Recently, I got excited all over again by the work of Marcel Broodthaers thanks to Rachel Haidu’s book on the artist, titled The Absence of Work (MIT Press, 2010).
"Moi aussi je me suis demandé si je ne pouvais pas vendre quelque chose et réussir dans la vie. Cela fait un moment déjà que je ne suis bon à rien. Je suis âgé de quarante et un ans…"1
Me too, Marcel! I know exactly how you feel. The typography of the 19th century; the stylishness of Bruxelles; poems encrypted as installations; art shows as decor, displays or film sets filled with ferns and folding chairs – how could I not be overstimulated by all of this? Haidu argues that Broodthaers’ version of institutional critique was based on his good-for-nothing career as a poet and his critique of language as a corrupted, dysfunctional tool. His work effectively subverts art’s instrumentalization for the construction of national identity and the continuation of imperial structures. Today, as fictions of nationalism flourish and the dusty colonial order of the museum spreads through all fields of culture, it is refreshing to engage with his smart and elegant rejections.
This is all very inspiring. Although I’m über-excited, at the same time I’m afraid to doze off over Haidu’s circulating arguments. Instead of taking a nap, I choose to cruise Dufferin Mall. Strolling through the mall without a shopping list is equivalent to a nap in many ways. Everybody here moves in slow motion, sleepwalking. What happens inside the mall stays in the mall. The experience slips away from memory the moment you exit, impossible to recall like traces of a dream. The gaze slips along the grayness and beigeness of surfaces and retail displays. It is practical to navigate this space using the sense of smell instead of vision. Let the food court be your guide. The diverse cuisines of the globe emit a surprisingly unified bouquet. If you could distill and bottle it, it would be mayonnaise! In the mall’s deep end, sensations are subtler and more isolated. This is the late afternoon, sunset strip of the Dufferin arcades, where stores and stalls often close or swap places. Everything fades away. In the stillness of the air, psychedelic whiffs of polystyrene wave out of shops. It’s the intoxicating smell of factory freshness. No wonder kids love this place! Nowhere else is the aroma of plastic so touchable. High on synthetic stimulants, the only visuals that register in this abyss are the tropical fish on the screens of HD monitors stacked in front of electronics stores. Look at their shimmering textures! How brilliant. Every sparkle on their sequined bodies is crystal clear. The flâneur is hypnotized by the fluorescent rainbow pixels.
Ok, we need to switch the channel! Number 176 on cable, Al Jazeera’s live feed of Tahrir Square has been everybody’s favourite stimulation over the past weeks. Suspense alternated with euphoria: suddenly, not only a more equitable world, but also a better journalism seemed possible. A confusing report was broadcast on January 29. Filmed in a first-person-shooter video game perspective, it showed armed soldiers escorting the camera through the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Traveling between mummies, cabinets and sculptures, it documented the damage inflicted on artworks during a break-in the night before. According to German newspaper Die Zeit, the thieves were underpaid watchmen of the museum.2 Citizens of Cairo protected the collection from further damage. Looking at the details of the broadcast, the destruction seems carefully staged: a shattered case, pieces of glass on the floor, a paper cup, and the remaining parts of a broken figurine ─ golden feet standing on a wooden boat. In this violent image, the antique is recharged with new visual energy. The stimulating effect of the arrangement is undeniable. Not sublime like in the work of Broodthaers, but similar in the opposite way.
1. Text on the invitation to Marcel Broodthaers’ first gallery exhibition, Galerie Saint-Laurent, Brussels, April 10–25, 1964. Translation: “Me too, I asked myself if I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time now, I have been a good-for-nothing. I am forty-one years old…”
Oliver Husain is a filmmaker and artist based in Toronto. Husain studied film and media art in Offenbach, Germany and Baroda, India. He was included in The Power Plant exhibition We Can Do This Now (2006 –7) and in 2010 had solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of York University and Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto.