'The 80s: A Topology' at Museu Serralves

Pedro de Llano

Tags: Review

Reviews / 25.07.2007
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Works by Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold and Heimo Zobernig. Installation view, 'The 80s: A Topology', Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto. Photograph by Rita Burmester

Eight years after it opened, Porto's Museu Serralves has organised an ambitious historical survey that occupies its whole gallery surface. Following in the steps of 'Circa 1968', the exhibition of works from the late 1960s and 70s that inaugurated the building in 1999, museum curators Ulrich Loock and Sandra Guimarãens have put together a show that provides an alternative map of art of a particular period - this time the 1980s. According to the organizers, 'The 80s: A Topology' (2006-07) offers neither a comprehensive nor a definitive reading of the decade - just one possible perspective on a recent past that today we remember as as turbulent and polemical in terms of art and politics. This perspective is, however, pointedly different from the usual survey strategy.

In fact, when looking at the exhibition list, one first notices a remarkable absence of many critically acclaimed artists whose work was at the peak of fame and speculation in the 80's. There is a curious lack of Italian transvanguardia, German neo-expressionists or American painters like Julian Schnabel or Eric Fischl. There are, on the other hand, many artists who focused on objects and photography, or had skeptical or even ironic takes on painting (such as Martin Kippenberger). The general focus of the exhibition is clearly defined from the beginning of the exhibition, where two works by Jan Vercruysse reveal the influence of Minimalism and documentary practices, respectively. These are reiterated immediately after, in rooms featuring the works of Reinhard Mucha, Harald Klingelhöller, Katharina Fritsch, Candida Höfer, Georg Herold, Günter Forg and Franz West.

The installation is organized according to geographical criteria, and, after several rooms dedicated to works by artists from central Europe (familiar to Loock from his tenure as director of Kunsthalle Bern ), several British artists appear: sculptors Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon and Richard Wentworth, as well as documentation of early performances by Mona Hatoum. Subsequent rooms round out the continents, featuring work from Greece, Turkey, Russia and Africa. These inclusions point to the 1980s as the beginning of the end of Eurocentrism, as Jean-Hubert Martin's exhibition 'Les Magiciens de la Terre' confirmed in 1989, despite the accusations of 'exoticism' the show received at the time.

It is very interesting to see how well work from the 1980s fits into the building that Alvaro Siza designed for the Serralves museum. However, the exhibition leaves a bitter aftertaste, as soon as you realize that artists and groups who made adventurous proposals and decisively questioned artistic conventions (like Group Material, General Idea, Guerrilla Girls or Jeff Knoos in the American rooms) have been ignored. What this suggests is, in contrast to the 1970s (which, within art discourse, is remembered as a time of expansion - towards the body, architecture and urban space), an image of the 1980s emerges that suggests a time when art abandoned the very spaces that had been contested and conquered in the years preceding. This involution can be read in terms of one of modernism's great debates -that of art as object, or art as the staging of a practice or event. The exhibition at Serralves clearly focuses on the former, as, for example, in the room with works by British sculptors, where Richard Wentworth's piece is silenced by its surroundings, or the North-American rooms, in which the excessive number of works diminishes their expressive qualities. The same happens with Jeff Wall's No (1983), hidden behind the spectator when he or she enters the last room. Because of this, the exhibition has a look that is often closer to a commercial gallery than to a museum. An interesting exception can be found at the entrance hall of the museum, outside of the conventional exhibition areas. Niels Kemp's Untitled (1982) consists of a large piece of red velvet that completely covers a sculpture, suggesting both tactility and melodrama and contradicting the eminently visual aspect of the exhibition.

The stress on object-based art in opposition to a theatrical staging gives the impression that the exhibition provides a limited and fixed reading of the 1980s, stressing an image of the decade as a reactionary response to the 'progressive' 1970s. This impression finds an allegorical echo in Gary Hill's video Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia) (1984), the piece that, together with James Coleman's film Line of Faith (1991), closes the exhibition.

Hill's video stages a domestic drama in a living-room, where a father reads Gregory Bateson's Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind (1971) while his daughter plays with some toys. When he tells the girl to tidy the room before going to bed, she starts a conversation on the difference between order and disorder using Lewis Carroll'sThrough the Looking Glass (1871) as a motif. After a moment, you realize Hill has made his actors recite their lines back to front, and has then played the recording backwards. The end result suggests the idea that narrative forms are devices that produce order and establish irreversible meanings. 'There are millions and millions of muddles, but only one. Come on Petunia,' says the father to finish the dialogue. 'But daddy,' says Petunia, 'the same letters could spell "Once upon a time".'

This conversation poses the question as to whether the 1980s (despite the efforts of many artists and as 'The 80s: A Topology' seems to suggest) were a step backwards, or whether an alternative line-up (with the inclusion of collective, critical projects like those mentioned above) could have offered a different image of the art of the time. Because of their absence, and despite the curators' intention to give a partial account and the inclusion of divergent models of understanding art practice, the picture 'The 80s: A Topology' offers is constructed according to fixed protocols, in which the entropy of meaning and the temporality of discourse that Hill's piece evokes can't find its place.

- Pedro de Llano