“Exhausted is a whole lot more than tired.” Deleuze goes on to say that, “The tired no longer prepares for any possibility.” The tired exhausts inspiration, while the exhausted exhausts his imagination. However, possibility remains, because one never realizes all of the possible.
‘Marcel Broodthaers: A retrospective’ is a major survey of over two hundred works created in the Belgian artist’s brief period of artistic production, spanning the last twelve years of his life. For quite awhile Marcel Broodthaers had been, as he described, “good for nothing”—composing poems for Surrealist journals and articles for communist publications. Is it true that the only thing the world needs less than an artist is a poet?
Immediately adjacent the entrance to the exhibition, there are a series of small black and white photographic prints that Broodthaers made in 1957. Struggling as a poet, he made ends meet as a photojournalist. As many amateur photographers before him, Broodthaers took a picture of a puddle (while documenting the construction of Expo ’58). In the photograph, which is included in the exhibition, you can see the reflection of the Atomium in Brussels. Its architecture is modeled after nine iron atoms in the shape of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. Newly constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, it represented a dominant faith in scientific progress. At the age of forty, the idea of inventing “something insincere” finally crossed Broodthaers’ mind and he set out to work. The photograph, limited by its “insincerity,” presents Modernism’s lack of a utopian dimension under the universal reification of the art object as commodity. Throughout his visual oeuvre, the advancement of the artistic forms of society is inextricably linked to its technical means.
Beneath the series of photojournalistic prints, volumes of Broodthaers’ poetry sit in museological postmortem display. With the exception of a few covers and curated spreads, the words are trapped in the unturned pages within the vitrine. In his first work as an artist, ‘Pense-Bête’ (Memory aid, 1964), he formalizes this gesture by encasing the unsold editions of his last collection of poems in plaster: a concretization of language that he would remain obsessed with. In another glass vitrine, very much like the first, the invitation to his first exhibition reads: “I, too, wondered if I couldn’t sell something and succeed in life…” The text has been printed over advertisements repurposed from magazines. It’s beautiful: the artist is subsumed by the poetry of advertising. His ongoing annihilation of the poetic text implies that the reality of language is much different than the language of the real.
The work that follows, which appears first in the exhibition, appeals to the sensual experience privileged by a newly born visual art practice. A composition of three primary colour photo developing trays, filled with garishly painted eggshells and plaster, hangs on the wall. There is also a wooden music stand with mussels affixed to its worn red enamel paint (with more plaster). The invitation concludes: “What is it? In fact, only some objects.” To Broodthaers, they were quotidian objects: mussels, eggs, pots, and advertisement imagery. He describes this early work as being, “inscribed within the context of ‘nouveau’ réalisme and sometimes that of Pop Art.” However, his appropriation of ready-made materials has more to do with his dialectical relationship with conceptualism, than that of Modernism’s or Andy Warhol’s.
If Hanne Darboven, Stanley Brouwn, On Kawara, et al had incorporated the conditions of a “totally administered world” into the production of their artwork, Broodthaers’ response to conceptual art’s aestheticization of bureaucracy was the bureaucratization of the aesthetic. The artist labels filmic objects with the mania of a drunk curator. Assigned to each are crudely-stencilled inscriptions, i.e. ‘fig. 1’, ‘fig. 2’, ‘fig. 12.’ When things had already been labeled, he altered the labels. ‘Carte du-Monde Poétique’ (Map of The Poetic World, 1968) is a world map displayed with its title altered. The “LI” in “POLITIQUE” has been crossed out with indelible marker and replaced with an “E” so that it reads Map of The Poetic World.
Broodthaers created the group of works entitled ‘Industrial Poems’ between 1968 and 1972. Simultaneously image, text and object, they are a series of vacuum formed plastic plaques: easily reproducible and sold as editions. Undergoing a new sort of concretization, their text is adapted from open letters written by the artist. The letters and subsequent plaques resonate with the language of the concurrent political occupation of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1968, which Broodthaers also participated in. Up until this point, the work’s connection to the industrial and political conditions of its production seems implicit in its hermetic textual rhetoric. The language of May ’68, already feeling somewhat redundant, echoes its discontent with the institution. The plaques share the conflicting condition of Broodthaers’ historical moment: constant consumption has just become the essential adaptive condition.
During a conversation with the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, I asked him if he thought it was possible to understand Broodthaers’ work without speaking French. His response was, “perhaps”, if you understand the word “moule”. Its most common use refers, of course, to the mollusc — constantly appearing throughout the exhibition. In addition to its second meaning, in the masculine form, as a mould used to bake bread and cake, it can be used to refer to a lethargic, clumsy person; an imbecile. Exhaustion, with its head and hands, in a pitiful pile. The exhibition is a prostration of the poet who is subjected to the process of aestheticization, the poet’s communicative function continually ending up in institutional containment. While the disavowal of that containment is at the root of Broodthaers’ transgressive appeal, the possibility that the signifier and signified simply assert themselves through their unassimilable distance, remains.