Reading Mario García Torres at the Berkeley Art Museum
In his two slide installations Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (2007) and Je ne sais si c’en la cause (2009), Mario García Torres documents works that had previously been inadequately documented: Martin Kippenberger’s Museum of Modern Art Syros (MOMAS), a project Kippenberger created while he vacationed in Greece in the early 1990s, and the murals and mosaics Daniel Buren made at the Grapetree Bay Hotel on the US Virgin Island of St. Croix in the early 1960s. Recognizing that methods of documentation necessarily influence a work’s character, Torres inserts himself into both histories, using the process as both homage to the artists and a critique of art historical discourse. He positions his approach against that of the “institutional researcher”—the art history Ph.D. candidate or critic trying to break new ground—who has, up to this point, failed to record these significant works to an acceptable standard. The installation of Torres’s pieces evokes a didactic mood: the regular clicking sound of the projectors and the darkness of the gallery signal a space of learning to anybody who began their art history education prior to PowerPoint.
Torres attaches narratives to both pieces. In Whatever Doesn’t Kill You..., it comes in the form of subtitles on the slides describing his project in Syros: how he found a municipal wastewater treatment plant on the site where MOMAS operated and how he installed work of his own inside the plant. The account of his and Kippenberger’s work is preceded by a description of Syros that covers the bare historical facts one might find in a tourism brochure—how the main industry is ship building and textile based, how it is rumoured that the pre-Socratic thinker Pherecydes invented the sundial there—and Torres’s own observations about the island’s character. The transition between the treatment of Syros and that of MOMAS is awkward, though: In the early 1800s the island saw the beginning of the Greek State and, with it, the birth of several modern institutions. / Among them was the Archaeology Museum which displays some of the archaeological findings of Syros. / Bumping into what once was a modern art museum in these latitudes could be claimed an archaeological discovery as well. / The following tale is actually not an ancient one, as this narrative might suggest. / But one that could be telling about the way culture has been publicly discussed in the last few decades.
As writing, separate from the slides, which are primarily snapshots of the town of Syros and its surroundings, the passage moves too quickly between the development of a nation-state, its modern institutions (one institution in particular), and a convenient discovery of a modern art museum (the museum Torres went to Syros in order to visit, which seems hardly as serendipitous as “bumping into” implies). The contingencies of the repeated “coulds” serve to weaken the passage, as if there were ample opportunity to not see the modern art museum as an archaeological discovery, or that the discovery could potentially add nothing to an interrogation of how culture is discussed. If this is Torres’s position on history—that in order to subvert the putative authority of art historical discourse one might instead concentrate on vicissitudes or an individual’s poetic experience of space—I think he might be both overestimating the immovability of institutionalized historical discourse and naively valourizing the subject who attempts to escape that discourse. Challenges to history are not as rare as his project assumes, nor are they automatically beneficial.
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About the Author
Jamie Hilder is a Vancouver-based artist and critic whose work addresses issues surrounding performance, urbanism, and economics.