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by Hendrik Folkerts

Turning the Glass

During documenta 14, the Neue Galerie in Kassel housed a large number of vitrines, given the exhibition’s interest in many historical objects that form the fabric of European (art) history, from Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s first edition of Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of the Art of Antiquity) and the documents that evidence the history of looted art in Germany to the decree that outlined the conditions of slavery in seventeenth-century France titled Code Noir. On the one hand, a vitrine shields an object that is precious and vulnerable, protecting it from harmful elements. Yet, more importantly, the glass that separates the public from the object functions as a display mechanism that presupposes a unilateral spectatorship; the spectator’s gaze renders the object into something that is subjected to, conditioned by the physical act of looking down or into the vitrine. If we want to propose the exhibition as a space for critical inquiry or empowerment through resistance, it is necessary to first identify it as a site of disempowerment, in order to acknowledge the extent to which curatorial labor and practices as well as the public’s role are still implied, perhaps even complicit in, the structures of power underpinning exhibition-making and history.

First, let us acknowledge the space we are in: a white room. Coining the phrase “the white cube,” artist and writer Brian O’Doherty was one of the first commentators on the ideological undercurrents of the space in which we have grown accustomed to see visual art—that equally lit, off-white, supposedly neutral room. O’Doherty famously argues that in postmodernism, the white cube is far from neutral and corresponds with the history of modernism, produced as an aesthetic technology that both generates and is generated by a specific Western canon along a linearized history of art; a seemingly disembodied context that produces content through the exchange of cultural, commercial, and aesthetic values.(1) Furthermore, the pristine whiteness of its walls assumes an authority and neutrality that can even be read along racial lines, with its perpetuation as a continued validation of the values of a white, academic community.(2) Writer and curator Elena Filipovic contends that the large-scale, perennial exhibition format so omnipresent in our experience of contemporary art since the late twentieth century has produced a paradox: while it replicates the white cube of the museum and the gallery space as a display mechanism (the non-place of contemporary art, so to speak), the biennial and large-scale exhibition often claims a position of site-specificity or context-responsiveness. This is a paradox further induced by the antagonism that such exhibitions declare against the operations of neoliberalism, while the homogenous space in which it takes place denotes homogenization as a prerequisite for the neoliberal condition.(3) If such legacies of presenting and seeing art persist, we must perpetually demonstrate and modify its apparatus. Indeed, to quote O’Doherty, “[i]f the white wall cannot be summarily dismissed, it can be understood. […] The wall is our assumption.”(4)

Let us take a step back and consider the exhibition as a format. The presentation of art in a public setting is closely entangled with the history of power—of the church, the monarchy and the nation state—and, more specifically, with the history of the bourgeoisie, in which art became an important signifier of taste and cultivation as well as economic and social status. In his essay “The Exhibitionary Complex,” Tony Bennett approaches the exhibition as an epistemological category in the dissemination of power in modern history, commenting on Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) to juxtapose the rise of the complex of public museums, exhibitions, and world fairs in the nineteenth century with transitions in the punitive system of the same period. The notion of punishment shifted from public spectacle as both warning and implementation of power (the scaffold on the city square, so to speak) to incarceration in the prison complex, and thus isolation in a state of complete surveillance. Whereas the exhibitionary complex develops from private (the monarch’s cabinet of curiosities) to public, with the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace (1851) as the author’s key example. In this parallel, Bennett argues that, rather than rendering the social body of the populace visible to the all-seeing eye of power through the disciplinary panopticon, the exhibitionary complex proposed knowledge and pedagogy as instruments to render power visible to its constituents in a celebration of the state’s cultural, architectural and, industrial accomplishments. Indeed, this imbues people with power, quite literally empowering them. In Bennett’s words, the institutions of the exhibitionary complex “sought to allow the people, and en masse rather than individually, to know rather than to be known, to become the subjects rather than the objects of knowledge.” This is in order to “become, in seeing themselves from the side of power, both the subjects and objects of knowledge, knowing power and what power knows, and knowing themselves as (ideally) known by power, interiorizing its gaze as a principle of self-surveillance and, hence, self-regulation.”(5)

Within the colonial mechanisms of the nation state, the exhibition also served as an instrument for the implementation of Eurocentric racial theories and the subjugation of the colonial subject. In the aforementioned essay, Bennett refers to how the national courts or displays at such world fairs as the Great Exhibition in London or the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (1876) categorized along the lines of national, supranational or racial groupings. The notion of progress was enacted to correlate the stages of (industrial) production and the relation between nation and race. Colonized groups and people of color were represented as occupying the lowest level of production and thus subordinate to the display of the European powers.(6) This cultural production of imperialism was extended to more widely accessible spectacles, such as the carnival, the circus, and the fair, and then consolidated in the phenomenon of the colonial exhibition and, of course, the ethnographic museum. This type of exhibition did not limit itself to the display of production or artefacts, but included the actual display of human bodies as colonial subjects. As art historian Charmaine Nelson has observed, such displays clearly and deliberately separated the space of the privileged observer from that of the colonial “other,” as part of “the colonial apparatus which visually objectified the exhibited human subjects and racialized the bodies of the exhibition spectators.”(7)

If the exhibition as a typology was born out of a drive to demonstrate and impose the power of the imperialist nation-state, and the museum’s white wall as a canvas on which the subsequent (Euro-American-centered) canon of art history could unfold, the sense of empowerment is an affective one. It is employed to internalize and incorporate those power structures into both its subjects and spectators. Whereas content may have radically shifted—and many museum and gallery displays, as well as large-scale perennial exhibitions, are motivated by a strong political engagement to critically approach such notions as colonialism—the nation-state, the production of capitalism, and the apparatus of the exhibition remain largely intact. This generates a paradox and begs the question whether or not we can produce critical, even empowering exhibitions within the conceptual and physical architecture of the spaces we operate in.

To transform what may well be a state of utter paralysis into a productive contradiction, first of all necessitates that we acknowledge a complicity in the act of exhibiting: one cannot produce criticality without adopting the history of exhibition-making and the power dynamic inherent in it. The space of exhibition-making is thus one charged with ideology and political significance both as a positive and a negative, to borrow from photographic vocabulary. Yet, second of all, rather than shying away from this or completely ignoring it altogether, we need to embrace and even intensify it. If the exhibition could be employed to empower its spectators with the self-control and self-surveillance that required the nation-state to function, or if the white wall turned out to be not a blank canvas at all, they can also be asked to disempower those very histories and power structures by revealing them in an act of self-reflexivity. If we use the same display apparatus to exhibit the objects that have long produced the power mechanisms that gave the exhibitionary complex its raison-d’être, we do not only subject the object in question to scrutiny and analysis but also turn the act of exhibiting on itself. In this instance, the performance of the exhibition can embody the contradiction of its disciplinary history and its critical intent, amplifying both in relation to each other.

The vitrine seems the most apt metaphor to include us, the spectators, in this process. After all, it is precisely in the moment when the light hits the glass of the vitrine that we see ourselves and the objects we look down at. It is a moment when the act of exhibiting relates strongly to our self-image and bodies, and the vitrine’s glass can become a mirror that is turned to reveal what is underneath and above.


Hendrik Folkerts was recently appointed the Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was curator at documenta 14 (Athens, April 8 – July 16 / Kassel, June 10 – September 17, 2017) from 2014 until 2017. With a focus on performance and Conceptual Art, indigenous practices, and Southeast Asian art, he curated a large number of new artist commissions and, together with the team led by artistic director Adam Szymczyk, was responsible for the exhibition in Athens and Kassel. Prior to this, Folkerts was Curator of Performance, Film, and Discursive Programs at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2010–15). He studied art history at the University of Amsterdam, specializing in contemporary art and theory, feminist practices, and performance. From 2009 to 2011, Folkerts was coordinator of the Curatorial Program at de Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam. His texts have been published in journals and magazines such as Artforum International, South as a State of Mind, Mousse Magazine, The Exhibitionist, Metropolis M, Art & the Public Sphere, and in various catalogues. Folkerts is coeditor of The Shadowfiles #3: Curatorial Education (2013), Facing Forward: Art & Theory from a Future Perspective (2014), and the journal Stedelijk Studies #3: The Place of Performance (2015).

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (expanded edition), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999, pp. 14-15, 79-80.

2 Kathleen Connellan, “White Spaces,” in: ACRAWSA e-journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 2006, p. 7.

3 Elena Filipovic, “The Global White Cube,” in: Vanderlinden, Barbara and Elena Filipovic (eds.), The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 67-68.

4 O’Doherty, ibid, p. 80.

5 Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” in: New Formations, No. 4 (Spring 1988), p. 76.

6 Ibid., pp. 94-95.

7 Charmaine Nelson, “The ‘Hottentot Venus in Canada: Modernism, Censorship and the Racial Limits of Female Sexuality,” in: Willis, Deborah (ed.), Black Venus 2010, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2010, p. 114.

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