Amsterdam, Apr. 2011 - At the opening of Alfredo Jaar’s Marx Lounge at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, members of the art community walked gingerly around a large table filled corner-to-corner with books. For the first ten minutes or so no one touched anything. The books seemed so shiny, new, pristine – and they were, after all, art. When a number of young Amsterdam artists waltzed in and unquestioningly began flipping through the titles as they schmoozed, it became clear that lounge visitors were welcome, if not encouraged, to further examine the diverse reading material.
The Marx Lounge rethinks the SMBA as library reading room, painted red and furnished with comfy black couches, dim reading lamps, and a neon sign announcing the work’s name. The focal point of the exhibition is, of course, the table, and the nearly 350 books arranged thematically and linguistically across it. As one might expect, many titles hail from Marxist and post-Marxist theorists including Žižek, Badiou, Rancière, Negri, and Laclau, though the bibliography is by no means limited to this type of scholarship alone. Indeed, the exhibition addresses all manner of contemporary and 20th century thought, including philosophy, politics, post-colonialism, globalization, cultural theory, and neo-liberalism (to name but a few topics). For Jaar, the compilation of such works in one place confirms a recent intellectual revolution that goes generally unseen in society at large.
Amsterdam hosts the third incarnation of The Marx Lounge (with another currently inspiring thinkers in Seville, Spain). Jaar formulated the original Lounge for the Liverpool Biennial as a response to the global financial crisis and the subsequent de-funding of public education in the UK. In Amsterdam the project is resurrected under the rubric of Project ‘1975,’ the SMBA’s ongoing programming framework centered on the postcolonial predicament of art in the Netherlands (so titled after the year the Netherlands officially became a “post-colonial nation”). While this library shares much in common with that of the dismantled Liverpool Lounge, it has been adapted slightly for the setting with additional translations and titles by Dutch intellectuals added to the reading list. For the duration of the installation, the SMBA is also hosting a series of lectures, reading groups, film screenings, and debates in conjunction with the exhibition. Visit the SMBA’s website for the complete program and Marx Lounge bibliography.
Alfredo Jaar (Chile, 1956) is a New York based artist often characterized as a “political artist” (a depiction he notably rejects, championing the notion that all art is political). He is known for his work addressing the Rwandan genocide and media (mis)representations of world events. The artist was kind enough to take some time out of an incredibly busy schedule to answer a few questions about his recent work.
Andrea Alessi: Given your background in architecture, how essential is the physical space of The Marx Lounge to the artwork? If someone were to print out a syllabus and read the books at home or in a library, for example, would that change the artwork?
Alfredo Jaar: Completely. We all know these books exist and we can walk in a bookstore and buy any or all of them. What is important in The Marx Lounge, is that they are there, all together, in the same space. It is an invitation to share a space with someone you don’t know, and plunge deep into a world of ideas that could potentially change the world, and engage others in a conversation. In a way, The Marx Lounge space has the potential to create a thinking community.
AA: Your 2 x 10m table contains the intellectual raw material to explain the world or fuel the flames of revolution. You’ve humbly said that it is a gift for you just knowing these ideas exist in one space. It is also a gift and opportunity for viewers. You explicitly aren’t asking us to read everything (or anything), but in your wildest dreams, how much work would viewer-readers invest in The Marx Lounge and what would their participation accomplish?
AJ: This is a conceptual art work, where just the fact that all these great books are together on the same table and in the same space is already enough for me, just to reveal they exist. In other words, even if not a single book is ever opened or read doesn’t really matter at all. If some viewers actually do sit and read, it will be great, as the space will be activated by the belief that these ideas are worth an effort. On a much larger scale, it is the same kind of intellectual effort society must make to make a better world.
AA: It seems many artists, particularly when addressing crisis, employ varying strategies of revealing and concealing in their work. You very thoughtfully confronted the challenge of what to include/exclude in the Rwanda Project. Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in Vienna, Nameless Library, is another example of an artwork that withholds information, and it seems an interesting one to contrast with The Marx Lounge, which overwhelms us with books for intellectual consumption. Can you describe how you negotiate these strategies of inclusion and exclusion in your artwork?
AJ: Unlike a studio artist that produces work in the studio, I am a project artist that responds to specific issues in specific places. My working process is a long period of research and thinking that leads me to the point of articulating an idea. That idea is not gratuitous or a product of my imagination, it responds very precisely to a program and an objective for that particular project. The Marx Lounge was born out of my wish to assist distressed communities in Liverpool trying to resist the drastic financial cuts of the Cameron government. The optimal solution I came up with for this project was one of inclusion.
AA: The global financial crisis, followed by the de-funding of British higher education set the scene for the initial Marx Lounge at the Liverpool Biennial. How do you tie the financial crisis and The Marx Lounge in with the SMBA’s Project ‘1975,’ which addresses the “postcolonial predicament of art”? Is there a critical intersection, or is it through something more nebulous?
AJ: The Marx Lounge “disappeared” after the Liverpool Biennial as the books were distributed to distressed local communities. So originally this was conceived as an ephemeral work. It was a great surprise to be invited to re-create it in Seville and in Amsterdam. I accepted as I realized about the urgent need to create similar spaces of “resistance” in other communities. As many of the writers in the Marx Lounge focus on the postcolonial reality, I felt it would fit very well within SMBA’s 1975 Project. I was happy to know that The Marx Lounge could have a longer life beyond Liverpool. In fact, I continue to receive more requests from other cities around the world. As an artist who has been active for thirty years, I can honestly say that I still do not understand the “art world.”
AA: If you could take only three books with you on a desert island (or in a prison cell, if we’re feeling pessimistic), which three would you take?
AJ: In the heights of despair, Emile Cioran.
The complete poems, Giuseppe Ungaretti.
The Ashes of Gramsci, Pier Paolo Pasolini.
ArtSlant would like to thank Alfredo Jaar for his assistance in making this interview possible.
(All Images: Courtesy of the artist and Andrea Alessi)