By Marina Molarsky-Beck

Marcel Broodthaers. Section Publicité du Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Publicity section of the Museum of modern art, Department of eagles). 1972. Installation with wood, bronze, painted vacuum-formed plastic plate, vitrines, slide projections, pins, reproductions, and fire extinguisher. Installation view, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 14–May 15, 2016. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Acquired in 1999, with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Art-Kunstfonds. © 2016 Estate of Marcel Broodthaers/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels. Photo: Marina Molarsky-Beck

A visitor to MoMA’s current Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective exhibition must traverse a sea of potted palms to enter the galleries. The palms, along with a series of prints hanging on the surrounding walls, comprise a work entitled L’entrée de l’exposition (The entry to the exhibition). From this first moment, we are confused: where does the art stop and the museum begin?

Broodthaers never used the term “institutional critique” to describe his work. Nonetheless, he is often cited as one of the forebears of a reflexive mode of art making in which the artist engages with the structures of the art world in order to understand them, parody them, or subvert them. (Others include Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and, working a bit later, Andrea Fraser.)

Marcel Broodthaers. Section Publicité du Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Publicity section of the Museum of modern art, Department of eagles). 1972. Installation with wood, bronze, painted vacuum-formed plastic plate, vitrines, slide projections, pins, reproductions, and fire extinguisher. Installation view, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 14–May 15, 2016. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen. Acquired in 1999, with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Art-Kunstfonds. © 2016 Estate of Marcel Broodthaers/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels. Photo: Marina Molarsky-Beck

Perhaps Broodthaers’s most audacious move was to found his own (quasi-fictional) museum, the Museum of modern art, Department of eagles. On view in MoMA’s retrospective is one intact “section” from that museum, the Section Publicité (Publicity section). Broodthaers fills vitrines and plasters the walls of the space with images of or relating to his museum. While a museum’s traditional function is to collect and preserve art, in Broodthaers’s work the museum is collecting and preserving materials related only to itself: a museum of the museum.

This March, thanks to a generous research grant from MoMA, I traveled to Spain, seeking to understand how exhibitions take on new life in different spaces. The Broodthaers show will be traveling to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid this fall, and I was thinking about what it would mean to show much of the same work in the Reina Sofía’s converted 18th-century hospital building, and in a Spanish rather than American context.

My meetings with the exhibition team at the Reina Sofía, though, led me on a slightly different trajectory, as I began to wonder what it means for a museum to display work that critically addresses the status of the museum.

At the Reina Sofía, I saw Duty-Free Art, an exhibition of work by the German artist Hito Steyerl, which indicates a skeptical approach to the art world in its very title, a reference to the practice of keeping art in free-port storage spaces in places like Geneva as a means of avoiding hefty taxes. The art then languishes there, appreciating in value but unseen.

Hito Steyerl. The Tower. 2015. Three-channel high-definition video installation, environment, sound, 8′. Installation view, Duty-Free Art, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, November 11, 2015–March 21, 2016. Photo: Marina Molarsky-Beck

With Broodthaers on my mind, I was fascinated by Steyerl’s approach to the museum in which her art was displayed. In an interview with João Fernandes in the Duty-Free exhibition catalogue, Steyerl comments, “Instead of allowing the museum to remain in a position of false innocence and trying to dissociate ourselves from it, we should struggle to make it the space we want it to be.”

But how can an artist engage in such a struggle? Where to begin? Sometimes, Steyerl suggests, the gesture of transforming the museum is a simple one.

Read more here:: Museum Museum: From Marcel Broodthaers to Hito Steyerl