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Elena Filipovic

The Conditional Perfect Museum

The identification of immediate with past experience, the recurrence of past action or recreation in the present, amounts to a participation between the ideal and the real, imagination and direct apprehension, symbol and substance... Thanks to this reduplication, the experience is at once imaginative and empirical, at once an evocation and direct perception, real without being merely actual, ideal without being merely abstract, the ideal real, the essential, the extra temporal.

Samuel Beckett, Proust (1931)

The perfect conditional is an odd grammatical tense. Speaking in the complex future-past-potential temporality of the would have been, the perfect conditional designates an action or event that has not yet occurred but might have, if only another event had happened first.

One could say that it defies history. For if language can give voice to things that slip out of time’s neat continuum, it can do so because language goes around the rules of unflappable forward progress – past to present – thus allowing the would have been to sit on the sidelines of history’s straight and narrow path. How else could one speak of what Samuel Beckett calls the “ideal real” except as something extratemporal, something that lies between past and present, imagination and empiricism? And how, more specifically, might one do so in relation to the museum, that archetypical site for the collection of history and narration of past time? Yane Calovski and Hristina Ivanoska’s poster project, Oskar Hansen’s Museum of Modern Art (2007), speaks in just a temporally convoluted tense.

The project announces, via twelve posters, a fictitious series of museum exhibitions spanning from 1966 to 2008. This hypothetical exhibition program “takes place” in the artist duo’s hometown in a building designed by Polish architect Oskar Hansen in 1966 but never built. Showing “documentary” traces of a past, present and even a future (since the posters were printed a year before the 2008 exhibition would have opened) that never was, the posters indicate what might have been at twelve selected moments in time and rooted in their specific imagined or real cultural circumstances. Thus constructing what Ivanoska calls the “physically impossible and conceptually real,” the project is premised on a conundrum: How to imagine exhibitions of a museum that never existed to hold them? 1

A clarification should be made: A Museum of Contemporary Art does exist in Skopje, and was built in 1970, but the exhibitions and other events announced on Calovski and Ivanoska’s posters were not meant to be held there, for that place is an altogether different one from Hansen’s. The Museum for Modern Art (MOMA) devised by Hansen was one of several architectural proposals responding to a competition open to Eastern European architects to provide Skopje with a new museum as a sign of Eastern-Block solidarity after an earthquake devastated the Macedonian capital in 1963.2 Needless to say, Hansen’s audacious proposal didn’t win and, in the decades following the competition, it fell into minor oblivion, largely left out of architectural and local histories the way unrealized projects often are.3 Yet, Hansen’s proposal for hydraulically – powered, rotating telescopic structures that would raise and lower different hexagonal rooms, allowing for “a transformable exhibition space, able to fold completely and then unfold into various combinations” can arguably be said to have revolutionized not only architectural standards of museum architecture but also the very concept of the museum as an institution.4

Museums, after all, define the space of our encounter with the past, contributing to the production of what we call history. This is the case even of museums committed to collecting and displaying the most recent contemporary art (they are in the process of constructing tomorrow’s history). The resulting exterior forms – the edifices into which the production of the history happens – are most often imposing, immobile, and durable architectonics meant to create the impression of permanence, stability, timelessness, and neutrality so that the museum’s collection of cultural patrimony can present itself as if it were already history. Hansen’s project was a deliberate counterproposal to traditional museum forms and the fixity of their claims. In the instability and mutuality that the Polish architect made integral to his project, the museum’s role as an embodiment of implacable authority comes undone: The institution shows itself to be tentative and in process; and, quietly, but undeniably, it suggests that History (with a capital H) too might be just as precarious and subject to change.

The audacity of Hansen’s project also lay in yet another conception of the role of the museum that was central to his proposal: He imagined the museum as nothing less than an impetus for the art that might eventually be held within it. His modular exhibition space, able to move horizontally and vertically, were meant to structurally respond to contemporary art’s “unpredictability”. Thus rather than architecture as the result of purely formal or “universal” considerations, Hansen’s unrealized museum was nothing short of dialectical. “Beyond the potential... for the exposition itself” the architect thought it could – indeed would – “provoke new art” and make art and artists active participants in their own framing and contextualization.5 One might best understand it as the polemical response to museum design that it was by comparing it with the plans for another art museum conceived (and that one actually built) in the same period: Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery in Berlin (1962-1968). Van der Rohe’s “temple of light and glass” inaugurated in 1968 and made of a monumental ribbed roof, steel frame, square encasement in glass, grid structural plan, and continuous space in the paradigm of the museum as a commanding and starkly rigid frame for art. Exemplary of the Miesian belief in universal architectural forms, the obdurate glass box could not be further from Hansen’s example of architecture as a modular and flexible “open form.”

Using Hansen’s museum as a starting point, Calovski and Ivanoska pay tribute to his model of utopian modernism, but do so via a project that also necessarily interrogates the premises and functioning of conventional museums as well. To create hypothetical exhibitions specifically for Hansen’s museum is to plea for the role that the museum might more actively play in adapting itself to art, rather than merely assuming the role of authority, legitimator, and historian. The question they asked was: Had Hansen’s “foldaway museum” been built, what exhibitions, lectures, and other events would have filled or indeed been inspired by it?

In the process, the artists construct fiction. But theirs is deliberately not an elaborate fiction (one could imagine how far they could have gone: fake grainy installation shots of the “exhibitions,” display maquettes, invitations, catalogues, etc.) because the fiction is not actually the point. Instead, they seem to be less interested in the construction of falsehoods (or in the role or power of the poster-as-document in that construction) than in the suggestion of what might have been possible, plausible, and what the artists feel was “necessary and urgent” for the period. Exhibitions of the work of Ana Mendieta (1973), Paul Thek (1974), Mladen Stilinovic (1998), Andrzej Szewczyk (2008), alongside lectures by Susan Sontag (1987), for instance, are just some of the responses that the posters offer.

The artist duo acknowledges that there are “hidden associations” between each exhibition announced on a poster and the year in which the exhibition would have been held. The exhibitions take their dates from a year of the production of certain artworks or a year of greater historical importance for the region-as in the case with the Painting is White, Sculpture is Black, Architecture is Color exhibition, “staged” in 1996, which coincided with the end of the siege of Sarajevo. Urgency can, then, be read in the specificity of their choices, with all their political, social, and cultural dimensions. For instance, imagining an exhibition of Ana Mendieta’s People Looking at Blood (Rape Scene) for the year 1973 is no innocent choice. The provocative restaging of rape first performed by the artist in her Iowa apartment earlier that year is particularly meaningful in a region that would give birth both to a complex body-art tradition and be plagued by a future of wars and the very real sexual abuses that accompanied them. Very differently, showing Mladen Stilinovic’s The Praise of Laziness (1998) is a very particular and meaningful exhibition choice; shown after the wave of international exhibitions about “the Balkans,” it exposes and makes an artwork of the cliché of laziness attributed to the region.

The poster project thus acknowledges the importance of exhibitions as markers (and makers) of their times. Art critic Thomas McEvilley once described the potential of an exhibition to define “a certain moment, embodying attitudes and, often, changes of attitude that reveal, if only by the anxieties they create, the direction in which culture is moving.” 6 Calovski and Ivanoska’s project implicitly acknowledges this and attempts to point to some of the directions in which culture might have moved in the region from its Titoist days its war-torn years and their aftermath.

For an earlier project, Nature and Social Studies: Spiral Trip (2000/2003), the artists traveled – during a period when the Republic of Macedonia was still engulfed in an armed conflict – from the center of Macedonia to Skopje in a route that followed the shape of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. With its explicit element of homage, its references to the construction of (art) historical memory, re-enactment of the past in the present, and reposition of the political and the art historical, their Spiral Trip bears telling links with the poster series. Relating the two projects, Calovski suggests that both attempt “a new discourse of the future if you will. Art history introduced to an anticipated, politically driven history shaping up in the present. We continuously make connections between points of discontinuity to see how they will all start to play with each other and constitute a new historical vertical.” 7

Given the vertiginous continuity of the spiral of Smithson’s famous earthwork, it is perhaps not surprising that Calovski and Ivanoska’s Spiral Trip, like the poster series, is centered on a convoluted relationship to time. Both are linked to the 1960s era in which each project symbolically traces its “roots” (Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was first conceived at the end of the 1960s even if only finally constructed in April 1970 and Hansen’s museum proposal dates from 1966). The 1960s was a period of incredible postwar idealism and transformation and, perhaps not unrelatedly, it was also a period when temporality – the future-looking of both design and space travel – was being intensely practiced and theorized. From the 1961 John F. Kennedy presidential promise that man would walk on the moon by the end of the decade, with all the temporal implications of sending someone to the unconquered landscape of the future; to George Kubler’s The Shape of Things (1962) with its theory of time so influential to Robert Smithson and minimalists; to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fuire’s The Medium is the Message (1967) and its reflection on a cybernetic future; to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Time was, you could say, in the air.  

Like Spiral Trip, Calovski and Ivanoska’s Oskar Hansen’s Museum of Modern Art subtly extends this arch-preoccupation of the period, using it as the starting point for temporally oscillating project constructed in the present. In the end, Calovski and Ivanoska’s posters chart out a past we could never have taken part in, but they do so without making it a simplistically retrospective or nostalgic endeavor (and the final poster in the series, set already into the future, slyly insist o this). Their conditional perfect would have been is meant to prepare us all the better for what still could be, instigating us to question our present’s future and the museum and art’s role in defining it.


1 Ivanoska in Imagining the Museum: Sebastian Cichocki talks to Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski in this volume, p.45.

2 In 1964, a decree for a new museum was established by the Town Assembly of the city of Skopje and in 1966 the competition was opened and it is as part of this that Hansen devised his proposal entitled, evocatively, Process and Art. The project by the Polish architecture team of J. Mokrzynski, E. Wierzbicki, and W. Klyzewski won the competition and the museum they designed opened to the public in 1970.

3 Recent efforts have attempted to rectify this, notable among them are the Foksal Gallery Foundation’s publication of Oskar Hhansen’s archival materials and documentation of unrealized projects in Towards Open Form (Warsaw: Fundacja Galerii Foksal, 2005).

4 Hansen in Towards Open Form, p.213.

5 Indeed the project expanded on another that Hansen first devised some eight years earlier for the extension of the Zacheta gallery in Warsaw in 1959 (there, exhibition spaces also moved vertically and horizontally, radically shifting one’s possible experience of space) but also bears resonances with Hansen’s own private residence, with its sliding walls, multi-functional spaces, and infinitely flexible structure. See Oskar Hansen, Towards Open Form (Warsaw: Fundacja Galerii Foksal, 2005).

6 Thomas McEvilley, “The Global Issue,” Artforum, 28 (1990), p.20

7 Calovski in Imagining the Museum: Sebastian Cichocki talks to Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski in this volume, p.49.

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