost on all but those initiated into contemporary conceptual art, Wilson’s installation was studied with equal interest by both the art community and the wider museum profession. It is also widely credited with having spawned a number of initiatives internationally in which artists have been invited to present their work in provocative juxtaposition with existing collections or to re-install galleries.

Projects by British artists and artistic intervention in British institutions have a strong presence in the book, and since so much information about many American and European examples is already widely available, this is a significant addition to the existing scholarship. It is a relief to see images of important contributions but undocumented projects, such as Richard Wentworth’s poetic arrangement based upon his study of museum display; Terry Smith’s audio installation ‘Perhaps’ (Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, 1995) featuring a single portrait form the collection accompanied by recordings of fictional narratives; projects by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, who typically distribute their museumist work through books and brochures; and ‘The Maybe’ (1995), the unforgettable collaboration between artist Cornelia Parker and actress Tilda Swinton in which Swinton slept in a vitrine in the centre of the Serpentine Gallery accompanied by 35 incongruous museum objects selected by Parker. Tate’s contribution to the genre is highlighted by two memorable commissions: Mark Dion’s ‘Thames Digs’ (1999, 2000) contextualized with illustrations of his cabinets of curiosity and nature history tableaux and Hans Haacke’s ‘Taking Stock (Unfinished)’ (1983-1994), a painting that, as legend has it, led to the resignation of Charles Saatchi from Tate’s Patrons of New Art committee.

The book’s title calls to mind two landmark museumist exhibitions, "Art/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections", presented at the Museum of African Art, New York (1988), and "The Museum as Muse: Artists reflect", organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1999). The latter was an earnest enterprise sharing Putnam’s goals but lacking his sense of irony. By co-opting the museum critique, "The Museum as Muse" effectively defused even the most inflammatory works intended to undermine the alleged neutrality of the institution. However, although his checklist is more far-reaching than that of the MoMA exhibition, neither Putnam’s high degree of self-consciousness, nor the charm of the book’s design, nor even the extended "text panes" –mini thematic essays within each section that elucidate the taxonomic structure he applies to the abundant material –can protect the works of art from the inevitable flattening out process that occurs when artists of similar sensibilities are ripped from their contexts and forced into a white box. This is particularly true of works that rely on the context of the non-art museum for their potency. Both the MoMA show and this book as exhibitions surrogate fail to heed a cardinal rule of art history: when an "ism" becomes a style codified by the museum its radical edge is blunted.

It is to the wider cultural context of the exhibition "Art/artifact" that Putnam might have turned for a way around this trap. Conceptualised by Susan Vogel, the show was a curator’s expose of the various modes of presentation of African visual culture in museums. In fact, the rise of just this kind of self-reflexive curatorial coincided with the rise of museumism as an artistic genre. For as Vogel was putting together "Art/artifact", the artist Fred Wilson, who was soon to become one of the most central artistic figures studying museums, was organizing a similar "exhibitions" at the Bronx Council of the Arts. Using unidentified works of contemporary art borrowed from friends, he created a series of ‘Rooms with a View’, each examining a different style of display and how it shapes the point of view from which one understands the function and meaning of objects. I put "exhibition" in inverted commas because this project functioned as both an artist installation and exhibition. It marks a turning point in Wilson’s practice as he began deploying the apparatus of the museum in order to scrutinize it.

At the very same time Wilson and his peers internationally were ‘Mining the Museum’ (1992) and unraveling its ‘Mixed Metaphors’ (1993) –to cite two of his projects- museum professionals were advocating the same ethics of public transparency and institutional self-consciousness. The early 1995 also saw the advent of curatorial programmes emphasizing theoretical and critical thinking, such as the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, inaugurated in 1992, and the graduate programme in Commissioning and Curating of Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art. Along with interdisciplinary reading in museology written by curators, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and even political economists, students studied the theoretically informed writings of artists on the subject of museums. A number of these artists were also regular lecturers. It was taken for granted in these programmes that exhibition making is a rhetorical and, indeed a creative act, and formulae for monographic and group exhibitions –especially the "ism" show- were challenged and re-visioned. One might say that the rise of the artist as curator coincided with the rise of the curator as artist. These days, Fred Wilson not only creates installations, he is just as often asked to serve as a "consultant" to curators as they rethink their collections and young curators ponder how to balance the administrative challenges that hinder creativity.

What would have made Putnam’s book like no other would have been to resist the will to make these artistic tendencies art historically manageable and to embrace the unique privilege of curatorial practice –to accept, and to encourage the audience to consider, culture as a very messy business with fractures and fissures everywhere. In short, to use the book as an opportunity to blur the boundaries between the artist and curator and to bring together their parallel practices and examine the implications of this transformation in roles. Putnam is particularly qualified to address the issue. His exhibition "Time Machine" (1994-1995) brought together contemporary and ancient works of art in eloquent equipoise. It was Putnam who intervened in the daily routine of the British Museum to bring artists, including Wilson, into its storerooms to create "In Course of Arrangement" (1997) using Egyptian artifacts and he who encouraged Terry Smith to chisel away at the plaster walls in a gallery of the British Museum to create his monumental but ephemeral ‘Capital’.

The reality of the museum as a medium is that it is more grey than it is black and white. What is desperately needed is an account of museumism that sways continually like a pendulum between formerly discrete areas of cultural practice and an analysis of the crises of identity that have characterized so much cultural production in recent decades, for artists and museums alike. If the will to classify, to make culture orderly and organise art into tidy "isms" once defined temperament demanded for curatorial work, today it is the capacity to raise questions without answering them and to encourage the audience to embrace actively this spirit of irresolution as a truer picture of culture’s dynamism than a taxonomist could ever paint.
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