Meschac Gaba at Witte de With, Rotterdam (2001)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 9 August 2010
This review first appeared in Sculpture, 21(1), pp. 72-3 in January/February 2002.

Meschac Gaba at Witte de With

Information, communications, money, access, and representation shape the global art world, and they were brilliantly presented in Meschac Gaba’s thought-provoking installation Museum of Contemporary African Art— The Library. Billed as the final chapter in his series of explorations into peripheral museum spaces—which previously examined the museum shop, audio room, restaurant, and playroom— here Gaba approached the library, the container of selected media information. What results is a temporary monument to art-information providers and facilitators, one that questions the power of the global art information system.

The Library moves rather quickly from visual to textual stimuli; Meschac Gaba fills the main space reference room with art books, catalogues, and magazines, donated by museums, art institutions, and galleries, displayed on portable racks and massed on plinth-like skips. Presenting a globally focused, Africa-integrated selection, Gaba’s collection argues for greater breadth of inclusion in Western libraries, which are often Euro-American-centric, with the possible inclusion of Asian material. Equally, the piece talks about access to information about the world’s art— for example, in one less-developed country I visited, all printmaking resembles the work of Edvard Munch. There is only one book in the university library dealing with printmaking, and it focuses on Munch.

With global art criteria, how are the world’s artists able to compete? Portability, access, and information-flow figure prominently in the space, and the Benin-born, Dutch-resident artist reinforced this with his use of low-cost, portable furniture composed of tires and plywood. In a separate space, art information is given almost a neatly carved context—via press clippings in European-produced publications— about politics, happenings, and travel on the African continent. This is presented as the material of very aesthetically refined, large-scale, book-like forms— children’s books for adults. Throughout the interior, circular cutouts of an African currency are dispersed, playful reminders of money’s power in the global art world.

Two other spaces figure prominently. Adjoining the resource room is a makeshift curatorial boardroom. Designed with a large, rectangular meeting table and stools, seat assignments illuminate something of a Who’s Who in globally oriented curatorial decision-making— with the books donated to the museum library literally tabled. Interestingly, several donations act as publicity devices illuminating the “chosen’s” very own work. While celebrating the role of curators as global facilitators, the boardroom also highlights their power and awkward, difficult roles. Above, aesthetically refined burnt books are mounted onto candle-lit chandeliers and look sinister, cynical, and peculiarly beautiful.

Unfortunately, while Meschac Gaba’s work is very timely and relevant even to the globe’s art-filled economic and media powerhouses, it has often been ghettoized into categorical discussions about an exclusive African context. These discussions place primary emphasis on Gaba’s “Africanness” or on issues of Eurocentrism / colonialism / post-colonialism / neo-colonialism— sometimes placed within an art historical context focusing on the overall subject, the museum, which then generates discussion about our institutions’ role in exhibiting art and cultures. With this angle, Museum relates to previous works by Duchamp and Marcel Broodthears, and it facilitates discussions about the library’s portability, the use of vernacular objects, and the role of the viewer as participant.

While we can’t personally see the world’s ever-changing contemporary art, we can aspire to more information on world art— be it in Bangladesh or Butte, Montana. Fortunately, Meschac Gaba offers a way out of the box in his computer room— with PCs playfully mounted on bicycles. While juxtaposing older technology with new, Gaba includes an impressive number of bookmarks linked to Web sites focusing on African contemporary art— with a wealth of festivals, magazines, and biennials. Whether accessed at home or at cultural centers, the Internet has facilitated global art discussions inconceivable only a decade ago. In a sense, the Library not only projects the current state of the art world, but also questions the possibilities for the future. Can this medium positively change some of the problematic dynamics in the global art world and its endeavors, or will communications, money, access, and representation problems continue?