In the late nineteenth century museums were founded throughout Europe and North America to collect and preserve the indigenous cultures of rural societies whose traditions were being lost due to rapid industrialization and urbanization. Recreating scenes of local life, its customs and values, these displays were devised from an ethnographic rather than primarily aesthetic orientation. For, typically, they organized the materials of these allegedly dying indigenous folk cultures either into taxonomies of itemized artifacts or as veristic mise-en-scènes, as dioramas. A century later many of these vitrines and tableaux vivants may still be found in museums devoted to national cultures, often adjacent to the twentieth century’s more tentative and more sporadic attempts to document the changing character of contemporary social life in its everyday guise.
Recently, however, this genre of ethnographic museological presentation has witnessed an extraordinary efflorescence in such places as the former East Germany and adjacent countries where nostalgia for the previous, socialist era waxes uninhibitedly. Yet irrespective of whether such contemporaneous manifestations are initiated by the heritage industry, with its idealizing revisionist remaking of a past that never was, or by sentimental, if ungrounded, private citizens’ eulogies of the past, emotion and memory fuel these multiply determined retrospective recreations.
Hale Tenger’s three-room installation at Artpace, The Closet, is best read in relation to these genres of ethnographic display that take the form of period rooms devoted to lost cultures, those of the near as well as the distant past—rather than within that lineage of installation art to which it might be normally be referenced, epitomized in the work of Ed Kienholz, for example.
Entered via a closed domestic door set within an otherwise neutral wall, The Closet appears to recreate a certain way of life in the “distant (near)-present”; that is, it suggests a reconstruction of a moment and place from another culture, one that is elsewhere but nearby, past but still recent in time. Certain diversions from the norms and codes that subtend such presentations soon emerge, however. With its mixture of what sounds like news-reportage interspersed with sports coverage, the radio, for example, is tuned uncomfortably high. Intrusive, aggressive, its shrill tones assault and invade, disturbing and skewing concentration on the mise-en-scène that the viewer first encounters on crossing the threshold of the apartment door.
The broadcast fixes attention inescapably in the present, even though the room itself is redolent of a previous era. In this interior the past reads as a social past rather than as a personal one: the furnishings are at once dated in style and worn through repeated usage; nothing alludes to a specific individual, and nothing identifies the former occupants. By contrast, in the second room, the past completely overwhelms the present, a past now construed in personal as well as social terms. Old schoolbooks recall the formative years of a young child whose exercises in writing testify to the inevitable disciplinary techniques inherent in the socializing of the infant into collective life.
Only after traversing these two rooms does the viewer encounter the third, the closet. A walk-in wardrobe stuffed with clothes, bedding and other textiles, in comparison with the previous two spaces, it appears an excessive, flamboyant yet secret arena. And, after the meager, spartan furnishings of the first two rooms, the rampant brilliance of color, and the seductive textures, introduce a sense of warmth and allure that arouses desire with unexpected force and drama. By conjuring a space of fantasy and promise, it alludes to an ever-deferred future.
The wardrobe is tailored to individual occupancy unlike the larger rooms, which are sites of family interaction. Relationships between the individual and the collective are parsed as a tension between the internal, the personal, and the social, the public—between the spaces of desire and private fantasy and those of communal relations and social control. If, for the child, clothing offers the means for dressing up, those changes in identity operate exclusively in the realm of play and imagination; the limits of such desires are unequivocally staked by the narrow confines of the wardrobe, by its sequestered and, ultimately, claustrophobic boundaries.
The starkness of these contrasting temporalities manifest as the austere yet sound-filled dining room, the melancholic but mute bed/living room, and the dizzying effusion of the closet generate a trio of experiences. They are enacted first as a process of discovery and expansive release, then, as the viewer exits room by room, as an increasingly oppressive reinstatement of social constraints. If small details, such as the particular language that is used in the broadcast, as well as in the texts in the books, suggest locating this environment in modern Turkey, the artist’s homeland, The Closet is not confined by socio-cultural specificity any more than it is fixed in one historical moment. For, unlike an ethnographic diorama, which documents by recreating a particular historical milieu in exacting detail, Tenger’s perspective capitalizes on the conventions integral to such discourses and displays while building on the implications of siting such a presentation in an art-space.
Given that this work is encountered in the exhibition galleries at ArtPace, it will, immediately and automatically, be read as fictive not as documentary, as a construction not a re-construction. Forswearing all claims to authenticity but, equally, eschewing pure presence, Tenger imbricates sentient knowledge and memory with a critical reflexivity. In displacing the past into the present, in orchestrating an experience in lived time, she expands temporal and historical dimensions; she wrests her mise-en-scène from one specific situation to invest larger implications and a wider resonance. Thus, the psychology of social engineering—more than its politics—remains, finally, her subject. Located neither exclusively in memory nor in the official historical, it pivots between the two in order to pry open the overlay of public onto private, past onto present, convention onto aspiration, and collective onto individual that characterizes the coercive and restrictive processes regimenting contemporary life in much of today’s so-called free world.
Lynne Cooke is the curator of Dia Center for the Arts in New York.