The disappearing exhibition

Danielle Child reviews An Imagined Museum, which invites visitors to commit artworks to memory before they are removed – and re-created

February 10, 2016 · 7 min read

While the London Tate galleries may be standing firm on their relationship with ‘big oil’ sponsors BP in spite of increased creative disobedience from Liberate Tate and Platform, Tate Liverpool is seemingly attempting to push forward changes in its exhibition programming. Since the arrival of artistic director Francesco Manacorda in 2012, there is evidence of a shifting and, dare I say, left‑leaning programme. Recent years have seen Art Turning Left, an exhibition devoted to Marxist cultural theorist Raymond Williams and the equal pairing of canonical exhibitions with artists from under‑represented groups (women, non-white and LGBT artists) – for example, Jackson Pollock and Glenn Ligon, Andy Warhol and Gretchen Bender.

Tate Liverpool also hosted the 2015 Visible Award – the first European prize for socially engaged art. The award involved bringing together a temporary parliament, with the recipient being agreed via a public debate and vote in Liverpool’s council chamber. For an institution like the Tate, instigating change is not an easy manoeuvre. It has not yet taken a giant leap, but there has been a marked shake up in how and, perhaps more importantly, who is being exhibited in the Liverpool Albert Dock-side gallery.Poppy Hotel, Room 202 [1970-1973] by Dorothea Tanning

An Imagined Museum: works from the Centre Pompidou, Tate and MMK collections signals another move towards diversifying Tate Liverpool’s exhibiting modus operandi. Unoriginally, perhaps, the exhibition takes as its material familiar (some canonical) works from the recent history of artistic practice; however, the concept behind the hang is inspired. The exhibition’s premise is based on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, in which works of literature are banished in a dystopian future. The only way to save the works is to learn them by heart.

Artworks under threat

In An Imagined Museum, it is the artworks that are under threat. The exhibition opens with Paul Almásy’s 1942 photograph of a gallery full of empty frames containing scribbled titles of absent artworks in the Louvre of Nazi-occupied Paris, highlighting the political conditions under which this threat has been realised historically. There is also something to be said about the political and social power of works of art, often assumed to be static, ‘dead’ objects, ignited under specific historical conditions. The looming threat of artistic absence manifests at the close of this exhibition, when the works on display will be removed and for two days the public will be invited into the gallery to recreate the works of art in the lacunae. This invitation to 2053: A Living Museum signals an opportunity for Tate to activate the often-assumed passive spectator.

The works on display will be removed and for two days the public will be invited into the gallery to recreate the art

The idea that these works might be lost invites the viewer to look closer, to commit to memory artworks identified by the three galleries as works worth remembering. It is interesting to see, then, what has been selected. Before visiting the show, I asked myself – as an art historian – what I would like to see in the selection. I encountered one of my ‘saved’ works, Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961), in the last room of the exhibition.

Currently housed in a glass box atop of a plinth in Tate Liverpool, this is Manzoni’s humorous attempt to reveal the ridiculousness of the art world’s obsession with the artist’s ‘touch’ as a measure of value. Manzoni claimed to have canned his own faeces as the ultimate material produced by the artist. The ambiguity as to whether it really is artist’s shit in the cans now adds to the work’s mythology and, ironically, its value. In his lifetime, Manzoni valued the cans equivalent to the price of gold; one of the 90 cans he produced now belongs to Tate. The absence of the ‘valuable’ material itself (hidden behind the can’s façade) is symbolic of the exhibition, which invites viewers to value their knowledge of the work over the physical objects themselves.


The show is organised under eight themed headings, representing, presumably, the curators’ ideas about what would be missed if there was no art in the world: Transformation, The Power of Images, Interconnecting, Perception, Knowledge, Time and Space, Enigmas, and Language and Energy. Within each section there is a short statement elaborating on the title, connecting it to what art does. For example, under ‘Knowledge’ we are told: ‘Art enables us to question systems of understanding by ordering and disordering knowledge.’ To the regular gallery-goer this may appear crudely didactic, but I found myself in agreement with the sentiments presented, if not the presentation itself.Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) [1985] by Barbara Kruger

The stronger works are those that highlight the relationship between viewer and work, those that truly activate the spectator (as in the final manifestation of the show). Dan Graham’s Present Continuous Past(s) (1974) is a stand out piece, in which the viewer walks into a mirrored room, confronts a seemingly blank TV screen, looks closely, walks away and is then confronted by their own image relayed back to them on the screen operating at a delay. If the exhibition encourages thinking about a dystopian future, the unsettling realisation that your actions are being recorded and observed is not lost on the contemporary viewer.

Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction film based in a post-nuclear world and about experiments in time travel, La Jetée, is within conversational distance of Graham’s installation. Walter de Maria’s three floor-based works, Triangle, Square and Circle (all 1972), present oversized ball bearings within brushed stainless steel channels in the corresponding shapes that are asking to be picked up and played with – although we are told not to for conservation reasons. Unfortunately, these remain inactive works.

There are also more subtly political works included. Alighieri Boetti and Mario Merz’s inclusion represent Arte Povera and, in turn, its relationship to Italy’s highly-charged political situation in the 1960/70s and its legacy today. Walid Raad’s Secrets in the Open Sea 1994-2004 – prints of fictional documents pertaining to Lebanon’s history – signals the difficulties of writing histories evoked in Raad’s 15-year Atlas Group project.

An Imagined Museum brings together a great selection of (predominantly western) artworks from the post-war period onwards. Although the show heuristically exhibits works deemed ‘important’, asking the viewer to think about what role art plays in the world through posing its absence is a step in the right direction. The exhibition suggests that art can be active in the world, and this includes politically.

An Imagined Museum: works from the Pompidou, Tate and MMK collections is open until 14 February 2016, Tate Liverpool. 2053: A Living Museum is open 20-21 February 2016

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