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Joseph Kosuth: Neither Appearance Nor Illusion


All images courtesy of Brooke Lynn McGowan.

Joseph Kosuth:

Neither Appearance Nor Illusion 


“It’s been a lifetime problem,” admits the resident founding father of Conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth, rather sarcastically over the phone while being driven through London a city he shares with his two daughters, Noema and Klio. Kosuth, is talking about the difficulty of getting press out of New York, primarily concerning his frequent exhibitions that focus on the intangible impetuses and overall existential meaning behind art, often expressed via the cryptic dissection and subsequent literal representation of language itself. “Fortunately, we don’t do it for that, though getting some attention there [New York] matters more than it used to.

The truth is, anytime is a good time to speak with the Ohio born conceptual pioneer, even if he can’t help breaking the flow of his frequent metaphysical musings to narrate the minute details of his route, down to familiar street names, the unique driving habits of his fellow left-lane roadsters, or even the playful sartorial choices of narrowly missed pedestrians. For the record, Kosuth still dresses entirely in black. 

On this particular occasion, the formal journalistic excuse for speaking with one of the more enlightened artistic minds on the planet happens to be the first ever, temporary installation by an American artist made permanent at the Louvre. This is Kosuth’s ‘ni apparence ni illusion’ (‘Neither Appearance Nor Illusion’). Originally installed in the Museum’s Sully Wing back in October 2009 on the ramparts of the ancient, subterranean moat that surrounded the initial 12th century medieval palace (as well as in “the keep” and the Saint Louis Room), the show features fifteen hanging phrases or elements written in French that serve as a somewhat straightforward yet omnipresent “Nietzschian” narrative that holds your hand as you attempt to reconcile the convoluted, interactive human relationship to both the historically supercharged underground setting and a millennium’s worth of art and all its cultural implications living somewhat abstractly above.   

“What I wanted was to be under the accumulative history of the Louvre; the world’s cultural patrimony, essentially,” says Kosuth, pausing a moment for a bit of cynicism to creep in. “By choosing that place [King Philip Augustus’ dungeon, crypt and moat, completed in 1202, filled in by King Francois I in 1528, and excavated once more during the construction of I.M. Pei’s iconic glass pyramid in the mid 1980s], I had all of those rooms representing different periods right over my head.” 

Neither Appearance Nor Illusion, which was de-installed in February, 2016, has since been moved to a new location: the château Louvre’s ancient walls of the Hall Charles V, located directly below the famed Arc de Triomphe in the Place du Carrousel. The unveiling of the now permanent installation-which thankfully maintains its subterranean mystery and will be free to the public-took place on October 18th, 2016 to a small group of friends, family and curatorial allies, including Context Docent and art historian Martin Kiefer, Head Curator Vincent Pomarède (the Louvre’s second in command), members of the Outset Contemporary Art Fund who generously supported the initiative, Colombian art dealer and official sponsor Fernando Luis Alvarez, and art historian and publicist Brooke Lynn McGowan. Those close to the project understood the permanent acquisition validates, to a major extent, the somewhat controversial role contemporary (let alone conceptual art) plays, not only within the context of the Louvre’s overall mission, but also in the larger cannon of Western thought and the entire lexicon of art history. Up until this point, for many curators at the Louvre, permanently acquiring any artwork made after 1830 was out of the question.

“I said to one of them [a deliberately unspecified curator], the Louvre is a museum of contemporary art, just from different centuries,” says Kosuth. “They didn’t quite get the idea I guess.”

The exhibit was proposed by the Louvre’s previous director, Henri Loyrette and was originally organized by the museum’s Curator in Charge and Special Advisor on Contemporary Art, Marie-Laure Bernadac, who Kosuth notes, “did an amazing job fighting off these curators.” Kosuth appears to have contended the most with the Louvre’s new director, Jean-Luc Martinez, previously the head of the museum’s department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities. Martinez took over for Loyrette in April 2013 and seems to lack a soft spot for contemporary art and presumably Kosuth himself, who delightfully lacks a filter, or as Americans like to say, “tells it like it is.”

“It was originally only going to be up for several months, but there was a brutal desire for many people to make it permanent, so they proceeded with that,” says Kosuth. “But by the end of the process, I was almost thinking of buying up a whole bunch of copies of Kafka’s The Castle. This place really is ‘The Castle.’ I thought about making up a custom edition and giving it to all the curators, who were all so threatened by contemporary art.”

Before Loyrette stepped down, he had written a letter to Kosuth guaranteeing that if they could secure the funds they would permanently install Neither Appearance Nor Illusion. The existence of this letter, praising Kosuth’s ability to so thoroughly and inherently advocate for his own presence while literally burrowing into the foundations of the museum, carried enough weight to see the now indispensable exhibition through swelling financial demands and, as the artist pointed out, baffling administrative misdirection. The fact that Martinez essentially pushed Kosuth’s installation to the farthest reaches of the Louvre’s Parisian jurisdiction is telling.

And to think it all started with a bunch of tweets. “I was invited to do a main artwork for the Edinburgh Festival [The Enlightenments, summer 2009],” says Kosuth. “They gave me an amazing apartment which was at the top of a hill with this Harry Potter view of the swirling sky which you know was written close by. There was a huge storm coming right at my room. I was supposed to be thinking of Edinburgh, but I was thinking of the Louvre.”

Earlier that year [March 2009], while Kosuth was in residency and preparing his work for the Edinburgh Festival (his light installation, 'An Interpretation of This Title' Nietzsche, Darwin and the Paradox of Content, 2009), he was asked by the Brooklyn Museum to provide a series of short phrases for a new, fledgling social media platform. “The BK Museum said, ‘Some startup company wants to do a test with an established artist with three younger artists.’ This thing was called Twitter.”

Shortly after the BK Museum made this request, Kosuth briefly left Edinburgh and made his way to Paris under the supervision of Marie-Laure-Bernadac in anticipation of a potential temporary installation at the famed museum. “She said, ‘Well, we thought you’d look around and find a spot you like.’ ”  

That’s when Kosuth found his way into the dungeon moat. On March 3rd, 2009 at exactly 6:23pm and under deadline to begin tweeting for the BK Museum’s @1stfans, The Twitter Art Feed, which featured daily tweets from a different contemporary artist each month, Kosuth put his thumbs to work. “So I was sitting there doing fifteen twits.” Here, the correct term, “tweets,” is provided for Kosuth. “I think ‘twits’ is better.” This was Kosuth’s first tweet for the project: 

I'm facing a 12th century stone wall, the foundation wall of the original palace of the Louvre. I begin with Nietzsche's building material.”

Kosuth was the third artist after An Xiao (Jan) and Mary Temple (Feb) to contribute to this series, now archived on the BK Museum’s website. These were some of the first tweets in Twitter’s history. Kosuth’s same fifteen tweets, which previously existed only in digital, are now permanently enshrined, in physical illumined glory and in French no less, at the Louvre. “Instead of appropriating texts of other people, I appropriated my own, written for that purpose. ‘Oh my god-I remember thinking-I just did my show at the Louvre.’ For me it was fair game.”

Though one could argue that Kosuth literally “phoned it in,” he goes on to highlight the efforts that went into translating his tweets: “The hardest part-and this took months-was working with six translators and professors from three different continents to get the French as close to my English as I could. We managed. But it took far more work than doing the original.” The artist’s last phrase, as tweeted in English on March 31, 2009 at 11:25am:

“Fifteen stones in place, all out of shadow, these lit words make visible both the viewer and the viewed. The wall, the passage.”

Despite essentially being a ground zero user of one of the most influential communication tools the world has ever known (for better or worse), Kosuth, the philosophical heir apparent to Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, doesn’t use social media, let alone Twitter, nor did he anticipate the startup’s now ubiquitous role in global cultural discourse, let alone the 2016 United States presidential election (“The shit of history fertilizes.”), or how those same fifteen phrases might mark the beginning of a new paradigm shift for the Louvre. “It was too early for any of that,” he says. “I was shooting them into the void really.” WM


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


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