March 27, 2023

Daniel Buren’s ‘Le décor et son double’: the ambiguity of the public space

From the 21st  of September 2011 until the 4th of November 2012  Daniel Buren’s exhibition Le Décor et son Double will be on view at S.M.A.K. – the municipal museum for contemporary art in Ghent, Belgium. The show focuses on one single work, a unique artwork which, at the same time, is part of a twofold concept. One half of the concept is still on view in the guestroom of the Herberts, the other half went missing. S.M.A.K. presents  a reconstruction of Buren’s historical work and included all the necessary documentation and information to put the artwork in its original context. As such, the museum includes, amongst other things, films by Jef Cornelis. But the ‘original’ context is no longer merely to be found in the past.

The museum as power-hungry institution and Buren’s response

Le Décor et son Double was initially created to be part of the Chambres d’Amis exhibition (1986), curated by Jan Hoet. Buren was, as were many other artists, invited by Hoet to take part in this exhibition. The focal point of the show would no longer be the museum, but the private space. The walls of the museum were, figuratively speaking, torn down, in order to make art more public and accessible.

But Buren was, like many other artists, already working outside the museum space and poignantly states in an interview with Jan Debbaut that  “Jan Hoet’s exhibition was, fifteen years after Sonsbeek Buiten de Perken (1971), no more than an exploitation, if not in fact a recuperation of strategies, used by many artists of that generation.” As such, the museum tried to impose itself as a possibility to reveal art, even though it already had precisely that function: the museum already was the most accessible place to look at art. Why choose for the private space, then? In essence the museum now gave the opportunity to artists to work in a private setting, an opportunity they actually didn’t ask for. The artists who agreed to Jan Hoet’s invitation, would see their own systematics institutionalised. And such institutionalisation would usurp and annihilate these systematics.

Daniel Buren had also taken part in Sonsbeek buiten de Perken, in 1971. Here, as well, the institutionalisation of the systematics of working outside the museum space were present. “They proposed to put works on view across the whole city of Amsterdam, for instance on billboards, specially hired by the institute, and proposed to use trams for interventions.” Buren refused to use the billboards hired by the museum and would take part in a different way. He created his own boards and placed them in all the buildings of Dutch museums, who organised some sort of extra muros exhibition in their own towns. He would work, for instance, in the entrance halls of these museums. In doing so, he kept his own unicity and refused to have his systematics usurped by the organisation of the event; Buren used to place billboards all around the world, long before 1971, already.

For Chambres d’Amis Buren went even further than he did in 1971, which would lead to quite a few arguments between the artists taking part in the show, and also between Jan Hoet, the curator, and the artists. Firstly, Buren decorated the guest quarters of collector Herbert, in accordance with the aim of the exhibition. But to his (supposed) lament afterwards, Jan Hoet agreed with Buren’s proposal to divide the whole art work into two art works: one part would stay in Herbert’s guest chambers, the other copy would be hung at S.M.A.K (formerly the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst). This caused friction between the artists taking part in the exhibition, who felt that Buren wasn’t keeping to the project. According to Buren they were angry because they realised he saw something the other ones didn’t. Both works complement one another, but because the museum agreed with Buren’s proposition to decorate Herbert’s guest quarters, the complimentary, unique copy could never be a material half for the original work. Chambres d’Amis proposed itself to be a beneficiary, offering artists the possibility to make their works easily accessible to viewers. But in actual fact, the museum was merely expanding its power, by incorporating art within the private space (at certain times there were even attendants in the people’s houses) and as such, discovering  art became an alibi for voyeurism. In the end, the success and the financial gain of the exhibition had very little to do with art or the artist.

Because Le Décor et son Double was a twofold work, the museum could not penetrate the private space. Both works remain unique because they are not materially united, but still complement one another. In doing so, the work carries this ‘twofoldedness’ within itself, as are the owners as well: private v. public. This eternal twofold makes it impossible for the museum to state that it had penetrated the private space to give art  its public. Buren used this complementary element to transport the private space to the museum, but mostly emphasised the impossibility of the museum to take full possession of Le Décor et son Double. In the end, the artist managed to completely destroy the project and stayed true to his own systematics. His sincerity and guts caused a stir in the entire art world (as he completely undermined the project) and catapulted Buren into the art history books.

Why this work has a different meaning today

“The age old idea is that the modern art museum is autonomous, which means that its policy and choices are powered by an independent vision, based on art historical reflections on the development of art.”(Anna Tilroe, De Ja Sprong: Naar een Nieuwe Vitaliteit in de Kunst, 2011, pp 14). This independence seems nowadays heavily contaminated. The art market’s prices are out of balance, compared to the museums’ budgets, and the political and economic pressure causes museums to organise themselves like companies, argues Anna Tilroe in her pamphlet. She uses a few museums in Holland, among which the Stedelijk Museum (Municipal Museum) as examples to these statements. But in Belgium, the situation is pretty similar. An example: from the 23rd of October until the 23rd of January 2011 an exhibition with works by Anselm Kiefer was put on at the Royal Museum for Fine Arts in Antwerp. All artworks, 24 in total, were donated by a project developer from Germany. Such an exhibition serves as an example where input is more important than output. A lot of visitors gained very little from visiting the exhibition. This is, of course, a judgment on the art itself, and going too far into it is not relevant for this essay. Yet  a judgment on the situation the museum finds itself in is less positive and all the more relevant. No independent vision based on art historical reflections preceded this show. The link between the works of art and the reason why these works specifically were put on view was completely determined by the fact that it was the collector’s decision which works he was willing to donate. The museum no longer chose the artworks themselves, but rather the people who collect them. Collectors are usually rich  and wealthy, which makes the museum prone to similar neo-liberal currents. The neo-liberal class suppresses the museum with its wealth and as such turns the museum into its toy. The museum becomes an extension of the living room of someone with a quite a lot of money in the bank, who likes to buy some art as well.

Back to Le Décor et son Double. Buren proved the aforementioned impossibility for the museum to extend its power into the private sphere. On the contrary, the private space forced itself into the museum. Today, the roles are reversed. The museum itself becomes prone to the power structures of the private space. Buren didn’t try to deliberately oppose to the museum, he just wanted to preserve his systematics and expose the museum’s impossibility by using the museal project Chambre d’Amis as some form of counter attack. Not to destroy it, but to mark territories. If it was up to Buren, the museum should still function as an independent ‘exposer’ of art. Le Décor et son Double is by no means anti-institutional art.

The work  nowadays attracts a very different perception, and – seeing its original context – conjures up a sour aftertaste. The work was very much ahead of its time, as it already penetrated the private space as early as 1986. S.M.A.K seems to be touching a sore spot, by reconstructing the room which was meant to be exhibited in the museum. Because it completes Le Décor et son Double once again, and is still divided over two owners, it can be seen as a signal to all museums, a warning signal against the privatisation of the museum. In that respect, this work keeps its urgency and remains accurate for the future as well.

Buren provoked the art world in 1986 and does it today once more. The contradiction lies in the fact that this provocation owes its mere existence to the art world, more correctly to S.M.A.K.

[The exhibition Daniel Buren, Le Décor et son Double, runs until the 4th of November 2012 in S.M.A.K.]

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