Beate Engel, on the other hand was convinced that art is, and has always been, part of real life, and that real life has equally always been part of the art world and all its institutions. “Art is not about things, it’s about interaction.” She showed the examples of Courbet’s Origin of the World and the Scottish artist Ross Sinclair, who has ‘real life’ tattooed on his back. Which of these is more ‘real’ is not clear. Beate showed this constant thread of engagement through the example the impending Kunsthalle Luzern exhibition ‘Think Art, Act Science’ with artists whose work is inspired and influence by contemporary science, akin to the many facets of Leonardo da Vinci’s work across art and science centuries ago. Today’s relational aesthetics were foreshadowed also by Alan Kaprow’s work, and she cited his 1958 text The Legacy of Jackson Pollock in which he said “we must become preoccupied with, and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of 42nd Street…we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are the materials of the new art”. And this is demonstrated in the work of Ai Weiwei, when, for example at the last Dokumenta his works included not only 1001 historic chairs, but equally a journey for the same number of Chinese people to Kassel. “People like Ai Weiwei, they strongly believe that art can transform life. They include everything which is happening in their activities. They open up new channels on the banal and hidden agendas of world politics.” Beate closed by citing Claes Oldenburg, the quote that is placed above the desk she works at. Oldenburg said “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a staring point of zero. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.” Beate finished: “I love to work with this stupidity of everyday life, and I enjoy artists who do this, and this is why I am working as a curator. This is my reality.”
Michael von Graffenried was ready to jump straight into a discussion, but started his defence by demonstrating the dangers of reality – as in when Ai Weiwei was arrested, not in the art context but by the Chinese regime. “I just came back from New York, I was in the show of Alexander McQueen… There was one room with Highland Rape, the whole week we read about [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn who [allegedly] raped his femme de ménage in the hotel room, and this work became real life in the Metropolitan Museum. And I’m sure if the Metropolitan Museum would have known that this would get so strong – because there were torn dresses, you could see the rape in the dresses of Alexander McQueen, which was really realistic, you can’t stand it any more - I think they would not have put that in, if they had known that they opened the exhibition in the week when everybody is talking about rape all over the world. So, there is reality in a museum, but only the reality which is controllable, I think.” He then cited another example of his own work photographing drug addicts, and the unwillingness of some museums to show the work for fear of scandal. In short: “I think real life is always good, but not too real life in the museums”
San Keller, on the other hand, thought the motion impossible. “Maybe my position is that I think it is not possible at all to exclude [it]. It is not about if real life has no place in an art gallery or not. I think it takes place anyway in a gallery.” Visitors bring real life and experience with them. Art institutions have their own kinds of reality, in how they exist and are run and financed. In comparison with other artists San’s own work is more direct in its engagement with this reality, not going the abstract route that does not enunciate this relationship with real life. “And so I propose to start there, the real place, also the real institution, so I need it not making any difference, in a way, so if you are out or in, I don’t see a border there.”
The ongoing discussion covered the difference between being a spectator and experiencing something, and the role of the contemporary art institution to allow interaction. Ai Weiwei came up yet again, whether his work allows or resists engagement. How can an institution protect art and still promote this meeting between art and viewer? The discussion closed wondering if the museum was still required to show art that exists beyond its walls. In the final vote the opposition, Beate and San, were seen to be the more convincing when they argued that real life does indeed have a place in an art gallery.
Many thanks to the Kunstmuseum Bern and to Ingrid Wildi Merino for the generous invitation to debate in the context of the exhibition ‘Dislocacion’, thanks also to the audience for joining us and I am, as ever, indebted to the panellists for their enthusiastic participation.