Theory in the White Cube. Between Extravaganza, Self-Historicization, and Academia

Lucie Kolb
Kunsthalle Zürich , 10.05.2015

Kunsthalle ZürichFig. 1

At the closing session of the two-day symposium dedicated to the 30-year jubilee of the Kunsthalle Zürich (February 5/7, 2015), Beatrix Ruf, the outgoing director who went to the Stedelijk Museum in 2014, stepped up to the microphone and said: “I’m not gonna do a wrap-up,” and without dwelling on the matter any further, she instead pled for the Kunsthalle as a type of institution. She emphasized the privilege and the luxury of being able to curate the most diverse kinds of exhibitions (individual and group shows, project-based exhibitions, and retrospectives) without having to depend on ticket revenues the way museums are. “That’s all I wanted to say.” Laughter from the audience. Acting Director Daniel Baumann was visibly irritated. “You were supposed to ask a question!” Beatrix Ruf: “No, you!” This situation at the podium spoke to a certain uncertainty about who should play which role, and from which position each person was speaking. Was Ruf acting as the moderator at a symposium about the history of the institution’s exhibitions, or, as the long-standing curator at the Kunsthalle, was she talking about herself?
  Symposia have been booming in the art world for some time. In a recent publication,[1] Philipp Felsch described how “theory” migrated from the auditoriums to the White Cube, “which is where it currently prefers to reside.”[2] In 1991, Isabelle Graw also remarked that it was almost impossible to find someone in 1990 who “hadn’t received at least one invitation to a symposium.”[3] That the Kunsthalle Zürich has held a position for “theory and programming” since 2014 is emblematic of this shift. Theory as a form of curatorial expression is placed front and center here, accompanied most recently by an appropriation of academic forms, such as the symposium. In academic circles, the term “symposium” refers to a type of event where academics present their research and their findings, and discuss them amongst one another. Symposia are professional events that are attended first and foremost by peers, not a general public.
  The Kunsthalle symposium was different. On the one hand, the lecturer’s direct involvement was favored in terms of the critical distance from the subject (which is instead customarily a feature of academic discourse). Most of the invitees were artists who talked about their own exhibitions at the Kunsthalle. On the other hand, the form of the event, which goes mostly unquestioned in an academic setting, benefitted from the greater attention paid in this instance by the organizers. The stage for the Symposium recalled artworks critical of the institution that arose in relation to the “New Institutionalism,” among other things, where the general conditions of art production were thematized using a procedural aesthetic. Apolonija Šušteršičs’s work for the Kunstverein München (2002) is emblematic of this.  The institution’s entrance area was transformed into a café where visitors could have coffee and look at magazines and other materials.[4] The symposium also took place in the Kunsthalle’s entrance area. The passage to the next exhibition space was blocked off by a ribbon that still provides a glimpse of the installation of the upcoming exhibition of works by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian. One could see plastic, ladders, and even some uncrated works of art. This was another perspective on exhibitions and thereby, on the institution itself. To mark the Jubilee, posters from all the exhibitions since the Kunsthalle’s founding in 1985 were hung on the walls.
  The Kunsthalle Zürich’s birthday (as is right and proper, cream cake and champagne were also served) was used as an occasion, in the words of the organizers (who included, in addition to Beatrix Ruf and Daniel Baumann, Julia Moritz, who holds the title of “Curator for Theory and Programs” at the Kunsthalle) “to look back, ahead, and to each side.”[5] The two-day Symposium began with a “memory moment,” as Beatrix Ruf called it: a podium discussion with the Kunsthalle’s founding members and other contemporaries titled “The Kunsthalle’s beginnings in the 1980’s; who was at the Weisser Wind Restaurant?” Old and new calendars of events were perused as a way to examine the institution’s own history. On the second day, the language switched to English, and the tone changed as well. The focus was no longer on shared recollections, rather on presentations of different types of exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Zürich (group exhibitions, landmark exhibitions, individual exhibitions, retrospective and restaged exhibitions, and project-based exhibitions) in the form of academic lectures, and then, artist interviews.
  It was, therefore, an “Exhibition History,” a theme that has become the subject of research in the last ten years in curatorial studies, art history, art programming, and, last but not least, contemporary art itself.[6] The art historian Lucy Steeds and the exhibition curator João Ribas, two important actors in this conversation, were invited to come to Zurich to speak. The other speakers and participants were exclusively artists: Liam Gillick spoke about his retrospective at the Kunsthalle, AA Bronson, Tobias Madison and Stephan Dillemuth spoke in corresponding artist’s interviews about their own exhibitions and their involvements in other exhibitions, as well as other past exhibitions at the Kunsthalle. The tone of the discussions was harmonious. The interview participants and organizers engaged in a very positive and supportive manner. The artists had a certain closeness to the exhibitions they talked about for having been involved in them. The criteria for choosing the speakers – as one would expect – were therefore proximity and involvement. The privileged position (in terms of interpreting an exhibition) was the one with the least distance. The artists’ statements alone were already conceived as a form of history. The Symposium could, therefore, be understood as an attempt, amidst a process of self-historicization, to make a contribution to Exhibition History. However, no theoretical or historical lines of discourse concerning Exhibition History were developed any further, merely referred to. Like the institution-critical setting, it too provided a supportive backdrop to the birthday celebration. The current event was indeed a scholarly symposium on the subject of Exhibition History, but it was also a “memory moment,” a self-historicization of the Kunsthalle, and a “birthday extravaganza,” as Stephan Dillemuth called it. And it was all situated in an intermediate area where roles were played with and where rules have not yet been fully set. The setting of Symposium – in the spacious entrance area of the Kunsthalle between two different exhibitions – embodied this “in-between” situation perfectly. The resulting uncertainty also spoke to a specific attribute of the art world in terms of the production of knowledge: allowing for and cultivating a fundamental uncertainty about its own rules and forms. Establishing theory in the context of art inevitably means to experiment with the form of the theory itself.


Fig. 1
30 Years Kunsthalle Zürich, 2015
© Photo: Kunsthalle Zürich


[1] Felsch, Philipp: Der lange Sommer der Theorie. Geschichte einer Revolte 1960–1990, München: C. H. Beck 2015.

[2] Ibid., pg. 198.

[3] Graw, Isabelle: “The Year of the Symposia,” in: Texte zur Kunst 2 (Spring 1991), No. 2, pg. 180.

[4] See http://www.on-curating.org/index.php/issue-21.html (15.4.2015).

[5] http://kunsthallezurich.ch/de/30-jahre-kunsthalle-z%C3%BCrich (06.05.2015).

[6] For example, the Handbuch Ausstellungstheorie und -praxis by ARGE schnittpunkt (2013), the book series Exhibition Histories by Afterall (since 2010), or the MA Program in Exhibition Studies at Central Saint Martins in London (since 2011).

Lucie Kolb is an artist and currently holds a Doc.Mobility fellowship of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Translation: Claudio Cambon