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Muse­um, or a Tombstone

“They told me that, according to the most advanced theories and techniques in every field, based on extensive theoretical research and experimentation, through analysis and comparison of multiple proposals, they did find a way to preserve information for about one hundred million years. And they emphasized that this was the only method known to be practicable. Which is—” Luo Ji lifted the cane over his head, and as his white hair and beard danced in the air, he resembled Moses parting the Red Sea. Solemnly, he intoned, “— carving words into stone.”

— Liu Cixin, Death’s End

Joseph Beuys’s sculpture Felt Suit from 1970, which is part of the Tate Modern collection, was infested by moths in 1989. It took six years for the curators and conservators at the museum to finally declare that the damage was beyond repair and, after consulting with the artist’s widow, to decommission it and place it in the Tate archive. That “statues also die”—which is the title of a famous movie by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet—holds true not only for the violently decontextualized objects placed in the museum under the Western gaze, but also for the actual Western museum collections despite all the efforts to immortalize them.

In many cultures, objects can be separated from their authors to be copied, changed, or improved, but in the modern aesthetic regime, the art object, considered a unique expression of the artist’s self, becomes an inalienable possession.[1] This status began to be formally codified with the first copyright laws in 18th century and resulted in the revised Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works of 1928, which formalized a new type of rights, stating that “independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, author shall have the right […] to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work”.

Artworks in our culture thus undergo a certain transfer of subjectivity. We see them as authentic reincarnations of their authors. But galleries and museums that eternalized these transferred gestures into autonomous artificial environments are also “ecological forms, which have to be built, achieved, and sustained in and through the world”,[2] or in other words—places that need to be perpetually brought into being. Modernity, as we know it, only runs within a very specific ecological environment.

The boom of taxidermisation that began in the second half of the 18th century was directly related to the demand for exotic presence at a time when travel was still unavailable to most. The first patent for a steel-glass vitrine[3] to protect taxidermies from pests comes from the same period when first public art museums were established. However, the real change took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the emergence of combined heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, which allowed us to create an entirely new climatic regime that promised to preserve collections for all eternity.

At 35 °C and 80% relative humidity, a paper-based artwork can last only about three years. At 20 °C and 50% relative humidity, the lifespan of the same artwork increases to about 100 years. And at 10 °C and 40% humidity, paper can last up to 1200 years. However, it must be preserved in total darkness, as light itself is the main enemy when it comes to cellulose, pigment, ink, and dye preservation. More complicated preservation methods are related to plastic materials whose lifespan under natural conditions is only about two decades. In 1996, Museum of Modern Art in New York established the Celeste Bartos Center, devoted to presenting audiovisual works kept in controlled conditions: walls, ceilings, and floors are insulated to keep a constant temperature of 13 °C and a relative humidity of 30%. The storage space is further divided into vaults containing different audiovisual artefacts. The black-and-white prints are kept at a constant 7 °C and 30% relative humidity, while those containing color prints are placed just above freezing at 1.7 °C.[4] Needless to say that a lot energy is required for such preservation. Keeping storages running is one of the largest expenses in the operating budget of all modern type museums. Furthermore, considering the fact that, statistically speaking, about 90–95% of works in public collections will never be put on display, the natural environment of a work of art is airconditioned storage.

With regard to climate change and its social impacts, it is questionable whether such modes of preservation will prove sustainable, not only in the promised prospect of eternity, but even in the much shorter outlook of about 30 to 50 years. The image of rescuing major works of art rather than human beings at the dawn of the apocalypse is part of our collective fantasy portrayed in many cultural narratives. This specific superterrestrial position ascribed to art is mirrored in art vandalism not being only a crime but an act against humanity. In Europe, it is for the most part legally impossible to de-acquisition public collections. For example, to decommission even a single artwork from the collection at the National Gallery Prague would require approval by the Czech parliament. However, for the same reasons related to cultural impact, art has been selected as an important and meticulously recorded target of both ISIS militants and climate activists.

In the naturalized imagination, the museum is collecting, preserving, and displaying art. But as we have seen, it rather keeps art alive, often through infrastructure resembling an intensive care unit. What will happen to art when it becomes impossible to keep this infrastructure functional due to climate change and its social impact, when the specific environment in which art has lived and survived for over one hundred years will disappear? In Liu Cixin’s book Death’s End, the human race, doomed to recede with the entire solar system into the second dimension, creates the Earth Civilization Museum. After extensive research, mankind realizes that the only way to preserve information over eons is to carve it into stone. The two main heroes are then asked to spread the masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night or DaVinci’s Mona Lisa into outer space, so that after the recession in 2D the information would be better preserved than inside the bunker-like museum on Pluto. In addition to describing the duo’s process of selecting the artefacts, for instance the Neanderthal skull, that are to be left behind, the book also underlines that what we call a museum is actually a tombstone.

The quest towards immortality, as presented in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, often turns into the construction of tombstones—the great walls of Uruk. I would however suggest a simple solution: if we wish to make something permanent outside the protected environment, we should make it capable of reproducing itself, i.e. of creating a certain form of life. Even if artists don’t become gods, art actually doesn’t stand very far from this mechanism of its own reproduction. Compared to any sort of materialization, the best way for any information to survive is to remain relevant and thus be passed from generations to generations.

Tomáš Kajánek’s work Automated Youtube Click #1 is a recording of a fatal car crash of two Czech teenage girls, who at the time of the collision were recording an online live stream with their phone. Although the video was not originally meant for the general public, the recording became viral. Despite the effort of the victims’ families to remove the video from the public eye, the recording is perpetually reuploaded and thus made available to the public by the anonymous and ungoverned community of users. Kajánek’s work consists only of a program that moves the cursor and clicks the play button in the YouTube interface over and over again.

In Automated Youtube Click #2–#7, Kajánek presents formal yet disturbing similarities between seminal works of performance art and shocking strategies that some youtubers developed in the atmosphere of pure attention economy without any of the moral backup that art provides. One of the videos, where the programmed cursor clicks play ad infinitum, is from a YouTuber calling himself “Psychopat”. In this particular episode, he pays a homeless alcoholic man called Majsner a vacation trip to Dubai, cynically streaming their adventures that are mainly reduced to his fellow’s endless drunk humiliations. Although Majsner dies in one of the later episodes, Psychopat’s monstrous channel of streamed abuse continues, with 205K followers to date.

Artists like Santiago Sierra tested the limits of what desperate people do for money in a similar spectacle. In works such as 160 cm line tattooed on 4 people, Sierra paid four heroin-addicted prostitutes to have a horizontal line, which measured 160 cm in total, tattooed on their backs. But the crucial, however banal difference on Sierra’s YouTube channel, aside the 1.55K subscribers, is that the institution of art is presented as an “as-if” space. This space, which exists at the intersection of politics, law, and science, and stands on the fundamental aesthetic distance that has formed sometime during the division of autonomous disciplines in early modernity, provides artworks with a constitutive nature that lies between a thing and a sign.

The task is thus not to create a new kind of art object, for at the most elementary level, no art object exists outside of an exhibition. I consider exhibition as a specific mechanism that is based on showing something as if it would be showing itself, but in fact, it was prepared for this showing by someone who is not trying to hide their intentions. In this sense, the exhibition is a form, but in a different sense, it is also an apparatus[5]—an optical regime that contains its own history, specifically as it allowed modernity to naturalize certain abstract categories, such as science, nature, history or race, precisely via establishing certain modes of seeing.

Exhibition in this sense also became the main artistic medium that does not require a gallery space at all, as can be seen from the proliferation of pop-up exhibitions that exist only as their own documentation. However, I insist on the necessity of the actual act of both staging and, in this way, also relating to the history of the medium, which creates this double reflection, a small distance between what we see and how it is meant that consequently creates the fundamental distance between Santiago Sierra and Psychopat, even if both of them present an edited representation of reality. Therefore, the question is not how we can create a new nature of art out of the gallery space, but rather how we can preserve this specific space of aesthetical distance if galleries cease to exist. And even more importantly, what role does art play in a society that will eventually have to step away from its fundamental categories that are all excessively based on politics of seeing.

  • 1

    DOMINGUEZ, Rubio, Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum, Chicago Press, 2020.

  • 2

    Ibid., p. 35.

  • 3

    SPRINGER, Anna-Sophie & TURPIN, Etienne, “Compensatory Postures: On Natural History, Necroaesthetics and Humiliation”, in: GARCIA, T. & NORMAND, V. (eds.), Theater, Garden, Bestiary, A Materialist History of Exhibitions, Sternberg Press, 2019.

  • 4

    Ibid.p. 228.

  • 5

    NORMAND, V., “Apparatus and Form: The Split Identity of the Exhibition”, in: GARCIA, T. & NORMAND, V. (eds.), Theater, Garden, Bestiary, A Materialist History of Exhibitions, Sternberg Press, 2019, p. 93.

Michal Novotný

Michal Novotný is director of the Collection of Art after 1945 at the National Gallery in Prague and commissioner of the 2024 Czech pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He teaches at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague.