Artemis Potamianou's Museum Series by Peter Suchin
The German cultural crtitic Theodor Adorno, makes, in his book Prisms, first published in the 1960s, some astute observations on those paradoxical institutions we call museums. In considering the meaning of the word “museal” (museumlike) he makes a connection between this and another term, “mausoleum”, going on to point out that “Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture. Art treasures are hoarded in them, and their market value leaves no room for the pleasure of looking at them. Nevertheless, that pleasure is dependent on the history of museums.”  The contradiction of the museum is that it preserves art whilst at the same time killing it, pulling it out of context, distorting it, rendering it a merely weak ghost of its former self.
For the contemporary artist whose work is in some senses automatically destined for the museum, since critical success today depends upon one’s acceptance by it, these institutions offer a mixed blessing of effects. On the one hand the work is preserved and made publicly accessible; on the other, the murderous action of the museum also takes its toll on the artist’s contribution. Even when the artwork is made, as many are today, with the museum in mind as the primary context for the work’s display, the museum extracts its insidious price.
Artemis Potamianou’s artistic practice takes the pleasures and pains of these powerful cultural strongholds as the starting point for a sustained visual commentary upon the effects of these institutions upon contemporary art and culture. In a series of small but intense “portraits” of key museums Potamianou looks at certain powerful aspects of their constitution and influence, turning what is normally the “victim” of the museum – the work of art itself – into a kind of mirror or frame through which we can begin to see what it is that the museum is doing to the objects contained within its strange, pristine spaces. At the same time, Potamianou’s work, with its highly aestheticised, “constructed” format, is designed to mimic some of the glitter and gloss that is typical of the contemporary gallery’s slick and flashy substance, the aesthetically heightened structure of its material constitution.
Potamianou’s museum photographs are both an accurate rendition of the buildings’ interiors and a reinvention of them. Taking, first of all, a conventional “snapshot” of a particular space, the image is later radically manipulated by computer. The contents of the depicted gallery are completely removed, leaving visible only the actual framework – walls, floors, ceilings and partitions – of the display space itself. This image of the interior is also adjusted, the walls and other facets of the space “repainted”, the lighting altered, the mood or ambience heightened or aestheticised. Given that the central ideology of the museum is that of an apparent neutrality, a blank space in which the artist’s work can be shown to its best advantage, this realigning of the gallery is a radical move against the grain of what such cultural containers are intended to be and represent. We are not, after all, supposed to be admiring the architecture when we attend an exhibition, except insofar as recognising its neutrality, its deliberately “absent” presence. The focus in the museum is, or should be, upon the artist’s work.
Potamianou’s lightboxes directly mimic those boxes in which we display works of art – museums. As containers but also a direct part of the images they hold, these illuminated images form a kind of allegory or troop of references. They are both container and the thing contained, picture and frame merged together so as to render their separation impossible, impracticable, its components void of meaning if and when taken to pieces, closely examined or pulled apart. This is to suggest that the museum itself is something of a life-support system for works of art today. It many cases – perhaps, indeed, with the majority of contemporary works – it makes no sense to view a work of art outside its institutionally defined mesh of allusions and the literal, physical boundaries of the museum itself. The container, likewise, is dependent for its continuing justification upon the works of art it parades, maintains and supposedly protects. Art as an institutionally-defined entity is its own self-fulfilling “organism”, a kind of symbiotic, contingent form of life. With this “logic” in mind it makes a lot of sense to think of the aestheticised object par excellence as being the museum itself. In following this mental track the conclusion must be the transformation of the museum into that which it purports to serve: a work of art.
Potamianou’s pristine, “minimalised” museums are the super-galleries of today in a tortuous and heightened form. These interiors, emptied of anything that might render them trivial or secondary in the face of their own aesthetic intensity, look more like science fiction spaceships or imaginary monasteries built into underground bunkers in a not quite plausible future. On occasion the sharpened colours and chequered architectural details lead one to see these rooms not as physical spaces but as abstract paintings or snapshots of works by contemporary artists such as Daniel Buren or Hans Haacke. Sections of these images recall the gridded surfaces of Mondrian or Klee, the sensuous curve of a Schwitters or Arp. In them, the Modernist artwork has transformed itself into the Postmodernist – or perhaps “Post-Postmodernist” museum. These works by Potamianou supply a collective rendition of the ultimately arrogant and self-defeating tendency of the museum today. Basking in the corporate glory of its own extended expense account the museum, if one may for a moment “personify” it, has stepped into the limelight it should really, and assiduously, avoid. The white cube has become the flashily dressed second cousin of its former self, an iridescent dandy who would have done better to stick to a suit of common cloth. The museum as self-regarding spectacle comes unburdened with explanation, thinking of itself as its own justification. The aura of the works it once held now belongs only to the museum itself. One is reminded of the Biblical story of the Golden Calf, an account of how the thing constructed to contain a precious force is in effect mistaken for what it has been designed to hold; indeed it is worshipped in its place. This mental sleight of hand is plausible today only in the realm of that contemporary religion that is “art”.
The physical dimension of Potamianou’s works, their compact, portable form, offers another “double take” upon her subject matter. In these picture-objects the conventional vastness of those spaces for the display of art is mocked and literally reduced. Their very portability appears to suggest that what once served as a frame – the bricks or concrete of the museum building – are now able to be themselves most neatly contained, first of all as photographs, but then too as complex objects, the consisting of plastic and metal. As works that can be easily transported they are able to be inserted into any point in the system and, very literally as electronically-powered display devices, plugged into the already existing network of information and exchange. Furthermore, the vast, grand structures of contemporary art that we call museums become, through this act of commodity circulation, potential exhibits within their own allusive field. In one sense the most ideal site for showing Potamianou’s work would be in the very museums the artist used as her point of departure – the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Museum of Fine Arts in Bregenze, the Kyoto MOMA, the Frankfurter Kunstrerein. Thus placed, these hyped-up parodies of famous cultural institutions would become part of an endless loop, a recursive, “infinite” model of self-definition, the museum repeatedly (re-)framing itself, chasing its own tail, acting as a backer for its own unacceptably tarnished gold.
1. Theodor W Adorno, Prisms, MIT, 1981, p. 175.