Retroactive Inevitability

2/19/2010 Uncategorized

I went to the MFA the other night to hear Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar present his public installation work.  Please visit his excellent website:

His work reminded me of the Utile standard of “retroactive inevitability.”  It’s a principle for judging proposals based on the idea that if they are right, they will appear as though they were always meant to be, and in some cases, already exist in our imaginations.  Jaar’s public installations, which are Christo-like (but smaller) in their community engagement, begin as slightly absurd, almost heavy-handed, proposals.  Through a commitment to the radical simplicity of the original idea, and their elegant execution, the local non-believers are typically converted, and once engaged with the built installation, begin to feel as though “of course” it was meant to be. 

I’ve attached images of two projects.  One is a museum built in a Swedish town famous for its paper mill, but without a museum. Jaar convinces the town to let him build the first “museum” out of paper (duh!).  As soon as there is a grand opening, with a large gathering of happy small-town Swedes, music and flags, he sets the structure on fire in a grand, gorgeous, ashes-to-ashes moment of performance art.  In the end, the bonfire has the intended consequence of the townsfolk lamenting the loss of the museum they never thought they needed.

The second project consists of an enormous stack of 1 million Finnish passports (real, but unassigned).  These represent all the foreign born citizens that would have been naturalized as Finnish citizens if their immigration policy were as “open” as their Scandinavian and European neighbors.  As a critique of Finnish xenophobia, it’s pretty clunky.  That said, the physical manifestation of the idea, neatly piled behind high-security glass like a stack of gold bars in the basement of the Federal Reserve, is quite compelling.  After all the weird ideas, the awkward requests for permission from the authorities, meetings with the museum and the organization that publishes the documents, etc., this unprecedented and somber assemblage of passports seems, strangely, like it has always been there, or simply meant to be.