A retrospective of right now? A themed exhibition without a theme? A meticulously imagined mise en scene, designed for a specific, iconic setting, that is also a hazily open situation, a blank space to be filled in? How can we best begin to capture the intriguingly contradictory aspirations of theanyspacewhatever, a landmark survey and celebration, opening in late October at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, of that influential but amorphous group of insistently interdisciplinary and promiscuously collaborative artists whose overlapping and often ambiguously participatory practices have dominated debates about art and social reality since the mid-1990s?
This nebulous association of some of the most vital and visible artists on the contemporary artworld’s many international stages — we might even think of it as a ‘free association’, expanding, reducing, shape-shifting according to the exigencies of context and concept — contracts on this exalted occasion to a core of ten key presences: Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. These artists have, of course, assembled in different dedicated clusters on numerous occasions: in, for example, the virtual worlds of the often-referenced No Ghost Just A Shell, in which oneiric scenarios are dreamt up to temporarily extend the life of a minor Japanese ‘Manga’ character; or, as the micro-utopian planners of the ostensibly more ‘engaged’ Land Project in rural Thailand; or, again, in inventively open-ended and self-reflexive expansions of the standard ‘group show’ formation such as All Hawaii Entrees/Lunar Reggae at the Irish Museum of Modern Art; or most recently, as the perverse dramaturges of Il Tempo del Postino — ‘postman time’ — at the Manchester Opera House, a curatorial experiment led by Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist in which the expectations of exhibition-making are transformed through application of the condensed temporality of the theatrical one-off. In each case, around a central conceit, sympathies and correspondences are discovered as possibilities of co-operative authorship are tested. Yet in some respects, this stellar selection from a successfully wayward post-postmodern generation also undoubtedly represents quite disparate methods and dispositions. If, as Hal Foster has suggested, the prevailing sensibility of this loosely connected contemporary ‘movement’ is “innocent and expansive, even ludic” there are also sharply varying levels of obliquity, complexity and anxiety: there is a good deal of ground, for instance, between Douglas Gordon’s sinister or sombre cinematic pre-occupations and Rirkrit Tirivanija’s variously inspired spaces of encounter, just as it is a wide tonal range that can include both the impudent intelligence of Maurizio Cattelan’s audacious provocations and the more determinedly allusive and cryptic conceptualism of Liam Gillick’s art.
However, gathered together for the Guggenheim’s grand engagement with this much-debated paradigm, these frequently affiliated figures find a notional point of convergence (as the advance publicity attests) in an understanding of “the exhibition as their medium”: this tag-team of artists approaching the scene of presumed ‘display’ as “a dynamic arena, ever expanding its physical and temporal parameters”. At once, we have an apparent, comprehensible focus — an intensive, immediate interest in art’s powerfully codified environments, in their conventions and conditions, their histories and their untapped potential — and an urgent, ambitious reaching beyond any such fixed and art historically predetermined fascinations (‘institutional critique’ is, for example, an incidental reference point at best). Prioritized, as this latter tendency reveals, are aesthetic strategies that have been persuasively and — like it or not — lastinglydesignated as ‘relational’ (mimicking and producing models of sociability) but that might also more casually be described as ‘hospitable’: enthusiastically welcoming active intervention on the part of ‘viewers’ while also regularly demonstrating an eager preference for cultural and social forms from outside the already expanded field of visual art.
theanyspacewhatever will surely be energized, then, by both centrifugal and centripetal forces — a pulling of the artists and their motivating interests together and a simultaneous rejoicing in the explosive heterogeneity of their artworks’ manifold associations — in a way that is entirely appropriate to the existing ebb and flow of this ‘singular’ group phenomenon. For the exhibition’s high-profile curator, well-respected Guggenheim contemporary art chief Nancy Spector, theanyspacewhatever aims to represent and affirm “the spirit of 1990s art”, yet at the same time the show will accurately register that “this is a generation that resists categorization, defies definition”. In inviting the artists to “formulate the scenario for an exhibition”, Spector says, she has risked “taking no very specific theoretical stance”, instead making considered efforts to halt any closing down of debate about what the lasting significance and effect of these 1990s innovations in art practice might ultimately be. Cautiously methodical in this way, Spector has developed the project through a process of steady discursive collaboration with the artists, hosting multiple open-ended, informal roundtables and maintaining an always-open channel on possible directions for, and further extensions of, the exhibition format. One outcome of this aptly hospitable facilitation has been to value and incorporate copious views from other curators and collaborators whose influence has been felt to be profound as the group has risen to its current prominence. There will be additional representations from, for instance, Anna Sanders films, the production outfit responsible for several extraordinary films by Huyghe, Parreno and others; and from The Wrong Gallery, the nomadic curatorial enterprise directed by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick whose previous temporary residences include Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum. Of special interest for many artworld stakeholders will also be the inclusion in the accompanying publication — and in a planned public symposium — of perspectives on pivotal prior exhibitions and projects from several of the major curators de nos jours — among them Daniel Birnbaum, Maria Lind, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nicolas Bourriaud — whose often conflicting positions have helped to establish the pre-eminent profile of artists such as Huyghe, Gonzalez Foerster, Gillick et al, and whose arguments have substantially contributed towards shaping the currently accepted critical vocabularies of contemporary art.
Indeed, for Liam Gillick, the artists featured in theanyspacewhatever do not properly constitute a group at all, without acknowledgement of a necessary wider network: this is a set of artists, he insists, “who have coincided with the first generation of dynamic curators and working together has tended to be in parallel with these curators.” Gillick himself might be seen as one of the more curatorially proactive and provocative presences within these recurrent creative get-togethers: it was his idea, for instance, to employ the guiding term ‘any-space-whatever’ (or ‘espace quelconque’), which in Gilles Deleuze’s engrossing speculations on cinema names an indeterminate, delocalized formal or physical terrain that nevertheless becomes, a “space of vital conjunction …a pure locus of the possible”. This reference usefully accords with Spector’s view that the represented work is about “delirium, decentralization”, but, notably, it describes a type of thematic freedom rather than defining a shared central subject: in shaping the show, she says, there were to be “no preconceived notions”. As Gillick observes, this curatorial latitude feasibly leads towards unpredictable territory: this show undoubtedly being characterized by an alternative emphasis to that of most previous incarnations of the group’s collective aesthetic consciousness. “Things are going to be quite tentative.” he suggest, “instead of working in parallel to a dynamic curatorial conceit and then pursuing a line of work alongside that, the focus has been turned back on the artists again. The artists have been made to look at each other, to sit around a table and stare at each other and it’s led to a little bit of self-examination which is not uninteresting.”
Such ‘self-examination’ was not initially likely to lead to any straightforwardly ‘retrospective’ account — it seems that, from the outset, Spector was instinctively resistant to following a directly historicizing agenda — yet a number of unorthodox approaches to the historical survey were proposed, and several shrewd reflections on the pasts of these interconnecting practices are planned. “One of the ideas was to pretend we were dead,” recalls Philippe Parreno, “ we wouldn’t be in control of anything and we would go to the show visiting as ghosts, going to the opening and discovering our works through the perspective of the curators.” One implicit message, echoed by Gillick, is of a probable need to rethink the concept of ‘historizing’ with regard to slippery modes of art-making such as this, ways of working which as Nicolas Bourriaud argued more than a decade ago, resolutely remain “around the edge of any definition”. For Gillick, “the more you look back the less you find out.” More or less directly, Parreno’s own contribution will play on this important paradox: his current objective being to recruit the ‘world champion of memory’, who, after being rapidly fed a wealth of relevant or radically tangential details from the histories of these collaborations, is expected to instantly reply with an expert, exact guide to the show, that will, inevitably, be richly distracting rather than efficiently illuminating.
Throughout, it seems, such games will be in progress: the sign-systems of the museum will mischievously misdirect us (Gillick, Parreno); familiar works will be ‘remixed’ (Gordon, Huyghe, Holler); there will be intriguing ‘compilations’ and microcosmic exhibitions-within-the-exhibition (Huyghe, Pardo, Tiravanija); the revered, spectacular architectural environment will be subject to recurring physical and atmospheric changes (Bulloch, Gonzalez-Foerster, Cattelan). And, in this illustrious institutional context, there will be a ‘history’ that can be welcomed as both timely and (recalling Deleuzian ideas once again) disruptively ‘untimely’: a necessary, sly survey that proclaims the inadequacy of any historicizing efforts, while freeing all involved — artists, curators, viewers — to make abundant new connections between and beyond these artists, to speculate on diverse futures for “the spirit of the 1990s.”