#5 – Janvier / January 2023

Michela Sacchetto

Exhibitions and other rituals

Interview with Dorothea von Hantelmann 

Michela Sacchetto: You have been working since many years on a sociocritical understanding of art exhibitions in terms of ritual space/times, in which values and abstract principles of modern liberal, individualized and market-based societies historically have been, and continue to be, practiced, and negotiated. Your proposal to identify and to situate the specificities of such a diffused cultural format within the notion of ‘ritual’, embodying the socio-economic and political coordinates of modern western societies, brings new insights on both the successful attractiveness and the reiterated discomfort that art exhibiting raised since the last century, within the artists, the scholars and the public. In your writings, you mention as inspiring sources the historical and critical analyses of museums by the art historian Carol Duncan, describing the museum as a ‘civilizing ritual’, as well as Tony Bennett grounding study on museums as ‘civic laboratories’ for social behavior. And still, your focus on exhibition, rather than the museum institutions of the art galleries, seems to move from those previous approaches and to address a temporary and ephemeral cultural format to be questioned per-se. How did you situate your research and your employ of the notion of ‘ritual’ within those critical approaches?

Dorothea von Hantelmann: Essentially, we can look at museums and exhibitions from two perspectives: from the perspective of art history, which treats them predominantly as neutral containers that contain what art history actually focuses on, namely the artworks; or from the perspective of museum studies, which, being rather informed by sociology and anthropology, examines not only the history but also the social significance of museums and exhibitions within the context of modern societies. I was trained as an art historian but situate my work in the second perspective, drawing on positions as those formulated by Tony Bennett and others who have analyzed governmental function of museums, and refer to Carol Duncan who introduced the concept of ritual in relation to the museum. This is where I start and go a step further: what does it mean to understand museums and exhibitions as specifically modern Western rituals?

For some, this is a provocation, because modern Western societies generally lean toward a certain anti-ritualism. They connect rituals to religion and therefore consider them obsolete in a secular context; or they perceive them as undemocratic, manipulative spectacles. Along with ritual scholars, however, I would say that, because of their anti-ritualistic attitude, modern Western societies often do no longer perceive their own ritualizations as such. Even if the rituals of the modern state are not labeled as such, they still exist and have their effect. Also the modern socio-economic order needed and still needs rituals and symbolic forms of integration in order to be able to solidify itself. Like every society before it, it has marked out its specific rituals, in which its essential values and categories are manifested. And the exhibition, I argue, became one of the most significant rituals of Western modernity. Because it constitutes a format that brings together the pillars that these societies are based on. A core element is the belief in the value and uttermost importance of the individual. Historically, the exhibition format is the first cultural format that presents objects made by individuals (artists), to individual visitors (not, like theater, to a collective audience). These individuals engage in a refined and refining process of aesthetic perception, experience and judgement with equally refined material artworks, which one could say act as a sublime version of the materially produced object which, one could say, forms a kind of nucleus of societies centered on production, like Western materialist and productivist societies. In these new places called museums or “National Galleries” an abstract concept like that of the ‘individual’ or the ‘nation’ could become manifest. Here, the ‘nation’ would gather, not as a collective, which practically would anyway be impossible, but rather in a specifically modern, e.g. individualized, flexibilized and liberalized way: Everyone comes and goes as they like, following their own preferences and interests. In the history of ritualized gatherings, we find many rituals that bring people together in order to dance, chant or celebrate. The exhibition arose as a ritual in which people stay relatively passive; in which they are supposed to learn, contemplate and aesthetically judge material works of art. The format of the exhibition emerged as a new ritual that was precisely about transferring the sensual and the aesthetic into modes of distance, judgement and reflection. Because these were the values the West wanted to build a new modern society on. It needed people, citizens, that are low in affect and therefore capable of making responsible, critical decisions. People that first and foremost see themselves as facing the world rather than being connected to and interwoven with it.

MS: More recently, you passed from putting the accent on the ‘politics of a ritual’ to the ‘transformation of a ritual’. This seems to drive your research from the critical analyses on the historical construction of the exhibition format, to a more prospective direction, somehow in the direction of a research for ‘alternatives’. How do you consider transformation being at work from within ritual repetitions? On this point, I am particularly thinking back at your previous study How to do things with art (2010) where you summon philosopher Judith Butler’s notion of ‘performative’ to address the agency of art works and art processes, differentiating themselves from conventions while still actualizing them, other to say, and to cite you, ‘there is not such a thing as an outside’.

DvH: The question how rituals change is an interesting one. On the one hand, rituals derive their symbolic power and legitimacy from the fact that they transcend the individual and therefore cannot be modified at will. Their potency rests in the way they situate participants within an order that preceded their births and will survive their deaths. At the same time, rituals are neither fixed nor essentially stable: they emerge, take root, are refined, and solidify. As their effectiveness ebbs, they are imbued with new significance or are suppressed by other rituals. When the societal circumstances, the socioeconomic order, or the ‘thought-style’ (in Ludwik Fleck’s term) of an epoch change, rituals can (and must) adjust their forms to the change in order to remain effective as rituals. If we assume that societies form their basic understanding of themselves and the world in the form and structure of their large ritual assemblies, this also means that forms and structures of assemblies must always change and adapt as society changes.

Again, the format of the exhibition is an interesting example. As a ritual, this format has changed again and again over the last 200 years. I would even say that it is one of the special features of this ritual that it has to keep changing – as a specifically modern ritual – in order to be able to assert itself as a contemporary ritual in the context of a society that believes in constant change and progress. Individual agents, curators, of course play a role in this, they initiate changes, but what prevails as a format on a broad level is always also related to broad socio-economic currents. We can, for example, comprehend the transition of early market societies into consumer societies alongside the transformation of 19th century museums into white cubes. We can retrace the entire history of individualisation by following the increase of wall space between paintings in 19th and 20th century galleries. And we can analyse the contemporary experience society on the basis of the way it transforms the white cube into time-based experiential spaces. Art institutions constitute modern ritualistic spaces, in which core aspects of the modern socio-economic order are cultivated, embodied and enacted. This does not mean that there is no possibility of fundamentally changing this ritual. Historically, there have been approaches to this, and today we are experiencing a variety of search movements that are trying out the possibilities of new formats. I think it helps to be aware of the societal, cultural, social, but also socio-economic function of this format in order to develop new formats or rituals that might have a chance of establishing themselves on a broader level.

MS: Could you please give us an example of a situation, historical or actual, that for you embody this ‘transformation’ potential?

DvH: A notoriously influential example is the Fun Palace, which, though unrealized, remains one of the most influential and powerful architectural visions of the 20th century. As a joint project by theatre director Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price, the Fun Palace proposed a new kind of cultural institution: A transformative and interactive structure that brought together modalities of theater and exhibition, collective and individual assembly, and was designed to incorporate the essential features of the new socio-economic formation of the late 60s/early 70s, a mass audience, individualization, flexibilization, constant change and the increasing involvement of consumers in the process of production. The Fun Palace radically re-defined the idea of an institution: rather than a container in which pre-determined things happen, the Fun Palace was conceived as a temporary, unstable structure without a definitive form, that could respond to ever-changing ways of using it by changing its form. Stages and exhibition spaces, cinemas and open meeting rooms, workshops, a library and even a circus tent were envisioned. You could be active or passive in the Fun Palace, engage individually or with others, watch films or make films yourself, paint or look at paintings. The whole spectrum of human creativity and knowledge, energies and emotions was to be able to unfold there. A defining characteristic of the Fun Palace was its programmatic openness, which went beyond the interdisciplinary bringing together of individual arts. The aim was to create a place that would ‘educate’ in a broader and deeper sense; a place where every facet of human activity could be integrated, beyond conventional hierarchies (e.g. ‘high’ and ‘low’), divisions (such as of body and mind), and regimes (of the senses). Not everything about this project was convincing. The focus of the Fun Palace was so strongly on breaking down rigid rules and hierarchies that it was not quite clear what was actually supposed to take their place. In the anything goes manner of the 1960s, there was a lack of awareness that this new space also needed to be designed in order to convince a public. The transgressive dynamic was in the foreground, but the presentation level was missing. And yet, the Fun Palace had visionary features that remains influential for artists and architects until today.

A key figure here is Hans Ulrich Obrist, who was a close friend of Price, interviewed him again and again over many years, and thus made him known to a wider audience. Obrist initiated various projects in which the spirit of the Fun Palace manifested itself. These included A Prelude to the Shed a project which Obrist co-curated with Tino Sehgal in an architectural structure built by Kunlé Adeyemi, and in which I also had a small role in co-organising a lecture series and writing an essay. The project took place in 2018, a year before the opening of the eponymous institution in New York, which is architecturally equally inspired by the Fun Palace. The project, designed as a two-week festival, was intended to give New Yorkers a foretaste of the new institution. For the curators this was an opportunity to try out something like a template for a new kind of art institution in a small space and for a limited duration. Working closely with Sehgal, Adeyemi had designed a basic flexible structure consisting of a platform and roof suspended from a support structure. Instead of walls, 38 flexible modules were made of plywood that could function as both seating and wall elements. They were on casters and could be easily, and in principle by any visitor, assembled into ever-changing arrangements: The day began in the formation of a cube, which hosted a school by Asad Raza. Afterwards, the action shifted outside to the platform, where the trolley exhibition of Cedric Price archival materials, already shown in the Swiss Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, took place. In the afternoon, the wall elements joined together to form a black box in which a dance-musical work by Tino Sehgal was performed in complete darkness. At regular intervals, the space opened up again to the outside, where two dancers on the platform presented a pas de deux by William Forsythe, a contemporary ballet, again relieved by the streetdance dancers of the Brooklyn flexing group D.R.E.A.M. The evening concluded with alternating lectures or panels or music concerts by Abra, Azealia Banks, and experimental electronic musician Arca, among others. Each day passed through different forms of art (dance, art, music, « high art » as well as « low » or « pop culture »), experience (embodied and discursive, immersive and reflexive), and assembly (individual and collective), which Tino Sehgal had dramaturgically connected in such a way that one modality seamlessly merged into the next, interweaving not only various forms of art but also different audiences and publics. Of course, no new institution can be established in two weeks, but there were moments when something like a blueprint for a new kind of institution appeared.

Dancers from D.R.E.A.M. (A Prelude to The Shed, New York City, May 1-13, 2018)

MS: What about the utopia dimension of the Fun Palace? When it came into actual experience, during the festival in New York, do you think that the public experience was shattered from the passive, contemplative, and consumer like elements that you trace back into exhibition modern ritual? How was their presence ‘designed’? Where they active users? Who were those people feeling addressed by the experience proposed by the two-weeks ‘prelude’ of institution? How was the public reaction to it?[1]

Josh Johnson (A Prelude to The Shed, New York City, May 1-13, 2018)

Abra (A Prelude to The Shed, New York City, May 1-13, 2018)

DvH: There was curiosity on the part of the audience, but also a certain uncertainty. It was all free, but you had to register in advance. It is, of course, not easy to connect different audiences for such different forms of art. The key was Sehgal’s dramaturgy, which wove everything together in such a way that there were no changeover breaks or anything like that. This means that visitors who actually came for the street dance might also stay for the lecture, simply because the events merged seamlessly. They also saw Forsythe’s duet, which was seamlessly connected to the street dance performance. Had there been an intermission, they might have left. These crafted dramaturgical aspects are very important. To really connect audiences, of course, a project like this would have to run much longer. In that short time, it couldn’t be more than an experiment.

MS: A Prelude to the Shed seemingly convoke the living art festival format and horizon, in term of time-line program, special and temporal superpositions, collective gathering, as well as in the implication of a dramaturgical dimension. Those paradigms and practices integrated the more and more, since at least twenty years, the museum institutions. As they were already at stake in some 1960s institutional exhibitions, contemporary to the Fun Palace, mostly a temporary experimentation and not a structural transformation of the institution, but still playing a significant role in testing the laboratory-museum path, which gained much relevance back then, while hybridizing exhibitions with living art and experimental pedagogy models as well as shaping differently spatial and temporal assignments and uses (I am thinking here at well-known initiatives, such as Dilaby in Stadelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1962, conceived by Jean Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri, or Puppen – Marionetten – Schattenspiel: Asiatica und Experiments, in Kunsthalle Berne the same year, by Harald Szeemann, or some of the exhibitions organized in Moderna Museet under Pontus Hultèn direction, such as Niki de Saint Phalle and Tinguely’s SHE – a cathedral in 1966 or The Model – A Model for a Qualitative Society by Palle Nielsen in 1968). Do you suggest that the today transformation of the exhibition ritual could be acted while renewing with those hybridizing dynamics?

DvH: These experimental exhibitions are of course interesting and relevant in terms of art and exhibition history. Szeemann’s Puppen – Marionetten – Schattenspiel exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern e.g.  brought very different references into art. References from other cultures to rituals that were energetically different, more Dionysian, more embodied. But it’s more about the references and the themes than about the level of experience. When you look at the photographs, you see a relatively conventional exhibition. Szeemann talks about the physical, about the liberation of subjectivity, about Artaud, and so on. But in the photos, one can clearly see, it’s quite a clean set-up and doesn’t look very ‘Artaudian’ if you understand what I mean. Many of these experimental exhibitions that you mention were relevant as counter exhibitions to the dominant institutional forms. But today, the fundamental question is how to proceed with these dominant forms. What role do they still play, what is the significance of the art that is shown there and who is their audience. In terms of art institutions, this is a time of search movements, and we have to ask ourselves what criteria motivate the search for a new kind of format or institution. At the moment, the focus of institutions is strongly on issues such as diversity and inclusion, but the format itself often remains untouched. It would e.g. be interesting to create a format that is able to connect the individual with the collective. We know of collective and individualized forms of gathering. Both have institutionalized themselves in the arts as theaters and museums, or, in more general terms, as stage and exhibition format. These can be regarded as two different kinds of ritualistic topologies that differ in character, differ in what they impart to society, and differ in terms of their function and significance within the huge transformational process that generated modern societies. The question would be what a format might look like that could address both of these aspects, that is, producing collectively shared and flexibly individualized experiences. Another criterion would be its grounding in an ontology based not on the modern principle of separation and autonomy but on modalities of connectedness and permeability. It would e.g. be characterized by a porosity toward its outside environment, emphasizing connectedness with rather than separation from nature. And finally, an important criterium seems to be the conception of the partaker, the beholder. While theaters and museums conceptualize the partaker primarily as a recipient, as a passive viewer or a spectator, a new ritual could – like in traditional rituals and along with contemporary knowledge societies and creative societies – conceptualize the partaker as a participant that can freely choose to be (or not be) active and thus can both actively and passively contribute to the outcome of the ritual. What I see is a new ritual, which is individualized but social, which is porous and interconnected, and which allows both for activity and passivity on the side of its partaker.

Online interview, Brussels/Berlin
November-December 2022 


[1] The ‘Shed Cultural Center’ opened in 2019, during Covid, and it has been designed according to the need for ‘adaptability’ of spaces and access, many of the halls and rooms being dedicated to living arts and to art production spaces, as spaces for rehearsals etc. The institution has been at the center of controversial debates and critics, as e.g. the one brought by art theoretician and historian Claire Bishop (Claire Bishop ‘Palace in Plunderland’, in Artforum n. 57-1 September 2018)


Photos copyright Dorothea von Hantelmann