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Kidnapping the Canon, and Other Stories

Witte de With, Rotterdam May 22 to August 17, 2014

A pensive man wearing a blue smock, his fists full of white gladioli and a pair of pruning shears, is standing in the centre of the gallery; at his feet, the floor is littered with discarded white flowers, translucent garbage bags full of faded greenery, a rubber squeegee, and sheets of kraft paper.

This curious custodial situation is part of a weekly ritual connected to Willem de Rooij’s Bouquet IX (2012), featured in the Witte de With’s current exhibition “The Part In The Story Where A Part Becomes A Part Of Something Else,” curated by Heman Chong and Samuel Saelemakers.

De Rooij’s piece includes an ivory-coloured, spherical ceramic vessel jammed full with white blooms of carnations, gerberas, roses and seven other types of flowers. This colour selection is intended, in part, to evoke the whiteness often associated with Modernism and Minimalism in terms of palette. De Rooij also intends to refer to whiteness as used in identity studies—perhaps not surprising in context, given the prevalence of white faces in the Modernist and Minimalist canon dominantly recognized in the field of art history.

Also, the continual upkeep and alteration of Bouquet IX is in keeping with the routines of conservation and presentation so central to the programs of collecting cultural institutions. I encounter de Rooij’s floral display in medias res—an appropriate outcome, since this exhibition deals with peripatetic, mutable, cycling and indeterminate outcomes.

Kwan Sheung Chi’s Lilies (2012), a clear glass vase filled with silk lilies, has been somewhat didactically installed next to de Rooij’s piece, suggesting a more idyllic (and patently artificial) vision of how institutions deal with presenting objects. The floral fakery in Lilies arrests and extends one moment in a flower’s lifespan and represents it artificially. The fragile, fleeting action centred on the maintenance and recalibration of de Rooij’s artwork, in flux alongside an arrangement of artificial flowers in relatively more stable condition, gives a neat summary of the central debates taken up in this show.

As evident in these two examples, plot and narrative are subtly rather than overtly guiding themes of “The Part In The Story Where A Part Becomes A Part Of Something Else.” It is a sensitively installed, spacious show that accommodates the work of more than 40 artists, and in a brief review only a handful of works can be addressed in serious detail.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s pivotal “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987–1990) gives the impression of being a third conceptual cornerstone for this show. This now very familiar, frequently exhibited, and often photographically reproduced piece features two identical battery-operated analog clocks hung next to each other, originally set for the same time—suggesting the mortal nature of relationships.

During my visit, one clock lagged behind the other by approximately 20 seconds (a mechanical outcome that always occurs eventually with this work), and this asynchronous situation seems to suggest a “part in the story” that the curators refer to in their title. This surplus, this gap—the temporal version of what Georges Bataille called “the accursed share”—is the opening in the story where further shifts are possible.

Considering the number of artists who have made work in direct or oblique reply to the legacy of this important 20th-century artist (including Canadians Vincent Chevalier, in his zine #fgt (2014), and Geoffrey Farmer, in his work I’m Not Praying I’m Just Stretching (2008–2009)) it is clear that the Gonzalez-Torres “story” is continually open to diversion and reapplication.

In this spirit, some artworks selected by the curators are revisions or abductions of antecedent artworks.

Pierre Bismuth’s In prevention of technical malfunction – Unplugged Bruce Nauman video work (2003) is a pair of monitors poised to present a piece by Nauman—and Bismuth lightly interrupts Nauman’s work by refusing to turn on the monitors. To refer to this piece as merely appropriative would not be accurate. This is an act of ransom. One result is that the visitor is left to imagine this video and to fantasize about its subject matter, or to recall it from previous exhibitions or documentation.

Sharon Hayes’s ‘My Memory Translates Everything into Something Else’ (2012), a large black banner painted with an eponymous text in an adjoining gallery, neatly summarizes this outcome of Bismuth’s piece, as well as the situation of attempting to recall any exhibition—as I do now, in writing. My memories, which are approximate, shape and translate into what I now articulate.

Bik Van der Pol’s up close (2014) is another example of abduction and reorientation of another artist’s work. A segment of George Rickey’s public artwork Two Rectangles Vertical Gyratory (1971)—a massive, metal, kinetic sculpture that has been decommissioned indefinitely due to safety concerns—has been installed on its side, resting on the gallery floor. After renovations that changed the elevation the plaza that housed the work, authorities were concerned that its moving parts would injure passersby. This is a study in the rhetoric of public art, and a study of the decommissioning of a large-scale sculpture that allegedly became too dangerous, too risky, to maintain in public space.

Rotterdam is a city that demonstrates the perplexing long-term outcomes of art installed in public places, and in an indirect fashion this situation marks the city as an ideal location to raise for discussion the subjects of abduction, ransom and revision, as this exhibition does. Ambitious cities that support the creation of many public artworks risk a glut of objects that crowd, rather than stimulate, wandering pedestrians, as with an array of sculptures crowded next to the city’s canal near the Witte de With. As a visitor to this engaging and thoughtfully crafted exhibition, it is tempting (and probably also necessary) to imagine futures for the very artworks it showcases, as Bik Van der Pol has done with Rickey’s work, and to craft a “part in the story” where they become a part of something else by choice rather than by accident.

The proposal of Chong and Saelemakers’s exhibition seems to be that rather than scrapping legacies proposed through art of the 20th century, the most invigorating plan of action is to kidnap (rather than explode or discard) the established narratives they contend with.

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