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Marc-Olivier Wahler at the MAHG in Geneva for a Museum of the Future

Published on , by Stéphanie Pioda

Swiss curator Marc-Olivier Wahler blazed a trail in contemporary art institutions in Europe and the United States before rising to a new challenge: bringing the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva into the 21st century.

© Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Genève, photo Mike Sommer Marc-Olivier Wahler at the MAHG in Geneva for a Museum of the Future

© Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Genève, photo Mike Sommer

You became director of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva (MAHG) in June 2019 and took over in early 2020. What were your first projects?
From the moment I arrived, I wanted to highlight both the collections and the building that houses them as well as to stop importing turnkey blockbuster shows from the United States, Japan and elsewhere, which are an actual ecological disaster. To do that, I’ve asked artists and curators to take a fresh look at our encyclopedic collection, which runs the gamut from prehistory to the present day and encompasses a wide array of specialties, from archeology to numismatics, clocks, watches, the applied arts, the fine arts, the graphic arts, etc. the museum has over a million items. The first carte blanche was given in 2021 to Austrian artist Jakob Lena Knebl, who designed the exhibition “Marcher sur l’eau” (“Walking on Water”). Art historian and curator Jean-Hubert Martin followed with “Pas besoin d’un dessin” (“No Need to Draw a Picture”). In 2023, it will be artist Ugo Rondinone’s turn.

What is Martin’s proposal?
“Pas besoin d’un dessin” rethinks part of the MAHG’s permanent exhibition with a selection of some 550 works, including a handful of loans from several Geneva institutions. The show is divided up into about 20 sequences drawing from all the museum’s artistic and historical areas. Each sequence is based on a series of analogies, of relationships between form and substance that create a narrative arc: from cross to globe; scam to decapitation; breast to motherhood, etc.

Do you want to be destabilized and leave your comfort zone with this kind of proposal?
Being destabilized is something I expect from any exhibition in general. I want to show that the works can be presented in a new way. Two-thirds of the museum’s collection are utilitarian objects, like archeological artifacts, coins, crafts, etc. In the 19th century, they were still on display with coats of armor. Traditional museography maintained a balance between utilitarian and aesthetic objects. During the 20th century, the latter took precedence over the former. This is an issue for every ethnography museum, including the Musée du Quai Branly, where ethnographical objects are on display as works of art to the detriment of their cultural value.

Is Geneva’s Ethnography Museum an example for you to follow?
No, it’s still very aesthetic. My model is that of Jacques Hainard, former director of the ethnography museums in Neuchâtel and Geneva. When I was his student, he taught me that an object can be both utilitarian and aesthetic. As a curator, I developed the totally pataphysical idea of the “schizophrenic quotient”: an object with few interpretations remains a utilitarian object; the more a piece is able to store up different interpretations, the denser and more efficient it becomes and the higher its "schizophrenic quotient".

Exhibition “Marcher sur l’eau”, musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève© Photo Julien Gremaud

Exhibition “Marcher sur l’eau”, musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève
© Photo Julien Gremaud

Does the “schizophrenic quotient” vary depending on an item’s context?
Yes. For example, in Jakob Lena Knebl’s exhibition “Marcher sur l’eau”, the quotient of Canova’s plaster sculptures rose a lot when they were placed in shower stalls, whether positively or not. Unlike curators, artists can get away with this sort of thing.

What could appear as an outrage would become an opening and a shift of the acceptable gaze?
Exactly. What’s interesting about Canova’s sculptures is that the new context underscores their fragility and the reason he’s famous, i.e. the way he makes the surface of his sculptures look almost like real skin. There’s also some philosophical reflection on the object as such. This is based on speculative realism, a current that originated over twenty years ago and was brought to France by writer and philosopher Tristan Garcia, with whom I worked a lot. He popularized this questioning around American artist Manuel de Landa’s “flat ontology”. In other words, he poses the question of a world without a hierarchy between a human being, an object, bacteria, a stone, etc. This horizontal reading is gaining ground in politics, sociology, and psychology. A museum must play a part in nurturing this kind of reflection, especially with exhibitions that can be read transversally.

In 2016, Genevans voted down the first proposal to expand the museum. Will you try again?
One of the reasons I’m here is to think about the museum of tomorrow. Why do people come to a museum, to a place of art? What makes them want to walk through the door or to stay away? I’ve been thinking about these questions for a long time. They’re the basis of my proposal for the future museum. All the models today are exactly alike except for the 1977 Centre Pompidou, but only when Pontus Hultén was its director.

What were the key points?
You can walk through the Centre without stopping and use it without seeing the exhibitions. You can even go just for the view. Plus, the exhibitions were multidisciplinary, open to various practices in France and abroad. The organizational structure allowed risks to be taken. Today everybody is aware that the museum of tomorrow will be different, but nobody knows how yet. ICOM has tried to give the contours of a definition of the museum again, but now we realize that there are many different kinds of museums, so many that it’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all view of what have become temples of knowledge.

How will you apply these ideas to the future MAHG?
We’re thinking about a museum that integrates various practices and functions, and that is an urban as much as a cultural project. The idea is for visitors to transition from the urban fabric to the museum without realizing it. The interesting moment in the perception of an artwork is the shift: looking at a ready-made, our gaze changes and a chair becomes the representation of a chair. The pigments on the canvas disappear to reappear as a representation. I’d like to work on that tension to put visitors into a psychological state of openness before they see the works. Also, the museum must provide services and be creative: I like the idea of a public writer or of having a post office inside, just like in the Centre Pompidou in 1977. Whatever is imagined, it’s got to be thought about through the eyes of the artists.

What’s the timetable for the future museum?
In 2022, the City of Geneva will launch an open call for an anonymous competition. The architect will be chosen in 2023. Construction is set to start in 2026 and last until 2029-2030. Nobody imagined Geneva as the breeding ground for the museum of tomorrow. It’s rather the United States that springs to mind to fill that role. We should also look towards Africa, where a new system must be invented. We’re already seeing this in South Africa and Senegal, which have constraints we don’t and will therefore come up with new solutions.

Exhibition “Pas besoin d’un dessin”, musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève© Photo Julien Gremaud

Exhibition “Pas besoin d’un dessin”, musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève
© Photo Julien Gremaud

Worth Seeing
“Pas besoin d’un dessin”, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
Until June 19, 2022.
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