Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art (Stedelijk Museum-Amsterdam)

Hey everyone!

Today I’d like to discuss a unique exhibit I recently saw at the Stedelijk Museum, a modern art museum in Amsterdam. “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art” is a retrospective of the work of Seth Siegelaub, famous New York curator, author, collector, and bibliographer. He was a contemporary Renaissance man whose impact on the art world cannot be overstated. What I find most important about Siegelaub was his multi-disciplinary approach to art. He did not view art in a vacuum, but in the context of physics, media, history, globalization, politics, and english. Furthermore, his definition of art reached from abstract conceptual art to the study of headdresses and textiles. In “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art,” the Stedelijk Museum introduces a new generation to the legacy of Siegelaub. What is this legacy? That the interconnectedness of everything can be felt through the practice, collection, and study, of art.

This is what one sees when one first enters the exhibit:

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Transferred. To transfer is, by definition, to cause to pass from one to another. It can refer to a tangible transfer, such as the passing of goods from one person to the next. It can also be used to explain non-tangible exchanges, such as the transfer of ideas into words. So why focus on this idea of transference in Siegelaub’s retrospective? I think that Siegelaub’s multi-disciplinary approach to art is actually a web of transferred ideas, manifested in words, motifs, and abstract concepts. In order to understand what I mean, I’ll take you through the exhibit as I saw it. At the end, I’ll show how underlying themes are transferred in Siegelaub’s understanding of the world.

* * *

The first part of the exhibit that I explored was Siegelaub’s large collection of headdresses.  Siegelaub started collecting headdresses in the early 1980s, and continued until his death. His collection spans the whole globe, with pieces from six continents. They represent a range of cultures, materials, and techniques. And yet, together, they form a beautifully coherent whole. Take a look.

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These headdresses, all arranged on thin white pedestals of varying heights, form a unit. But upon closer inspection, it is clear that these ornate works are very distinct from one another. This first headdress is made from banana fiber, cane marrow, bark, leaves, pigment, and feathers. It is called a “Rom Kon” mask and was made on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, in the mid-20th century.

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This second headdress was made at the same time by the Kuba People of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is composed of wood, vegetal fiber, shells, and glass.

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By displaying these headdresses together, Seigelaub indicates that people all over the world have intrinsic similarities and interests, simply due to the fact that we are all human. Cultures that are oceans from one another independently chose to wear headdresses, whether for protection from the elements, for spiritual reasons, or for stylistic choice. It is a fascinating and beautiful thing to think that people from different places have similar desires, fears, and solutions to their problems. Taken together, this collection is both a celebration of humanity’s similarities and an exposé of cultural individuality.

I am curious here about the relevance of transference in this aspect of the exhibit. The transference of human emotion to creation is clear.  The fear of the elements and the need to protect oneself, as well as religious sentiment and the creation of spiritual garment, are apparent precursors to the use of headdresses in various cultures. But what kind of exchanges may have occurred that allowed ideas to bounce between existing groups? Do trade and tourism impact the resources available to the creators of these headdresses, influencing how they construct them? And do these activities expose them to different styles and intellectual concepts that affect their approach to making headdresses? These are questions I would like to find an answer to in Siegelaub’s writings, and in literature on anthropology/textiles in general. I am not a student of globalization, but perhaps, as Siegelaub suggests, we all ought to be. After all, art is a reflection of globalization, and the two are intrinsically tied.

* * *

Siegelhub was also an avid collector of textiles. His collection was just as global as his compilation of headdresses, and it indicates his fascination with woven and stitched art. The majority of these textiles are non-western, and feature complex patterns and motifs like the one featured below. These textiles are displayed in horizontal glass cases throughout the exhibit. The light in the room is kept low to preserve the pigments of these fragile works, but their beauty radiates through the dim glass.

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Many of the textiles, despite being from different cultures, share similar motifs. Geometric shapes, symmetrical patterns, and motifs within larger shapes are abundant. I wonder if, like the global popularity of the headdress, these similarities can be attributed to some extent to human nature. If there is something, perhaps, psychologically pleasing about a repetition and straight lines, or a perfect circle. Does the human mind find pleasure in symmetry? Is there a transference of human desire into the methodical design of a textile?

I also believe that the transference of ideas and materials between cultures is an important element of Siegelaub’s study of textiles. The same logic can be applied here that I explained in relation to headdresses, but more so, I believe, because textiles are a more portable medium of art. They form the basis of clothing, blankets, tapestries, scarves, prayer shawls, rugs, and any other fabric-based item. One can trace the pattern of human movement by mapping the transference of motifs and ideas between cultures. For instance, it is easy to see when Europeans began trading with and colonizing the East, because they brought back with them notions of the “Orient” that manifested themselves in European textiles. The appearance of Japanese, or mock-Japanese fans and parasols became prominent in female quarters, as well as layers of velvet and silk shawls shading the windows and covering wooden furniture. Mens’ smoking rooms saw increasingly padded upholstery in vivid colors. Oriental rugs became commonplace in western Europe. Such trends of global movement can be seen on a smaller scale as well, as cultures diffused information through local interactions.

* * *

After examining Siegelaub’s collections of headdresses and textiles, I moved on to the area of the exhibit examining his work as a curator. Siegelaub is often referred to as the Father of Conceptual Art. His early years were spent curating in New York City. The ideas he fostered during this busy time would influence his later endeavors.

One of Siegelaub’s most famous projects was the exhibit, January Show, which he curated in 1969. Up until then, conceptual art was popular, but people were unsure how to package it to the public. Siegelaub presented conceptual art in a way that was digestible and purchasable, by expanding its definition to encompass things that were tangible, and others that were arrangeable. What I mean is, a book or a poster could inhabit a wealth of meanings that made it conceptual. An entire space could be arranged to convey a meaning, and that in itself was conceptual art. In reference to January Show, Siegelaub said, “The exhibit consists of (the ideas communicated in) the catalogue; the physical presence (of the work) is supplementary to the catalogue.” The artists whose work was represented in January Show were Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner.

You can view the catalogue here. 

Congratulations. You are now in possession of conceptual art.

Because the concepts outlined in the catalogue are the art itself, the physical representations of these ideas in the show are supplementary. As Lawrence Weiner indicates in the catalogue, “the piece need not be built.” And so, the fact that we do see the piece built is merely by chance. Had it not been built, the concept would have remained.

Here are some photographs of the physical representations of January Show. 

“Art as Idea as Idea,” by Joseph Kosuth (1968).

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This concept, as explained in the catalogue, is composed of the artist creating nine dictionary definitions. Each time one of the definitions is exhibited, he instructs that it be enlarged to different, specific, dimensions. In this way, the work has no constant shape. It doesn’t even have a constant form, because there are nine different definitions that can be printed to follow the directions of “Art as Idea as Idea.” Here I have shown ‘Painting’ and ‘Definition,’ but there are seven other options. Both the small version printed in the book and the larger canvas version represent “Art as Idea as Idea.”

The photo below is of Lawrence Weiner’s “AN AMOUNT OF BLEACH POURED UPON A RUG AND ALLOWED TO BLEACH” (1968).

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In this work, Weiner emptied a can of bleach on the carpet of the exhibition the day before it opened. What makes this work a fine example of conceptual art is that it is not about the final image of the bleach on the rug. While it is visually arresting, it is supplementary to the statement, “an amount of bleach poured upon a rug and allowed to bleach.” This statement is the act of art-making. It represents the control the artist has on the space around him. The rug is not bleached; it is ALLOWED to bleach. In this way, Weiner shifts the focus of the work to the act of making, and what this says about individual will and power, rather than the aftermath of this power.

I think of it a bit like physics (which becomes even more relevant later in this post). In physics there is a concept of kinetic energy vs. potential energy. Kinetic energy is the energy one has from moving, such as the flow of a river. Potential energy is the energy one has from positioning in space, such as the water right at the brink of a waterfall. In AN AMOUNT OF BLEACH,  the potential energy of the artist, instructed to bleach the carpet, is the focus. His position in the world allows him to yield force to create a lasting impact.

It seems to me that Siegelaub deliberately chose to curate works that revolved around the idea of transference. The ideas present in the catalogue of January Show could only be seen if they were transferred into something physical, but the original idea, written down in the catalogue, was purest in the minds of visitors. Transference is what allowed these ideas to be seen by more and more people. Reprints of “Art As Idea As Idea” hung in various countries may be secondary to the concept, but they transfer its meaning to new audiences.

I linked you with the exhibit catalogue. You are now a PART of this transfer.

* * *

Siegelaub’s intellectual publications are also a central aspect of this exhibit. After Siegelaub moved from New York to Paris, he became interested in mass-media and left-wing politics. He created the International Mass Media Research Center and started writing bibliographies, one of which was titled Marxism and the Mass Media. Towards a Basic Bibliography. Before the internet made it easy to do research, bibliographies like Siegelaub’s were immensely important for researchers.

This exhibit focuses on the influence of mass media and leftism on Siegelaub’s personal ideology and publications. Siegelaub was inspired to create a radical daily newspaper that would combine his passion for conceptual art with its natural ties to journalism, mass media, and politics. The following is an excerpt from a draft of this paper.

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One can see the influence of conceptualism in the layout and design of this page. It is handwritten, and squeezed for space at the top. The focus is clearly on the message of the work, rather than its aesthetics, a key characteristic of conceptual art. It is also a sly yet direct attack on censorship. It is easy for the reader to decode this page for the censored words, yet it does not technically break any rules. This loophole underlines the absurdity of censorship. The content of the page also shows Siegelaub’s opinion that censorship is a direct attack on the First Amendment. Such a stance reveals his radical political leanings. He believes in free expression, which was associated with a leftist political mindset at the time.

We can also see how political views translated (or transferred, if you aren’t completely sick of that word yet) into a visual, almost artistic, work.

* * *

Lastly, the exhibit ends with a video installation entitled, “The Causality of Hesitance.” It was created posthumously to explore Seigelaub’s ideas about time and causality in physics in a visual way. Although the curator and researcher died before he could finish exploring these theories, he left behind a wealth of bibliographic information about the relationship between and time and causality. Furthermore, his interest in these ideas stems (transfers!!) from his early involvement with conceptual art. One cannot separate the two, as conceptual art in the 60s often dealt with questions of time . And so, “The Causality of Hesitance” takes Seigelaub’s theories and builds off of them, creating a work that is both thought-provoking and chilling. Here is a still of the video:

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In “The Causality of Hesitance,” a man in a turtleneck monologues his ideas about time, all the while acting out these ideas. It sounds confusing, but let me give you a few examples:

  • He says, “Hesitation carves time…” [he hesitates] “…out of time.”

The very act of hesitating is a demonstration of what he is saying.

  • And then he starts talking about radio broadcasting, and its relationship to time. He wonders how long it takes for words to bounce from one person’s mouth, through the radio, and into another’s living room.

“How… long… does… it… take?” He pauses between each word, emphasizing the delay of broadcasting, and how that warps our perception of time.

  • The man then begins to talk about time in relation to art.

“Can an artwork hesitate itself?” he asks. “Can we make an exhibit about not saying?”

If art is about saying something to a viewer, what happens when it says nothing? Is this still art? He says yes, that “unvoiced ambivalence can be an artwork.” It is a poetic utterance, to hesitate. Choosing to not speak, choosing to not represent, elongates time.

  • “Am I talking now?” he hesitates. “How about now?

Does the act of talking cease when he pauses?

  • “Is anyone else listening?”

(Are you still reading?)

  • “Let us make time itself lose its patience. Let us remain. Let us dwell.”

He goes on with this point for a while, dwelling eternally on the concept of dwelling.

  • At this point, I wonder if this man has said anything substantial. I realize that this whole speech is one longgggg hesitation. A deliberate choice to not say anything but to leave us on the verge. He stretches time by explaining time. After all-
  • “Time is material.”

How long did it take you to read this portion of this post? One minute? Five? Did you reread any of it? Was anything that I wrote down actually substantial? Are you very confused?

Can you argue, now, that time is NOT material?

^This is the state of mind I was left in after watching this film. My friend and I had watched this together, and upon leaving, decided we could not see the rest of the Stedelijk that day. We were too emotionally drained from wondering whether we were wasting time or if time was dragging and we needed to sit somewhere and have a sandwich.

* * *

 

“Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art” has been one of the most interesting exhibits for me to review. I enjoyed focusing on a curator, rather than an artist, and looking at art from many different disciplines. I found myself drawing scientific parallels and investigating the evolution of politics. (How does physics relate to conceptual art? How has leftist ideology regarding censorship changed since the 1950s?) I think that this is the main takeaway of this exhibit. I hope that you take it upon yourself to view the world from many perspectives. It is not enough to look at art from a purely artistic lens. It is also not enough to view science or politics or communications in a vacuum.

Start small. I purchased a book at the Stedelijk called “How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.” Grow your frame of references and you will be able to draw more interesting and complex conclusions from any discipline you study.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

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