Nothing to see, and nothing to say: Marlie Mul at GoMA

Marlie Mul’s first non-exhibition in Scotland, at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), is an extraordinary descent into the depths of non-existence.

Any visitor to the GoMA’s centrepiece Gallery One, from now until the end of October, will find a room unoccupied by art. The lights will be switched off. The windows will be covered with stylised posters bearing the words ‘cancelled’ over them. Before entering the space, a blurb declares: This Exhibition is Cancelled.

Except—if the capitalisation didn’t give it away as a title—the exhibition isn’t cancelled. The cancellation is the exhibition. And thus we find ourselves stuck in the same postmodern malaise that all contemporary art feels, much less incapable than churlishly reluctant, to climb itself out of: one conscious of its own problems, yet lacking the conviction to offer any real solutions.

In the official press release, Curator of Contemporary Art at the GoMA, Will Cooper, made the following statement regarding the pseudo-cancellation:

By removing what would traditionally be considered an Art Object [sic] we are instead presenting the gallery as an empty space, giving us a moment to question the value in turning over exhibition after exhibition after exhibition. Perhaps GoMA and, by extension, other museums and galleries would be better placed as a space for another kind of activity?

Artists have been questioning the function of the gallery since time immemorial. Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan did it when he wrote “I’ll Be Right Back” on the closed doors of his own exhibition, and never came back. Before that, in 1973, Michael Asher did it when he sandblasted a wall of the Toselli gallery in Milan, showing a way in which his work ‘colluded’ with the gallery wall. Before that, in 1969, Robert Barry did it when, prior to his exhibition, invitation cards were sent out informing all interested patrons and guests that “during the exhibition the gallery will be closed”. Before that, in 1883, James McNeill Whistler did it when, during his exhibition, he placed his artworks in the first ever ‘white cube’ style gallery space, a style so contrary to Victorian convention to be considered blasphemous. And so on.

Not that reiteration is a bad thing. Times change, people need reminded; old questions provoke new answers. But even within its own narrow range of discourse Mul’s work fails to meet the criteria it sets itself. Visitors are asked to contemplate alternative uses for the space, but within the space itself are given little encouragement to make their contemplations heard. Online—if you’re interested enough to see past the joke—a submission form can be found, but one revealing rules so strict to be hilariously counter-conducive: events must be self-funded. No resources, like staffing or storage facilities, will be provided. Events must not be political. No food and drink allowed. No animals or plants allowed. It has been two months since the exhibition was ‘cancelled’, and there is yet to be any update as to possible events taking place at the gallery, even those most anodyne as mooted by Cooper in his press release, such as yoga or drawing classes.

At its worst, This Exhibition is Cancelled actively dissuades the public from engaging with the space. As the cancellation is the exhibition, nothing has, in effect, been removed; there is no sense of an opportunity being created, but rather one already taken. A black hole may be a void, but it takes up space all the same. Mul’s own non-existence in all of this—a presence never elevated above that of some obscure name-dropping exercise by Cooper—affirms the reality the exhibition represents. It is too self-conscious of its own critique to ever really want for solutions, because it is only when without critique that the work is revealed for what it truly is: nothing.

Nothing happens, twice

Despite any flawed internal logic, and as pointed out by the GoMA itself, This Exhibition is Cancelled is consistent with other meta-critiques that have taken place in recent years at the gallery. Back in 2015, Gallery One was host to Dark Days, an event by Ellie Harrison, where one hundred strangers were invited to spend a night in the space—which was then, as now, empty and devoid of art. During their stay it was up to these one hundred strangers, through consensual and team building exercises, to decide how they wished to make use of the space.

Both Harrison and Mul’s non-exhibitions begin with a similar premise: that the gallery is taken back from the hegemony of curators and artists and made ‘open’ to the public to use instead. In this both fall into the same fundamental error.

Wry scepticism of the gallery space, of the ilk executed by Harrison and Mul, is typically implicit to the idea that there is something inherently wrong with it. That to display art in a gallery, to have it curated by so-called experts, to turn over “exhibition after exhibition”, is impure and broken in some irreparable way. Essentially, if the gallery is to be cured of its impurities, it must no longer be a gallery; there is no other option. The centre of what the gallery does must be removed altogether, rather than any attempt made to better understand that centre as it currently sits; as would be more befitting of a more antiquated, modernist critique. But in so doing, we are no longer asked to critique the gallery, or the institution, or even the purpose of art. By removing all symptoms of an exhibition, we are no longer thinking of the function of the gallery. We are thinking of the possibilities of an empty room.

This, too, is nothing novel. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the GoMA was originally built, in 1778, as an extravagant townhouse for a Glasgow Tobacco Lord. After that, in 1817, it became a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. After that, in 1832, it became the Royal Exchange, and after that, in 1954, a branch of the Glasgow District Library, and only after all of that, in 1996, did it become the Gallery of Modern Art. Its current and former incarnations were and are a credit to that line of questioning that sought to gauge the possibilities and function of an empty room.

Art – whatever

What makes Mul and Harrison’s line of questioning divergent from those previous, however, is the paradox that grips any answers posed to them. As artists themselves, so dependent on the galleries and exhibition circuit they criticise, all responses to their work must be brought back within the art fold; if for no reason other than to legitimise their own careers as artists. Communal bonding or teamwork become works of art rather than ordinary, everyday activities. Yoga classes are pedestaled and made exceptional, rather than routine. The boundaries of possibility are set before we open our mouths. The exhibition space becomes no longer filled with art, but whatever happens in there remains art all the same.

By refusing to acknowledge the impermanence of the gallery itself, even presenting it as some sort of immovable foundation, any solution cannot dare to suggest that things outwith the realm of art are as worthwhile as what is. Everything must become art, or else nothing is. It would be unsurprising to find those who are the biggest meta-critics of galleries like the GoMA to also be the strongest proponents of them were they to be given over or refurbished to some other, fully non-artistic purpose.

It is in this way the critique—for Mul’s work its lifeblood—perpetuates. By denying us the ability to truly think beyond art, beyond the gallery, Mul has actively ensured the critique is never solved, that the question can still be asked, even paid for as many times as required. The gallery is dead, long live the gallery.

One day, we may get over these kind of glib, slack-jawed critiques. One day we may realise the artistry of everyday life does not need artists or galleries to make them as such, or to tell us when and how we should question ourselves. One day we will be able to engage in sincere discussions without vested interests that so wish those discussions need never end. But as the GoMA has proven of late, it may be some time yet.

Header image from the RCAHMS archives, via Old Glasgow.


  1. Bob Tait says

    A brilliant piece! Brilliant in that it shines a light on how stale, repetitive and boring these stunts have become. Even better, it exposes how self-indulgent and self-serving they are for the artists and curators who, profitably enough, trade on this one tedious old teaser about what does and doesn’t count as “art”.

    It is no criticism of David McAllister’s piece to say that it is one half of what needs to be said. The other half would be a re-assertion of what art can and does give us, even quite modest examples and forms of art, let alone great art and literature and the like. That re-assertion can still take its cue from John Berger (or Ali Smith, one of his representatives on earth). Art gives us fresh, unsettling and intelligent ways of seeing and thinking. In short, art gives us exactly the opposite of and the antidote to everything that is boring, repetitive, sterile, simplistic, self-serving and self-indulgent. Which is no easy achievement, but worth putting on display, wherever.

    • says

      Thanks a lot Bob – and you’re spot on about John Berger. What I especially like about Berger is the way he encouraged us to look at art in a wholly non-elitist (and thus more enriching) manner, whereas conceptual works like Mul’s demand and depend upon elitism if they are to hold any water whatsoever.

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