A Review of Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970
James Coupe


One of the first works that visitors encounter in the Tate’s Open Systems exhibition is Sol Lewitt’s Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value. This fascinating work features a grid of photographs of Lewitt going through the process of burying a box in the ground. We are not quite sure what becomes of the box and what, if anything, was ever inside it. The box simultaneously occupies past, present and future, immersed within a matrix of physical, social and biological systems. Further into the show, we find Robert Smithson’s enigmatic Hotel Palenque, in which the long-deceased artist presents a slideshow lecture describing his encounter with a half-built, half-renovated, half-demolished hotel in New Mexico. Again the work finds itself temporally displaced, in a constant state of becoming.

Lewitt and Smithson’s works are the best in a show that contains an assortment of conceptual, environmental, minimalist, performance and pop art alongside more formally recognized ‘systems’ artists such as Hans Haacke. This mélange unsurprisingly contains a good deal of art that does not work as well in 2005 as it did in 1970. The distinction here is straightforward: those that do not work now were never “open systems” in the first place. Smithson and Lewitt’s projects are enduring, timeless in many ways, as they continue to dialogically exchange with the systems in which they reside. Pieces such as Alighiero e Boetti’s Mappa and Helio Oiticica’s Projeto Filtro are fine works, but dead systems, stuck c. 1970.

So there are important lessons to be learned from Open Systems. The underlying agenda of post-Enlightenment art has been a drive towards emulation and a gradual disavowal of simulation. Artists no longer want their work to represent light, they want it to be light; they want to grow real systems rather than depict objects using other objects; they want the work to be inextricably bound with the thing itself. The best works in the exhibition demonstrate these properties by actualizing their own dimensionality, emerging as ideas with a material presence all of their own. Curator Donna De Salvo states that “a system is a human construction, and thus fallible and imperfect. This is why artists make ‘open systems’”. This is not true, and moreover it is a misconception which compromises the selection decisions that were made in the show.

The successful work in the show is not less than the artist; it is more. It is work that can assimilate itself with the universe in which it resides. Systems, with which we engage on a cosmological, atomic, molecular, quantum and genetic level every second of our lives, operate as a constant reminder of this. The artist is therefore not the sole author of the system; rather we measure ourselves through them, learning who we have been and what we may become. So we do not create art systems in a vacuum; we negotiate with existing systems in order to discover new complexities, new interrelationships and new ways of seeing ourselves. Furthermore, this negotiation has to be more than conversational; it is perhaps the difference between making art with gravity and making art for gravity. Some work in the show achieves this act of phenomenological cohabitation, but most of the rest are simply quality examples of the dominant concerns of various art movements around 1970. Works in the exhibition by Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Braco Dimitrijevic are procedural and serial rather than open systems. We can see the edges of these works and often their aims are to be self-exhaustive and automatic rather than open. There is a good deal of complexity involved in defining systems art, and this show does not suggest a useful critical language with which to navigate it.

The recent recuperation of writings by Jack Burnham has made it acceptable to see all art as system-based. Of course, if you were to tell this to a composer they would be surprised you had not noticed before. Nevertheless, within the context of visual art, we are beginning to formulate a critical vocabulary with which to evaluate emerging new art forms. Typically these art forms lack a paradigm with which we can determine who is playing safe and who is engaged in radical practice. Burnham’s systems art, with its core thematics of networked transactions, absence/presence and simulation/emulation provide a useful framework for understanding current issues concerning experimental art practices that involve such things as telematics, nanotechnology and bioengineering. The distinction between an “open” and a “closed” system is fundamental to this critical vocabulary, as the Tate recognize through their choice of title for the exhibition. In an open system the work is engaged in a material exchange with its environment: here I am not considering a simple environmental exchange, such as in Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, but rather a transformative interchange of material poetry; a synchronous embodiment of a single idea within two or more separate entities. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that Energy is never created or destroyed, but simply transformed. An artwork that can be considered an “open system” breaks this law by gaining more than it receives, becoming more than the sum of its parts as a function of its transactional structure.

The show itself is then notable by its vague interpretation of systems art. We are at a point in history where we know more about cultural, aesthetic and scientific systems than ever before, and there is a trend for the "re-" (add your own word here) when it comes to the art of the mid-1960s and early 70s. A body of current critical writing is actively engaged in attempting to provide contemporary concerns such as real-time, tactical media and non-linearity with ‘added value’ through the discovery that they have in fact been practiced for years. Unfortunately the provision of a pre-history is no guarantee of quality, and still some forms of practices find themselves mislabeled and mis-historicized. The process of historical revisionism is potentially dangerous, especially when the perpetrator is such an influential institution as the Tate Modern.

The exhibition’s catalogue is a coherent collection of essays that outline the current prevalent academic views about systems art: the diversity of practice in the late-60s/early-70s, the rejection and removal of the art object, the politicized drive for a socially engaged real-time aesthetic. But nothing new is said; this is a catalogue that may help us better understand what happened, but sheds no light at all on what is happening. Curator Donna de Salvo makes reference to the seminal systems shows from the late 60s and early 70s: the Whitechapel’s Primary Structures, the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity, MOMA’s The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. Consequently, the essays in the catalogue function as an apology for the show that the Tate never had: they are forty years too late.

The process of ‘rethinking’ systems art is a complicated and self-reflexive endeavor. Being asked to consider a body of work that were not originally perceived or intended as systems art, we are faced with a kind of back-to-front art history, where the work of the past becomes a product of the work of the future. Curiously a show of open systems art finds itself a kind of supersystem that is itself in a constant state of becoming. Applying a notion of inertial frames of reference, the work in the exhibition, like Smithson’s Hotel Palenque, finds itself permanently elsewhere, absent and present, temporally dislocated, the inheritor of everything that follows it. However, the Tate’s attempt to retrospectively freeze a moment c. 1970 suggests they have a recursive fascination with the act of reconsidering their own misunderstanding of the work in the exhibition. Perhaps this is a first salvo with which the Tate can address its own contested history making, but it concerns me that they are contriving to look at it as if they understood all along whilst missing an opportunity to boldly make a new and enduring proposition.