Statement by Hans-Ulrich Obrist

In Memory of My Friend Josef Ortner
Josef Ortner was one of the pioneering museum founders of the twentieth century. His approach was to move beyond the institution as we knew it, and to invent new rituals within the spaces in which we encounter art. Inaugurated in 1990, museum in progress came to life through Kathrin Messner and Ortner’s vision of an original and less predictable concept of what a museum can be. He forwent classical exhibition formats and instead made use of different forms of presentation and access to art, such as the means of television and radio; daily newspapers; billboards, and, early on, the Internet – making art part of the everyday. Importantly, they also conceived of the project “Safety Curtain” – an exhibition series I am excited to be involved in to this day with my colleagues Daniel Birnbaum and Bice Curiger. By the way, the 2020 Safety Curtain is by Carrie Mae Weems. The Safety Curtain turns the Vienna State Opera into a transitory exhibition space and subverts the tradition-laden opera house into a space to conceive of projects which create new forms of exchange. Projects like these speak to Ortner’s interest in the production of space, and how the spaces available to us can be thought of in different ways.

Ortner’s ideas are part of a lineage of people like Alexander Dorner, the legendary museum director and promoter of artists such as El Lissitzky and László Moholy-Nagy, whose statement that “the museum only makes sense as a pioneer” rings true to this day. Dorner defined the museum as a Kraftwerk and aimed to reconfigure the assumed neutrality of exhibition spaces prevalent at the time. He conceived of the museum as a space of flux or permanent transformation, oscillating between object and process. In the 1920s, Dorner invited Lissitzky to the city of Hannover in Germany, to develop a dynamic display for what he called the “museum on the move”. To Dorner, the museum was thus an active space in which nothing was fixed – ideally not even the building itself. One can understand how Dorner’s pioneering ideas have inspired Ortner and Messner to conceive of museum in progress; following in the footsteps of a more dynamic and engaging space in flux.

Over the years, museum in progress has allowed for an engagement with art that is freed from the conventions of the institution and to conceive of the work of art beyond as a mere object in an institutional space. In Dorner’s words: “The idea of process has penetrated our system of certainties.”