SUPERFLEX’s Hospital Equipment: Art As Activism And Activism As Art.
Can an object be both an artwork and functional object at the same time? That is the question the members of the Danish art collective SUPERFLEX (Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen) have been asking since the group’s founding in 1993. This band of artists routinely refers to its objects and activities as “tools,” which it practically defines as “a model or proposal that can actively be used and further utilized and modified by the user.” A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp declared that he endorsed art as “ideas” not “visual products.” Today, SUPERFLEX proposed that those ideas become useful ideas, not urinals giddily celebrated on gallery pedestals.
The notion of the “readymade,” a term coined by Duchamp in 1915 to describe functional objects elevated to the status of art by simple designation, has undergone fundamental changes. One of those changes is the thoroughgoing incorporation of this critical- conceptual ideal into the global art market. Another is the relatively recent rescue of conceptual art’s central premise by a crucial coterie of international artists. SUPERFLEX’s latest effort, titled Hospital Equipment—a gleaming tableau of surgical lamps, an instrument stand, and an operating table—returns usefulness to objects whose value has become largely conflated with commodities. In January Hospital Equipment was exhibited at Copenhagen’s Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art. In May, the artwork found a functional home at the Shifa Medical Complex in Gaza.
In one context, Hospital Equipment constitutes a life-saving donation. In another, this medical technology becomes in SUPERFLEX’s words “an upside down readymade.” Essentially, SUPERFLEX’s display of an operating theater inside a museum does more than merely materialize a set of objects that reflect on 24/7 images of war, conflict and human misery. Instead, it makes the work’s utility both symbolic and literal. As a set of functional devices, Hospital Equipment enacts a metaphorical charge that goes far beyond its physical objecthood. As an artwork, it largely bypasses the pitfalls of a narrowly conceived art market, while bucking the premises of Kantian aesthetic theory to prove both functional and expressive at the same time.
A readymade artwork and a set of actual life-saving devices, Hospital Equipment exhibits some of the characteristics of a Swiss army knife. As a multi-purpose tool it acts effectively in two separate but related domains. Exhibited one way, it remains a rarefied spectator experience, albeit one with an ulterior functionality. Placed inside a working hospital, its constituent parts continue to express an act of collective reflection that enhances the equipment’s very real effects on everyday life. The fact that this reflection is unfolding provides Hospital Equipment with shifting meanings. Conversely, SUPERFLEX’s inversion of Duchamp’s now antique tool—the readymade—also suggests the construction of a new creative paradigm. Hospital Equipment is both art as activism and activism as art.
Christian Viveros-Faune, August 2015