Within the decade of the 1960s, the West is undergoing a number of fundamental changes on all levels of society. Imbedded in a complex historical, social and political process, a major paradigm shift is taking place: the modern notion, according to which the Cartesian concept of the self defines the entire Western mindset, is cumulatively replaced by the conception of a de-centered subject understanding identity as constructed and relational. Conceptual Art emerged within this transitory phase, having to deal with a blurred understanding of the role of the subject in society – and in its succession, the role of the artist in the art context.
The Human Stain thus intends to make visible the paradigm shift in the understanding of subjectivity and departs from a selection of major works from early Concept Art out of the funds of the collections of CGAC. From there, the exhibition follows conceptual and other related movements, such as Minimalism, Performance and Land Art, throughout the last four decades, concluding with current artistic production. The title of this exhibition is taken from a novel by American writer Philip Roth, following his notion of a stain as a smudge, or highly resistant dirt. Of course, a stain can stick straight on the chest; but it can also be attempted to be concealed. One can try to wash it out. But it will never fully disappear. There will always be a shadow, a rest. But a stain also is a defect, something that we carry with us since birth or even before, something that is insisting and cannot be crossed out. It persists both in the artwork itself, as well as in individual perception. The search for The Human Stain has become the guiding principle for the adventure of taking an unusual look at works from the collections of the CGAC.
Choosing the composite image of a human stain – as something that sticks to its bearer and follows him wherever s/he goes or whatever s/he undertakes to get rid of it – as a means to visualize subjectivity and the thread that goes through the exhibition can be interpreted as purposely contradicting ideals of ‘purity’ and/or ‘formal neutrality’ which are commonly connected with Minimal and Conceptual Art. The central thesis of this exhibition is that ‘neutral’ and ‘pure’ oftentimes circumvent a deeper investigation of what actually happened to subjectivity – both on the side of the producer and of the perceiver – in the seemingly subject-free art of the 1960s and its successors. The Human Stain, thus, seeks to shed light on the place of the subject by means of a close reading of three major issues throughout Conceptual Art and related movements: language, space and the body. Using these themes as threads that wind through the exhibition display – sometimes very obvious, sometimes more subtle or implicit – they should be understood as a guideline that provides an underlying structure for this show. The selection of works brings together some of the central artistic positions from the 1960s – such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Donald Judd, Martha Rosler and others – with successive generations of artists that were influenced by Conceptual Art and its contemporary movements – like Richard Prince, Jac Leirner, Melanie Smith or Tacita Dean. Starting in the entrance hall with an installation by Mexican Iñaki Bonillas (that this exhibition shares with Pequena historia da fotografía, a show that runs parallel and also draws from CGAC’s collections) and a newly acquisitioned mural by Pavel Büchler, The Human Stain is mainly presented on the first floor, but also includes the permanent sculpture Trinangular Pavilion by Dan Graham, which is located on the terrace of the museum and which will be accompanied by the newly purchased video Death by Chocolate. A couple of new acquisitions for the collection will take center stage, such as important works from the first generation conceptual artists Esther Ferrer, Luis Camnitzer, Mladen Stilinovic and Channa Horwitz, but also from current production, such as the one by Michael Müller or Nicolas Guagnini.
The intention of The Human Stain is to make continuities, but also important ruptures in Conceptual Art throughout its more than four decades of vivid history visible. Hopefully it opens up a space for viewers and readers to time and again take a step aside the customary viewing habits and understanding of well-known artists and artworks.