"A space formerly known as a museum", 2007,
No. 10", colour photography


Nina Fischer/ Maroan el Sani
A space formerly known as a museum
Galerie EIGEN + ART Berlin
30.06.2007 - 26.08.2007

The most recent work by Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani, shown in Galerie Eigen+Art, Berlin, consists of 10 photographs, taken in March 2007 in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which is currently under reconstruction. Not only the art has been taken out; all the fake walls, timberwork, ceiling covers and floors have been removed, so the basic structure of the edifice has become visible again for the first time since 1895, when the museum opened its doors.

These photo's thus document more than a century of history of the museum of which the basic plan was derived from the symmetrical layout of an average royal palace. The entrance hall of the Stedelijk is dominated by a grand staircase leading to the first floor. From there one has access to the Gallery of Honor and smaller sky lighted rooms which circle around the staircase, connected by long enfilades.

In the past, the walls of the galleries must have been painted in specific colors and for sure wainscots where all over the place. Colored plaster residues are abundant on Fischer / El Sani's photos and traces of the wainscots are to be seen on some of them. Rectangular slabs on the floor indicate heating outlets, where once huge sofas used to be situated. Around 1938 Willem Sandberg, who later became the museum's director, had it all removed and instead covered the walls with white textile: it marked the beginning of the history of the Stedelijk as a modernist museum. This phase reached an apotheosis somewhere by the end of the 70s. A typical view of the honor gallery under then director Edy de Wilde showed for instance large color field paintings by Barnett Newman, of whom he had acquired the largest collection in Europe, as well as works by Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Louis. The largest of them used to be stored behind fake walls so they didn't need to be transported far distances if they were not on show. Surely, this was long after the times that the gallery could even give room to Rembrandt's Nightwatch, which actually was the case in 1898 at the occasion of a large retrospective of the famous 17th century painter.

But besides the museum's history the photo's allure to an older work of Fischer and El Sani, the Aura Research Project (1994-2005). For this, the artists photographed abandoned but preserved houses and offices and showed them next to registrations at the same spot with a photographic method, developed by the Russian Kirlian at the end of the 30s, which was presumed to capture the aura. They show abstract, radiant light forms. As Boris Groys wrote of this project, the photos resist to Benjamin's hypothesis that a reproduction misses the aura of the original. Instead, he argues wittingly, the artists create auras by documenting them on their visits to the empty rooms. But the project also allures to the earlier aura theories in theosophical circles around 1900, which where very influential on the first abstract painters such as Kandinsky. To abstract art clings the idea of a large aura, since it doesn't reproduce anything and is thus a pure, creative, and original (auratic) act.

In Dutch art, literally auratic forms - amorphous, brightly colored forms - can sometimes be seen in the work of Theo van Doesburg, but more particular in the paintings of the now forgotten Utrecht pioneer of abstraction, Janus de Winter, who had his first major solo show in the Stedelijk in 1916. In its current ruined state the interior of the Stedelijk, for example the Honor Gallery as shown on photograph No. 10, recalls those days rather than a brand new future of the institution ahead of us. In a way the patterns on the walls in their stripped state cover the whole history of this early, auratic phase of abstraction up to the period when the all-over colorfield painting reigned over the institution. And still after the phase of High Modernism more contemporary manifestations of abstraction held the museum under its spell, as can be deduced from Niele Toroni's pyramid of small squares brushed on the ceiling over the staircase gallery in 1994, visible on photograph No. 9. Retrospectively, the stained walls elsewhere in the building can also be interpreted as such an intervention, especially now they have been documented by Fischer / El Sani. As a matter of fact the Niele Toroni very aptly resonates in the color patterns on the walls, not to mention the stripes in another room No. 6 which recalls Daniel Buren's work elsewhere in the building. But one might also think of another intervention, such as the one Santiago Sierra carried out at Museum D'Hondt D'Haenens in Belgium a few years ago. He had stripped that museum completely and left it like that for the startled visitors. In the end a stripped museum is not very different from, say, a stripped Palace of the Republik, to mention just another palace which has been a subject in the work of Fischer / El Sani. There they proved that a ruin is actually more capable to penetrate an institution's history than the edifice in its active function. The more the artworks in a museum obscure the presence and practices of the institution, the more their age-old residues reveal of it. The space that has become generic, a space formerly called a museum, at least preserves its museum aura.

Jelle Bouwhuis, Curator, Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Amsterdam