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Game of Thrones / Positions

Model of / Model for: Functionality and the Exhibition

by Jörn Schafaff

The four screens and the thrones before them are painted either gray or white. They are lifesize replicas of a pair of objects from the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin. Their monotone coloring emphasizes their distinction from the originals. They aim to convey no naturalistic impression but to bring out particular features – outline, shape, size, volume. They suffice to convey the shape of the originals and an idea of the space that the screen and throne would take up were they to be presented. For this is the issue that the “Game of Thrones” addresses: How might the ensemble be adequately presented and what aspects should be taken into account?

To answer these questions, a designer and three artists were invited to engage with the pieces and to apply their insights to one of the replicated ensembles. The research material put at their disposal also forms the prelude to the exhibition. An illustrated wall text in an anteroom informs visitors about comparable ensembles and their placement in Chinese palaces, in collections and museums. An art-film-collage by Daniel Kohl takes a look at throne rooms in Hollywood movies. In the windowless exhibition hall itself, visitors are met by a cruciform exhibition architecture and four almost square rooms of identical size. The movable walls reach neither to the ceiling nor to the sidewalls of the hall, so that they seem a bit like stage flats. This in turn brings out the stage-like character of the four exhibition spaces for which the four presentation scenarios were developed. While the designer Konstantin Grcic and the artist Kirstine Roepstorff primarily addressed the structuring of the space, the artists Simon Starling and Zhao Zhao dealt with the exhibits themselves.

The model character of the scenarios is immediately apparent. On closer consideration, though, the exhibits themselves, the fact that they are fourfold, and the square exhibition space raise the question as to what model exactly is being presented in the “Game of Thrones.” This is not least a result of the ambiguity of the concept of a model. “In general usage,” as John Miller for example remarks, “the word model means, alternately: an example to be emulated, an ideal, a simplified representation, a particular version of a product, and, ultimately, a person who poses for art, fashion or advertising.”1 Even if we restrict ourselves to the meaning of a “simplified representation,” classification is still no easy matter, because, as Miller goes on to state: “As a simplified representation, the model has the virtue of comprehensibility. It may represent things as they are, as they might be or as they should not be.”2 Which of these aims is or are being addressed by the exhibition scenarios ultimately remains ambiguous. The gray or white replicas are models of the original items in the collection; but they do not illustrate the complexity of the originals for visitors in the way that, say, architectural models exemplify architectural structures. In a certain sense they are not important, serving primarily as stand-ins upon which the potential reality of artistic treatments can be tested out. This is the chief focus of attention. But do they have any model function at all? If so, then to represent things “as they might be.” Yet it is not clear what exactly the four scenarios represent. They are certainly not practical suggestions for some future presentation of the imperial throne at the Humboldt-Forum. In particular Zhao’s wax-covered variant is out of the question on conservational grounds. Are we dealing here with specific suggestions for an artistic intervention? This would be a curious anticipation of a future that does not yet exist and that is entirely undecided. The logic of intervention requires an already existing situation; but the only definite thing about “Game of Thrones” is the objects and the spatial situations described above, where the latter clearly relate to no specific rooms, least of all to any future spatial arrangement at the Humboldt-Forum. So the question arises whether the four presentations are model scenarios at all.

What exactly does “Game of Thrones” show visitors to the exhibition? A possible answer would be that the effect of both the individual contributions and of the exhibition as a whole unfolds at the level of commentary. Grcic’s, Roepstorff’s, Starling’s, and Zhao’s installations comment on aspects of the exhibits under consideration, for example in regard to their historical function of representing power. Further, they comment on the principle of museum presentation itself. The red wax with which Zhao has covered the model throne and partition recalls blood, but also the color of the Chinese national flag. Together with a blog that he set going, his work can be seen as a call for contemporary contextualizations of artifacts and against their reduced presentation as aesthetic objects. In Simon Starling’s case the video projector which he has placed on the throne assumes the position of the emperor. By confronting the exhibits and the projected film the placement turns into a comment on the power of media communication. The video shows details of the screen that visitors to the exhibition – who are usually kept at a distance from the exhibits – would otherwise not be able to see. At the same time, the detailed close-ups undermine the idea of a discrete object that can be grasped in its entirety. Roepstorff hangs lanterns based on traditional Chinese models in the exhibition space, apparently favoring an atmospheric approach while at the same time setting the throne in a further cultural context. On top of this, the illumination brings out the fact that viewers are not simply confronted with exhibits, but that, together with them, they are joint participants in a presentational situation. Similarly the barrier-like elements with which Grcic has furnished the space: Their labyrinthine arrangement regulates viewers’ movements, making one aware of one’s physical presence, so that a relation between imperial power and the institutional power of the museum can be experienced bodily.

All things considered, what the four scenarios particularly bring out is the relativity of all museum presentations. Taken as a whole, the exhibition can be grasped as a call to make this relativity the conceptual foundation of future presentations at the Humboldt-Forum. This would further involve recognizing and giving prominence to the fact that every endeavor to bring a culture closer by exhibiting its objects entails depriving these objects of their cultural context. The multiple abstractional measures that detach the scenarios from any direct relation to reality seem to hint at a danger – namely, that scenographic attempts to bridge museum displacements inevitably threaten to obscure the cultural, social, and political implications of collecting, ordering, and presenting. From this point of view, the function of the exhibition “Game of Thrones” is less to provide models of future presentational practice (nor in relation to the inclusion of artists) than to call to mind the challenges to which those involved with the conception and planning of the Humboldt-Forum must rise.

1 John Miller, “Modell / Model,” in Jörn Schafaff, Nina Schallenberg, Tobias Vogt (eds.), “Kunst-Begriffe der Gegenwart: Von Allegorie bis Zip,” Walther König, Cologne: 2013, 193–197, 193.

2 Ibid., 194.

Dr. Jörn Schafaff works on the Collaborative Research Centre 626 “Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits” at the Freie Universität, Berlin. His special interest is the situativity of artistic displays. From 2009 to 2011 he took part in developing the “Cultures of the Curatorial” course at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig.