Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft began its life in December 2002, as both a corporation and a work of art. Upon an invitation from Okwui Enwezor to participate in Documenta 11, Maria Eichhorn founded an Aktiengesellschaft, or public limited company. As is typical of such entities, the newly created firm was in her own name. It held a 50,000 euros portion of Documenta’s exhibition budget—divided into 50,000 shares of a euro apiece—meeting the minimum requirement of subscribed capital for an Aktiengesellschaft. Such companies’ assets are typically distributed into shares that are traded to increase capital, while creditors make claims upon the corporation as a legal person, exempting individual shareholders from personal risk and liability.
Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaftmimetically uses the structure of the corporation against itself. The artist remains its sole managing board member and initial shareholder; she transferred all shares of the company to itself, to be held in perpetuity. The corporation belongs to itself, or, in Eichhorn’s words, “it ultimately belongs to no one,” and “the concept of property disappears in this case.”1 This is because the assets of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft are neither invested nor circulated, and do not accrue interest for the company’s shareholders, as set forth in the company’s Articles of Association.2 This removal of cash from monetary circulation and capital accumulation inhibits the typical function of public limited companies, namely the ability to generate surplus value and accrue profit with minimal risk. The continued existence of Eichhorn’s work is subject to renewals of the company and its board, and its endurance to date has relied on a supporting—and now, collecting—art institution.
In 2007, Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft was acquired by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and its 50,000 euros—originally a loan—repaid to lender Documenta GmbH (Documenta Ltd.) by the museum.3 The agreement between Eichhorn and the museum reiterate the founding values of the project: that neither the share capital nor the artwork can be owned by anyone, not even by the museum that pays for the corporation’s existence.
In Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft, ownership of the work of art is distinct from the various components that constitute its presentation. Eichhorn defines the work of art as the corporation and the manifold processes by which it is performatively constituted. Through Eichhorn’s transfer of assets to the corporation, it remains tautologically owned by itself, however, without the effect of financial gain that drives more typical improvisations within corporate systems. By definition, Eichhorn’s work of art is uncollectible, and in order to exist as a public limited company, principal components of the work must exist in the public domain.
If artists such as Hans Haacke drew from social systems such as state public records to produce their art—for instance his Shapolsky et al, Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971)—Eichhorn both mines and intervenes in existing socio-legal systems, while locating her art’s material life, support structures, and activities within them. As a corporation, current documents of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft must be stored in the commercial register, and future changes disclosed and published in the Official Gazette of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesanzeiger). The commercial register is itself a public place, its documents available for public viewing.4 So if a collecting museum cannot own the work, how might the museological functions of acquisition and collection stewardship be otherwise determined for this work? Instead of asking how a museum might own Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft, we might instead consider what responsibilities a collecting institution has towards it. The museum and Eichhorn are legally committed to a set of obligations: the artist works to ensure the company’s continued operation, while the work of art’s presentation is transferred to the custody of the museum.5
Consequently, what the Van Abbemuseum owns is not the artwork itself, but rather specific rights to a legally-approved, valid and mandatory “presentation” of it devised by the artist and not to be altered by the museum.6 This presentation includes a publication containing company documents between 2002 and 2007, furniture, backlit transparencies of documents pertaining to the work’s life in the commercial register, and various legal agreements between Eichhorn and the museum, the work’s 50,000 euros share capital in a stack of bills, and a safe for the presentation of this capital.7 If other institutions wish to show the work, the Van Abbemuseum retains rights to loan this presentation—as it did to the Kunsthaus Bregenz, which recently mounted a solo exhibition of Eichhorn’s art.8 That is not to say that the presentation of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft is static: indeed, it continues to multiply even as the company’s assets remain unchanged. Accompanying documents guaranteeing the corporation’s legal status also proliferate as an effect of the corporation’s ongoing compliance. Each renewal of ownership, each annual report, tax return, and set of board meeting minutes lengthens the work’s paper trail.9
As custodian for the presentation of the work, the Van Abbemuseum does not conventionally own or conserve Eichhorn’s art; rather, it maintains its ongoing life and mutating presentational accretion, through agreed-upon tasks (at this point, the future of the work has been secured through 2017).10 We might think of Eichhorn’s project as analogous to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s maintenance art that critiques capitalist rhetorics of advancement within the avant-garde and investigates forms of maintenance work such as care, conservation, and sanitation in how its stated “annual maintenance work” explicitly requires Eichhorn to undertake various administrative and accounting duties in order to retain the company’s standing and compliance with German corporate law.11 Eichhorn’s agreement with the Van Abbemuseum likewise tasks the museum with a set of maintenance responsibilities: approximately 1430 euros are put toward the corporation’s annual running costs that include various commercial fees, registration fees and tax advice.12
This ongoing involvement between the Van Abbemuseum and Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft realigns existing relationships that maintain the creation of cultural value. The founding capital of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft remains constant, and will likely depreciate, while its annual operating costs borne by the Van Abbemuseum are liable to increase, relative to inflation.13 The work’s literal operation at a loss and lack of material benefit to the museum continue to resonate in the wake of an inflated art market, and in the context of late capitalist enterprise, where rights and privileges for corporations have been powerfully expanded while their public responsibilities are drastically reduced.
If contemporary art’s relationship to corporations have been subject to intense critique for cultivating enterprise culture in art institutions, the commitment of a museum to the legal maintenance of a corporation—devoted to abolishing its own status as property—proposes a different set of relations. Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft operates through agreements suturing entities and peoples to other ends.14 Along with Eichhorn, the current supervisory governance and management of the corporation is executed bya curator, a museum director, and a legal professor of European civil and corporate law, thus reversing the more typical relationships of cultural governance between corporations and museums where corporate leaders often determine institutional policy.15 And if collecting museums are typically devoted to protecting and conserving cultural artefacts, histories, heritage, and wealth in order to make their knowledge and meanings perennially available for examination, the maintenance of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft stands as an experiment of its age, proposing values other than the will to profit that so destructively characterizes the present moment.
- Maria Eichhorn “Introduction” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 23.
- See Paragraph 3, Object of the Undertaking, in “Annex to the notarial deed of 22 March 2002. Articles of Association of Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft” republished in Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 51. Also see Elizabeth Ferrell. “The Lack of Interest in Maria Eichhorn’s Work” (eds) Alex Alberro and Sabeth Buchman. Art After Conceptual Art. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007),197–198.
- The costs of maintaining the company (for instance of founding the company, and the cost of its legal maintenance) were also previously funded by Documenta. See Alejandro Cesarco, ed. Between Artists: Maria Eichhorn, John Miller (Canada: A.R.T. Press, 2008): 17-18.
- Maria Eichhorn “Maria Eichhorn: Aktiengesellschaft” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 25.
- “Agreement between Maria Eichhorn and Van Abbemuseum” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 234–235.
- “Agreement between Maria Eichhorn and Van Abbemuseum” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 235.
- “Annex 3 to the Agreement between Maria Eichhorn and Van Abbemuseum” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 258–259.
- Alejandro Cesarco, ed. Between Artists: Maria Eichhorn, John Miller (Canada: A.R.T. Press, 2008): 22–23; also see the press kit for the exhibition Maria Eichhorn at Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (May 10–June 7, 2014) curated by Yilmaz Dziewior and Rudolf Sagmeister.
- This observation was made by Simon Baier, in “Punkt, Pathogenese, Strich,” Texte zur Kunst (December 2014), 226–230.
- The museum’s obligations as set forth in the Agreement, are to bear the company’s running costs, cover normal price increases, agree with Eichhorn on new rules regarding the “organisational and legal maintenance of Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft,” and operate according to German law and Berlin jurisdiction for in spite of the museum’s Netherlandish location. “Agreement between Maria Eichhorn and Van Abbemuseum” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 235–236.
- See Mierle Laderman Ukeles. “Maintenance Art Manifesto: Proposal for An Exhibition, ‘CARE’,” in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. (eds). Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999),122–125. These include work on the company’s annual accounts and their submission to the supervisory board, her filing the annual accounts of the company and the minutes of its shareholder meetings with the commercial register in Berlin, and the payment of annual fees to the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and commercial register, and filing of annual taxes. See “Agreement between Maria Eichhorn and Van Abbemuseum” Maria Eichhorn: Maria Eichhorn Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 240–243.
- These includes remuneration to the chairman of the supervisory board Tilman Bezzenberger at his hourly rate; reimbursement to the artist for various expenses; tax advice; fees to the Chamber of Commerce and the commercial register; court registry fees for examining and storing annual accounts. “Annex 4 to the Agreement between Maria Eichhorn and Van Abbemuseum” Maria Eichhorn: Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 260
- Pierre Bourdieu once argued that argued that the experience of art is one of misrecognition, as the accumulation of the work of art’s symbolic capital hinges on disavowing economic capital, thereby accumulating profit in the long run—Eichhorn’s work here technically inverts this relationship. For Bourdieu’s argument, see Pierre Bourdieu. “The Production of Belief” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (Polity Press, 1993 reprinted 2004), 71–81 Note also that it is possible that the artwork could be appraised at a value higher than its initial capital—and that the value of the work as art could itself increase. However, at the time of writing this has not yet been pursued, nor has the calculus for such an appraisal been attempted.
- See Chin-Tao Wu, “Embracing the enterprise culture: art institutions since the 1980s” Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s (New York/London: Verso, 2002), and Charles Esche, “Foreword,” Maria Eichhorn: Aktiengesellschaft (Köln: Walther König, 2007), 21.
- The company’s initial supervisory board included curator Okwui Enwezor, artist Denise Terry Williams, and Professor of Civil Law, Corporate Law and European Civil Law, Dr. Tilman Bezzenberger. Director of the Van Abbemuseum Charles Esche has since joined the board and currently continues to serve on it, replacing Williams’ involvement.
JEANNINE TANG is an art historian teaching as Senior Academic Advisor and LUMA fellow at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. She is working on a book project examining convergences between art of the 1970s in an age of information, and an exhibition on the art and activities of New York-based galleries American Fine Arts, Co. and Pat Hearn Gallery.