The problem with making an exhibition about what’s not there is that you run the risk of showing nothing at all. Absence is a difficult thing to see, its visibility relying on reference points and shared assumptions. Without the right cues there is a serious risk that viewers won’t notice what they’re meant (not) to see. In “I’m Not Here: An Exhibition Without Francis Alÿs,” a solo-cum-group show at De Appel Jongensschool, curators take this risk, organizing a retrospective of sorts in Alÿs’s conspicuous absence. Presenting fourteen diverse contemporary artists, the curators explicitly invite members of the audience “to think about Alÿs by thinking about the other artists in the exhibition.”
The project is as much about (or not about) Alÿs as it is about the possibility of rendering something visibly absent – a concept that, at times, becomes a bit labored. Central to the exhibition is a discussion citing Barthes’s “Death of the Author” that questions institutional roles and responsibilities in privileging the artist (via the solo exhibition) as a critical unit in art history and analysis. But the exhibition also challenges the favoring of presence over absence, and investigates dislocated artistic practice, documentation, and the uncertain position of the viewer.
Alÿs is a well-chosen figure for such discussions. In a 2005 interview the artist mused, “Maybe you don’t need to see the work, you just need to hear about it.” This sentiment is not a far cry from the (at the time) radical assertions of 1960s conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner who created idea-based works in the forms of statements, propositions, and directions. As LeWitt wrote, “[when] an artist uses a conceptual form in art, it means all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” Conceptual Art reevaluated the role of the artist, the work of art, and even that of the spectator.
Language was essential for the conceptual artists, as it is for the “I’m Not Here” participants. Viewers react not to overt instructions so much as hints and insinuations. For example, the exhibition program suggests that ordinary-looking people will occasionally enter the space and perform “a sequential activity.” This left me with vague suspicions that everyone I saw was an actor. I suspect I identified these stealth performers by the number of times the desk attendant showed them to a broom closet, but I have no way of being sure.
Other rumors-as-artwork rely in part on the viewer choosing to believe or not believe artists’ statements about their works. Wilfredo Prieto’s One is reportedly one real diamond disguised amongst a pile of twenty-eight million tiny fakes. Viewers are similarly asked to take the artist at her word in Tatiana Mesa’s Roce de manos, a text piece in which the artist states she will perform a specific action months after the exhibition’s conclusion. Though we can’t authenticate Prieto’s claim or confirm Mesa’s future gesture, these works make us consider the poetic possibilities of their veracity either way.
Other works are present, but hidden in plain sight. Stefan Bruggemann layers twelve of his own text pieces on top of one another to illegible effect (visually, think magnified Glenn Ligon). Likewise, in Gustav Metzger’s Historic Photographs: Fireman with Child, Oklahoma, 1995, we see only the edge of this large-scale iconic photograph, which the artist has obscured behind a cinderblock wall.
Few people observe Alÿs’s art-making activities, which often take place as urban ambulation. Instead, he describes his performative strolls using maps, drawings, photographs, and souvenirs. Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh shares something with this processual show-and-tell approach. In her witty video Rawane’s Song she travels through her studio, settling on relics of her creative past as evidence of her own journey. Panning the studio floors, Nauman-like, Al Solh recounts her often comical, failed attempts at making art about war. Her candid explanations question the uncertainty of personal artwork as political gesture, recalling Alÿs’s paint-trailing walk between Israel and Palestine, Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic (better known as The Green Line).
The exhibition’s easiest victory is its organization of a diverse yet cohesive body of work that really does speak through what it withholds as much as what it presents. Though I’m not entirely convinced by the idea of an absentee retrospective, “I’m Not Here” is an interesting and worthwhile exercise relating exhibitions and art histor(iograph)y. Alÿs is present in as much as the curators direct viewers to think about him. And just as the artists in the exhibition communicate through secrets and obfuscation, the curators also use exclusion to represent their celebrated truant.
On a final note, there is a conceptual paradox that I don’t think the curators have missed, but have instead chosen to celebrate. In decentering the individual artist, the ambitious curators have displaced the tyranny of the author onto themselves. The exhibition, after all, is itself a medium used to tell stories about art, making visible intangible histories and connections. Constructing such a heavy-handed exhibition while crying “Death to the author!” has its obvious problems – but it does retain some logic in a show that asks so much of its audience. If the authors are dead then the readers are born. Viewers, it’s in your hands now. Get thinking.
~ Andrea Alessi, a writer living in the Netherlands.
(Images: Wilfredo Prieto, Scale of Values, 2001, Mixed Media ; Courtesy de Appel Boys' School; Ariel Schlesinger ,Minor Urban Disasters, 2007, Sequence of slides; Courtesy of the artist; Mounira Al Solh , Rawane's Song, 2006, video, 7'; Courtesy of the artist; David Sherry ,Just Popped Out Back in Two Hours, 2008, Performance; Courtesy of the artist and Mother's Tankstation, Dublin)