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Infinite infoldings of emptiness upon emptiness
Account of a night with Marcel Broodthaers (published in "Marcel : Het Broodthaerskabinet : L’Inventaire", SMAK publishing, 2011)



I am an admirer of but not an expert on Marcel Broodthaers, about whom many brilliant commentaries have already been written, so when I was commissioned to produce a text about him in a limited space of time, I decided to make up for my lack of scholarship or specialist knowledge by focusing intensely on the work in a context of spatial and temporal confinement. Specifically, I would spend a continuous period of 24 hours alone in a small cell in the S.M.A.K. (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst/Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art) of Ghent, surrounded by original works by the artist, and would produce a reflection based on my thoughts during this state of immersion. This critical approach would rely on experiential illumination rather than analytical distance and agreed in advance to the distortions that might result from looking at the subject so close up. For the occasion, I would approach the work from inside the museum, taking the museum as my starting-point, physically pacing the empty spaces the public never sees, with a security badge as passport. This mental and physical journey through the bowels of a deserted institution seemed to me to echo some of the core issues in Broodthaers work. This is the log of that round-the-clock sojourn from 6.00 p.m., Saturday 5 February 2011 to 6.00 p.m., 6 February 2011.

6.13 p.m. : My cell / The embeddedness of emptiness

I am settled into my cell. Behind me are a sofa, a blanket, food and beer. From above, the neon strip lights of the museum cast a harsh glare. Broodthaers’ works are unceremoniously ranged around me : a huge saucepan of mussels on top of a cardboard box, a large frame containing broken eggshells stuck onto a red background, six compositions combining words and pictures, and a selection of publications on a table. My first thought is how alone I am. Shutting yourself into a museum means agreeing to think of the museum building as a potential prison. A first connection between the works in front of me and my own situation immediately springs to mind : the empty shell. The museum is merely an envelope ? an administrative meta-structure that generates a set of projections (signs, functions, usages, rules) that contain the essence, without directly stating what is inside. This is a contemporary form of vanity in an age in which the world order is one of financial capitalism : it is as if the chief object were removed from sight, but multiplied, fragmented into signs. As if, after modernism, art chiefly took the form of clues. Noise. Sparks from a blaze that has receded beyond our reach, like those lines of Mallarmé’s of which the only traces are shadows on a blank page, at once ubiquitous and literally unreadable.

I find myself experiencing a physical sensation of embeddedness : I feel as if I am trapped in a succession of empty shells that fit one inside the other like Russian dolls. The museum as mere container of a container (the saucepan) that itself encloses other containers (the mussels) and, at the end of the sequence, emptiness. Layer upon layer of nothingness. Megamussels. Note to self : remember to put it to P. Van Cauteren, the director of these premises, that the "Marcel Broodthaers Gallery" project that is the raison d’être of this text is in itself, perhaps unintentionally, very "Broodthaersian", in that it creates another shell inside the shell, a structure within the structure, an extra thickness of the institution. To think of putting the empty packing-cases of the Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles) in this room, itself an integral part of the S.M.A.K. project, is tantamount to a mise en abyme of the succession of frames that distance or dissolve the figure of the object. It might as well have been called "Museum of Modern Art, Department of Broodthaers, Study Section". It is a very corporate initiative that is in a way an extension of the artist’s project. An accidentally funny allusion to a functionally complex emptiness, like those joke presents where you tear off layer after layer of wrapping-paper until you get down to the last wrapper and find that it is empty. This is the moral of Broodthaers’ work : to highlight the vertiginous emptiness of art, in which the work ultimately turns out to be the scraps of paper left on the floor.

Yet, paradoxically, this emptiness is not unproductive. It aspires and inspires, sparks desire and imaginings. I call this the "Sheep Inside" syndrome ? the paradoxical way some art works have the power to free the imagination by virtue of what they hide [1] . It is named after the episode in The Little Prince in which Saint Exupéry relates how, in exasperation at the Little Prince’s demands, he scrawls a picture of a box in his notebook and raps out, "Here’s a box. The sheep you want is inside." To which the Little Prince responds,"That’s just what I wanted !" This is partly why I love Broodthaers’ art ? for its joyful ability to make us play with the box instead of the contents, like babies.

7.09 p.m. : The Laboratory / The Birth of the Clinic

I start my backstairs exploration of the S.M.A.K. with the restoration laboratory. Is it a distorting effect of my immersion in the work of the Belgian genius ? Everything here suddenly strikes me as totally Broodthaersian. Art works masked, wrapped in white paper, lying prone like corpses on dissecting tables. Things are mended, prettified and cleaned here, just like in a morgue. Then I remember the discreetly clinical aspects of Broodthaers’ work. The plaster copies of Pense-Bête (Reminder), the objects wrapped in cotton wool, the glass phials and jars, the bone fragments, the immaculate white display cabinets ? his fascination with a hospital aesthetics ? and I notice that everything in this room is presented as samples ? of paper, of cardboard, of plastic. Sections of wooden frames are displayed on a whiteboard with a label underneath them saying "FRAMEWORK". I take this as confirmation of my initial impression. Broodthaers’ work is all about "framework". An art of framing. Surrounding pictures, concepts, objects and displacing the attention to the frame itself. Focusing on that which surrounds, holds in place and "contains". It is a scale of production that is both humble and powerful. Humble because apparently non-essential. Powerful because the frame is also that which holds in place, surrounds and protects. By definition, the envelope is always larger than its contents, and the frame therefore extends beyond the boundaries of the work. In Broodthaers,see Le Rialto (1973), a photograph of a frame that is itself framed, epitomising a body of work based on a dizzying sequence of physical and metaphorical frames - the political, institutional and artistic framework and the physical frame within which art is placed. The restoration studio also contains apparatus resembling surgical equipment, reminding me of Michel Foucault’s structuralist dictum in Surveiller et punir [2] : "Prison = school = factory". Or in this case : "Clinic = museum = morgue". In Broodthaers’ own words : "The name Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles designates an approach that could be seen as a critique of the state of museums, and not merely their state but also their structure juxtaposed with existing social structures ? prisons, hospitals, administrations." If some future Indiana Jones, who did not know that we had museums in the twentieth century, penetrated the restoration studio of the S.M.A.K., miraculously preserved intact, what would he think it was used for ? Dissection ? Torture ? Sacrifices ? By an association of ideas, I remember the last scene of the Raiders of the Lost Ark : a gigantic warehouse full of identical wooden crates, one of which contains the ultimate object of desire, the Ark of the Covenant, indistinguishable from all the rest. A wooden crate on which a (Nazi) eagle had formerly been carved. (Coincidence !) The mystical adventure is dissolved in the logistical and administrative order of things. Sorry, I digress. Or maybe not. Bones, shells, books, antiquities ? in Broodthaers’ work, all these objects remind us of the discreetly morbid curiosity with which an archaeologist contemplates history. So here we have a new kind of isomorphism. What physical remains are left of the earliest civilizations ? Bones (fossils) and art (Lascaux). So Broodthaers formalizes the fundamental link between the two via a critique of the very existence of the institution : the art work = the relic, the = the mausoleum. This is why the art world is intrinsically "conservative" : it is perhaps in a "future as relic" that the art work finds its innermost identity. QED.

7.41 p.m. : The storerooms / The art of conversion

I stroll through the storerooms. Wooden packing-cases, shelves, filing cupboards, piles of printed catalogues stacked on pallets. It is as I suspected : the art world is a succession of containers, in which art is clearly in a minority. A museum is 95% storage and 5% art, 99.9% words and 0.1% works. System and semantics dominate materially, numerically and physically. In the age of the tertiary economy and its administrative mindset, all this functional paraphernalia (filing cards, papers, typewriters, files, etc.) stands in for the vanished commodity. Likewise, in Conceptual art, whose self-proclaimed dematerialization generates a multitude of objects that belong to an aesthetics of the office, stands in for the vanished painting and sculpture of the studio [3]. Broodthaers seems very quickly to have critically assimilated and perfectly expressed this almost unconscious transference in his work. The thing that most strikes me, as I pace these storerooms, is the way everything here seems to be about classification and typology. Art works are constantly being reduced to entities that can all on be placed the same level ? a paradox, in the fetishist realm of the unique art object. Here, an art work = an art work, since an inventory number is its only visible identity (sometimes with a small photograph on the wooden packing-case, like classical tombs inset with a portrait of the deceased). There is nothing to be seen : everything has to be read. Anyone familiar with Broodthaers’ multiply-stamped, self-documented work will recognise the giddy feeling we get from these lists. The same museum numbers, classifications, categories and sub-categories pop up everywhere in Broodthaers, but this time they are displayed with the work, in the work : sometimes (with an almost morbid indecency) they even are the work. For in the museum, these strictly classified spaces remain unclassifiable, like the rooms full of drawers containing corpses that are taken out only to be displayed in the funeral parlour. In the museum, a work can only be in one of two states : in store or on display. Broodthaers hijacks this logic by presenting intermediate states : the work is both stored and displayed ? an image that is necessarily subversive and unsettling, especially within the museum itself.

More profoundly, via its development in the form of classifications and lists, Broodthaers’ work starts out from an overall principle of equivalence. Everything is of equal value : the copy and the original, the cow and the motor-car, the Imperial eagle and the eagle printed on a beer-bottle. An example is the screen print diptych entitled Museum ? Museum I saw in my cell, which depicts a series of gold ingots, labelled with the names of artists in one half of the diptych, with the names of commodities in the other. In the age of capitalism, the gold standard validates this principle of equivalence, by which any object can be reduced to any other. Objects differ in degree (value) but not in essence. Likewise, in the S.M.A.K., art works are "listed" in the museum (with their storeroom inventory number) and "listed" on the art market (with their estimated value). Those stacks of undifferentiated packing-cases operate the same process of standardization, assessing the object, whatever it may be, like gold ingots, according to strict criteria of size and weight. Overall, Marcel Broodthaers’ art is a wide-ranging reflection on these principles of conversion, which goes beyond the issue of commodification : conversion between the word and the thing, between poetry and art, between reality and fiction. While we’re about it, I have a question : why create a "Marcel Broodthaers Gallery" in a museum when the artist’s work seems to pop out at us from every corner of the building ? From the storerooms of a real institution, the invented Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles scarcely seems like fiction. Or if it is, it is a very realistic fiction. Then again, perhaps every museum storeroom is in itself a fiction.

8.30 p.m. : Citric critique

Back in my cell, I stare at a printed collage featuring a jumble of holiday snaps [4].Travel and exoticism, intermingled with colonial allusions, are recurrent themes in Broodthaers. But here, exoticism is not about faraway places : it is a metaphor for a certain way of looking at the here and now. By elevating mussels and coal into fascinating collectables, Broodthaers behaves like an anthropologist in his own country. In so doing, he anticipates post-colonial leitmotifs of reversal of the figure of "the Other". But this exoticism is also that of the art world ? a kind of desert that is "poles apart" from knowledge. As for the more directly political aspect of this issue, Broodthaers explicitly refers to it while formalizing it with the same aesthetic "distance" ? as in his 1963 work Le Problème noir en Belgique, in which plastic eggs covered in black paint drip onto a page of the newspaper Le Soir, which carries the headline : "Il faut sauver le Congo" (The Congo must be saved). Beneath its superannuated appearance, Broodthaers’ work is totally suffused with the issues of its time, even though it does not specifically focus on them. Thus the critique of colonization reaches beyond immediate topical issues to look at how the notion of colonization can be applied to art, to reality, and mental processes.

Marcel Broodthaers’ subject is art, and it is via art that he seeks to engage with politics, thought and the world.

9.17 p.m. : I think the weak spot of Conceptual art is its seriousness. Seriousness was its worst enemy. Logically, Conceptual art ought to have ended up challenging itself, or at least laughing at itself [5].I spend a long time contemplating an old advertising poster for mussels entitled Citron-Citroën. Humour remains Broodthaers’ lethal weapon the thing that makes him indestructible. His work states from the outset that it has no plans to dominate or intimidate. Acknowledging the absurd side of art as project. By pushing critical logic to extremes, Broodthaers formulates a critique of Conceptual art. Indeed, overall, his work could easily be seen as literally anti-conceptual. It does not prompt us to rational thought but invites us to forget ourselves. True, it attempts to fit reality into a theoretical model. It deals with relationships and discrepancies between object, depiction and word ? one of the founding principles of metaphysics. But Broodthaers does not set out to reduce the gap or chart its boundaries : instead, he opts to dive into it, revel in it, explore its bottomless depths. In Conceptual art, humour should not be an addendum, an excuse, but a matter of morality, sincerity and elegance.

22h52 : The documentation centre / Deliberate obfuscation

I am in the documentation centre, amid the documents that make up the S.M.A.K.’s Broodthaers archive ? letters, publications, postcards, catalogues, critical writings, etc. Disorientated by the mass of ephemera generated by the work. I suppose this must happen with all great artists. But with Broodthaers, you get the odd sensation that this is where the work is, in this avalanche of paper and pictures on tracing paper. At the same time as being distanced, I feel paradoxically plunged into Broodthaers’ work, in all my ignorance and blindness. There is nothing to see, nothing to read : everything has to be smelt and touched. You have to let yourself be caught by the quantity and accumulation rather than by the contents. Confronted with this mass of ideas and printed words, I try in vain to grasp a clear message that deliberately eludes me, lost in the abundance.

Broodthaers’ relationship with reality operates in an Edgar Allan Poe-like realm of fantastical realism somewhere between MS. Found in a Bottle and The Purloined Letter (two obvious references in the artist’’s work). Explicit yet distant, right before our eyes yet invisible ? or at any rate, that cannot be simultaneously perceived by the eyes and the mind. The emotions and the intellect permanently out of synch. Earlier on, I read this sentence by MB somewhere : "For me, absence takes place in the same time-frame as presence." The film of the artist trying to write in the rain perfectly illustrates this idea : although real, the narrative cannot be read, because it is washed away as soon as it is written. A paean to the ineffable. ("I’m Too Wet to Tell You.") It reminds me of a sentence from Brecht : "Stories that can be understood are just badly told." [6]

By an association of ideas, the "Marcel Broodthaers Gallery" project reminds me of Georges Perec’s Un cabinet d’amateur [7] ? another museum story of layers upon layers ? the work that hides the work that hides the work, and so on until at last we learn that all the pictures in the gallery are copies made by the collector himself and that the real work of art was the accumulated layers of representation. The "Marcel Broodthaers Gallery" is designed to function like this ? as an infinitely reflecting hall of mirrors, a visual and cognitive Larsen effect.

1.43 a.m. : I am sitting on the floor in front of garage doors big enough for art works to fit through. The museum is a warehouse, a trading-post. A space for transactions, exchanges, passages, outward and return tickets. All around are wooden packing-cases that to this day still look the same as the ones that were used in cargo ships bringing tropical goods back to Europe.

In an internal document about Broodthaers I picked up somewhere in the S.M.A.K., I read : "Insurance value : 1988 : 100,000 / 1990 : 400,000". I take note. This confirms that the museum really is an almost passive multiplier of value. Adding value by conserving. A mussel-like economy that secretes capital by doing nothing. An apathetic expansion. Like the mussels in the big saucepan, the value of art rises without any need for action. Is that a cause for rejoicing or alarm ? At this time of night, I no longer know.

2.44 a.m. : Still awake.


I’ve just finished my Duvel beer. In my cell, I look at that saucepan of mussels sitting on its pedestal as if it were on a gas-ring. Suddenly it looks like a Surrealist object : a poetic, hermetic metaphor. Ha ha, very funny ? a hermetic mussel. All identical, all different. The mussel bursts out of its own hermeticism, it spurts, it gushes. Overflowing ? with desire ? "Storm beneath a skull." A seething mass that quietly but powerfully bursts forth, spurting its juices. The eggs too have burst. Shattered. There is some kind of creative energy at work here, a muted, vaguely Nietzschean will to power. Shards, accidents, violence, cruelty. A frailty that is catching, that is determined to expand.

3.12 a.m. : I haven’t written anything for several minutes. I mustn’t try to understand. There’s no point sitting here looking at the work. MB’s art is not there. I must go back to the storerooms, to look for a key outside of the works.

3.46 a.m. : I lie down without switching off my computer.

4.52 a.m. : A dream.

Marcel Broodthaers’ daughter is gently saying to me,"If you really knew who my father was, you wouldn’t be treating him like this." I feel guilty, as if I am an impostor.

9.30 a.m. : The vital spark.

I am awake. I go back to a few basic notions : the two shells are the mussel’s dwelling-place, the eggshell is the dwelling-place of the egg, the museum is the dwelling-place of art. But all these protective structures ultimately give way. Will the museum too inevitably give way under the pressure of art, of life ? In Broodthaers, everything is pushing outwards : the mussels spill out of the pot ; the eggs burst their shells ; collections of poems push their way out of plaster. Just as Broodthaers’ own practice stepped outside itself almost by its very nature, expanding from journalism to poetry, from poetry to visual art, from visual art to film, etc. to bring into being a hybrid, deframed, free, wildly creative form. Likewise, the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, developed organically, even after the packing-cases of the inaugural exhibition had been returned. When it could no longer be contained by the walls of the house in the Rue de la Pépinière, it overflowed into reality, acquiring additional sections by grafting itself onto physical venues and events, like a fictional parasite, an invisible, nuclear yet proliferating nebula. A form of peaceful colonialism. Broodthaers’ artistic lesson, like that of the mussels in the saucepan, would seem to be : burst boundaries, make the mussels open.

I am awake. I go back to a few basic notions : the two shells are the mussel’s dwelling-place, the eggshell is the dwelling-place of the egg, the museum is the dwelling-place of art. But all these protective structures ultimately give way. Will the museum too inevitably give way under the pressure of art, of life ? In Broodthaers, everything is pushing outwards : the mussels spill out of the pot ; the eggs burst their shells ; collections of poems push their way out of plaster. Just as Broodthaers’ own practice stepped outside itself almost by its very nature, expanding from journalism to poetry, from poetry to visual art, from visual art to film, etc. to bring into being a hybrid, deframed, free, wildly creative form. Likewise, the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, developed organically, even after the packing-cases of the inaugural exhibition had been returned. When it could no longer be contained by the walls of the house in the Rue de la Pépinière, it overflowed into reality, acquiring additional sections by grafting itself onto physical venues and events, like a fictional parasite, an invisible, nuclear yet proliferating nebula. A form of peaceful colonialism. Broodthaers’ artistic lesson, like that of the mussels in the saucepan, would seem to be : burst boundaries, make the mussels open.

12.31 p.m. : I stay in the same place for an hour, between the saucepan of mussels and the picture of the eggs. The broken shells are displayed like clay pipes in a fairground shooting range. But "these are not pipes". Each egg is broken in a different way. This is a grotesque, as in the Italian decorative tradition of grottesche : a semblance of order is obtained via a series of disorders. Overall, Broodthaers’ art could be classed as grotesque in terms of its relationship between order and chaos. There are signs of order, but in the detail, a chaos and freedom of form and thought. An attempt to circumscribe the creative urge and unbridled flow of poetry with administrative rigour.

4.27 p.m. : It is my head that is the prison.

After a final tour of the storerooms, I am back in my cell. I meant to talk about psychological repression ? about the shell and the mussel as substitutes. But I’ve exhausted my inspiration. The works leave me speechless and dumb. I keep going round in circles in my head.
The irony is that yesterday, I thought that this critic’s cell in the S.M.A.K. would be like a prison. But after nearly 24 hours alone with Broodthaers, I realize that I myself am the prison. The prison is my head. My intellectual boundaries when I contemplate the work. This inability to go further, to own the work, to circumscribe it. This is perhaps the most fascinating thing about Broodthaers ? the subtle way he has of making us aware of our own cognitive limitations, of reflecting back at us the uncomfortable sight of our own intellectual and moral finiteness. We may not be mussels physically, but we are mussels mentally. Via the critique of the institution, a critique is being directed at viewers themselves, trapped in their habitus of thought and language, out of breath and out of ideas faced with the unclassifiable. Confronted by the overflowing saucepan, I am inhibited. I feel as if I am shut inside myself, within the limits of my sensibility. Those broken eggs have burst their shells and exhort me to free myself. The eggs have freed themselves, but I am a prisoner of my own emotions. I am the mussel. It’s time I got out of the pan.

I wish to thank Philippe Van Cauteren for agreeing to this proposal and the staff of the S.M.A.K. for making the necessary arrangements.


Guillaume Désanges

Translation : Victoria Selwyn