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Unschöne Museen at gta exhibitions, ETH Zurich

March 1–May 19, 2023

gta exhibitions presents Unschöne Museen at ETH Zurich from March 1, 2023 to May 19, 2023.

The Museum—capital t, capital m—is the site for contentious debate about the historicization of objects. There is perhaps no other building whose mere designation as a museum so effectively increases the value of what it houses.

After a few decades marking The Museum’s heyday—a time of ongoing expansion and ever more sensational encounters with art as a mode of consumption—we now witness a tendency toward wide-reaching revision of The Museum as we know it. Beyond the efforts of institutional critique, The Museum today is no longer regarded as a site of beauty or spectacle, but rather as a problem context calling for repair. Until recently, the world of art and architecture enduringly published and advocated the promise of the museum of the future. Today, the lens through which we view this institution is tainted and review of The Museum as an institution is back on the table. Called a place of ruin where objects go to die, an artificial hell, a machine, a monster, The Museum’s mission as a place of custodianship for the objects it houses is now subjected to widespread critique. The Museum has revealed itself as a site of violence, its architecture and operations inadvertently reinforcing societal inequality. “We sincerely regret any inconvenience (…) but (it) is the only responsible stance we can take.”

The exhibition draws on Benedicte Savoy’s expression “Unschöne Museen,” literally unbeautiful museums, in a selection of works that emphasize this reversal while also undoing The Museum’s camouflage. Many of the works refer to a specific museum: Onyeka Igwe’s works a so-called archive (2020) and Museum Gift Shop Postcards (2023) from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the former Museum of British Empire and Commonwealth in Bristol and the former Nigerian Film Unit; Maud Sulter’s work MUSEUM (1990), made in response to an Orientalist painting by John Collier, when it returned from conservation to Oldham Museum; or Ilya Lipkin’s Prodromes (2019), shot at the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art, a series of glossy, fashion-editorial-like photographs mimicking The Museum’s knack for branding and spectacle. Other works propose their own definition of museum: Chris E. Vargas’ MOTHA—The Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art, is an ongoing art project questioning the very notion of a visual representation of transgender life. And material from the gta archives addresses questions that are currently and publicly directed at the Kunsthaus Zürich—the museum that sparked this exhibition.

The works in the exhibition address the architectures of The Museum by occupying them with what does not belong there, by rendering them ridiculous, nightmarish or stale and by envisioning other modes of historicity and experiences of art in contrast to colonial cabinets of curiosities or the branded sites of blockbuster museums. Unschöne Museen is simultaneously an act of mourning and a warning. As a melancholic survey of The Museum, an institution under revision and gradually disappearing in its earlier form, it gathers narratives that reveal The Museum’s dependencies and its imminent redefinition. At the same time, the investigations leave no doubt about the complexity of revision. Warned by the sobering insight that there is no objectivity in striving to establish other models, we are confronted with the challenges brought on by the many mantels of the museum.

Artists: Ayo Akingbade, Debasish Borah, Ivan Cheng, Sara Deraedt, Louis Eilshemius, Ella Eßlinger & Fabienne Girsberger, Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke, Paula Heredia & Coco Fusco & Daisy Wright, Onyeka Igwe, Ilya Lipkin, Lea Lublin, OMA, P.A.I.N, Société Anonyme, Maud Sulter, Chris E. Vargas, ZG Magazine; gta archives material of Jørn Utzon, van den Broek & Bakema, Pierre Zoelly et al. 

The exhibition is curated by Fredi Fischli, Niels Olsen and Geraldine Tedder.

gta exhibitions
ETH Zurich, Stefano-Franscini-Platz 5
8093 Zürich