MOMAS: The Unlikely Museum
by Katerina Gregos
Every year, from 1992 to 1996, an exhibition took place at the Museum
of Modern Art on the island of Syros, in an abandoned building near the port. The museum / project was conceived by wildly prolific artist Martin Kippenberger (1953 – 1997)
Of the numerous projects Martin Kippenberger initiated during his short but prolific life, there is one which perhaps has not received due credit. This project is MOMAS, the artist’s Museum of Modern Art Syros, on the Cycladic island of Syros, Greece. Most people who are familiar with Kippenberger’s work know something of MOMAS, but little detail is known about what actually took place there, except for the few who visited it – a very small group consisting mostly of artists and close friends of Kippenberger. In biographies of the artist, MOMAS is almost always mentioned, but only in a couple of lines and not entirely accurately. Even though awareness of MOMAS has grown since Kippenberger’s death, its conceptual importance has been underestimated, perhaps because the project is at odds with the idea of Kippenberger as prolific artist-prodigy is overshadowed by his capacities as a painter and his bad boy antics. As MOMAS now largely exists only in the memories of those involved (and in the sparse documentation), I am indebted to all the artists who recounted their experiences in Syros and shared information about the projects they instigated there. With their invaluable help, this text aims to shed some light on this modest yet very important part of Kippenberger’s oeuvre.
MOMAS, of course, was not a real museum – on the contrary, it was more of a virtual, ephemeral, imaginary museum, a challenge to the traditional idea of the museum, even an anti-museum. Kippenberger ‘founded’ it in 1993 while en route to Syros with his friend Michel Würthle, who owns an estate on the island. As the story goes, Kippenberger spotted the cement skeleton of a building at the entrance of the island’s harbour, Ermoupolis, from the boat. Apart from being intrigued by its air of abandoned desolation, he was also reminded of a Greek temple, a ‘modern’ Greek Acropolis. Not long after, he decided to proclaim it his Museum of Modern Art. He founded the museum in a single act, instantly appropriating the idea of the existing building and ‘claiming’ it through language.
The museum did not have walls, a collection, nor anything in the way of tangible, material objects; it hardly had a budget, but it did have an inspired, inventive director in Kippenberger himself and it did organise exhibitions, print invitations and host openings. He did not show his own work, but rather invited other artists to do projects there. In addition, it did not cater to a large audience. On the contrary, it was perhaps the smallest museum audience in the world. As Würthle aptly put it, “we were a ‘crowd’ of between 9 and 11.”1
MOMAS was a tongue-in-cheek critique, a parody, of the institution of the museum. Kippenberger often reflected on the uneasy and frequently thorny relationship between artist and museum, as well as problematising the nature, role and function of the museum itself. Kippenberger was well aware that artists need museums and that museum exhibitions are still prerequisites for artists’ careers, while simultaneously being conscious of the conflicted nature of this relationship. So he decided to make his own museum, on his own terms; a museum which was not hampered by the considerations and compromises that ‘real’ museums often have to make.2 But ‘creating’ the museum was not enough; he also became its director, assuming authority over it in one symbolic act.
From the start MOMAS was to be a transgressive and subversive project, for it questioned the notion of the nature of artistic ‘production’, went against the formal and conventional structure of the museum, and challenged the traditional, regular function of the museum by proposing a more flexible, less moribund, less bureaucratic and altogether more fun and laissez-faire alternative. It was never intended to be completed as a museum building nor was it intended to be a regularly functioning museum.3 Regular museum ‘routines’ were carried out, however, from the printing of invitations to opening receptions, formal speeches and after-opening dinners. The rest was all improvisation, imagination and surprise. Kippenberger also really liked the idea of MOMAS figuring on artists’ biographical notes, as did the artists who contributed, who were ‘conspirators’ in the irony. He also liked the inevitable parallel conjured up by the museum’s abbreviation: MOMAS(yros) and MOMA (New York). Two museums that sound almost the same but couldn’t be further apart.
In a sense, MOMAS, just like Kippenberger’s Metro-Net subway stations, which basically aimed to ‘connect’ his friends in different parts of the world, was a utopian project. It was entirely his invention and creation, it was his kingdom and playground in which he could have all the freedom he desired. It also constituted a kind of refuge, an escape from the art world that he often felt at odds with or alienated from. At MOMAS he could spend time with friends, artists whom he respected and people of his choice, far from the maddening crowd and the main channels of the art world. “It was the ideal museum, a perfect ‘frame’ for a series of various aspects: the dream of an ideal museum, a replica of Marcel Broodthaers’ formula ‘This is not a museum’ and especially, of course, a parody of the contemporary museum including administration wing and museum shop.”4
Apart from his obsession with art, Kippenberger also had a keen interest in architecture and its sculptural qualities. Already in his 1988 series Psychobuildings (and even in some of his previous paintings) Kippenberger demonstrated a sensitivity to architecture and the built environment, seeking out architectural oddities and unusual structures. The MOMAS building is also an example of anomalous architecture and bungled development. For years the building stayed unfinished, a ghostly shell. It was intended to be a slaughterhouse but somehow had idled, trapped in some Greek planning bureaucracy and, perhaps, a little scandal. In her preface for the catalogue of the 2003 Kippenberger exhibition Nach Kippenberger at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Eva Meyer Hermann states that the artist’s whole life and work “were defined by this constant search for ‘the place’”5, a place where he could find meaning and space for his own artistic existence. His consistent interest in architecture and use of architectural motifs are part of this quest and MOMAS seemed to be an important such “place”; far from the art world, in the company of friends and artists he admired, a “place” of his own. But, as with many Kippenberger projects, MOMAS was also characterised by a dual character: this perfect, utopian place was, in effect, beyond reach since it did not really belong to him, but was hijacked, squatted and borrowed: “Everything Kippenberger built in the way of forms, architecture and (largely) virtual constructions was a means and a method to open up reality. The architecture in these pieces is communicative. The place itself remains indefinable and unattainable, a distant goal.”6
The first MOMAS project was by the artist Hubert Kiecol. Like many subsequent MOMAS projects, the work was a found object. Next to the main MOMAS ‘building’ – which was in fact being trespassed on for this and all subsequent openings – there was a smaller concrete building which looked like an oversized table. Kiecol declared this to be his artistic contribution. As the conceptual museum that it was, MOMAS was more concerned with engendering situations than the production of objects. The opening took place at 7 pm on the 10th September 1993. It was a bizarre opening in an unlikely setting. It was a social occasion like all openings but instead of enjoying artworks on the non-existing walls, attendees admired stunning views of the Aegean Sea. The Kiecol exhibition coincided with the unveiling and inauguration of Lord Jim, the first of the subway entrances for Kippenberger’s Metro-Net project, which was constructed on Ktima Kanné, Würthle’s estate in the countryside of Hroussa, Syros. It was an appropriate and delightful coincidence: the simultaneous inauguration of a subway entrance leading nowhere and a museum in which, in most cases, there was almost nothing to see.
Every year from the inauguration of MOMAS until 1996 an exhibition took place at the museum, the only material part of which was the invitation card designed by the artist himself and the visitors present at the official opening. At all these openings – which in fact constituted the museum’s core ‘activity’ and raison d’être – there was always a handful of people: the artists, some of Kippenberger’s friends, some art people from Athens,7 some art afficionados from Syros. In 1994, Christopher Wool and Ulrich Strothjohann were the invited artists. Strothjohann declared a concrete waste pipe which lay in front of the “museum” his artistic work. The project was a conceptual counterpart to his photographic series Holes of the World. On the day of the opening Strothjohann found out that the concrete pipe had had building work carried out around it, concealing it from view. Kippenberger invited Wool to do the signs for the museum: made with Wool’s characteristic typography, they were installed by Wool and Kippenberger at various locations on the island, including in the sea for a photo opportunity. Wool’s road signs were in fact the only real physical works actually produced.
In 1995 Kippenberger invited Stephan Prina, Christopher Williams and Cosima von Bonin. Prina shipped over a broken reel-to-reel tape recorder from Los Angeles. At MOMAS, he unpacked the tape recorder, used the crate and box as a ‘pedestal’ and placed the broken tape recorder on top. Prina liked the idea that the tape recorder had been “transformed” back into “base material” to be observed as obsolete technology but also a work of “sculpture”. The event took place inside the Kiecol ‘work’ (the concrete building resembling an oversize table). The tape recorder was doomed never to play, as there was no electricity in the museum.8 Von Bonin organised the “benefit lunch for the trustees of the museum”. The lunch served was a dish of thin spaghetti stuck into hollow spaghetti (the kind that is used to make Greek pastizzio, a baked macaroni, mincemeat and béchamel dish), boiled in salt water onsite by Würthle’s gardener and served with a simple garlic, oil and pepperoncini sauce.
The following day Williams, who was designated director of the museum’s “film department”, organised a screening of experimental films by Morgan Fisher and David Lamelas in an old neighbourhood cinema, in the capital Ermoupolis. The films, screened to a very small audience, were Fischer’s Projection Instructions and Picture and Sound Rushes (1969) and Lamelas’ A Study of the Relationships between Inner and Outer Space (1973). Williams took Kippenberger’s request to be a proper curator very seriously, proposing films that were in line with the conceptual nature of the museum.9
The following year Kippenberger invited Johannes Wohnseifer, Michel Majerus and Heimo Zobernig. Wohnseifer, who was Kippenberger’s assistant for a while, was initially involved as an ‘employee’ of the museum, based in Cologne. In 1996, when Kippenberger invited him to Syros, he became the MOMAS guard. (Wohnseifer and Williams were, incidentally, the only two people apart from Kippenberger who had real ‘job descriptions’.)
Majerus’ contribution was a project called Summer Hits 96, a video compilation of summer hits from 1996 taken from MTV and VIVA channels. The video was played on a brand new video camera with a small rotating screen, mounted on a tripod, which Kippenberger had given as a gift to his wife Elfie Semotan. The image on the announcement card was taken from a TV guide listing the programmes of the two channels. Zobernig, the other invited artist, could not make it to Syros so sent his proposal by email. His idea was to ‘do’ the MOMAS floor and proposed to paint it grey, which it already was since the floor was concrete. Only the invitation card gave some hint of his intervention.
The last project planned in relation to MOMAS was not realised. Kippenberger had been invited to participate in documenta X in 1997. In his initial proposal to curator Catherine David, he proposed to open the MOMAS exhibition he planned for that year at the same time as the documenta opening, and somehow project or connect the MOMAS opening to the opening of documenta. The proposal was rejected outright and Kippenberger went on to show his mobile subway station rather than his MOMAS project.10
No one really knows what Kippenberger’s intentions regarding the future of MOMAS were. Depending on who one talks to, there are different ideas of what was to become of MOMAS and conflicting reports about its possible development (or not). Some say he intended to end the project after five years, others believed he would continue it, and one or two people were convinced that with the financial resources he may have had today were he alive, he would have pushed the project further. The fact is though that with Kippenberger one never really knew. Perhaps the most significant aspect of MOMAS is its importance as a conceptual project, its symbolic potency, the kind of power it exerted and continues to exert on the mind, and the fascination it engenders in our imagination as pure concept. And MOMAS was a very pure museum, because it proved that one can have a museum inside one’s head, just like André Malraux had suggested.
This is an excerpt of a text originally published in the catalogue: Model Martin Kippenberger: Utopia for Everyone, for a solo exhibition of the artist’s work at the Kunsthaus Graz, Austria, in 2007 (Publisher: Buchhandlung Walther König)
Today the MOMAS building has actually been completed. It is not a museum, of course, but has been turned into an environmentally friendly sewage processing unit, financed by the EU. Probably only a handful of the 20,000 inhabitants of the island of Syros know of its secret illustrious history. I am sure that the idea that this building has a hidden life unknown to most would have thrilled Kippenberger.
It may have seemed like an unlikely location but Syros was probably one of the least improbable of the Greek islands to establish a museum on, as it has a particularly rich cultural history. Unlike many other islands whose economies were based on farming and fishing and where poverty was not uncommon, Syros became a wealthy merchant centre with an educated and cultured bourgeoisie. During the Greek War of Independence (1821) it became a safe haven for Greeks being persecuted by the Turks, as the island remained under French protection because of the high number of Catholics residing there. These émigrés – a number of whom were from wealthy shipping families from other islands – built the island’s beautiful neo-classical capital, Ermoupolis, inviting foreign architects and artists to work on the construction and embellishment of the city. From then on the island’s culture and economy flourished until the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, in the nineteenth century Syros was not only the commercial but also the cultural capital of Greece. Today, it is the administrative centre and capital of the Cyclades as well as an important centre of trade due to its shipyard.
1 From a telephone conversation with Michel Würthle, 24 July 2007. Würthle was not involved in any artistic decisions in relation to MOMAS but was instrumental as a friend and supporter of the project, as well as a facilitator and organiser on the island, providing accommodation for artists, lending out his staff and providing a workspace for Kippenberger on his estate.
2 Ulrich Strothjohann, who was Kippenberger’s assistant, also adds the following insightful comments about Kippenberger’s relationship with the museum: “I think the idea of MOMAS was [also] the reaction of Kippenberger to the breakdown of the art market at the beginning of the 90s… He thought: ‘if they don‘t give me a museum show, I [will] establish my own museum, far out, at the periphery of the art world. [I will] invite my friends and colleagues and mail invitation cards. These invitation cards will be the only [evidence] concretely.’ Today maybe art people will think of MOMAS only in the sense of a neo-conceptual artwork. But in fact it was a very personal reflection on [the] art market, presentation, [the] art scene and relations between artists.” From an email interview with Strothjohann, 4.8.2007.
3 The Greek artist Maria Papadimitriou made efforts to turn MOMAS into a ‘real’ museum. She instigated meetings with officials in Athens and Syros, including, at some point the mayor of Syros and the then Greek minister of culture, to convince them to support the idea. She mentions that she tried to persuade the officials that completing the building as a slaughterhouse would be a disgrace and a bad image for Syros since it was situated in such a visibly prominent location, at the entrance to the island’s harbour. According to Papadimitriou, at some point there seems to have been a dinner hosted by Michel and Katerina Würthle on Ktima Kanné, to which the mayor of Syros together with local art aficionados were invited, in order to further this idea (Kippenberger was not there). Kippenberger himself was not interested in a real museum on Syros, but he never halted efforts by others in this direction, knowing full well that these efforts would not succeed.
4 Manfred Hermes, “Museum of Modern Art Syros, ab 1993” in Nach Kippenberger, exhibition catalogue, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien and Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, Vienna, Schlebrügge 2003, p. 179.
5 Eva Meyer Hermann, “After Kippenberger” in Nach Kippenberger,
exhibition catalogue, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Vienna and Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, Vienna, Schlebrügge 2003, p. 19.
6 Ibid, p. 25.
7 Kippenberger had relationships with Athens through the gallerist Eleni Koroneou and her husband, artist Helmut Middendorf. Kippenberger actually had two shows at the Eleni Koroneou gallery: M.K.-M.K., a duo exhibition with Michael Krebber, 1993, and Made in Syros (1996), a series of paintings he made on the island. The paintings were priced at 7,000 euros and not a single one sold during the duration of the exhibition. Kippenberger also curated an exhibition at the Eleni Koroneou gallery entitled The Super Shadows of Understatement with Christopher Wool, Ulrich Strothjohann and “special guest” Katerina Würthle (1994). A handful of people from Kippenberger’s Athenian circle would visit Syros to see the MOMAS exhibitions, including Maria Papadimitriou who was at the time represented by the Eleni Koroneou gallery. There is an anecdote, a MOMAS inside joke, mentioned by Johannes Wohnseifer about people arriving from Athens at Syros and asking taxi drivers to “take them to MOMAS”!
8 There is an amusing anecdote threaded through the story of Prina’s contribution to MOMAS. The tape recorder Prina used was purchased by him from the writer Tim Martin. Legend had it that, at the time, Martin and the artist Michael Asher were busy working on a ‘band’ called Pre-Stressed Concrete. Part of the procedure in producing the music was to attach amplification equipment to concrete buildings and amplify it. It may have been that the tape recorder would be used to record these amplifications. When Prina told Martin about the MOMAS project and the tape recorder, Martin told him that they never actually formed this ‘band’, they had merely announced that they would.
9 Fisher’s works explore the machinery of cinema. Fischer sets up systems and rules which used the apparatus, physical material and production methods of cinema. Projection Instructions engages the projectionist himself by means of simple instructions to be carried out: basic operations such as putting the projector lens in and out of focus or switching the projector on and off. All of these actions are highlighted to draw attention to the invisible ‘actor’ behind the film’s projection, the projectionist. Picture and Sound Rushes (1973) takes the form of a lecture which describes how sound and image are brought together and talks about how the variations between sound and silence and picture or no picture are created. Lamelas’ A Study of the Relationships between Inner and Outer Space (1969) is, on the other hand, a film about the visual analysis of an exhibition space – in this case, the Camden Arts Centre – and London (where the centre is located), with an interwoven story about the imminent arrival of man on the moon. Williams told me he still considers himself the acting film curator for MOMAS and occasionally programmes screenings under the MOMAS rubric, at off-site locations such as, recently, the Getty Museum.
10 From a conversation with Johannes Wohnseifer, 2.8.2007.