History has been a hot topic in the art world of late as artists, curators and academics grapple with renewed interest in the past as subject and object of art-making. Recent exhibitions such as “Not Quite How I Remember It” at the Power Plant, “Documentary Protocols I and II” at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, and “Breathless Days 1959–1960” at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery have presented historical legacies as cultural touchstones that not only revise the “then,” but, perhaps more importantly, also reassess the potential of the “now.”
There is, however, a danger in this backward-focused gaze, a trend Belgian critic and curator Dieter Roelstraete has somewhat disparagingly termed the “historiographic turn in art.” With so much contemporary-art thinking anchored in the radical ideas and revolutionary movements of the past, what of the future?
Artist Jon Knowles and curator Vincent Bonin have something to say about this dilemma in their collaborative project “Blooming Flowers on the Coffee Table,” currently occupying a vacant storefront on Montreal’s boulevard St-Laurent. Developed out of a research residency at Artexte, “Blooming Flowers” re-presents two landmark conceptual-art projects: Ian Wallace’s Magazine Piece, a deconstruction of narrative magazine formats which began in 1970, and John Knight’s Journal Series, a work initiated in 1977 which subscribed an anonymous list of friends and art-world players to an eclectic range of popular magazines.
It’s important to note here that, while firmly fixed in the conceptual art canon, these works by Wallace and Knight are both “ongoing,” lending them relevance beyond the confines of history. Wallace has produced Magazine Piece works in recent years, while Knight’s project remains open-ended, with intentionally little indication of who received which magazines and when. Consequently, the “Blooming Flowers” reiteration of Wallace’s Magazine Piece draws from current newsstand offerings The World of Cheese and Another Man, while the ambiguous outcome of Knight’s Journal Series is staged as a group of empty vitrines that are frequently reoriented in the space.
With the past and present covered, how does “Blooming Flowers” attempt to address the future? In exhibition texts, Knowles and Bonin suggest that Artexte’s upcoming expansion, which includes an exhibition space adjacent to its research library, provides a real-world reference point for larger issues of the archive as a cultural and institutional commodity, as well as the contentious role that artists and curators like themselves play in producing “new value” in art works or exhibitions with an archival (and implicitly historical) grounding.
As they explain in an email, “We did not focus too much on the concept of the archive, but more on the process that generates (or displaces) the framework and mandate of an institution like Artexte…We decided to pair Magazine Piece and Journal Series and ‘use’ them as a trigger to investigate the process of endowing value to artifacts, magazines amongst other publications, in an institutional collection. In this way, the project reflects the status of documents often as by-products or fragments of a larger set of events that await someone to fill in the gaps.”
Overall, Knowles and Bonin seem to offer up a challenge of sorts, leveraging the viability of art histories and institutional ambitions against the raw potential of new readings and contexts. Perhaps “Blooming Flowers” is not so much an investigation of the past, then, as it is a proposition for the future—one the artists will expand upon in a talk this Sunday, May 23, at 2pm. (2016 boul St-Laurent, Montreal QC)