Originally written for the Solo Foundation. ◊◊

For a program that lives in the narrow space of contemporary art, the New Museum mounts a show that looks both forward and back in time. There is less than one month left of “Ghosts in the Machine,” the anti-historic art historic alternative blockbuster that sits in the pluperfect tense of “what would have been.” As an aspiring critical survey of a time, it certainly does construct a history—but in what terms?

“Ghosts” is co-curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massmilliano Gioni, the latter of whom has participated as one of the eight curators featured in Phaidon’s recent tome “Defining Contemporary Art: 25 years in 200 pivotal art works,” which in its cutting edge critical specificity pays perhaps unknowing tribute to the oldest forms of art historic scholarship in the vein of Giorgio Vasari. [1] Like “Defining 25 Years,” “Ghosts” is indebted to the canons from which it is trying to be free, and perhaps without full self-awareness that these ties lend its purpose greater conceptual depth.

The exhibition, which spans three floors, is presented as “an encyclopedic cabinet of wonders” (also referred to as a kunstkammer on various wall labels) of the fear and awe and adoration that has driven the human production of technologies. [2] While the press release explains that the exhibition spans over 50 years, “Ghosts” in fact reaches as far back as the 16th century to the inception of the kunstkammer. Read through the spirit of Renaissance curiosity for history-making, this exhibition is a fantastic parody of loosely narravitized assemblage in which the whole presentation is only as powerful as the volume and seductiveness of individual objects. The assemblers of kunstkammers felt no responsibility to history; a collection was a demonstration of an obviously personal understanding of a universal, and veracity was not so much the point as the intonation of the one telling the story. The idea of “Ghosts” as a kunstkammer is a beautiful one, for its recognition of failed or alternate histories, and the self-aware yarn-spinning.


The delightful undoing, however, is in trying to fit this as a survey as an encyclopedia into larger fabrics of history and art history. It has no place in the canon of art history in spite of its gestures at canonical pillars like Op Art and Minimalism. It is an over-crammed archive that draws attention to how much it cannot show or categorize. It is a fiction that reveals the limitations of the hand that wrote it. When the exhibition’s text doubles back and tries to defend the show as a survey exhibition, it creates the potential to disappoint and confuse.

Funnily, this is perhaps most evident in Peter Schjeldhal’s New Yorker review, in which he voiced disappointment in the exhibition’s lack of historically representative or compelling work. [3] Simple wonderment does bring him back around; he says that he enjoyed spending time with Gianni Colombo’s 1968 installation “Elastic Space,” (below) disclaiming first that ”Such work doesn’t particularly come from or go anywhere, in the unfolding of art or of anything else.” Then he adds, “But so what? It’s nice.”

Images courtesy of the New Museum and the artists.