Some time ago, during a conference at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the curator Galit Eliat opened her lecture by making a strong statement on ancient artifacts and their life today1. She made a comparison between cosmetic surgery that so many people opt for today and the manner in which we keep old artifacts ‘alive’ in many museums and collections. If sculptures and paintings have a life of their own, comprising birth, maturity and old age, they are certainly not let to die but applied with technological make up and exposed in what should be their perfect state, as they were when first made. Perhaps the history of western museum preservation is nothing more than a speculative take on make up and beauty products of eternal youth. Generally the art beholders do not perceive the restoration and conservation materials, but they are there constantly, layers of invisible ‘maquillage’ which try to mummify artifacts from the past. How could their visibility influence our perception of the history of art?
At first glance Sascha Pohle’s new and ongoing photo series with the title Attachments (2014) immediately brings to mind a history of surgical interventions, of hidden stiches and phantom limbs still residing in the common memory of old artifacts. In Attachments, Pohle combines his personal collection of cloth hangers photographed in conjunction with a selection of images from the classic book by Andre Malraux ‘Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale’. First published in 1952, this volume is made up of closely and dramatically black and white photographed sculptures ‘through the centuries and geographies’. A compendium to the photographs informs about the whereabouts of the works with a short description by Malraux. In Pohle’s photographs we see Malraux’s images now differently composed: an old-fashioned wooden hanger positioned as a scepter in front of the head of an Egyptian sculpture, or blocking the view of a neoclassical sculpture, while metal hangers obstruct the face of a medieval monastic cross. The new images present a disturbing effect of unease and historical clumsiness. Most of the sculpture’s titles have been cropped or covered. In their interaction with the hangers they attain certain anonymity while at the same time project a recognizable history-laden atmosphere. As Pohle dissembles and takes over the book of Malraux by ripping out the original black and white pages, all the photographs of the sculptures come now in contrast with the vivid colors of the cloth hangers. Often the hangers function as stylized parts that aid the sculptures to stand, by resembling new limbs, or body extension from a different age. For example a lamb like creature seems to extend its mysterious body with a red leg and arm like prostheses; the stretchy face of a bearded man seems to be resting his cheeks on a pair of red sticks that enable his face to be lifted up, as if it could fall if they were not there; or the missing arm of an attic sculpture of a leaning lady is connected with a pointy vertical wooden surface. In these examples the hanger-prostheses offer a striking feeling of estrangement and uncanny imagery. Sometimes the work embraces absurdist elements, as in the case of a marching body which missing head is replaced by the question mark like extension of a wood and metal hanger. With the help of a simple optical illusion the sculptures entrapped into the two-dimensionality of the photograph become three-dimensional again and come to be filled with a different breath of life. This new life, this new body, is reminiscent of a process that lies between a childish naïve desire to animate objects and an unmasking of history. On the one hand they come out from the space of the book and on the other they seem to no longer be documents of their historical contexts. Most of the sculptures depicted in the ‘Attachments’ series are held in the rooms and depots of important museums, but in this new life they are rendered naked, like ghosts or body doubles of their former self. Of course their former selves are a complex affair. The lamb like creature is an argyle made vase, held in the Musée de L’Homme, the anthropology museum in Paris and it was made by a Canari vase maker in today’s
Ecuador during the reign of Tupac Yupanqui. Malraux notes that on archeological sites many Canari graves with several golden discus were discovered by archeologist next to numerous ceramics like this one. The face of the bearded man on the other hand is part of a wooden crucifix in the church of Bockhorst in Westphalie, Germany dating from the 12th century and housed in the Museum of Münster. The face is that of a suffering Christ inspired by the mystical writings of Hildegard of Bingen and Bernhard of Claivaux, the primary builder of the reforming Cisternian order. The marching body with a question head is that of a Buddha from Thailand housed in the collection Peytel. A date of the making is unknown as well as the exact origin. The content of Malraux’s book enters in the contemporary work of Pohle via a negation of the fixed provenance but implies a sense of space extension or attachment, as the title suggests. Outside of the grave and entangled with red limbs, the lamb like creature becomes a guardian of the untold stories around its making.
‘Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale’ was intended to be seen as a collection or exhibition without walls, which aimed to let a universal and timeless language of art speak to the beholder. Closely related to Malraux’s more general concept of the Musée Imaginaire started in 1935, this collection of sculptures forms a subjective display of the author’s collecting desires. The project aspired towards a new ontology of all the arts. As a matter of fact, this first volume was to be followed by two more, one on the bas-reliefs of sacred caves (Des Bas reliefs aux grottes sacrees, 1954) and another on Christian art (Le monde Chretien,1954). Malraux’s imaginary museum has often been compared to Aby Warburg’s unfinished Mnemosene Atlas project, which also consisted of a wide collection of selected images of older art works as well as contemporary imagery arranged on large-scale panels (1924-1929,). But the sensitivities of the two projects are quite different. While Warburg’s “imaginary” collection comprised both images of works of art, artifacts as well as advertisements and newspaper clippings, Malraux mainly focused on already
established artworks or pieces that were then considered artifacts. There is a much stronger focus on aesthetics then in Warburg’s case. The Sculptures for example are carefully photographed with a specific ‘timeless perspective’ and are often rendered in close ups. They resemble a projected personal collection although aimed to be part of a universal language. The collection elevates them to the illusion and allurement of the museum. Malraux himself acknowledges this transformation or magic that museums project into art works. Indeed, his ‘Voices of Silence’ opens with a celebration of this museal magic: .
A Romanesque crucifix was not regarded by its contemporaries as a work of sculpture; nor Cimabue’s Madonna as a picture. Even Phedias’s Pallas Athene was not, primarily, a statue.’ Only the museum could elevate such different object- functions to the art status of painting and sculpture alone. As he wrote in La Conditione Humaine ‘Art is a revolt against fate’2. But how can art escape the fate of the perishing materials it is made of? Can the photographic image in its reproducibility perpetuate the illusionary magic tricks of the museum?
When viewed today, ‘Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale’ resembles an impressive intellectual coffee table book, which builds an exhibition and a collection without walls for the beholder in a comfortable setting. It resembles the 19th century obsession with the universal aspects of knowledge and especially the metaphor of a printed borderless museum. For while the concept of a museum without walls is generally understood under a modernist framework, printed matters functioning as a collectable personal museum were a popular pastime in France in the 19th century. Between 1806 and 1914 a large number of French newspapers and journals carried the word musée in their title.3 Many editors argued that each reader would be able to compile a private collection of her or his own composed reproductions of artistic or archeological objects. For example reader of Musée de l’histoire, de la nature et des arts (1830) could have ‘the advantage of possessing within a few years and at very little price a beautiful collection of lithographs’.4 Their approach was educational with the taints of developing consumer capitalism and bourgeois demands.
In her remarkable study on rituals inside art museums and collections, Carol Duncan remarks on a specific type of literature in which collectors or curators appear as clever sleuths or dashing heroes who track down their art treasures like hunters or Don Juans.5 The way Malraux was perceived in artistic and intellectual circles shares a resemblance with Duncan’s observations on the fictions of the heroic collector- curator.6 If ‘Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale’ could be seen as a biography of sorts can the hangers arranged through its pages in Attachments roam the legacy of a modernist ethnographer?
For Malraux the initial aim was both educationally encyclopedic as well as aesthetical and spiritual, in the sense that he aimed to ‘elevate’ the sculptures to a universal and ontological language. But such language stands fragmented and obsolete among the sculptures it wants to include in its alphabets. When viewed through Pohle’s series, the magic of the printed museum starts showing the wrinkles of its public distribution. Although projected towards a universal ideal of art, it is ultimately part of a specific uncanny interior, just like the hangers of one’s closet. In Attachments, the hangers stand in a dialectical parallel to the numerous provenances of the sculptures. Pohle’ himself collected his hangers. Coming from personal use, flea markets, Internet vendors and sudden encounters they are carefully enclosed in old luggage and boxes in the artist’s studio. Their use has a close relationship to the human body. They are objects of aid to one’s clothing, to one’s making up in social presentation, although hidden from sight in public and enclosed in the private space of the home. While strictly functional, their formal qualities have a sculptural appeal. In Attachments such sculptural appeal of the everyday object is translated in the abstraction and transformation of their use.
The sculptures from the world, collected/photographed by Malraux were also initially functional and not only revered as art. Over the years all these sculptural characters must have been restored and polished on regular terms both during their re- contextualization in museum rooms, depots and private collections. The dust and cracks carefully removed or treated with protective solutions are not visible in Malraux’s photographs. In Pohle’s reprography these elements are conceptionally transformed into anthropomorphic extensions that allow the physiognomy of the art’s decay to become manifest. In his ‘Valery, Proust Museum’ Theodor W. Adorno remarked that ‘museums and mausoleums are connected by more than phonetic association’ and that ‘museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art’7. The museum doesn’t need an architectonical protective space in order to ruminate the maquillage and facelifts of the recorded history. Adorno’s dictum resonates into the ongoing collection of Pohle’s Attachments series as a spectral movement.
As the artist incorporates and entangles the images of the old artifacts with the domestic wardrobe (hangers) the temporality of the past is rendered as a science fiction of the artworks. The hanger-prostheses suggest a fictional future where the sculptures lead to another existence beyond photographic reproduction. In this fantastic life the old dust is being rendered into pixels of a new perishable breath. Perhaps the sculptures are tired from the many centuries experienced and need the hanger’s prosthetics in order to keep still standing. Perhaps the future and the present have entered their mummified bodies as absurdist attachments of legs or new heads developed at the artist’s studio. In this new fictional existence their previous elements are abstracted in a veil of modified images, which attempt to speak a language of their own.
1 ‘Afterlives: Living with the Past in the Present’ Symposium, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 6, 2012
2 Andre Malraux, La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate), Gallimard, 1933.
3 Art Historian Chantal Georgel made an interesting research in which he compiled a list of journals and newspapers from the general periodical catalog at the Bibliotheque Nationale and Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, and Bibliotheque des Arts Décoratifs, on around eighty entriees. See Chantal Georgel, The Museum as Metaphor in Nineteenth-Century France, in Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, eds.,Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, Routledge, London, 1994, pp 25 – 35.
5 Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, Routledge, 1995, pp.7-22.
5 Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, Routledge, 1995, pp.7-22.
6 Malraux was a relevant person in the development of French Culture. Not only did he become Minister of Culture under De Gaulle’s presidency (1959-1969), but he was also an acclaimed writer, novelist, and art theorist. Perhaps above all he saw himself as a traveler and explorer of ideas. Seen as an intellectual of the left, Malraux was an active antifascist during the Spanish Civil War, where he helped organize the Spanish Republican Air Force. Moreover, his novels are often based on experiences in far away places on the brick of colonial revolutions such as Shanghai (La Condition humaine/ Man’s Fate) or Cambodia (La Voie Royale/The royal way, 1930).
7 Theodor W Adorno, Valéry Proust Museum, in Prisms, The MIT Press, 1967, pp. 175-185.