Review: Untitled (Past, Present, Future)

Visiting the Stedelijk Museum with my family, after three rewarding but long days of getting value for money from our museum discount card, was one highlight of our time in Amsterdam. By this stage we were weary and in danger of becoming jaded with even the most fabulous cultural artefacts, but such was the excellence of the curation at this modern art museum we wandered for several hours, delightfully stimulated, making our own paths through the installations and varied pieces on display. One of the most memorable works was a “wall wrap” created by the American artist, Barbara Kruger (b. 1945).

Untitled (Past, Present, Future), an enormous digital print on vinyl, overwhelms the viewer on entering the space. It is challenging to describe an artwork situated on the mezzanine that incorporates two floors, three walls, a lift, steps, escalators, several entrances and exits. One certainly wants to view it from different perspectives but regardless of where you stand, one experiences an omnipresent, Orwellian unease. Most obviously, Kruger has appropriated one of the most famously disturbing sentences in literature, by paraphrasing from George Orwell’s dystopic novel, Nineteen Eighty-four:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever.

After the initial (overwhelming) experience of the powerful quotes in large block text (in both English and Dutch), seeing George Orwell’s name and the iconic smiley/sad face emoticons, I started to process that this was a “site-specific installation” by Kruger, originally created for the Stedelijk in 2010. A placard accompanying the piece explained “wall wrap” as advertising jargon to describe large-scale prints covering walls and floors in public spaces, like airports or shopping centres. This is the third time her immersive work has been installed in the museum. Each variation is made to fit the architecture of the new space.

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Kruger often employs pithily ironic quotes, questions and paraphrases in her art to challenge and stimulate the viewer. Along with Orwell, the notebooks and writings of French philosopher Roland Barthes inspired much of this particular work. The text, in Dutch and English, on the floor and walls, is either black on a white background or in reverse, as are the smiley/sad face emoticons. Kruger frequently uses red borders around black and white images or text in red or on a red band. This particular piece emphasises FOREVER written in white on a green background. Intriguingly, each step has a line commencing with IN THE END and a different ending, including:

ANGER FADES

LIES PREVAIL

YOU DISAPPEAR

ANYTHING GOES

ALL IS FORGIVEN

ALL IS FORGOTTEN

NOTHING MATTERS

HISTORY HAPPENS

YOU WIN OR YOU LOSE

YOU’VE HAD YOUR CHANCE

A few examples of her more well-known provocations in other works includes, “Your fictions become history” and “I shop therefore I am”. 

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It is quite clear why Kruger is so widely recognised for her socially aware, conceptual art that both uses, and challenges, traditional gallery spaces. This installation is awe-inspiring as well as disturbing and one wants to linger in the space, interacting with the artwork, such is the curious power of the experience on the viewer. Kruger is effectively selling ideas, rather than consumer products, employing corporate advertising techniques. 

Context

“The display system allows an open route through the space in which visitors are invited to create their own parkour. The space is articulated through self-standing walls, encouraging versatile interactions between the art works on display. The traditional room to room museum experience is turned into a quasi-urban experience where every turn of a corner is a new discovery.”

The director of the Stedelijk Museum, Beatrix Ruf, has effectively communicated her vision for the space which helps to understand why this art gallery is so stimulating. Ruf understands that the way we gather information via the World Wide Web has transformed how images are consumed. The Stedelijk is designed to permit individuals to “move freely through the space” permitting amazing new combinations. Merging different disciplines, side by side, permits the visitor to make new connections emotionally, and intellectually.

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It is more than just press release propaganda to say this reinvigorated approach to curation allows “people who are new to art to discover how modern art and design evolved and allows seasoned art-lovers to experience the Stedelijk’s world-famous icons in a new context.” It was evident within fifteen minutes of entering the museum that there was an energetic, sophisticated curation at work.  Ruf is correct in her belief that this new approach makes the Stedelijk, “a living, dynamic institute that manoeuvres between past, present and future.”

Kruger’s Orwell-inspired piece is a perfect representation of this philosophy. 

References

 Stedelijk.nl. (2018). STEDELIJK BASE opens. [online] Available at: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/news/stedelijk-base-opens [Accessed 7 Jul. 2018].

 The Art Story.org. (2018) Barbara Kruger Overview and Analysis. [online] Available at: https://www. theartstory.org/artist-kruger-barbara.htm. [Accessed 7 Jul. 2018]

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