Above we have images of one of bigger hits of the Spring 2011 exhibition season, the installation "The Recovery of Discovery" by the artist Cyprien Gaillard, which was exhibited at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin back last March.
The work consisted of boxes of (room-temp) beer stacked in the form of a four-sided pyramid, amounting to some seventy-two thousand bottles in total. With an apparent come-one-come-all door policy for the gallery, crowds were allowed to freely collect and linger in the gallery -- to climb and sit on the structure, to raid its contents as they saw fit. "The audience became its own event," Hal Foster wrote in Artforum, noting that the open invitation "attract[ed] a crowd above the denizens of the art world." Speaking with KW Institute curator Susanne Pfeffer in an interview in Flash Art last year, Gaillard said of the installation...
CG: This is why we love ruins so much. Because they tell us we survive, we made it. They are decaying but we survive. I am here and that’s great. That’s what a lot of modern buildings don’t tell you. They don’t tell you where you are.
SP: This might also be linked to the question of the social impact the pyramid at KW had. Did you expect that?
CG: I was secretly hoping it. I was hoping that younger people who have never stepped foot in a museum would come. All these high school kids coming here, and how many times did we see people barfing in the court yard? Then, just going back to the parents all drunk… I can’t even imagine what they would say coming back home. Why are you drunk?' 'I was in a museum! I spent the whole day in a museum!' What kind of museum would promote such things? I’m still amazed that we were able to pull off such a thing. ...I don’t know how difficult it was on your side, because I know I was walking in there and it was complete anarchy and smashing bottles and people smoking and drinking, homeless people, unemployed people, people still climbing, this whole idea of broken glass everywhere, and the staff not being able to control it.
All of which, of course, is the sort of thing that's bound to attract a lot of attention, to get people talking. Fairly straightforward, in a way -- offering a bacchanalian twist on another artworld crowd-pleaser of some years ago, Felix Gonzales-Torres's pile of candy circa 1991.* Yet on the other hand, I find the work intriguing because of the way it's subtly rich with a number of cleverly layered geopolitical and aesthetic references.
There's the archeological angle, for starters. In speaking of ruins in the Flash Art discussion, Gaillard wasn't only referring to the eventual decimated state of the installation at the end of its run, but also to what inspired the work in the first place -- the Pergamon Altar, which is housed nearby on Museum Island in Berlin. In much the same way that the Pergamon Alter was reconstructed in an indoor setting, Gaillard has erected his own facsimile of a ziggurat -- a structure that not only invokes the waning and pillaging of empires, but also summons the thought of the current situation in Iraq by way of ancient Sumeria. And then there's the matter of the beer itself, a brand of pilsner called Efes imported from Turkey, which in turn alludes to issues of global capital and immigration -- bringing to mind not only Germany's decades-long difficult relationship with its labor force of Turkish gastarbeiters, but also the recent rhetoric of a "clash of cultures" and the swerve toward anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation throughout parts of Europe over the past ten years. And whether the result of sheer coincidence or not, the beer's packaging triggers its own set of significations. Primarily there's the fact that certain shades of blue have long carried an Old-World Orientalist association with the Middle East -- specifically those of turquoise and lapis lazuli.
It's on that specific shade of blue that thoughts turn toward art-historical references and precedents -- of how the piece involves a collision of aesthetic notions involving purity and impermanence, endurance and ephemerality. More obviously, there's the thought of Yves Klein's International Blue. But at the same time, the installation's basic physical form also connotes mind the severe and pristine formalism of Minimalist art, specifically as carried out in some of Sol LeWitt's geometrical permutations. Then there's the ghost of process-oriented Conceptualist practices lurking in the wings; those late '60s manifestations that resulted in explorations of "anti-form" and the "dematerialization of the art object."
In relation to the latter, Gaillard says the piece was partially inspired by the work of Robert Smithson, by Smithson's fascination with entropic processes. In a way, "The Recovery of Discovery" follows from the Duchampian logic that it is the viewer who completes the work the work of art, in this instance the interaction of the audience with the work leads to the works completion by an act of undoing; an undoing brought about by active human agency (rather than the erosion brought about by natural or elemental forces). This, in turn, raises question regarding civic and societal dynamics. As Hal Foster wrote of the piece:
"Certainly the nasty remains of the installation did not present a rosy idea of community. For foregrounded here was not so much the irreducible antagonism in the social that relational aesthetics is said to gloss over, but rather the psychic instability of the crowd...an instability that rendered the installation insecure as both structure and event."
Naturally, because when you throw a party and everyone's welcome, you can expect any number of things might happen -- broken furniture, maybe a punch-up or two, all variety of messes, and the likelihood that no one will be mensch enough to offer to return the next day and help you clean up. And pertinent to "current events," Foster sees fit to additionally point out:
"The Efes cost forty thousand euros, which were paid, indirectly, by German taxpayers, who would soon balk at a further bailout of Greece – another act that many Germans regard as one of self-preservation and many Greeks as one of destruction."
There you have it -- wanton consumption meets reification. So it goes in the contemporary realm of the civic.
* There is, naturally, yet another art-world dimension to this -- that being the common practice of Friday evening openings in gallery districts. The "gallery walk" sort where galleries throw open there doors for all & sundry, and people roam the sidewalks going from venue to venue, generous helping themselves to the free wine and beer on offer, giving the wares on display a quick galnce-over while socializing and getting a buzz on.