Jan de Cock, Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008, Module CDLIX, January 22 – April 21, 2008
The exhibition is notable for its physical elegance, austerity and pristine production values, and for offering a tantalizing vision of an ambitious, overarching intelligence that hopes to organize our knowledge of contemporary art into a latter day, dandified Cabinet of Curiosities, a complex archive of images and references. Still, it is a brittle and impersonal effort, feeling reactionary and forbiddingly over determined.
The artist generally creates floor-to-ceiling installations of impeccably framed and matted photographs of art work, or more accurately of images and fragments of images culled from a particular collection of art. As its very long title suggests, the exhibition is both in and of MoMA: the museum is its self reflexive subject. In order to produce his archive, de Cock visits unexpected locations, photographing not only in the galleries but also referencing the museum’s architecture, film theaters and library, and showing us work in behind-the-scenes situations, such as the conservation lab or frame shop. Also included are shots from his previous European installations (he does not mind recycling) and other historical material, often with a winking, suggestive agenda. For example, frequent images of Kurt Schwitters can only remind us of the collage-like structure and layering of images found in de Cock’s own oeuvre.
De Cock’s images are carefully framed, cropped and juxtaposed. The same object can be shot from different angles or distances and then presented as a diptych, suggesting a filmic or narrative progression, implying motion or the passage of time. Sometimes the mats are specially cut, peekaboo style, to obscure part of the photo, which appears as a fragment or an extreme close up, often included in the same frame with other similar fragments. And throughout the room there are frequent rows of black framed photos, hung serially to suggest a film strip.
De Cock’s installations also resonate on the level of syntax: the photographs like words, the plywood boxes as punctuation marks, the overall groupings suggestive of sentences. These groupings are gathered into even larger clusters, called Modules, each being assigned a Roman numeral and a very precise time signature, which generally appear as part of the piece and are also included in the titles. Finally, the Modules are organized into a single volume encompassing the entire exhibition. This particular show at MoMA is entitled Denkmal 11, a reference to the museum’s address at 11 West 53rd Street, and comprises fourteen Modules, numbers CDXLVI through CDLIX. I will leave you to do the Roman math.
Both translations add something to our understanding of the art. “Monument” is way too grand, of course, but if meant ironically it recalls the iconoclastic work of Marcel Broodthaers, also a Belgian. Institutional critique has certainly proliferated since the 60s, when Broodthaers parodied the museum system with his bombastic, ironic, neo-surrealist installations, and the creation of a “Museum of Modern Art: Department of Eagles” in his Brussels home. Considering the recent work of Andrea Fraser, Renee Green, Fred Wilson, Louise Lawler et. al., it’s hard to say how de Cock’s tepid examination of the museum’s collection will further our perception of the institution. But it does recall a recent curatorial effort at MoMA by architects Herzog & de Meuron. Their exhibition, Perception Restrained, also advanced a certain supercilious dryness and an overstuffed strategy, jamming work together and placing it where it could not be easily seen, to comment on the distance between the viewer and the museum, between the audience for art and its august gatekeepers.
“Thought mold”, the Flemish connotation for Denkmal, leads us down another path. A mold is something which shapes its contents, and the connotations for the artist’s conceptually based program are obvious. But a mold is also something you need to break in order to free the object within, allowing it to be born. If you are overly addicted to the mold, if you cannot break it, then you condemn the object to suffocation and death. It is this second step which eludes the artist and causes certain problems. De Cock is a navel gazer, self referential and internalizing. His art is almost fetishistically hermetic, a closed system of references and rules that bathes in inaccessibility and obdurately shrouds its meaning behind shifting layers of obscurity. It is a secret rebus waiting to be deciphered by a code. Yet his effort is also encyclopedic and archival, which by necessity needs to refer to an external source of images.
The artist seems pleased to strand us in a fashionably pessimistic no man’s land, like the end game of a Samuel Beckett play, where all roads lead to stasis, inertia and melancholia. Perhaps you buy into this. I need more. But whether or not we judge it a complete success, de Cock’s effort is never less than fascinating in its scope and ambition. And, on a lighter note, since his work requires a surfeit of preparation, art framers and matters will never go hungry when de Cock is in town.
[Photos courtesy of James Wagner.]