January 2008, Roger Buergel key lecture at the Van Abbe museum

 A Giant Leap
 (based on Yves Klein ‘The leap into the void’, modified by the author)
 (following images are screenshots of the conference video of Roger Buergel’s key lecture at the Van Abbe museum on the 11th of November 2007, available on www.citytv.nl)

A sunny Sunday afternoon and the conference room of the Van Abbe, notably described by a colleague as the black void of the intellectual, was packed. The key-lecture of the day was one to answer or voice many questions. Roger Buergel, director of yet another very controversial Documenta, was a perfect fit in the Caucus lectures of the Van Abbe, which current program has induced at least some controversy.

Buergel started out his talk with a void; more significantly, a precious piece of Chinese porcelain part of the national palace collection, Taipei. He fills the little precious artifact with the symbolism of Heidegger’s notions on the void (the potter that gives shape to the void) and the interpretation of the empty by Jacques Lacan as the entity of L’Absent (the impossible non-object of desire). As a conclusion he merges the two notions into Kasha Silvermans “evacuation of presence”. What interests Buergel in this display, reflecting on curatorial practice, is not the artifact itself but the “notion of affirmation” conceived, not perceived, by the spectator.

Using photographs of an Islamic anti-war demonstration by lidwien van de ven as a bridge, he then moves to his notion of citizenship, which he symbolizes metaphorically as “pulling the same string”. Undoubtedly referring to his much talked about exhibition ‘The Government’, Buergel pleads for a regime “not associated with people but with principles”. He believes these principles or the governing of these principles to be lost in the modernistic social fire escape of individuality.

To display the practical impact of these notions on his practice, he starts out by taking his 2004 show “How do we want to be governed?” at the Macba as an example for his work on Documenta. There, in the context of the Barcelonese problems with the building of the Macba (a big historically significant part of the city was destroyed to build the white elephant), Buergel worked with a local board consisting of teachers, geographers, and historians. A team with whom he investigated the local polemic and a way of addressing it. By ‘moving’ the exhibition to three significant places (a school gym, a former textile factory and an empty community center) he wanted to move the public away from itself.
With Documenta, he sought to make the same attempt of working with a local board. Buergel emphasizes that he does not consider this as an effort towards democracy or participation but a challenge to “divest yourself of power”.

Last image in Buergel’s key presentation is a Chinese painting. It displays part of the Chinese imperial collection, including that first particular pottery vase, in a maze of concealed frame-cabins. Every artifact is just out of the picture and precisely in it. The whole hide and seek is of a most striking elegance and seduces the eye as well as the mind. Buergel declares that aesthetics offer us forms to represent and display complexity without exposing. He pleads for invisibility and opposes what he calls “stickiness”, the obvious presence of an author whether it is the artist or the curator.

Not a lightly digestible lecture indeed. At the moment of the conference I honestly wished I had more coffee, and at the end of the Caucus month I was ready for a ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’- marathon of non-information. But luckily, all the conferences are available on-line (at www.citytv.nl) to digest in the warm womb of mother Internet. (Long live web 2.0!)

So after absorbing my own notes, and watching the on-demand conference three times, the whole concept of “stickiness” stuck in my mind. Buergel opposes to the obvious presence of authorship in curatorial and artistic practice. Especially, if I interpret well, in what is considered to be art with a political or social signature. He warns for the petit-bourgeoisie-status of the freelancer who might, by giving a de-polarized representation of a certain situation; break down the seriousness and the authority of conflict.

In an attempt to understand his point and to relate it to my own practice, I did some research on authorship. I mostly used two articles; Ernst van Alpen Duchamp in Travestie (De Witte Raaf 76, november 1998) and Dirk Lauwaert, De roeping van de kunstenaar en hun carrière (De Witte Raaf 112 sep-oct 2004). I consider both as must-reads and fortunately they are available, unfortunately, in Dutch on www.dewitteraaf.be.

In ‘what is an author’, Michel Foucault declares the role of authorship in a society to be one of diminishing meaning. Foucault sees the role of authorship as a specific functional principle with which society tries to hold back on endless free circulation, manipulation, composition and destruction of meaning. We depict our authors (I subjectively put artists in the same category) as being geniuses who generate an endless stream of wit because – according to Foucault – we use authorship and its status to reach the total opposite effect. The author is a mythical figure with whom we reduce our fear for multiplying meaning.

But what does it actually mean to be an author or artist for that matter? Through the deskilling process of modernity, contemporary art has reformed not only the classical understanding of aesthetics but also and more importantly the point of legitimately giving oneself the title of ‘artist’. Everything, without polarizing into rights and wrongs, could function as –readymade - art. The authority of acknowledgement is to the spectators’ judgment.

One of the fathers, or mothers, of this conception and of contemporary art as we experience it is Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Selavy. It was through the act of cross-dressing that Duchamp questions authorship. As in cross-dressing it is the ‘in between’ that is the most attractive. Cross-dressing gives a range of possibilities where the identity of the person is lost. By creating Rrose, Duchamp divested himself of the role as an author. Considering this, and taking in account Buergel’s discourse, the act of cross-dressing can be considered a critique on the whole myth of the identity of authorship, and maybe even on the whole concept of identity itself. In these times of extreme individuality, we tend to make things even more complex by claiming that we all consist of multiple identities, which we explore, exploit and conceal according to the situation.
But more and more, I am convinced that we cross these identities and form a – Duchampian - web above an empty space.


Before I end my discourse, as Buergel did, with a perfect circle, I have one afterthought. If I consider Foucaults’ view on authorship as a cultural principle, I ask myself if it is one of diminishing meaning or addressing responsibility. And when I combine that principle with the considerations of Buergel’s metaphor of the society as a string of citizenship then I wonder if mankind is able to share the responsibility of that giant emptiness. Maybe, almost (and yes, I’m trying to be careful here) every attempt towards authorship is in its base an attempt towards immortality or at least a demonstration of pride. And then, I wonder if something as basic and as human as that is easily adjustable. Of course, the experiment and the discourse are very valuable and even necessary. And after all, who am I to judge Documenta (then again, maybe everybody should)? But maybe the solution, if there is such a thing, is in working with the inherent qualities of that pride strife towards the immortal. (And then another question one could ask is, if pride and the longing for immortality are inherent to man)

There are a lot of questions left to ask, and the difficulty of the Caucus was exactly that stream of doubt. The only ever-expanding hollowness that is left seems to be the one after the question mark. Maybe the greatest answer would be to accept that void.

Alexandra Verhaest


Alexandra Verhaest received a Masters Degree in photography at Sint Lukas school of Arts, Brussels. In her works and writings she explores the thin line between the collective history and the personal past. She questions authorship as well as the importance of photography as a medium to depict history, using urban legends, Internet blogs as well as duff history books as a source of inspiration. She fulfilled her thesis on the subject of ‘Faction’ during a residency at Island 6 Arts Centre Shanghai where she was the in-house writer. Verhaest’s work has been published in Celeste Magazine, the Lieven Gevaert Pholosophy Series and Christophe Demaitre - Stop/Over Cities. alexandraverhaest@mac.com


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