Question the Wall Itself
© Fionn Meade and Walker Art Center
published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Question the Wall Itself
curated by Fionn Meade with Jordan Carter

Tom Burr, Zog (A Series of Setbacks) (2016) in Question the Wall Itself , 2016, installation view, Photo by Gene Pitman, © Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Recasting our conception of interior architecture and décorr, Question the Wall Itself explores artistic practices and works that inhabit and articulate the spaces between artwork, prop, and set or stage. From the evocation of an anteroom or entryway to such unlikely interiors as a prison cell or commode, to a library, a showroom, and even a winter garden, the exhibition hosts a series of psychologically charged, politically animated, and gendered interiors hailing from a truly international array of cultural contexts, including the Middle East, South America, Europe, the United States, and beyond.

Exploring how we trace, embellish, and disentangle social conventions, habits, and cultural codes, the exhibition reveals a public and critical dimension of artists’ engagement with interiors since the 1970s. Serving as a platform for what can at first glance appear to be intimate, hermetic, and even personal modes and moods of artistic address, décor reveals itself to be a resilient and persuasive minor key for artistic criticality and questioning the contemporary. Skirting the well-trodden terrain of the autonomous art object, medium specificity, and institutional critique, the frameworks and tactics engaged within Question the Wall Itself forefront an objective tracing of the subjective, an ability to put sensibility itself on display within an exhibition. Commodities and everyday objects express cultural identity in ways that we are all familiar with given that we share affinities within private interiors.

Here the distribution of artistic personae and political aesthetics is intertwined with a masquerade of taste, opening up a newly emergent scenic space that characterizes these mostly room-scale installations as passageways shuttling between private and public. Suggesting a new hybridity that emerges from contemporary rather than modernist aesthetics, social and historical commentary is embedded within presentations that recall the performative staging of a film set or a showroom, with styles borrowed from house and history museum displays and even social clubs. Here, however, it is the formation of artistic and political sensibility that is put on view in self-aware displays of citation, historical anecdote, and the repurposing of anachronistic conventions like the still life, portrait, and period room. Through artistic procedures of defamiliarization, fragmentary contextualization, and the use of provisional personae and storyboard-like plot development, the viewer passes through a series of interiors in which the active construction of identity holds uneasy sway over the place of exhibition making itself, with the viewer implicated in an unfolding drama, whether as protagonist or mere passerby. This staging is cinematic but not cinema, house museum but not museum.

One of the exhibition’s guides and tutelary spirits is the Belgian artist and poet Marcel Broodthaers, who turned the phrase esprit “décor” in reference to his late series of mostly room-scale interior artworks known as the Décors. In 1975 he explained, “I have attempted to articulate differently the objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year, in order to form the rooms in a ‘décor’ spirit. That is to say reinstating the object or painting with its real use. Décor not being an end in itself.”[1] Beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, Broodthaers deployed décor as critical stagecraft and an approach to mise-en-scène, creating a series of highly designed and convention-altering spaces that prompted questions, among them: Am I looking at art, product, or an image-language mix from an advertorial or political campaign? What is this mix of nationalistic emblems, comic props, and poetry? Why does this feel globalized and nostalgic at the same time? Is it me, or did we just pass from the modernist into the ethnographic into the architectural into the televisual? Through methods of display that favored constellation and comparative aesthetics rather than the wholesale immersion of environment art and intermedia display (also emergent in the 1960s and 1970s), Broodthaers provided something contemporary: transitions and pliability. From his once infamous and now art historically pivotal fictional museum project, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of modern art, Department of eagles, 1968–1972), to the lesser-known Décors, made primarily from 1972 to 1976, the year of his death, Broodthaers moved quickly and rather seamlessly. Indeed, during a twelve-year career as a visual artist, he made an art form of the transition itself. This ready made flexibility is due in large part to his training as a poet and his gift for comic language and his repurposing and revitalizing of museum display conventions within his various bodies of work. For example, before closing his museum in 1972, Broodthaers presented three final “sections,” as he called his museum iterations, as his contribution to Documenta 5, one section of which, Section Publicité (Publicity section), included the final didactic text of his museum project, a floor painting chained off by stanchions. Directly presaging the Décors that would follow, the painting read:

Écrire Peindre Copier (Write Paint Copy)
Figurer (Render)
Parler Former Rêver (Speak Form Dream)
Échanger (Exchange)
Faire Informer Pouvoir (Make Inform Be able)

From his four full years of mimicking and performing the extended museological apparatus across seventeen different sections so that the Musée d’Art Moderne was part and parcel of his entire artistic practice, Broodthaers closed his exercise knowing he was onto something: “Faire Informer Pouvoir.” [3] More than just an art historical prototype of what would quickly be termed institutional critique by artists, critics, and art historians, Broodthaers’s installation reflects his awareness that the agency of his project had already been absorbed and heroicized by the chain of institutions that came forth to host it. It is crucial to remember that in 1968, when Broodthaers founded the itinerant museum by taking over his own studio, it was in the aftermath of a failed occupation of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, which began during the protests and occupations by students and workers that broke out across Europe that year. Broodthaers had taken an active part in the sit-in by students and artists at Brussels’s central museum. The protestors demanded that the institution be a more responsive and public space of discourse for artists and audiences to consider and debate the divisions roiling Europe and its former colonies, including widespread violence and turmoil in Belgium’s former colony the Republic of Congo. Shortly after the two-month occupation failed, Broodthaers’s museum fiction arose. Essentially performing as a house museum (albeit a house museum of modern art) without a historical site to commemorate, the Musée d’Art Moderne was replete with packing crates, merchandise in the form of postcards of artworks, and even a waiting truck for artwork transport. Conspicuously absent were actual artworks, as the entire interior of the studio and those visiting it were transposed collectively into a work in and of themselves. To celebrate the inauguration of this elaborate yet gravely parodic enterprise, a number of leading curators and museum directors were invited to give speeches, including Johannes Cladders, director of the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Germany, who contributed a congratulatory address regarding the museum’s founding. Having failed to occupy the place of power just months earlier, Broodthaers instead turned intently to infiltrating the conventions of reputation building and consolidation embedded within museum practice. By founding the museum as an interior occupying what was formerly his studio along the rue de la Pépinière in Brussels, Broodthaers effectively created his first Décor, essentially a portable house museum. So novel yet oddly familiar was the project that it was quickly invited to take place at various museums and Kunsthalle-like institutions. Inhabiting key institutional roles along the way (curator, educator, publicist), Broodthaers parlayed his museum gambit “sections” into a mobile platform from which to critique art, value, and society, with a particular focus on Belgium’s brutal colonial past and present.

Questioning not only the stability of the autonomous artwork and institutional role in defining value, he underscored something distinctly contemporary, the rapid acceleration of the artistic persona within a newly bulwarked international circuit of recognition and its related reputational capital for artists but also collectors and collecting institutions (with himself and the notoriety of his museum as examples). In short, Broodthaers took the museum fiction to its logical end, eventual absorption by the institution. If the story ended there, it would be of less interest to this exhibition. Given how quickly Broodthaers’s critical address of the museum and its extended apparatus via occupying the museum was assimilated, however, his last series of works put forward something else that remained operative in the decades since and that has come to characterize contemporary art. Namely, Broodthaers offered up a mixed-up sociopolitical space and framework in between private and public, commercial and intimate, outward facing and by invitation, status revealing and eccentric, a more resilient border space, an interior within critique. Institutional critique took him to the very precipice, where he then went further and envisioned esprit décor.

Exemplary of how Broodthaers grasped at and reinvigorated a hybrid form of interior décor is his deployment of an outmoded convention, the period room. He used it in different ways, and his Décor exhibitions became self-described surveys or retrospectives, effectively periodizing his own artistic practice. In Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, in the summer of 1975, he went all out and took full advantage of the ICA’s proximity to what is truly one of the ur-seats of colonial power, with Buckingham Palace next door. Breaking up the exhibition into nineteenth- and twentieth-century rooms, Broodthaers filled his period rooms with props purchased in London set shops. For the former he chose to evoke the end of the Napoleonic Empire by playing off the famous Battle of Waterloo (1815), amassing cannons, powder kegs, and a strange gambling stand-off between a crab and a lobster. In the twentieth-century room, in stark contrast, there is a break to the contemporary: what passes for an in vogue middle-class set of patio furniture. The furnishings are accompanied by a wall cache of assault rifles that call to mind the Vietnam War’s coming to a ragged and torn asunder end that very summer, even as laid out underneath the patio umbrella is an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of a William Heath print depicting the Battle of Waterloo, which took place in what was then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and was in 1975 (and remains today) Belgium. While choosing an outmoded form of museum display, Broodthaers circulated a new mode of critique, as the two period rooms served as the set for a third aspect of Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, namely his film La bataille de Waterloo (The Battle of Waterloo, 1975), which he filmed within his own installation and nearby, capturing the annual military ceremony known as Trooping the Colour, which celebrates the unity between the British and Commonwealth armies, in all its pomp and circumstance. The supposedly authentic period room, a form of museum presentation intended to display historically reconstructed interiors, is occupied and retooled. Rather than a dutiful semblance of past eras, the telling of history, with its highly subjective construction, is on display, as the period rooms are intercut with the annual ritual confirmation of colonial power transpiring just outside the institution. Enacting the nuanced meaning of the French word décor, which refers to stage and film sets as well as interior design, Broodthaers redirected multiple conventions in order to question the nearby site of authentic power via a highly subjective historical display. The film was shown once during the short run of Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers. By occupying an arena between theater, scenography, and everyday commercial exchange via his Décors, Broodthaers opened up a second-order theatricality that is remarkably contemporary. He articulated a newly scenographic exhibition space for the artist-curator but just as importantly offered new entry to the use of interiors as critical backdrop for contemporary aesthetics and quite significantly imbued this final pivot in his accelerated career as a visual artist with a nuanced knowledge and experience of institutional critique.

When Broodthaers wrote that “the definition of artistic activity occurs, first of all, in the field of distribution,” he was looking from the museum fiction toward the Décors. [4] Having begun his career as a visual artist in 1964 with a provocation of withdrawal and prohibition—encasing the remaining copies of what would be his last book of poems, Pense-Bête(Memory aid, 1964), in a swath of plaster on a wooden base—he ended his career with a series of similarly self-excoriating acts,including the most concise Décor of all, Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say everywhere I said so, 1974). In this piece a taxidermic parrot sits, head cocked, under a bell jar atop a pedestal with a framed illustration of a parrot that might have come from an encyclopedia of birds on the wall behind it. The work is accompanied by the artist’s tape recording of his own voice repeating the absurd poetic assertion “Moi Je dis Je Moi Je dis Je / Le Roi des Moules Moi Tu dis Tu” (Me I say I Me I say I / The King of Mussels Me You say You).[5] Here the mimic of nature is rendered lifeless, captured in an endless repetition. The retrospective desire to encapsulate the artist is stripped bare as Broodthaers’s Décor reduces the survey even further, to a pithy one-liner, a rejoinder to the art historical pinning down (as if under glass) of an artist’s era or moment. On borrowed time, quite literally, Broodthaers moved toward a taking apart and dissembling of self and sensibility in the Décors. Making a serious parody of the retrospective gaze, esprit décor not only undermines modernist autonomy and the consolidating desire of the exhibition typology but also underscores an understanding of the pace at which critical strategy will be absorbed in the contemporary. Broodthaers exposed the historicizing pathology at play as the constraints and too-soon or too-late anxiety of the retrospective are literally parroted while the transition from critique of institution to institutional absorption of critique comes full circle. The format of the interior that emerges here is a space of choice and decision making, a space of the artist-curator but also of the display of taste, a portrait of sensibility and identity constructed.


Decoration is the spectre that haunts modernist painting, and part of the latter’s formal mission is to find ways of using the decorative against itself. [6]

--Clement Greenberg

To play with the repressed and anachronistic qualities of the decorative is one thing, and artists have regularly found ways to use it against itself. But to take such an uneasy qualification as Greenberg’s even further and push against the gallery walls themselves as mere decoration is to move from the epochal striving of modernism to the esprit décor of a newly capable stagecraft. To look at the temporary walls and furniture of contemporary exhibitions as betraying the conditional embrace of an institution’s necessarily abbreviated commitment to an artist and artwork is to find a new use for the museum fiction gambit. The quasi period room effect of décor allows for both an acknowledgment of the merely temporary embrace and a further freedom to use the infrastructure itself as backdrop to be played with, both on and off the wall. A further mood of revisitation can be productively evoked that plays against the inherent claims of originality within the temporary exhibition format. The cabinet reasserts its curiosities.

With Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014), the feel of nonintegration and temporal slippage extends to the future of Arab art as his speculative museum fiction unfolds in a sequence of eleven partitioned or excerpted wall fragments purportedly taken from displays at new museums of modern Arab art throughout the Middle East. Each of Raad’s speculative panels, painted in varying colors and tones, contains a different laser-cut shadow-like form embedded in its center, accented by a different style of applied marquetry along the base, suggesting parquet floor patterns sampled from different museums. When they were first shown, at the São Paulo Bienal in 2014, the panels were introduced by an anecdotal narrative explaining that the walls were newly discovered and restored by Raad, relics from a larger project that he found stored in the basement of a hospital. According to Raad, the works were originally created in the 1930s by the Arab artist Suha Traboulsi, an immigrant to Brazil, who had crafted them in response to what he perceived as “the fall of Arab art,” whereby artworks had “started to lose their shadow.” In keeping with the iterative and performative style of Raad’s overall practice, Letters to the Reader is itself part of his ongoing larger project, Scratching on things I could disavow, begun in 2007, which critically engages the emergence of new platforms for framing and valuing modern and contemporary Arab art. By addressing and questioning an accelerated present in which some of the largest and most expensive new museums are being built in the Arab world, Raad’s museum fiction cuts into the walls themselves of the speculative futures of modern and contemporary art. Letters to the Reader is altered slightly for each showing, in terms of both the positioning of the panels and the content of any accompanying text. The work’s display at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery in 2016 included a nearby museum-style didactic text attributed to Raad himself:

While visiting the recently opened museum of modern Arab art in Beirut, I noticed with great surprise that most paintings on display had no shadows. At first I was beside myself, convinced that religious zealots had destroyed the shadows. But there was no debris. I pondered anxiously whether the shadows had lost their bearings or grip. But I suppose I should have known all along that the shadows were not destroyed nor lost: they had simply lost interest in the walls where they were made to hang. I decided to build new walls on which I carved shadow-like forms—magnets of sorts—in the hope they’d attract the restless shadows. Thus far, not a single catch. Raad is inspired in part by his ongoing exchange with fellow Lebanese artist and novelist Jalal Toufic regarding the latter’s concept of “the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster,” wherein cataclysmic events or ongoing strife make certain forms invisible or unavailable to perception.[7]

Reminiscent of Robert Musil’s acute observation in 1936 that “there is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments,” the withdrawal of tradition in Raad’s recent series includes the artworks themselves, leaving only the entreaty of shadows cast by his perforations.[8] Indirectly addressing the geopolitical and social residue of military conflicts throughout the Arab world, Raad’s larger Scratching project inverts the nostalgic stability of the period room and its perceived ability to represent epochal moments by capturing style and the interior life of elsewhere. Colonial and nationalistic in mindset, the period room’s emphasis on a distributed representation rather than a single artwork or artifact is taken up by Raad to question newly these covetous repositiories of modern and contemporary Arab art across the Middle East.

In his novel Distracted (2003), Toufic writes of the need for historical speculation in the form of critical questioning that can move both forward and backward in time via what he describes as a metaphor of envisioning through a wall (or walls) of cultural eras and periods that is perforated and damaged yet projection to a better historical period. One’s imagination of a change is not a mere projection, but real whether or not it gets actualized, only if one received it at the end of a perforation of the wall.”[9] Indeed, the walls within Letters to the Reader bear silhouette shadow forms that exist somewhere between typographic characters and purely abstract forms perforating what is a projected period room of the future of Arab art. The cut to meaning here by Raad is swift and deliberate. He sets the viewer at a reflexive distance vis-à-vis tracing the aesthetic withdrawal to come. Instead of aiming at a subjective expression or critique of the sociopolitical terrain, he gives a fiction that claims to trace the objective element within a future cultural construct. Rather than wait for the completion of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, Raad envisions a resistance already perceived on the other side of a most precarious wall.

In Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012), an uncooperative design traces onto the wall itself the second thoughts and provocative manifesto-like stances of two radical architectural thinkers active in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century, a period of unprecedented urban development across the country. Taking as his point of departure a photograph of the entryway of an exemplary modernist house built in the 1960s in his home city of Recife, de Andrade mimics the geometric tile pattern captured in the photograph, a framed copy of which leans against the gallery wall. The structure was a two-family house, with a tiled entryway connecting the two dwellings and linking them to the street. The ideological aspirations of the transparent and visible modernist foyer reflect on the boundary between private and public but also between private and private as communal, to be shared.

This aspiration and its rupture become touchstones for de Andrade’s room-scale installation in which the patterns formed by 340 red, yellow, blue, and black fiberglass tiles both reveal and obscure vinyl wall text with quotations from the artist and architect Flávio de Carvalho and the architect Marcos Vasconcellos. De Andrade photographed the house just as it was to be sold to real estate developers, thereby transposing the entryway into a place of interrupted translation for quotations that herald but also question the infrastructural layering of modernist architecture onto the Brazilian cityscape. Accessible to the street in a way that would be incompatible with contemporary concerns about security, the entryway becomes a room that holds the desire of modernism interrupted, evoking the cracks and fissures between theory and practice that have formed in the ensuing decades. The ambitions evoked are fragmented and fall into stuttering phrases just as the intimate ideology of a membrane shared between homes becomes nothing more than a ruin captured in a 2012 photograph. A space in between architecture and interior modeled toward convivial shared living becomes a prompt for de Andrade’s circulation of a partial and fragmentary commentary on the failures of Brazil’s modernist epoch. Creating an antistyle that combines competing designs, the artist lays bare the cultural aspirations and social fissures that continue to ripple through Brazilian city life, captured in a passageway.

Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013), modeled on the dimensions of the salon, or living room, of the architect Adolf Loos’s 1930 Villa Müller in Prague, was the centerpiece of her exhibition Something They Have to Live With at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2013. In this makeshift, scaleddown version of the original footprint, McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil rendering mimes Loos’s signature use of green Cipollino marble within the villa’s living room to outline and frame the primary social space in one of his signature buildings. But here the approximation is unfaithful and knowingly awkward. Rather than homage, Loos House is an uneasy quotation of Loos’s concept of Raumplan, or spatial plan, wherein interiors look down, up, and askance into the next room and there are constant shifts in volume and level as one crosses over a given threshold in the interconnected complex of rooms.[10] Here, however, the signature reference to Loos’s planar innovation fades, and McKenzie relies less on a trendiness or timeliness of consuming the fashionable reference and turns instead to an untimely recasting. Her carefree redirection of style or reference embodies what Giorgio Agamben has described as the caesura of fashion and its perpetual attempt (and inevitable failure) to demarcate what is in and out of style, the distinctive manner in which “fashion can therefore ‘cite,’ and in this way make relevant again, any moment from the past (the 1920s, the 1970s, but also the neoclassical or empire style). It can therefore tie together that which it has inexorably divided—recall, re-evoke, and revitalize that which it had declared dead.”[11] McKenzie appears to approach architecture, and here a pinnacle of interior architecture, with exactly the confidence of occupying a caesura in that her work posits and frames the empty volume of the Loos House Raumplan as yet open to questioning and repurposing, extracting the most resonant tensions for her own ends.
The use of décor as decoy reveals McKenzie’s interest in the unfaithful copy as a form of critique, intimated in her statement that “social engagement within contemporary art is itself a form of trompe l’oeil.”[12] In Loos House, originally shown at the Stedelijk along with a painted rendering of a mosaic fragment from the Alhambra, McKenzie pointedly questions the veneration of Loos’s signature villa. The work’s volumetric silhouette reveals the highly gendered nature of the domestic space, customized as it was by Loos to reflect a desired etiquette for its patron, the construction developer František Müller, and his wife, Milada. A specific room within the villa, devoted to the lady of the house, offers her a voyeuristic Raumplan view down into the salon, where all the social activity of hosting can be surveyed, placing Milada in her proper dominion.[13]

Décor as decoy questions the reverence within the reference and frames an uneasy time and place, with family dysfunction and sexual subcurrents suddenly visible and readily traced. Even an interior that initially seems to announce and trumpet intimacy and comfort always also indicates its construction. McKenzie gave herself permission to make a facsimile of an exemplary space of taste, an act not of appropriation or following suit but rather one of questioning from within, an emptying out of citation that leaves a null. As the artist has written, this is extraction rather than adaptation, intimating how “design, while democratic and functionalist in its own domain, is subversive within art, where it becomes independent.”[14] McKenzie falls toward and embraces applied arts even as she remains resolutely within the space of the artwork, co-opting and apportioning in order to recast the terms of criticality. Within the habits of others put on display, we begin to see the distribution of our own imprint.

Made up of objects salvaged from a school on the South Side of Chicago that had been slated for demolition, A Maimed King (2012) exemplifies Theaster Gates’s revitalizing of readymade procedures via a mixed register of rebuilding and restoration. Gates’s readymade is best described as a retaking possession of. It consists of an ordinary office chair placed directly before a commonplace glazed aluminum-frame bulletin board, which contains a partially torn and crumpled image of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. A distillation of Gates’s recycling of discarded materials from numerous condemned sites and buildings on the South Side, A Maimed King performs what King himself prescribed in his “creative maladjustment” speech of 1963, wherein he called for a recuperation of the term maladjusted to become a form of resistance and the foundation for a new network, the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment: “I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.”[15] Creative maladjustment is an apt metaphor for Gates’s refusal to let buildings in his South Side neighborhood be torn down without extracting or repurposing fragments that sustain the narrative of an urban and civic genealogy. In 2010 Gates founded the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to culturally driven redevelopment and affordable space initiatives in underresourced communities, and since then he has overseen the repurposing of a remarkable number of derelict properties into vibrant cultural nodes, including Stony Island Arts Bank and Black Cinema House. In his studio practice Gates extracts and repurposes (sometimes wholesale) a wide variety of readymade and found materials.

His 2016 installation True Value at the Prada Foundation in Milan, for example, found him relocating the display shelves, tools, and some thirty thousand objects from Ken’s, a Chicago hardware store that had been closed. Altering the context of the soon-to-be discarded, Gates transmutes the obsolescent raw materials of construction, transplanting them wholesale to make an intact interior and resistant artwork.16 But what is the transposed interior resistant to? It is reminiscent of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have termed “fugitive planning” in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), as Gates enacts a redirection of and resistance to the hegemony of civic logistics so characteristic and determinative within modernity, exactly by showing its construction. The maladjusted interior, transposed and made public and visible, finds a new fugitive agency. As Moten and Harney describe it, a new tactility based in presence unmade becomes operative: “having defied degradation the moment becomes a theory of the moment, of the feeling of a presence that is ungraspable in the way that it touches.”[17] A maimed king who still speaks.


Uri Aran constructs a shape-shifting language with the most meager means, collecting an uneasy inventory of pathos, absence, and laughter. His low-budget materials and halting linguistic repetitions work together to elicit a kind of sadness and nostalgia for the work’s own materiality and imagery. Aran repeatedly goes over actions undertaken and sentimental iconographies, embracing and exhausting absurdity to the point of forcibly breaking it down into a new syntax. While text often pins down an image—even a clichéd one—compelling it to perform as an illustration or a product, in Aran’s work images are forcefully detoured by language, in both spoken and written form. Décor speaks. With their abrupt substitutions and transitions, his installations recall the process of learning a foreign language or studying a grammar primer. Social situations occur in medias res, repeated in various permutations and with different power relations, placing the viewer (now in the role of student) amid the social fray. Extracting objects and images from their silence, narrativizing them and making them relational and loquacious, comic and iterative, unruly and even delinquent, Aran pursues his interest in the moralizing nature of idiomatic expression and his peculiar parsing and remediation of English-language phrasing. As he told an interviewer, “The infinite possibilities of producing meaning through the interplay of sign and signifier—I address this aspect of language through repetition, re-organization and quotation. English is the language of the West and of pop—you can’t escape it. The way it’s received is so mediated that it feels quoted. I find these things funny and I indulge them in my work.”[18] The interplay evokes a game sequence of options, possible plot turns, and multiple endings as if one has stepped into a storyboard. A mood of masquerade prevails, and the process of choosing one’s profile and next move is put in heightened relief. The critic and art historian Juliane Rebentisch identifies this as an objective tracing of the subjective that brings taste and hyperactive or accelerated choice into a pivotal confrontation within contemporary installation:

“Consumption turns any new and familiar object into a possession of the subject in order to enrich its identity; the aesthetic aims at the opposite experience, in which even the most familiar objects become strange—the experience, say, of an aesthetic expropriation. But as the objects become unfamiliar, the subject, too, becomes estranged from itself in its appropriating relation to itself and the world; it becomes estranged from itself as a subject of taste. The subject is thus confronted with the social stratum implicit in what is ostensibly most individual to it: its taste.”[19]

Perhaps no other artist has made encounters with taste such a central and sustained concern as the French artist and longtime Londoner Marc Camille Chaimowicz. As Lucy McKenzie has observed, Chaimowicz’s work is “a kind of conceptual come-on to participation” as entrances and exits abound and the subject encountering herself is pictured at regular intervals. [20] For his installation Here and There (1978/2016), an anteroom was pitted against its counterpart, the neutral gallery space, disrupting viewers’ expectations as they turned the corner in what was sequenced as a domestic entryway. A series of overlapping panels leaned against the gallery walls, each picturing a provisional character captured in different domestic scenes and poses. A back is turned, hands reach for a teacup, a shadow is elongated by the setting sun coming in through a window: the effect is like that of a storyboard held in reserve and only partially revealed. The deployment of lingering and overlapping temporalities within Chaimowicz’s entire oeuvre is exemplified by an accompanying text titled “Notes toward a Preface,” which charges the stenciled panels placed around the gallery and the meditative, tasteful domestic scenes captured in the photographs with a soft melancholia and noir-like menace:

. . . He recalled it . . .
As sometimes reproachful, with a
quality of abandonment . . . at times deliciously
formal as with traditional hotel
rooms . . . Sometimes sullen as adolescence,
moody as delinquency . . .[21]

Chaimowicz’s text evokes narrative but withholds any clear role-playing. The third-person estrangement is clear as the protagonist role is transferred to the viewer piecing together the interrupted scene and its suspended caesura of drama. Chaimowicz originally showed the work with a monitor that recalled the entryway by presenting a live feed of the entrance to the galleries, but he has resequenced the “here” and “there” aesthetic of absence in different ways in restaging the work since then. Prompting the viewer further to speculate about this fictional inclined toward- delinquency third-person character, the “elsewhere” of Chaimowicz’s work emerges slowly. At odds with the neutral value of the gallery, this is an elsewhere that the viewer is prompted to identify with but also feel as fugitive, as per Harney and Moten: “It is, as Sara Ahmed says, queer disorientation, the absence of coherence, but not of things, in the moving presence of absolutely nothing.”[22] Sexually charged but also emptied out, it is returning to the scene: of love and love lost (abandonment), of attempted reconciliation(sometimes reproachful), of a writer’s composition (at times deliciously formal), et cetera. Heightening the tension between ideal and real, the viewer is left to inhabit an in-between space where the clues to identity have to be pieced together and the feel of a concept like love becomes a constellation or, as Chaimowicz puts it, to experience “how an idea, once subjected to change, is no longer that idea, how its purity is violated, modified.”[23] Making a distinctive style of the chaptered sequencing familiar from showrooms, Chaimowicz offers us a showroom of the uncanny in his décor, the familiar yet “violated, modified” returns continually and is done with incredible élan. Playing off the familiar consumerist behavior of flipping through a magazine for the bits and pieces you might fancy or passing quickly from one display to another that catches the eye, Chaimowicz is a master of inverting consumerist taste. He achieves a disorienting feeling of recall yet dislocation, evoking what Rebentisch describes as the disruption of such automatism: “For the subject of consumerist taste continually reappropriates itself in its choices of commodities; the aim is time and again to find oneself afresh amid the changing offerings. The subject of aesthetic experience, by contrast, is referred back to itself to the exact degree that it cannot locate itself in its survey of the objects, that the identificatory relation to them fails, that the automatism of appropriation is disrupted.”[24] As if describing Chaimowicz’s practice specifically, Rebentisch underscores the activation and rupture of identifying that is crucial to this register of décor: nuanced coercion and pleasure within an aesthetics of estrangement. As in the experience of a showroom or even a department store, the behavior of critical stagecraft of décor. Aesthetic expropriation is a taking possession of the space of selection, a turning it inside out to reveal its logistic interconnectedness and point toward new vulnerability and feeling. As is abundantly clear, we are moving through a series of fugitive interiors that together constitute something qualified, touched, and resistant. There is even a sidelong view onto an empty bed and a glance from the kitchen window of Chaimowicz’s fittingly named Approach Road apartment within the stacked storyboard sequence of Here and There . We have moved from the anteroom and entryway to the salon and the showroom and have arrived at the compressed crossroads of desire, the library.

Also a reiteration of an originally site responsive work, La lampe dans l’horloge (The lamp and the grandfather clock, 2008/ 2016) revisits an exhibition originally conceived by the interior architect and designer Janette Laverrière, who died in 2011 at the age of 101, in collaboration with the artist Nairy Baghramian for the Schinkel Pavillon as part of the 5th Berlin Biennale (2008). The display houses drawings of Laverrière’s prototypes, design multiples, and planned but never realized interiors, featuring in particular her Evocations, a late series of mirror sculptures that are among the works she called “useless things.” Although Laverrière had produced commissioned mirror objects since 1936, the Evocations privilege allegorical content over utility. La Commune, hommage à Louise Michel (2001), for instance, with bullet holes perforating its lid, echoes the violence of the Paris Commune of 1871 while also serving as an elegy to one of its key figures, the anarchist and protofeminist Louise Michel. Within the décor of La lampe dans l’horloge, the mirrors on the walls refuse to return a stable representation. Instead, they offer subjective deportations into history, literature, and innuendo, paying playful homage to inspirational figures as diverse as Victor Hugo and Martin Luther King, the subject of Laverrière’s last Evocation, conceived in response to the election of Barack Obama as the first black American president in 2008. La lampe dans l’horloge houses a bevy of subjective positions in its swiveling bookshelves, filled with titles chosen by Baghramian and Laverrière, while conceptualizing and demonstrating the political value embedded in one’s reading. Following from Laverrière’s work in interior design over more than six decades, the installation circulates the gaps and resistant spaces in her revisiting of her own life and her role in the underrecognized histories of women in modernist design and architecture circles in Europe. As Robert Wiesenberger discusses in his essay in this volume, her collaboration with Baghramian late in life led to the realization of a series of previously unrealized projects, including a series of multiples and editioned works that continue to be released after her death. Deepening the notion of the affective library are two expansive works that engage the index form to capture far-ranging curiosity and layered subjectivity. Existing as the index for an unrealized novel titled Crocodile Tears , Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) weaves a complex network of associations and seductive pairings simply through the proximity and promiscuity of the index. The absence of the body, in this case the novel itself, is substituted for by an index of artistic, literary, and theoretical references that speak symptomatically and playfully to one another, detailing aspirations, influences, fears, and even pretensions while inviting readers to imagine their way through the architecture of the unwritten yet mapped-out labyrinth. For his most in-depth index to date, Cesarco has made a sequence of indexes to imaginary books dating back more than fifteen years, tracing a condensed interior portrait of artistic sensibility. As he has described it, the column-like infrastructure of the index allows for a “text that is a half-way biographical and half-way theory text; it is extremely personal, at times even hermetic, yet full of clichés.”[25]

Akin to Laverrière’s turning shelves, Cesarco’s Index lays out an interior architecture within the subjective. Providing a coda to the indexical within the exhibition is a selection of pages (research notes) taken from the pioneering conceptual art curator, dealer, and publisher Seth Siegelaub, who organized a series of exhibitions between 1968 and 1971 that expanded the format of what an exhibition could be, playing a pivotal role in the emergence of Conceptual art. In 1986, having collected and dealt in textiles for decades, even while engaged with the turn toward Conceptualism, Siegelaub founded an eccentric yet dedicated institution, the Center for Social Research on Old Textiles. Its research explores how handwoven textiles, given their distinctive character—ornamental, highly tradable, lightweight, and so on—map a truly global story of exchange involving the shapeshifting compression of cultural motifs, including a tracing of the values and power behind them. In 1997 Siegelaub compiled and published the Bibliographica Textilia Historiae, the first general bibliography on the history of textiles. On view in the exhibition are research notes documenting his index for tracking his textile collection and related bibliography, as well as a sampling of small-scale backcloth tapa textiles from Africa and Oceania.

Before moving from library to office and desk, a detour leads down another passage, a peephole in fact, in Tom Burr’s Wall (1995). Originally shown in his exhibition 42nd Street Structures at the commercial gallery American Fine Arts in New York, Wall gives spectral presence and overlapping temporality to the disappearance of the sex industry from Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood at the time. As part of a gentrification campaign engineered by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the peep shows, sex clubs, and gay theaters that populated Midtown were shuttered in an effort to make Times Square a homogenized tourist destination. Composed of a series of stripped down, minimal forms, 42nd Street Structuresincluded a raised platform with a column covered in mirrored tiles in one corner (Floor), a series of bare plywood booths (Video Booths), and Wall, a corner of the gallery demarcated by gray paint and a string of blue lights, conjuring the abrupt turn of an entryway into a sex shop. Wall marks the outline of a threshold to a sexual interior, a boundary to the illicit. The installation at the Walker is accompanied by a nonarchival sequence of Polaroids taken by Burr in preparation for this exhibition as bare décor. Shown more than twenty years after they were taken, the photographs serve as a faded, quivering index and archive of an economy and subculture cleansed from the center of Manhattan. As the critic Bruce Hainley has noted of such paring-down maneuvers, “A politic can haunt the aesthetic by appearing as a brute blankness, abstraction, or even nakedness.”[26] Wall is paired here with a newly commissioned sculpture, Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016), which finds Burr responding to and echoing the zigzag design of the architect Philip Johnson’s IDS Center building in downtown Minneapolis. The signature element of the building is what Johnson called the “zog,” a distinctive stepback design that effectively creates a series of corner offices, and thereby spaces of power and validation, on several floors of the skyscraper. Transposing the overlapping sequence into a large-scale sculpture in which photographic images are embedded in the “interior,” Burr surfaces the contradictory nature of the unfolding stack, or zog. By repeating the previously singular gesture of the zog and populating it with an erosladen yet interrupted sequence of images, Burr ruptures the idealized space of power.

Paul Sietsema’s 16mm film At the hour of tea (2013) further extends the timeout- of-time concatenation that Burr’s anachronistic expropriation points to. Featuring an assortment of objects laid out in varying configurations on a tabletop, Sietsema’s portrait approximates an office desktop, layering together collectible items from different eras that have made their way into the virtual desktop experience: a stopped pocket watch, a letterbox, an envelope, and a calendar among others. The appearance of a typewriter and a film camera recalls the nineteenth century sub-genre of trompe l’oeil painting known as the quodlibet, whereby realistic renderings of objects laid out as if on a bulletin board or tabletop would entertain via the associative possibilities afforded the viewer. Each still-life composition in Sietsema’s sequence morphs into an actual printed photograph and is dropped into a classic green-inlaid letterbox. The desktop is stylized here, not unlike our computer desktop’s applications and tools. The studio interior becomes the desktop. Fades create a palimpsest effect, and the letterbox becomes a metaphor for loss, along with the outmoded fountain pen lying next to it. At the hour of tea recalls Broodthaers’s repeated use of the term figure, shortened to fig., to suggest the slippage between an object observed and an object becoming image and symbolic.

A similar questioning of representation and value is the fulcrum and pivot of Sietsema’s film installation Empire (2002), which presents a layered depiction of the interior of the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s Manhattan living room. Having created a model of the critic’s space as it was shot and glamorized in the pages of Vogue in 1964, Sietsema nods to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour 16mm film of the same title, also from 1964, which consists of a single fixed shot of the Empire State Building. Sietsema’s film, however, is far from a long take as it quickly begins to layer in on itself, demonstrating a formal principle of comparison and contrast, inducing a tension between incident and acutely planful correlation that is characteristic of much of his work.

Prior to the reveal of Greenberg’s art-filled living room, Empire holes its way through a space reminiscent of the grotto-like cavities and interiors within the architect and artist Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1947–1960), especially the drawing studies and models for the project. Sietsema intercuts and layers spiraling shots that pass through perforated passageways of a kindred model constructed by the artist to echo what appears as a primal and impossible interior. Providing episodic counterpoint are two further model interiors, also constructed by Sietsema: the interior of Greenberg’s Manhattan living room, based on the magazine spread, and a rendering of the ultimate period room, the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The latter is an eighteenth-century Rococo oval salon that is pristinely preserved, with gilded carvings and embedded mirror panels, within the now state-owned complex that also houses part of France’s national archives. The former represents a zenith of a particular moment in American abstract painting asserting its vanguard status, including the implicit economics and power dynamics of the era’s signature art critic trumpeting his impressive private collection of representative works from the moment. The latter salon stands in for the unchanged, unaltered, historicizing period room emblematic of an aesthetic era synonymous with national style. The meticulous comparative nature of Empire approaches an ethnographic aesthetic in Sietsema’s film as epochal time becomes prismatic.

It is as if Sietsema gives formal expression to Walter Benjamin’s supposition and warning between the world wars, as Europe was facing the storm of fascism, that the rise of individualism was triumphant. Today, in the first decades of our current century, this theory of individualism has morphed into the ever-adaptable, ever-flexible degree of individuation celebrated and broadcast as the resilient projection of a unique, always adaptable self within the new spirit of late capitalism. What Benjamin noted as a retreat from public life transitioned into the public itself. The world’s stage contracts into the private salon; the reality out there dissolves into a reflection of subjective interiority: “The private individual . . . needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions.”[27] Indeed, the level needed to disrupt the accelerated reappropriation and automatism active within consumerist taste and contemporary trend forecasting can require a remarkable level of absurdity when it does so via engaging décor critically. In her ongoing body of work China , for example, Nina Beier pairs hand-painted porcelain vases in classical shapes with hand-painted porcelain figures of purebred dogs ordered from separate custom companies in Italy but chosen to be roughly the same size. Beier proceeds to cut jagged holes into each. The effect is highly artificial, mimicking “a form of logic from cartoons, where there is no difference between the abilities of dogs and vases,” as the artist has described the face-off. Cultivated style and pedigree variation are brought into comic adjacency and punched through with a cartoon-like immediacy. The aesthetic of ornamentation achieves a new pop criticality as the hole punched into the dog reveals it to be an empty decorative surface, while the vase loses its function as a vessel and flattens into nothing more than pattern. As Beier has stated, “Both of them disclose their empty inner anatomy and somehow meet, in between image and object.”[28] Beier adopts her swatch-ready yet resilient exoticized look of abstraction from various cultural sources and—via her use of ceramics, textiles, and tiles—weds the elaborate ornamentation found in antique textiles and other decorative arts with the fast fashion and disposable aesthetic of ubiquitous consumer products. Playing off the flat aesthetic that characterizes the proliferation of consumer goods within globalization and likewise its accelerated image economies, Beier inverts and upends the rules of abstraction and pattern. The custom-made ceramic tile floor mosaics of Tileables (2014), for example, on which her China pairings preen, deploy digital photographic patterns originally designed for 3-D modeling software. Beier transposes photographic stock images onto units normally reserved for abstract and decorative patterns. Displaying beaded raindrops on a transparent surface, a cracked surface of a desert floor, or depictions of marble, cement, or lava, the space of the floor mosaic, with all its cultural associations, is conflated with the flat space of the screen saver. A digital mimesis unfolds beneath our very feet, techno-ornamentation working materially against representation and forced into sculptural form.


To turn back once more to the parodic repetition of Broodthaers’s most concise Décor, Dites partout que je l’ai dit, and its absurd refrain—“Me I say I Me I say I / The King of Mussels Me You say You”—is to underscore that the formation of artistic sensibility characteristic of interior display and questioning the wall itself is not single or static, and most often it is multiple and refracted, as per the schism and prism of “Me I say I” and “Me You say You.” The “Speak Form Dream” of artistic activity in an expanded field of distribution is where décor acts as a container for the procedures of self estrangement, hallucinatory projection, and speculative identity needed to disrupt the ever-flexible, ever-curated contemporary.

Temporal distancing meets formal device in the mirror paintings of Nick Mauss, whose deportations and refractions of viewing were initially conceived as framing devices for a mini-exhibition organized by the artist within a retrospective otherwise devoted to the American painter, poet, and stage designer Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). Embedded within the 2014 exhibition at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Mauss became surrogate and positioned his paintings as “intervals” alongside a selection of archival material devoted to Stettheimer’s poetry. Opening up the room to reflection and projection by a viewer, Mauss’s mirror paintings elaborated the floral still-life motifs that pervade Stettheimer’s paintings. He elaborates on her idiosyncratic view of still-life paintings becoming like portraits of people in one’s life just as people take up floral attributes, whether individuals, lovers, groups of friends, or professional associates.The resulting composition, F.S. Interval II (2014), is a multipanel door-scale mirror painting reminiscent of the folds in a dressing room mirror. Allowing for a multi perspective reflection of the viewing body, it is both refracted homage to Stettheimer and an extension of the exhibition space. The painting depicts bodies and abstract marks but also the spectator’s reflection in a prismatic embrace, an effect that the artist has described as “a chamber full of disconnected individuals and affects still somehow being together.”[29]

Punctuating the interior architectural space of the gallery, Mauss’s “interval” is knowingly a museological refraction onto other artworks and a voyeuristic mirror capturing others in the act of looking and even one’s own gaze and visage. As he explained, “Stettheimer’s work poisons the canon, it fits no category, and something in it seemed to bristle against my initial rush of adoration—somewhere there is a hole.” He adds, “What appealed to me: Looking to the margins to see if they can be braided to split the center (like a French braid). The chains of associations and relationships. The elevation of individuals and moments. The ornate frames and gestures of commemoration around certain events.”[30] Despite poison in the canon and the breakup of stable representation, as well as the echo of the “King of Mussels” alongside “Me You Say You,” this is not to say that the convention of the still life is lifeless. Rather it is brought back with a renewed capacity to disrupt in the distributed field. The works that make up Ull Hohn’s Revisions series (1994–1995) were all executed in the year before the artist’s death. Revisiting carefully observed drawing compositions from his youth, Hohn’s still-life depictions of vases and vessels are shown in counterpoint and dialogue with Ohne Titel's (Inversion), a trio of paintings from 1991 in which modeling clay is smeared onto the back of small stretched canvases. Revision meets inversion, as each of Hohn’s reversed paintings includes a bottom canvas that serves solely as armature and subservient support to the top. The initial provisional illusions of nothing more than a stretcher frame smeared with the pale clay in two tones, one white and the other flesh-like, directly touching the wall behind. Characterized by close renderings of flower arrangements, quick domestic sketches, and small objects carefully placed to please the eye—a shoe, an isolated moment—Hohn’s painting practice was a considered exercise in contrast and infidelity of style cultivated at the height of gender and identity politics in New York in the 1980s. As his then partner Tom Burr recalls of Hohn’s studied inversions: “Loving to see a small window with a plant in front betrays a very 19th-century sensibility in some ways. Of course he was also thinking quite a bit about Sherrie Levine and almost enacting that sort of thing on himself, copying himself. So ‘choreography’ is a good word. Almost a kind of step, or an act. Something that gets taught and retraced.”[31] Retracing and reducing in order to create the reflexive distance to truly perceive the commodities that surround us and array daily life.

This revision and inversion extend exactly to the large-scale tracings of her own photographs that Louise Lawler has executed in recent years. Memorably shown in Lawler’s survey exhibition Adjusted at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2013, her “tracings” are blown-up black-and-white vinyl outlines traced from her own photographs of artworks in situ. Having collaborated with John Buller, a children’s book illustrator and artist, Lawler transposed a series of her photographs capturing artworks in décor settings other than galleries or museums a step further, reducing the contextual interior image to its most basic contour and making it into a readily deployed vector graphic wall vinyl. Hand On Her Back (traced) (1997/1998/2013), for example, traces a 1998 Lawler photograph showing a plaster-cast sculptural form of a crouching Aphrodite as the artist encountered it in a drawing studio at the New York Academy of Fine Arts, while her photograph Berlin (traced) (2000/2013) morphs into the scantest depiction of a Lucio Fontana Concetto spaziale (Spatial concept) painting with a daybed in the foreground. Her photographic encounters with artworks situated in private collections, auction houses, art storage facilities, and academia are converted into scalable vector files that will accommodate the dimensions of the gallery walls. A wry revisiting of her unique brand of institutional critique, the tracings are emptied of their evidentiary and documentary glances to become customized illustrations that effectively estrange the uncanny mise-en-scène of artworks captured by Lawler in domestic settings but also a secondary refracted unsettling of her own photographs.

A body doubling of figure, self, and viewfinder amplifies Shahryar Nashat’s high definition moving-image works. Regularly hemming a performing body into an interior, Nashat fragments the body into an at times claustrophobic frame, revealing context and task only through a repetitive emphasis on highly choreographed micro-gestures and heightened Foley sound. In other words, the body becomes an augmented image put to work by Nashat as he explores the spatial, choreographic, and sexual politics of the prosthetic body as a site of fragmented desire, supplement, extension, and digital glitch. His video installation Prosthetic Everyday (2014), for example, frames calf to waist and in profile the body of a highly trained male dancer as he moves swiftly through the rooms of a museum. The dancer occasionally turns to confront the tracking shot with one pant leg rolled up in a lowered landscape, and this repeated gesture reveals a surgical scar in the movement’s brief caesuras before the highly choreographed, exacting strut and promenade in front of the paintings and sculptures resumes.

Nashat’s survey of a highly functioning, even specialized yet partial body prompts a new awareness of a common experience, the newly prosthetic digital augmentation of contemporary life, in the video Present Sore (2016). The vertical framing of the viewfinder mirrors the way we increasingly look at and capture experience via the memory aid of smartphones. As the view of Present Sore moves incrementally upward, a detail image of Paul Thek’s sculpture Hippopotamus (1965), from the Technological Reliquaries series, interrupts. Seemingly throbbing behind Plexiglas, the body is put twice at remove—walled off and fragmentary—yet maintaining the wounded technology of its time, the violent trace. Outlined and distanced within the digital still life of Present Sore, the pulsing notion of the reliquary extends to the depiction of the human body within. The screen multiplies and divides as the emphasis and focus on heel, wrist, knee, hip, neck, or shoulder— places where movement is most implicit in classical figurative sculpture—become newly cosmetic, motorized, and wounded, and thereby a composite body emerges, one fit for a high-definition time. The pedestal or base that would hold such a figure in traditional sculpture—think the erotic writhing and athletic twists and turns of Rodin—is retired by Nashat in favor of a digital composite of the virtual body. Giving the support structure of the plinth a newly decorative role as bystander to the augmented screen representation, he refers to the pedestals as having been laid off until further notice, titling his work Chômage Technique (2016), which indicates a workforce now redundant. With a playful correspondence made between pedestal and foot, the support structures that keep things upright, Nashat leans his pedestals into a nearly supine position, in which they become the figurative work rather than the armature. The masquerade is heightened via faux-marble finishes and bright coloration as Nashat’s benches and columns dress up, playing the parts of voyeur and passerby. There is an analogous restless motion and affective behavioral focus in all of Park McArthur’s work, an uncanny feeling of someone or something just having passed through the sculptural scenes created but also an anticipatory anxiety. Navigating between everyday material and implicit action with a minimal aesthetic, McArthur creates a mood of extension and reach that makes palpable the absent body. In her text in this catalogue, “What Is Collectivity, Conviviality, Care?,” McArthur writes of an anticipation experienced in being dependent on a rotating group of caregivers who abet her daily life: “Care based in dependency invites or, more specifically, requires inequivalence and asymmetry to produce uneven relations, events, and also the place from which I write: the squeeze.”

Within the exhibition, McArthur’s rendition of “the squeeze” takes the form of pajama bottoms hanging from stainless-steel department store display racks and rubber bumpers adorning the gallery wall. Akin to those found lining an industrial loading dock, the bumpers, each titled Passive Vibration Isolation (2014) followed by a number, are readymade reminders of collision and protection. They form a perimeter for and engage in dialogue with the draped clothing, which the artist calls commodes, as in Pink Love Commode or Calvin Klein Commode (both 2014). Circulating and prompting questions about and tension between the hard and soft, the permeable and the resistant, the wrapped and the exposed, McArthur’s interior commodes measure intimate space: what is the boundary of the body and its orbit (including its prosthesis), its gestural imprint, its habit within a daily choreography and vice versa. What is the limit of space, reach, and trace of absence? How to represent the space of the squeeze?


To fashion new sensibility out of what might appear as negation or the squeeze, to impoverish and simultaneously enlarge your mark— as with Lawler’s reformatting—to gather twenty temporary access ramps, made or purchased at Park McArthur’s request so that she might enter and exit buildings by wheelchair in places where she has lived and worked—to take possession of negation and turn it into “as if not” is to embrace what the philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to as the “distribution of the sensible.” To take possession of the theory of individualism’s interiority and turn it inside out, to make publicly visible again the fashioning of sensibility, this “as if not” procedure is to bring forward “aesthetic acts as configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity.”[32] This “as if not” is the “fantasy in the hold” that surfaces the interior’s turn back toward public visibility and makes of the “as if not” a “theory of the moment,” to borrow once more Harney and Moten’s phrasing from The Undercommons [33]. The “as if not” is to hold onto this moment of exposure, to aesthetically expropriate rather than merely accelerate through appropriation. It is retaking possession of Stony Island Bank; it is making visible and beautiful the prosthetic body, and it is also leading a camel into the museum.

The first proper Décor made by Marcel Broodthaers, Un jardin d’hiver (A winter garden, 1974), inverts the signs of the earliest turn-of-the-twentieth-century public conservatories and greenhouses in Europe. Broodthaers lined the galleries with the cheapest potted examples he could muster of the exotic palm trees and flora that exemplified the colonial drive of the originally privately held and later publicly mimed conservatory. Further decorating the interior, which is not unlike a waiting room (replete with classical music), are cheaply framed reproductions of indexical depictions of animal species from around the world, accompanied by the folding chairs one might find in a European public park. Embedded within the Décor is an awkward film that shows the artist leading a camel up the stairs and through the lobby of the museum space. It is, like much of Broodthaers’s oeuvre, an ornery, even irritating work. Trumpeting its challenge of the museum space, jardin d’hiver parades an animal that appears possible only as a representation through the front door of the museum and then creates a distinctly discomfiting waiting room for its movie premiere. Rather than being obscure, as many find Broodthaers’s work to be, the Décors are blunt and insistent, nearly surrealist in their shake-up of the museum space. The cabinet of curiosities within Broodthaers is Sibylline as it takes its parody of the retreat of public space quite seriously. As Rachel Haidu writes in her remarkable study The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers, 1964–1976 , Broodthaers’s “imitation of cliché appearances references an entire visual culture wherein the shade of carefully cultivated plants and trees appears to provide nineteenth-century personages with either the impression or reality of privacy at a juncture in history when the terms of public life were changing with unprecedented rapidity.”[34]

Borrowing the “cliché appearance” of the winter garden, and its inverted artifice, Broodthaers performed what can be termed a serious parody. To briefly outline the etymology of parody, in ancient Greece, playful songs called paroidous interrupted the rhapsody, or recitation of epic poems. Performers would enter to ridicule and quickly overturn all that came before. Speaking beside and infiltrating the conventional text, serious parody therefore has its descendants in the entr’acte or intermezzo of theater, relying on and using preexisting styles and genre forms without fidelity to them, contingent and yet morphing away. To quote Agamben on serious parody, “unlike fiction, parody does not call into question the reality of its object; indeed this object is so intolerably real for parody that it becomes necessary to keep it at a distance. To fiction’s ‘as if,’ parody opposes its drastic ‘this is too much’ or (‘as if not’).”[35] After all, the winter garden of Broodthaers occurs in the same year as the first OPEC “oil crisis” shook what was clearly emerging as a globally interdependent and codependent economy. A portrait of an imagined garden held in mind, overwintering, a fantasy in the hold, takes on a highly nuanced meaning in Akram Zaatari’s installation All is well on the border: Untold (2008). Untold tells the story of Nabih Awada, a former Lebanese resistance fighter and member of the Communist Party imprisoned in Israel. It is based on Zaatari’s numerous interviews with Awada, who also gave the artist direct access to his letters and photographs. Having taken part in armed military operations against the Israeli Army, Awada was captured at the age of sixteen. This led to ten years of incarceration, in which communication with his family was restricted to a few photographs, one short video, and primarily letters written by Awada. Resolutely optimistic, the letters were signed “Neruda” and decorated with Awada’s colorful drawings of flowers and lovingly poetic phrases assuring that all was well. In interviewing Awada and framing further the larger context of his story, Zaatari came to find out the origin of his nickname: “When I was young I was in love with a girl in our neighborhood and used to write her poems. One of the older members of the resistance, who was staying in our house, told me, ‘You should call yourself Neruda.’ I asked who he was. He said Neruda was the poet of the Chilean revolution and wrote his name in Arabic on my hand. I couldn’t even pronounce it and used to pronounce it sometimes as ‘Nayroudah.’ From then on I asked everyone to call me Neruda.”[36] Imbued with the character of the personal address—affective and missive-like in nature—Zaatari’s portrait of Awada takes up the tone of fantasy in the hold. “Neruda’s garden,” wherein a vision of a next season is maintained and the difficult (or impossible) to account for experience of incarceration is mediated through the allowance of hope and a yearning to understand.

The cellular winter garden is taken even further in Rosemarie Trockel’s As far as possible (2012), as the white tiles and low ceiling push Broodthaers’s waiting room toward the examination room and even the panic room. The uncanny comes through clearly as a symptom more coldly observed, an alignment that is peculiar to Trockel’s habit and mood. It is a room that the art historian and longtime Trockel observer Bridget Doherty has described as a place fashioned after “the winter garden as a topos not of the bourgeois interior but of spaces of carefully monitored leisure in sanatoria and other disciplinary institutions.”[37] And for comic relief, we find a reproduction of Gustave Courbet’s Origin the World (1866) with a tarantula imposed, alongside three kinetic mechanized stuffed birds that move rapidly along a wire contraption when approached. The Wunderkammer is crossed with the winter garden and sanatorium in Trockel’s cosmos as an inverted palm tree hangs symbolically, a hybrid marker of the fantasy in the hold now asserting itself.

Reinforcing the critical landscape of the winter garden, which the exhibition Question the Wall Itself takes as its emblem, neon sculptures from Cerith Wyn Evans’s Leaning Horizon series (2014–2015) are accompanied by his rotating potted palm, Still Life (In course of arrangement…) I (2015), which together frame the presentation of a further mise en abyme of conflation emblematic of the show. Wyn Evans’s Après (Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard) (After [A throw of the dice will never abolish chance], (2016), finds him scoring Marcel Broodthaers’s overwriting of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s revolutionary 1897 poem of the same title, which presaged the twentieth century’s typographic occupation of the page as architecture and the aesthetics of concrete poetry. Broodthaers’s version of the work, also titled Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1969), demonstrates the difference between appropriation and aesthetic expropriation. Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” is arguably the first concrete poem, making of the page a heightened spatial field, an architectonic tightrope across and down each doublepage spread. The poetic line leaps from the single page and behaves more like the stoppage in Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913–1914), as the terrain of architecture and page as duration opens up before the poet’s landscape. Here a poem can endure the length of its pages, heralding a new architecture for the concrete line avant la lettre .

When Broodthaers—again a poet become visual artist—takes up the poem as page sequence and architecture, it is in the spirit of Duchamp as he makes of the text a visual readymade that heightens the structural aesthetic by redacting language and leaving only the underscored line crossed out. It’s possible to think of this gesture as what Duchamp imagined but never realized, an inverted readymade whereby the work of art supports a new everyday structure. Broodthaers makes a new visual poem of the page structure itself, without additional alteration. Canceled out, the words become structure waiting for content, duration writ visual and across as scansion. By printing on vellum-like paper, Broodthaers heightened the time register of the entire endeavor as the visual blocks of redacted text—now simply reduced visual lines nevertheless reading left to right—are visible in the form of the poem as palimpsest. The entire book hovers behind the first page, time made palpable. In the painstaking cutout of each redacted line that makes up Wyn Evans’s tracing of the two works, the artist takes the condensed maneuver of Broodthaers and unfolds it left to right again, letting it breathe. Making a durational landscape even more material as the work takes up the length of an entire wall within the exhibition, extending nearly forty feet, the concrete poem is now truly present, measuring scansion in architectural dimensions. Much like Wyn Evans’s own neon textual installations, the line demands to be out in space pushing the wall itself.

Indeed, there is no more fitting way to end this essay and close these considerations than with a line of poetry transposed into the ultimate interior. Danh Vo’s Tombstone for Phùng Vo, from All your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009–), parcels out the ultimate resting place and décor, the grave. A black marble tombstone is placed in the gallery (according to the artist’s instructions) and adorned and incised with gold lettering bearing the phrase “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” the chosen epitaph of the English Romantic poet John Keats. Promised in the exhibition narrative and deed (and thereby within Question the Wall Itself) to serve as the gravestone for the artist’s father, Phùng Vo, on his death, Tombstone will be transferred to Copenhagen at that time but remain in the Walker’s permanent collection until then. A corresponding empty vitrine built to the instructions of the artist (in collaboration with the museum) will eventually receive a selection of personal effects—in particular a Rolex watch, Dupont lighter, and signet ring—belonging to the elder Vo, in exchange for the transferred tombstone. Danh Vo originally displayed these items in the 2008 Berlin Biennale.

All your deeds is accompanied by a calligraphic copy of the last known missive written by the French Catholic missionary Théophane Vénard in 1860 to his father in Paris, just prior to his being decapitated in West Tonkin, Vietnam, for unabashedly proselytizing despite a local edict prohibiting such actions. In this work, titled 2.2.1861 (2009–), the artist evokes and circulates several layers of estrangement and prompts toward further displacement that presage the subsequent intensity of All your deeds in Vo’s deployment of his father’s calligraphic skills in penning the model for his own tombstone. There is a radical if imposing freedom in this choreography for future ritual. Biography and poetic testament are transformed into an economic and legal exchange in which the periodicity of language is translated, personal items are promised within an artwork yet to be resolved, and systems of value have no predominant tether. At the close of the exhibition, Tombstone will be transferred to an outdoor location on the Walker’s campus within a copse of trees, waiting in the hold, in reserve, for its ultimate transfer to Copenhagen, while inside the museum the empty vitrine is its dialogue partner, awaiting its remains, content in the meantime to question the wall itself.

-- Fionn Meade

[1] Marcel Broodthaers, “Notes on the Subject,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2012), 489.

[2] The final didactic statement of Broodthaers’s “museum” was added to the floor display near the end of its run during Documenta 5, in August of 1972, just prior to the closing of the exhibition in September, and was accompanied by a press release penned by Broodthaers announcing the closing of the museum, as it had moved from “a heroic and solitary form into one verging on consecration.” Marcel Broodthaers, “Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Sections Art Moderne et Publicité,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Moure, Collected Writings, 354.

[3] Claire Bishop writes, “The words of the revised inscription are a series of eleven verbs ending in pouvoir, ‘to be able to,’ and the only verb capable of functioning as a noun, ‘power’: the final line of the inscription, faire informer pouvoir, therefore operates ambiguously as ‘make inform power’ or ‘make power inform.’” Bishop, “What Is a Curator,” Idea: Artă + Societate, no. 26 (2007),

[4] Marcel Broodthaers, quoted in Thomas E. Crow, The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent (London: Laurence King, 1996), 177.

[5] This phrase is from “Ma rhétorique” (My rhetoric), published by Broodthaers in the catalogue for the exhibition Moules Oeufs Frites Pots Charbon, Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp, 1966; published in English translation by Jill Ramsay in Moure, Collected Writings, 158.

[6] Clement Greenberg, quoted in Donald Kuspit, Clement Greenberg, Art Critic (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 63.

[7] See Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (Forthcoming Books, 2009), available at,_The _Withdrawal_of_Tradition_Past_a_Surpassing_Disaster.pdf.

[8] Robert Musil, “Monuments” (1936), trans. Burton Pike, in Selected Writings, ed. Burton Pike (London: Continuum, 1998), 320.

[9] Jalal Toufic, Distracted, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Tuumba, 2003), 29; available at

[10] The theatrical impulse within Loos’s Raumplan can be investigated as one in which the interior is a space of persuasion and orchestrated seduction: “The very notion of shifting floor levels finds some Viennese precedent in theatrical scenography, of the nineteenth century but also the twentieth.” Joseph Masheck, Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 142. Indeed, Frederick Kiesler’s Raumbühne, or “spatial stage,” was contemporaneous with Loos’s Rufer House and has connections to Arnold Schoenberg’s investigation of spatial music.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, “What Is the Contemporary,” in What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays , trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
2009), 50.

[12] Lucy McKenzie, “Canvases Stretched in a Studio Far Less
Convenient Than One’s Own,” in Chêne de Weekend
(Cologne: Walther König, 2009), 12.

[13] In her discussion of the “theatre box” in Loos’s houses, Beatriz Colomina writes, “Architecture is not simply a platform that accommodates the viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism that produces the subject. It precedes and frames its occupant.” Colomina, “Intimacy and Spectacle: The Interiors of Adolf Loos,” AA Files, no. 20 (Autumn 1990): 8.

[14] Lucy McKenzie, “Appropriation, Replication, Imitation,” Parkett, no. 96 (June 2015): 37.

[15] Martin Luther King Jr., excerpt from December 18, 1963, speech at Western Michigan University, transcribed by WMUK public radio, Kalamazoo, Michigan, available online through Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections and University Libraries, http://

[16] Giving further context to his transposition of raw materials into an interior, Gates told an interviewer: “Nowhere represents the ‘before,’ the raw materials, more than a hardware store.” Hannah Ellis-Peterson, “Theaster Gates on the Nuts and Bolts of Life—All 30,000 of Them,” Guardian, July 14, 2016.

[17] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013), 94.

[18] Uri Aran, in Cecilia Alemani, “Uri Aran: I Believe in Mimicry” (interview), Mousse Magazine , no. 26 (November 2010): 117.

[19] Juliane Rebentisch, “Some Remarks on the Interior Design of Contemporary Subjectivity and the Possibilities of Its Aesthetic Critique,” in Interiors, ed. Johanna Burton, Lynne Cooke, and Josiah McElheny (Annandale-on Hudson, NY: Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Berlin: Sternberg, 2012), 315.

[20] McKenzie, “Appropriation, Replication, Imitation,” 38.

[21] Marc Camille Chaimowicz, “Notes toward a Preface,” consumerist taste is confronted with the in The World of Interiors (Zurich: Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2007), 87.

[22] Harney and Moten, Undercommons , 94. See also Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

[23] Chaimowicz, “Notes toward a Preface,” 87.

[24] Rebentisch, “Some Remarks,” 315.

[25] Alejandro Cesarco, quoted in an announcement for an exhibition at Artpace San Antonio, 2010, http://www /alejandro-cesarco.

[26] Bruce Hainley, “Mata Hari Takes a Picture,” Frieze , no. 85 (September 2004): 85.

[27] Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, ed. Michael W. Jennings, trans. Howard Eiland et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 38.

[28] Nina Beier, in “Nina Beier, Cash for Gold, at Kunstverein Hamburg, July 11, 2015” (interview with Chris Fitzpatrick conducted on June 1–2, 2005), Mousse, http://

[29] Nick Mauss, artist’s statement for F.S. Interval I & II for Florine Stettheimer , Lenbachhaus, Munich, 2014–2015, /press-release.

[30] Nick Mauss, “Quivers in Time and Place,” in Florine Stettheimer, ed. Matthias Mühling, Karin Althaus, and Susanne Böller (Munich: Lenbachhaus and Hirmer, 2014), 170.

[31] Tom Burr, in Tom Burr and Fionn Meade, “Restless Painting” (interview), Mousse Magazine, no. 39 (May 2013): 131.

[32] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London: Continuum, 2004), 9.

[33] “The hold here is the hold in the slave ship but it is also the hold that we have on reality and fantasy.” Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,” in Harney and Moten, Undercommons, 12.

[34] Rachel Haidu, The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers , 1964–1976 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 238.

[35] Giorgio Agamben, “The Author as Gesture,” in Profanations New York: Zone, 2007), 65.

[36] Akram Zaatari, “Interviews with Nabih Awada,” in Earth of Endless Secrets (Frankfurt am Main: Portikus, 2010), 52.

[37] Bridget Doherty, “Less Sauvage Than Others,” Afterall, no. 35 (Spring 2014): 76.

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated