Three rooms into the modern art section of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya the film Tide Table is projected on the wall. It’s a typical William Kentridge piece: animated black and white drawings, frolicking bathers are observed by Ghadhafi-like generals, a cow is slaughtered in a cabana, lots of political innuendo. Even though the film is combined with a couple of drawings by the South African artist, it’s pretty much a stand-alone presentation. It lacks the kind of contextualization solo-exhibitions provide.
But take a couple of steps back and look left into the previous room. There hangs one of MNAC’s most cherished possessions: Pablo Picasso’s Woman in Hat and Fur Coat, the yellow of her face so shockingly fresh it looks like it was painted yesterday. Look right into the next room and you see the museum’s collection of agitprop posters. And suddenly Tide Table feels very much at home, wedged between the classic modernism Kentridge was schooled in but renounced in the eighties and the socially engaged realism that informs most of his work.
William Kentridge, Tide Table, Installation view at MNAC Barcelona
The MNAC in Barcelona has ample space for temporary exhibitions. Most of it is even underground and without windows, thus perfect for video art. But when Julio Sorigué and Josefina Blasco decided they wanted to show part of their collection at the museum, the idea of isolating the pieces in a black box was quickly abandoned. Instead, the works have been sprinkled throughout the building, like interventions in the museum’s regular collection. It goes against the trend of museums building special auditoriums or screening rooms for video art—parts of the building often shunned by the majority of visitors. For the MNAC exhibition L’Inconscient Pictòric the projectors and flat screens have been deliberately mixed with paintings, posters, and furniture, comparable with, for example, La La La Human Steps in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (February 7–May 25, 2015). It feels like video art has been released from its dark confines and finally gets to interact with other media. Of course, this only works if done right. In that sense L’Inconscient Pictòric can almost be read as a lesson in “do’s and don’t’s when integrating video art.”
(left) Bill Viola, The Return, Installation at MNAC Barcelona (right) Bill Viola, Fire Woman, Installation at Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam. Photo: Janiek Dam
To place Bill Viola’s The Return in the medieval department is not hugely original but not bad either. The religious undertones in Viola’s work—here a woman walking in slow-motion breaks through a wall of water, crossing over from black and white into color, or from death into life if you wish—resonate with the surrounding reconstructed frescos of the Santa Maria de Taüll. But why use such a modest sized screen and have the sound low? Whoever saw Viola’s Fire Woman at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam will be disappointed. In the Amsterdam show the huge screen sucked you right in, the rumbling sound made your stomach vibrate. In Barcelona all that drama is absent.
In contrast, Marco Brambilla’s Civilization is projected on a large screen, filling an entire wall. In a short loop a wonderland of stacked layers, vaguely reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, scrolls past: a body-building God, Michael Jackson on a hill, cabaret dancers, Hitler. Mildly entertaining at first but soon cheap and tiresome. And worse, the video diminishes the other works in the room dedicated to modernism in Barcelona.
In some cases the combination with the museum’s collection is too literal. For Marina Alexeeva’s two small dioramas with holograms the curators have probably rearranged the original hanging. Now Bath, showing two women washing themselves, is flanked by paintings of bathers. Prison, showing a man in a cell, is accompanied by interiors. Less emphatic is the placing of Matt Collishaw’s Women under the Influence in a room with impressionist portraits of well-to-do ladies. The ghost-like face shimmering on the mirror looks like a long lost relative. But even better are Jacco Olivier’s Return and Poisson next to a grandiose stained glass window by Joaquin Mir. There’s an obvious connection in the use of contrasting colors and clear-cut forms, but the works feed off each other instead of simply saying the same thing in a different medium.
Gregory Scott, Fabrication
The most daring and successful video art intervention of L’Inconscient Pictòric is Gregory Scott’s Fabrication. The video is presented on a rather small screen in the museum gift shop, amidst shelves full of books, posters, postcards, pens and other souvenirs. In Fabrication a curator-type guy moves about screens and boxes to create a Mondriaan composition, shuffles them around to show the museum space behind, and reshuffles them before moving images of traffic are projected on the volumes. Scott reflects on the relation between space and art, the museum environment and the works shown in it, while stripping the presentation space of its sacrosanct aura. What better place to show this piece than in the most prosaic part of the museum? And it’s effective: Fabrication is easily the most looked at work in the entire building.
(Image at top: Jacco Olivier, Return, 2007. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona)