When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes
CCA Wattis Gallery
Review by Julia Glosemeyer
‘When Attitudes Become Form,’ presented at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, was one of those rare exhibitions that managed to broaden the common understanding of what art can do. The curator, Harald Szeemann, sought out artists that tended to prioritise process and idea over finished product, and the pieces he exhibited were less self-sufficient art objects than radically uncommodifiable material traces of actions past. Strictly speaking, the exhibition was not about the art; it was about the artists.
That is the framework with which to approach ‘When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes,’ a new show at San Francisco’s CCA Wattis that aims to explore the legacy of the 1969 exhibition. As the grammatically twisted title indicates, the Wattis project is even less about objects than Szeemann’s. It focuses on contemporary practices informed by idea-driven Conceptual art, as opposed to post-minimalism and other more “materialist” practices, which were prominent at Kunsthalle Bern. The most striking feature that the Wattis curator Jens Hoffmann appropriated from Szeemann is the method of display. The works (by more than 80 international contemporary artists) are crammed together in four galleries, to the point that sometimes it’s hard to tell where one piece ends and another begins. Just like in the 1969 exhibition, no artwork is deemed “too precious,” and the viewer is not enticed to imagine herself as the pieces’ potential owner. Instead, entering the exhibition space is more like diving into a noisy, heterogeneous crowd.
What kind of works are these’ They tend to form intersecting thematic clusters: witty poetic gestures and ruminations on history, works that reference the history of art and works about movement and travel, mirror installations and riffs on the form of painting. Nevertheless, the show feels less curated than an average Facebook feed. What are the points of convergence between, say, the works by Jeppe Hein and Akram Zaatari’ The former brought the smells of Kunsthalle Bern to the Wattis (with a specially-made perfume), the latter presented photographs of Lebanese freedom fighters, all dedicated to an imprisoned comrade-in-arms. Or, what links Nina Beier’s “paintings” made out of lushly-coloured second-hand rags, and Vincent Meessen’s complex documentary on colonial history’ Those works have virtually nothing in common, apart from their roots in Conceptual art. It is to the curator’s credit that he opted for maximal thematic breadth, which allowed the show to become a unique environment.
Navigating the Wattis exhibition is akin to turning the radio dial and hearing snippets of songs interspersed with news and opinions. Ideas and personal histories seem to float in the air like space junk. It is almost as if each work channels the voice and (to some extent) the personality of the artist, who can invite the viewer to delight in a philosophical one-liner (Jeppe Hein) or mock art’s pretense (Claire Fontaine), tell them about quirky preoccupations, such as making polaroids of tiny trees (Meriç Algün Ringborg), or pay tribute to forgotten artists (Will Rogan). Some works, such as Taysir Batniji’s “advertisements” of war-destroyed buildings, are more poignant than others; but in general, the curator did not allow any works that would stand out too much, or be too flashy or shocking. It seems like his aim was to create an overload of diverse information that is essentially fleeting. It is no wonder that he also included ephemeral interventions that will live only as long as the exhibition lives. What the Wattis exhibition resembles most is, trivially enough, ordinary life - filled with brief encounters and bits of communication from different channels at once. The curator, ultimately, acts almost like a “social engineer”, emphasizing the works’ equality and encouraging their interaction, the bleeding of concepts into each other. But at the same time he allows every one of them to preserve its idiosyncratic voice, its individuality.
‘When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes’ is on view at CCA Wattis until December 1, 2012.