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Did We Really All Want Stone-Washed Jeans? The Exhibition ‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’ at MO Museum

While I was preparing this review, at least two extensive opinion pieces came out on MO’s current exhibition ‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’. I agree with the cultural journalist Monika Gimbutaitė when she claims that the exoticism and irony prevailing throughout the exhibition certainly distort the image of that decade[1] [1]; and with the artist Paulina Pukytė’s idea that the exhibition is principally ethnographic, that is, it is comprised of artefacts denoting particular historical periods, but the actual artworks are represented rather as mere illustrations of cultural tendencies or phenomena[2] [2]. Pukytė also notes that the idea of inviting ‘non-curators’ to arrange exhibitions (in order to arrive at an often great, unexpected, but exciting outcome) did not produce good results this time, as they had not previously specialised in the art of the period in question. However, this is not entirely true, as theatre, which Vaidas Jauniškis researches and in which Renata Valčik works, is a form of art too. In my opinion, the curatorial experiment did not entirely succeed because the process of creating an exhibition requires specific skills and knowledge; and generally speaking, an exhibition is a spatial narrative, which differs essentially from textual, cinematic, and other forms of narration. A further look at how the objects and stories in the exhibition ‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’ are linked to each other could help to explain why it received such criticism from art professionals.

As can be expected of a retrospective exhibition, ‘1990s DNA’ was based on research. Curators also initiated many public calls to share objects and stories from and about the 1990s in Lithuania. The involvement of certain communities in the creative process of curating an exhibition is an advanced museum strategy that is practised worldwide. In this way, museums become more dynamic and democratic institutions, while the voices of the exhibitions (provided they are successful) multiply and represent the views and requirements of a range of people. In order to achieve this, you need to work in a particular way, not only to collect, sort and document the acquired material or stories, but also to give the contributors themselves the power to decide how the pieces ought to be presented. It seems the guest curators did not adopt this strategy, and so the exhibits and stories were simply spread out across the exhibition according to a somewhat theatrical script. Was it detrimental to the museum and the communities? Far from it. The new museology, a branch of science that researches the role of contemporary museums as well as the practice of curating exhibitions, has borrowed a term from communication science: ‘interpretive communities’. It signifies a group of people who comprehend objects and texts in a similar way, thanks to the similar strategies in their interpretation[3] [3]. The museum researcher Eilean Hooper-Greenhill notes that, ideally, museum exhibitions should communicate with the broader interpretive community, and not only with a curatorial one. The exhibition ‘1990s DNA’ does exactly that. People pour into the space, and marvel over the recognised past. This means that the interpretive communities of curators and the mass audience overlap. It probably happened because the curators attempted to construct their narrative from the point of view of ‘an ordinary person’, by locating the phenomena of the era in their everyday environment, popular culture and the mass media. So most of the exhibition is comprised of items from past social realities and popular culture, and not works of art.

However, looking at the exhibition as a representation of social and cultural phenomena from the last decade of the 20th century, gives the impression that it is by no means nuanced enough, and that the generalisations are made in rather broad strokes. Generalisations are, of course, unavoidable, when a goal is to present the bigger picture. Yet ‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’ is flawed in a different sense. It seems that the curators chose not only typical or illustrative, but also predominantly and exclusively cheerful testimonies of the past, the ones that induce a smile, a degree of sympathy, and memories that are pleasant. The not-so-happy reality of the period is only at times referred to in the descriptions, or in the exhibition catalogue, but it is completely absent from the exhibition’s visual narrative. For instance, the section ‘Antigravitation’, set in Twin Peaks-inspired scenography, presents various attempts to channel the beyond and to connect with other galaxies; suggesting that such practices be perceived as a search for alternative ways of explaining the barely recognisable new reality (which to many would often induce a feeling of instability). Convincing though it may seem, the exhibition lacks material attesting to the sometimes tragic endings of such quests, that is, the eventual suicides and serious mental disorders (although Tomas Vaiseta writes about this in the exhibition catalogue). A few hints at the subject (maybe statistical data, or extracts from related research papers) would have been enough to deepen the section, beyond the ability to induce a smile. Another section ‘Dolze Vita Gabbana’ is similar, although it represents 12 actual works of art (the highest number in all the exhibition’s sections). The image of a prosperous new world, or the road towards it, does not examine the situation of many of Lithuania’s pre-1990s intellectuals who stood behind a market stall, abandoning their profession, their lifestyle and their biggest accumulated treasure, symbolic capital (the so-called ‘violinists at Gariūnai market’ is a phrase that was coined by Rimantas Kmita). I wonder if the curators considered including stories of these misfortunes in the exhibition somehow. Were not the amusing ‘trolleybus intelligenstia’ types and their value systems worth more than the sole mention in the first section, particularly since the others, ‘the strong’, eventually came out on top?

All these questions are not merely rhetorical. Their answers can be found in the theory and history of exhibition making. In the last decade of the 20th century, academic discourses in the history of art turned towards a deeper understanding of how exhibitions actually work, and how their language is a specific method of communication used by art institutions. These languages are never neutral: the chosen topics, the works and their arrangement in space, the colours of the walls, the tone of the text, all simultaneously represent the values of the institution, society and individuals. From this point of view, ‘The Origin of Species’ confirms that MO Museum wants to be popular and reach a wider audience, but its’ tone of voice shows that it seeks attention through the identification of recognisable signs, and not through critical reflection. The exhibition does not ask what having stone-washed jeans meant to each of us, but simply states that we all wanted them. It does not discuss whether the yearned-for West appealed to everyone, but instead says: ‘Look how ridiculous we were, all trying to catch up and copy it.’ In other words, in attempting to meet the expectations of the institution and the potential interpretive community, the curatorial team did not employ their skills as competent researchers, and chose to leave the critical insights to the texts, instead of articulating ideas in the exhibition itself. I believe this is exactly what the professional community felt was missing: not a meeting with ‘life as it was’, but original argumentation, and a more meticulous and critical analysis of the era’s events and phenomena.

There is plenty of evidence in the history of exhibitions showing that professional curators and visual artists are not the only ones who are able to curate memorable and critical exhibitions. An example is the exhibition by the director Wes Anderson and the designer and writer Juman Malouf ‘Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures’, shown at the Art History Museum in Vienna in 2018 and the Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2019. The curators selected more than 400 objects from the museum’s collection of over four million pieces, some of which had never been exhibited before. The process of bringing the exhibition to life, initially as a cabinet of curiosities, took two years; choices were made according to the duo’s own criteria, which completely bewildered ‘real’ curators and old-timers (for example, they asked for a list of all the green works of art from the collection). And although some critics later pointed out that the exhibition did not work in the same way as Anderson’s films, for the audience would not necessarily feel the same emotions as they would while watching movies[4] [4], it could be regarded as a certain criticism of the traditional museum, and its claim to know what and why something is of value. I had expected something like this from the MO exhibition too, but I suppose this time I’ll have to make do with its’ catalogue, since it has more critical insights of the period than the exhibition.

[1] [5] https://www.15min.lt/kultura/naujiena/vizualieji-menai/nostalgija-pavojingas-gyvunas-mo-paroda-rusiu-atsiradimas-90-uju-dnr-929-1233650?fbclid=IwAR07vMBt9INPm84NNMxyYnnObcBUzGlRW8QMBh9CksbP4-9ReF5rNNKXepw

[2] [6] https://www.7md.lt/tarp_disciplinu/2019-12-20/Meno-irgi-buvo?fbclid=IwAR0G7lmo6EF1gntcDeVthYNmmA4kYSfM-vkF9bDhKIxj_FC30hQz1zgLKUI

[3] [7] E. Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the interpretation of visual culture, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 121

[4] [8] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/arts/design/wes-anderson-vienna-kunsthistorisches-museum.html

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

 

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj

‘The Origin of Species: 1990s DNA’, exhibition view, MO Museum. Photo: Norbert Tukaj