The archive and the museum, artistic authority and authenticity: the subjects explored by Marcel Broodthaers, who died in 1976 after a scant dozen years producing an unassumingly quixotic kind of art, struck all the notes that resonated most loudly in the following decades. A re-creation at Peter Freeman of a characteristically elliptical installation, first presented in 1974 at Wide White Space in Antwerp, offered confirmation of the artist’s prescience.
The show’s minimal contents included a caged live parrot atop an old enameled metal stand and two flanking potted palms. Glancingly, the ensemble evoked some Edwardian resort—one imagined a carpeted lobby, bellboys, guests with hats. The bird was silent when I was there (this was generally the case, a gallery staffer said); instead of parroted speech, visitors heard a recording of Broodthaers’s 1974 poem, “Ne dites pas que je ne l’ai pas dit—Le Perroquet” (Don’t say I didn’t say so—the Parrot), which is also the title of the installation. Replete with repetition, the poem is read by the Belgian artist in the French in which he wrote it. The installation’s final component was a glass-topped table with copies of brochures from Broodthaers’s 1966 show “Moules oeufs frites pots charbon,” and from the 1974 self-retrospective that was reprised at Freeman.
Ne dites pas is one of a series of “Décors” that Broodthaers made in the last three years of his life, in which the word’s double meaning in French—it signifies both interior design and film set—framed his rueful reflections on how an art career is staged. This latest of several reincarnations, like previous ones, inevitably rewrites its meaning. Artistic authority—and even the singularity of human intelligence, in an age when Ethernet clouds are smarter than we are—is a battered target. Thanks in part to the famously clever bird Alex, African Grey parrots like the one at Freeman have gained particular respect, while faithful imitation, whether human or mechanical, has lost it. If similarity is the cheapest effect in the world, the gorgeous red-tailed avian specimen at Freeman looked like a million dollars, presenting a spectacle both affectingly noble and a little silly. “The cage is much too small for a bird that size,” one visitor remarked. “Il fait caca,” said another. Similarly altered is the meaning of other favored Broodthaers motifs. Palm trees, for instance, may still bespeak the depredations of colonialism, but French occupation of the tropics is a sepia-toned memory.
On the other hand, the question of whose voice speaks in the first person retains its potency, and few artists have approached it with Broodthaers’s delicacy and grace. A latecomer to Dada and Surrealism, and ahead of his time as a theorist of the derealized postmodern world, Broodthaers was a poet—by trade, at first, and thenceforth by sensibility. His spirit was well honored in this deceptively modest show.
Photo: View of Marcel Broodthaers’s Don’t Say I Didn’t Say So—The Parrot, 1974, caged African Grey parrot, two palm trees, vitrine with catalogues, artist’s recording of title poem; at Peter Freeman.