“Do not ask how you can make sense of the collection, ask how the collection is making sense of you.” There are self-evident reasons for my choice to borrow one of the “slogans” from Helmut Draxler’s exhibition The Content of Form. A collecting institution constantly moves within the field of an already existing collection, which, as Draxler observes, constitutes a specific, symbolic form, rather than simply an accumulation of artifacts (which in this case in particular are very specific ones). This preexisting structure always defines the starting point for any collecting activity. The institution that we are speaking about here, the Generali Foundation, has additionally developed its collection activity alongside a very specific exhibition and publication practice, in constant interplay and orientation with one another. Precisely for this reason, with our view turned to historical development that challenges an institution that has and continues to put itself out on a limb while remaining devoted to critical methods and discourses in art, I also nevertheless pose the affirmative version of the question, “How can you make sense of the collection?” This re-vision(ing) of our own collection activity, the negotiation with historical and contemporary moments, occurs continuously in an implicit dialog with the public; in an explicit, discursive, and simply mundane dialog with an artistic advisory committee; and is intrinsically motivated by the orientation and tendency of the person leading the institution.
Our reflections and considerations regarding the 25th anniversary of the Generali Foundation were accompanied and supported by important critics and theorists whose ideas on collecting, curating, and exhibiting, as well as the facets of a collection’s tendency to canonize, are brought together in this volume. The starting point for this publication was, to a certain extent, to take stock and rethink one’s place/position from a historical perspective and also, on the one hand, shed a critical light on the current horizon of action as a historical, logical, coherent, and contemporary one, while, on the other hand, to furnish evidence of its consistency and validity. Three exhibitions meant to examine the collection and the curating of Conceptual art in general provided the occasion for this. Invited to curate these exhibitions were Guillaume Désanges, Helmut Draxler, and Gertrud Sandqvist. Most of the approaches gathered in this book and the accompanying events have developed from these utterly different perspectives.
The results of these considerations are highly revealing. Many of them inevitably refer to the long era shaped by Sabine Breitwieser from 1988 to 2007, and her special way of writing collection and institution history. Therefore, in a separate text, I took a position on the motivations and views that are at the base of the contemplation of my practice, which comes after this very influential era. It was an era that met with the favor of a particularly «fruitful moment» historically in terms of social and cultural-political energy, which was undoubtedly a time of awakening and the belief that something could still be moved through critical artistic work. This motive has not been lost, but it has been relativized by the sobering insight that even critique has become marketable, and it is therefore in this respect difficult to develop methods and ways of acting that are capable of resolving this dilemma between autonomy and critique. Institutional critique and criticality have, to a certain extent, become self-evident, and are encountered not only in off-spaces, but also in established museums, which means that Institutional critique has been musealized and has become a historical phenomenon, which is also why it has become relatively ineffective. What can be done when one’s inherent mission has been overtaken by history? What perspectives can be developed? How can the critical impulse be preserved when criticality has found its way into the mainstream? How can it be defined without becoming a caricature of itself? These are but a few of the questions that I would like to pursue in this anniversary publication.
(From the introduction: A Book about Collecting and Exhibiting Conceptual Art after Conceptual Art)