What’s a Museum For?

Rayanne Tabet, Six Nights, 2023, coloured vinyl on glass, six metal structures each engraved with a specific date and time of the night from 5 to 10 June, 1967, modified car headlights, blue enamel paint. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut & Hamburg

A Model at Mudam Luxembourg reflects on the politics of being a public art gallery

What’s a museum for? It’s a question that’s been exercising art’s collecting institutions increasingly in recent years, as they try to respond to criticisms coming from all angles of their supposed power and privilege. A Model, a three-stage project mounted by Mudam’s recently appointed director Bettina Steinbrügge, opened with Rayyane Tabet’s standalone installation ‘prelude’ late last year, a work now joined by this second, whole-museum exhibition, which mixes selections from the museum’s collection with other works, all of which variously highlight the implicit parameters of the museum – what can and can’t be here, and why. It will be joined by a third exhibition, Epilogue by Jason Dodge, in April.

A Model ostensibly takes its inspiration and namesake from the 1968 exhibition Modellen at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. Modellen, created by Danish artist and activist Palle Nielsen, filled Moderna Museet’s spaces with a zone of climbing and play structures (something like latter-day adventure playgrounds) and activities, focused on children. In tune with the radical ideas of the 1960s (Nielsen was already building ‘illegal playgrounds’) Modellen was meant as a challenge to the orthodoxies of the museum.

But while video and photo documentation of Modellen is tucked along one of Mudam’s upstairs corridors, nothing quite as playful has taken hold of the museum here. A Model is more about acknowledging the many criticisms of the contemporary art museum, while still managing to demonstrate what makes visiting it worth the trip. Exemplary here is Tabet’s Prelude section, deftly intervening in the museum’s glass- and-steel-atrium dominated architecture. Net curtains line each side of the windowed bridge that connects to an odd octagonal turret-gallery, whose skylights Tabet tinted deep blue. Drawn from Mudam’s collection is an ensemble of sanatorium furniture, designed by legendary Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto for his Paimio Sanatorium, a landmark of window-filled modernism. Nothing explains these except the accompanying ‘guidebook’, in which Tabet traces poetic, happenstance connections between disparate objects and people: turning on the motif of glass and windows, it winds from Mudam’s inauguration in 2006, the sanatorium’s origins, his grandparents’ married life in Beirut in the 50s (new synthetic net curtains for their home), the Six-Day War of 1967 (Arab homes painting their windows blue during curfew), to the devastating Beirut port explosion in 2020, which killed and injured thousands and left shattered glass everywhere. In the gallery below, a hundred glass water jugs are presented on racks – made from glass recovered from Beirut after the blast.

Oscar Murillo, collective conscience, 2015–, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Mareike Tocha. Courtesy Mudam Luxembourg

Such visual-literary poetics are at home in the Western art institution while conjuring its possible connections to the wider world. Other works query the museum less politely: Oscar Murillo’s semicircular forum of wooden bleachers (collective conscience, 2015–) occupy the main atrium, populated with crudely modelled lifesize mannequins, who sit alongside visitors as we watch the show’s screening programme. This humorous intervention rebuffs the decorum and exclusivity of the public art gallery, its class (and racial) distinctions. It’s characteristic of the postcolonial attention that, very self-consciously, runs through A Model. Anna Boghiguian’s evocative story-drawings, both on paper and on hanging cutouts that make up The Silk Road (2020–21), unravel the history of women’s labour in nineteenth-century silk production, while nearby Daniela Ortiz’s illustrationlike paintings The Rebellion of the Roots (France) (2021) present an altogether more bloody and unforgiving view of the rebellions of colonised people. Meanwhile in the video programme, the Western museum as repository of empire becomes the location for Sophia Al-Maria’s riotous and hallucinatory TIGER STRIKE RED (2022), its ethnically diverse cast of interlopers exploring and critiquing the Victoria & Albert Museum, intercut with fragments of old Empire-nostalgic British films such as Lawrence of Arabia that show us how distant the old Western century seems to today’s concerns.

In the rethinking of the contemporary museum, it’s no surprise that the past’s influence on the present should be continually renegotiated. Generations of feminist art intersect with an extensive presentation of work from the 1970s by the Italian Tomaso Binga, in a gallery which also includes Nora Turato’s 2019 video someone ought to tell you what it’s really all about. Binga was the pseudonym and male alter ego of Bianca Pucciarelli Menna, who ‘renounced’ her female identity in a gesture towards the male-dominated artworld of the period. For both artists, both language and the female body become sites of confrontation: the gallery is wallpapered with a decorative motif in which appears Binga’s repeated autograph, while in other works on paper the artist’s extensive use of typescript and handwriting consider the authenticity (or otherwise) of the ‘self ’; in Turato’s video she delivers an increasingly unhinged monologue amalgamating news and social media memes. Turato’s video apparently draws on John Cassavetes’s 1977 Opening Night (another study of a female actress’s mental breakdown), but if anything, someone ought… suggests the pessimistic conclusion that not that much has changed for women, even if the technologies that manipulate selfhood have become more sophisticated.

What can the museum do? Here it can stage the problems of our moment, by relating artworks of the past to those of the present. How, though, can it reflect on the fractures of the present in a way that might allow the coming together of an increasingly fragmented public? The presence here of Isaac Julien’s extraordinary multiscreen video installation Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022) dazzles even as it stages the history of racism and colonialism, and the two-way encounter of African art and Western modernism, through that other modernist moment of the Harlem Renaissance. Through its fictionalised dialogue between the African American philosopher and critic Alain Locke and collector Albert C. Barnes, and its dreamlike scenes among the ethnographic collections of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and the modernist works in the galleries of the Barnes Foundation, Once Again… moves constantly between questions of artistic appropriation and the politics of restitution. But its final sequences – counterposing contemporary sculptures by Matthew Angelo Harrison (comprising African statuettes cast into clear resin blocks) with busts of black subjects by Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé (in a ‘classical’ style), and with Locke striding finally into the dark void of an unlit gallery – hint that out of these long histories of conflict something positively new might still take shape. Though what this will look like the museum can’t reveal.

A Model at Mudam Luxembourg, through 8 September

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