De Cock Crows

A Belgian installation artist uses MoMA as the subject of his MoMa show

The sprawling installation Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008 by the young Belgian artist Jan De Cock (b. 1976) bends in on itself like a guy studying the lint in his belly button. It's a self-reflexive, mirroring sort of artwork, which, as its title suggests, takes art and the art museum that houses it for its subject—almost as if it were a documentary film directed by, say, Jean-Luc Godard in one of his less linear moods. And, in fact, avant-garde cinema has exerted a formative influence on De Cock. In an interview with curator Roxana Marcoci on the MOMA website, he claims: " In time we will come to consider Godard's 260-minute Histoire(s) du cinéma . . . to be more important in the formulation of twentieth-century culture than Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the latter being, of course, one of MOMA's key holdings. Despite his avowal of film, De Cock chooses to work in photography and sculpture.

Still, the installation does resemble a sort of fractured storyboard. A series of black picture frames of varying sizes hold photographs—some individual, some in diptychs, others in groups—that take us through most areas of the museum: the conservation labs, library, theater, and the collection itself. This presentation, the frames and matte windows cropping many of the photos, cleverly mimics the geometric apertures, such as the interior windows, of the museum's architecture. De Cock also takes a filmic approach to photography, employing tight close-ups, multiple perspectives on the same subject, shots from several angles, and montage. Together, these photos amount to a sort of archival trove that exposes different aspects of the museum over the time the show takes to digest. " Duration factors significantly in my work," he says, a comment reinforced by the times of day printed like wall texts next to each of his " modules," or sets of pictures and sculptural objects.

A number of the images offer compellingly unfamiliar perspectives: white light oozing down the walls beyond low rows of red chairs in the Roy and Niuta Titus 1 Theater; an inadvertent still life in the conservation lab juxtaposing a slice of Edward Hopper's realist Gas with a real basketball from a Jeff Koons piece. Some of the photos, such as the photographed cover of Gilles Deleuze's book Cinema: The Time Image, didactically remind us that De Cock's own perspectives have been fixed by French theory. In fact, a lot of the photos here coyly lift their skirts on the project, showing us exactly what we're supposed to think. Repeated references to the German collage artist Kurt Schwitters, for instance, highlight the collage-like structure of De Cock's installation, as well as the way the museum's collection functions much like a collage of disparate images. A photo of a sign that reads " Modernism Is Changing" reminds us that De Cock's subject isn't just MOMA but the modernism with which it is virtually synonymous.

That old collage try: De Cock’s Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008, Module CDLIX
photo: Jan De Cock/Galerie Fons Welters and Luis Campaña Gallery
That old collage try: De Cock’s Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008, Module CDLIX

But the arrangement of the work suggests we're not supposed to follow De Cock's cogitations too closely. Some of the picture frames hang near the ceiling, so that it's almost impossible to " read" the photos, while others sit on the floor awaiting the attentions of a parent bending to tie a child's shoelace. The sculptural pieces—pressboard boxes, and boxes within boxes—also refer to modernism while disrupting the flow of imagery. Those attached to the wall like dollar-store Donald Judd sculptures obscure parts of photographs or mark the space between picture frames. A large version on the floor, which calls to mind a modern prefab modular home, blocks one's path entirely.

But the most significant barrier to true access is the basic conception of the work. De Cock is asking us to swallow the much-chewed cud of institutional critique, a genre inaugurated in the late '60s by his countryman Marcel Broodthaers, among others, and regurgitated in the early '90s by a younger generation of artists. By the time De Cock serves it up, it has become rather tired. As one might expect, institutional critique trained its conceptual spotlight on art museums and other art institutions. One could say that Denkmal 11 seeks to expose the ways MOMA shapes our thinking about art and modernism. Yet the piece mainly seems to be a reflection of its own theoretical assumptions. Its receding frames of reference, its boxes within boxes, do little more than distance us from the emotional core of the work—if it has one.

Consider the cherished word denkmal in De Cock's title: It means " monument" in German, while in his native Flemish, it conjoins the words for " thought" and " mold." He titles all of his installations Denkmal. Art, he explains, " creates a mold for thought”—a cute formulation, though not very satisfying. Like his installation, it slights the roles in art of sensation and emotion. In any language, Denkmal 11 is over-thought and under-felt: De Cock's mold is hollow.

 
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