From the "Wunderblock" to the "Jardin d’Hiver". Models of De-Presenting in Marcel Broodthaers’ Work

Sebastian Egenhofer
Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, 14.09.2014

Broodthaers’ Poèmes industriels (Fig. 1, 2) are structured in two or three layers like the “Wunderblock” (Fig. 3), which Sigmund Freud analysed as a model of the “psychic apparatus” and in the light of its ability to link ephemeral perceptual awareness with the mnemic function.[1]

Broodthaers_Industrielle Gedichte Kunstmuseum BaselFig. 1

A relief made up of letters and symbols is impressed into thin plastic sheets from behind, using vacuum embossed printing technology, by applying a template to the back of thin plastic sheets; the colouring of the front surface of these sheets accentuates or covers over this relief. Here the hardboard template assumes the place of the “permanent traces” of previous imprinting experiences (affects/perceptions), which are overlaid one upon another in the wax layer of the Wunderblock and which, in keeping with the analogy to the act of remembering, can penetrate into the frontal surface of consciousness of the present, in which they become a momentary experience of remembering.

Broodthaers_Académie I         Fig. 2


Broodthaers_Wunderblock         Fig. 3

  The topic of a manifest visual form and a latent, primarily linguistic content structures the oeuvre of Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976) from the moment of his conversion from poet to artist, emblematically reflected in the sculpture Pense-Bête (1964), the unsold copies of his last volume of poetry cast in plaster. The element of visual manifestation that replaced the poet’s white page is understood in this context as institutionally limited and economically determined: in the first instance it is the exhibition space of the gallery, the forgetful frontal surface of a further Wunderblock, the length of time it remains present regulated by the flow of exchange value. Three weeks in the St. Laurent gallery for example cost 30 per cent of the potential sales revenue from the “objects” displayed there, as Broodthaers noted on the famous invitation card to his first gallery exhibition (1964). The artistic statement – the exposure of material signs (“objects”) in this space – therefore runs parallel to the “process of reification”, which for Broodthaers was the “essential structure of art”.[2]
  His early awareness of this is reflected on the one hand in the divided structure of the “objects” he showed in the exhibition space. They do not merge into their presentation, as Broodthaers alleges that the “academic forms” of contemporary Minimal Art (“… cube … sphère … pyramide …”) do, floating without memory in the exhibition space that is suffused with exchange value (“obéissant aux lois de la mer”, to cite the text in the undercoat of Académie I, 1968). His own objects are always like buoys – or are structured like a message in a bottle: the visual form that is present dips back into the permanent traces in the wax layer. On the other hand, right from the outset of his artistic practice Broodthaers also dealt with the zone of the Parerga of this space – ranging from the invitation card to the windows and walls right through to the catalogue and accompanying interview. The socio-symbolic order’s positional system, which prescribes the roles of the author or creator, the intermediaries and the consumers of “art”, is thus highlighted to exist as a system.[3] In the project Musée d’Art Moderne. Département des Aigles (1968–1972), Broodthaers subsequently, over a four-year period, replicated and parodied the apparatus of cultural memory – complete with its rituals, its material and administrative infrastructure and its state guarantee. The layers of the deep, stratified time of this apparatus, set obliquely to the present of the market, were peeled open in 1972 in the Section des figures at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf by assembling several hundred eagle exhibits encompassing an enormous historical span – a confrontation with the non-synchroncity of the permanent traces in the historical archive.[4]
  Finally, when Broodthaers was recognised by the institution of the museum – in 1974/75 he presented five retrospectives in Brussels, Basel, Berlin, Paris and Oxford – the artist created an allegorical overlay or mirroring of museum space with the late Jardin d’hiver (Conservatory) installations – the Basel exhibition includes the second version, beautifully reinstalled by Marie-Puck Broodthaers and Søren Grammel (Brussels 1974) (Fig. 4). Here the stagnating, universalised present, which enabled 19th-century historicism to stroll contemplatively through the centuries, is overlaid with the hypocritical calm of the conservatory, in which the bourgeoisie of the day, both in Belgium and beyond, sublimated colonial exploitation: the integration of the geographical and economic exterior into capitalist space.

Broodthaers_Jardin_ Kunstmuseum BaselFig. 4

In the installation-based form of the conservatory, the graphic characters that are tied into the sculpture of  Poèmes or into the celluloid and the light space of Broodthaers’ films become objects, correlated in the first instance with an image evocative of theatrical set design and with a densely atmospheric harmony;  subsequently however, these objects – ranging from the potted palm to the animal depictions or the garden chair – prove to be the sediments and supplements of a historical reality, whose absence – the absence of the real historical conservatory, the geographical Tropics and the horrors of colonisation – they dodge around. The message in a bottle has become a labyrinth of graphic characters, which envelops visitors or users – making them, when they awaken from the trance of a merely aesthetic experience, into readers of their own historical classification as descendants of the bourgeois subjects of the 19th century. 
  This transformation of aesthetic experience into reading, the  criss-crossing of the visual present – the most frontal stratum of the Wunderblock – with “writing” that renders explicit the structure of the economic, institutional and technical conditions that determine its production and appearance, seems to me to be a central achievement of Broodthaers’ oeuvre. It is clear that the prerequisites of this type of contemporary critique have changed enormously since the 1970s. The polarity between language/writing and image, as well as between museum and gallery, points of reference for Broodthaers’ practice, have been lost in the wake of the spectacularisation of museum operations and through the digital subversion of the writing/image distinction. That makes it all the more essential to engage in a critique of the fluid present, underpinned by financial capital and the digital code, and of the way in which this threatens nowadays more than ever to eradicate everything heterogeneous, as well as wiping out the permanent traces of the archive. A practice that seeks the dimension of resistance in the singularity of biographical experience or in a relic-like or animistically charged materiality, as proposed by the last documenta or the Venice Biennale, does not do justice to this task, if indeed it can be fulfilled by art at all. The kind of resistivity that makes it possible to refract the digitally volatile public realm with its truncated temporal rhythms, in the process transforming it into a medium of historical reflectivity, must be sought in the means of production of this present. References to the technical and economic “hardware”[5] of our globally synchronised era encompass an artistic or generally present-critical practice into self-reflection to such a limited degree that such practice tends rather, in and with this hardware, to touch on an exterior that cannot be assimilated, and on the vertical, exponential historicity not of traces of memory but of the substance of the apparatus in which these traces are inscribed.

Le Corbeau et le Renard. Revolt of Language with Marcel Broodthaers
March 22 to August 17, 2014 at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel
St. Alban-Rheinweg 60, CH-4010 Basel

[1] Sigmund Freud, “Notiz über den ‘Wunderblock’” [1925], GW XIV, Frankfurt am Main 1999, pp. 1–8, http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/7122/42; English: Sigmund Freud, (1925) A Note upon the “Mystic Writing-Pad”, in: Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, vol. 19, pp. 227-232.

[2] See Marcel Broodthaers, “Ten thousand francs reward”, in id., Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure, Barcelona 2012, pp. 413-419, p. 417.

[3] Broodthaers’ thematic focus on and subversion of the positional system – language itself and the socio-symbolic order – has been addressed above all by Birgit Pelzer in her analyses of Broodthaers’ oeuvre, which have still not enjoyed a broad enough reception (cf. the Broodthaers edition of October [No. 42, Autumn 1987], the Paris catalogue [Jeu de Paume 1991, ed. Cathérine David], the colloquium records [Jeu de Paume 1992] and the essay on the Collected Writings).

[4] I have developed this reading of the “Section des figures” as an “opening up” or “leafing through” of the wax layer of the Wunderblock in a longer text, to be published soon in a DFG-conference publication on the topic of “Allegory” (ed. Ulla Haselstein et al.).

[5] Erich Hörl, inter alia, has worked on tapping into this dimension of the technical foundations of our contemporary world. See for example Die technologische Bedingung, ed. Erich Hörl, Frankfurt am Main, 2011.

Fig. 1
Marcel Broodthaers, Poèmes industriels, 1968–1970, plastic sheets, embossed, different sizes,
loans from Marie-Puck Broodthaers, Basel, private collection Brussels, private collection Zürich, Museum Lausanne
Showcases: An Arrangement by Marie-Puck Broodthaers
Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel

Fig. 2
Marcel Broodthaers, Académie I, 1968
plastic, embossed, 86 × 120 cm
Photo: Archive of the author

Fig. 3
Marcel Broodthaers, L'Ardoise Magique, 1972,
Courtesy Private collection, Brussels
Photo: M HKA

Fig. 4
Marcel Broodthaers, Un jardin d’hiver II, 1974, 6 photos, framed, each 81 × 124,5 cm; 16 folding chairs; 28 palm trees,
Private collection Brussels;
Un jardin d'hiver (A B C), 1974; 16 mm, colour film, with sound, 6 Min.,
Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung,
deposited in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel
Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel

Sebastian Egenhofer is professor for modern and contemporary art at the Institute of Art History, University Zürich.

Translated by Helen Ferguson