les presses du réel

How to Do Things with ArtThe Meaning of Art's Performativity

Wily Stratagems
Hans Ulrich Obrist
(p. 4-7)
© Hans Ulrich Obrist, JRP|Ringier / Les presses du réel

How to Do Things with Art is a call to the production of reality and the political and societal significance of art.
In an essay on Jeff Koons, Dorothea von Hantelmann recently pointed out her interest in individuals who place themselves “outside of the ‘cultural limit' of criticism,” those who are “off limits, outside of what dominates a contemporary discourse and its predominant order of thought, perception, speech and understanding.” This necessity informs How to Do Things with Art; an exploration of the work of four artists, James Coleman, Daniel Buren, Tino Sehgal and Jeff Koons, who operate precisely at the historical limits of what might be called the “paradigm of criticality” and at the threshold of something else, something other.
Von Hantelmann is attentive to artists who—to quote one of the passages from Merleau-Ponty that so inspired Zaugg's Die List der Unschuld—“act … as if we still had everything to learn.” Like Rémy Zaugg's attempt to return to a pre-objective mode of cognition and experience in his meditation on a sculpture by Donald Judd, she examines Daniel Buren's early pivotal contributions to the tradition of institutional critique, countering accusations of his more recent work as being too decorative, and instead finding in this work ways to move beyond the conventionalized conception of the exhibition: flights of innovation and invention.
Innovation is about new practices and new ways of doing things, embodied by Oulipo—a group that functions like a permanent research laboratory for literary innovation. Drawing on what Harry Matthews, one of the protagonists of Oulipo, calls “absolutely unimaginable incidents of fiction” the writers of Oulipo, inspired by French poet and novelist Raymond Roussel's playful language games in How I Wrote Certain of My Books, continuously invent new rules to write using arithmetical ideas. François Le Lionnais, another Oulipo protagonist, emphasizes the importance of the term potentiality, which he prefers to experimental, because it implies the attempt to find something which may not yet have been done but which nevertheless could be.
A key to understanding von Hantelmann's unique approach to contemporary art is the fact that at the end of the 1990s she worked closely with the groundbreaking choreographers Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy. Their focus on what actually takes place has shaped her belief that art has a power and a responsibility, which is manifest throughout How to Do Things with Art as she describes how James Coleman, Daniel Buren, Tino Sehgal and Jeff Koons are concerned with what art does and less with what it says. As the title of the book implies—a play on J. L. Austin's lecture series How to Do Things with Words, in which Austin redefined the performative, or reality-producing, capacity of language—these artists attempt to reach the limits of artistic practice and to suggest alterations, novelties, changes, introductions, departures and variations from the canonical 19th-century exhibition format.
As Richard Hamilton once told me, “we only remember exhibitions which invent a new display feature.” To change the rules of the game today is to change the exhibition format. And von Hantelmann demonstrates that each of these artists, in their own way, invent what Roussel might have called “wily stratagems”—performative gambits to turn the production of exhibitions into the production of reality.

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