Andrew Stefan Weiner on Marcel Broodthaers Musée d ’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Publicité
The Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers has long suffered from a bifurcated reception: while his work has been shunned by many, due in part to his reputation as a hermitic figure or a stylistic outlier, it has been championed by others, who see it as a pivotal threshold in the development of critical post-conceptual art. Mindful of this divide, a major international 2016 retrospective currently on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art has sought to complicate viewers’ sense of Broodthaers’s oeuvre. The present moment seems like an apt time to reevaluate the 1995 publication Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Publicity, which corresponded to the re-exhibition of one of the artist’s most complex and provocative works by the same name. Section Publicity, or “publicity section,” first shown at documenta 5 in 1972, was the culminating installment of Broodthaers’s attempt to critique the institution of art by developing an elaborate, semi-fictional “Museum of Modern Art.” Acknowledging but distancing himself from the intense antagonisms of 1968, the moment in which the work originated, Broodthaers framed his exhibition as “a political parody of artistic events,” and vice versa.
If such a formulation suggests the ambitions of the artist’s project, it also represents the sort of disorienting reversal characteristic of his highly oblique style. This gnomic tendency pervades Broodthaers’s “museum,” which archives a bewildering, heterogeneous array of images. The most legible of these are installation shots from documenta 5, where Broodthaers installed a small, freestanding gallery that functioned as his museum’s Département des Aigles, or “department of eagles.” (This display was meant to stand in for the “actual” museum, then on display in Düsseldorf, which consisted of a sprawling collection of eagles of every conceivable kind, borrowed from museums and private collections.) The interior and exterior of the gallery were hung with photographs and facsimiles of this collection, interspersed with some original objects. The display also included advertising posters, pseudo-informative signage, empty frames, a slide show, and a shipping crate used in the museum’s first incarnation. Most of these displays are dedicated to the eagles, which assume any number of incarnations: military helmets, flags, beer bottles, tattoos, typewriters, taxidermy, statuary, and a seemingly endless array of other forms.
As this selective list would indicate, the apparent authority of Broodthaers’s institution is undone by the rampant heterogeneity of its contents. The brilliant economy of his joke is that a seemingly arbitrary criterion generates a body of data that is perfectly organized but also useless, insofar as it seems to simultaneously signify one thing, everything, and nothing. This resistance to meaning is typically read as a satire of modernity’s will to knowledge and as a criticism of the institution of art—not just museums, but the discourse of aestheticism more generally. While Broodthaers’s focus on the eagle has been linked to an interest in fascism and the iconography of power, his inclusion of advertising imagery has been seen as signaling the interpenetration of art and spectacle. Although these readings remain compelling, one wonders what other sorts of interpretative possibilities are opened by his museum. It is also worth questioning how one might read this book as something other than a document of a particular exhibition. Broodthaers once referred to his museum as a “novel of objects.” Is it possible that this book might be read as a novel of images?
ANDREW STEFAN WEINER teaches art theory and criticism in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU Steinhardt. He has written about contemporary art for publications, including Texte zur Kunst, Afterall, and ARTMargins.
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