When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013
Ca’ Corner Della Regina, Venice
1 June - 3 November 2013
Review by Catherine Spencer
The archive looms large in this re-creation of Harald Szeemann’s iconic 1969 exhibition ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: Works - Concepts - Processes - Situations - Information’ at the Prada Foundation in Venice. Curated by Germano Celant, ‘in dialogue’ (whatever that means) with Rem Koolhaaus and Thomas Demand, the project maps the exact layout of the original Bern Kunsthalle show onto the floorplan of the Ca’ Corner, a genteelly crumbling Venetian palazzo. From the threshold, the viewer is left in no doubt that they are witnessing a labour of archival love: the ground floor has been made over to documents from Szeemann’s voluminous papers, carefully laid out in vitrines, together with photographs of the Bern exhibition. These are engrossing, and serve either to jog the memory or provide context as required. But they also inevitably introduce awareness of time and loss, of an attempt to recoup experience even as it falls victim to the pitfalls of memory.
Upstairs, the black and white photographs are re-rendered in vivid technicolour. The effect is a little disconcerting, as if a room, long-sealed up, has suddenly been opened. Many of the Bern works are here, some have been reinvented, and the spaces that would have been occupied by unavailable pieces are marked with lines on the walls and floors, like art-historical crime-scenes. Each is numbered, and the number corresponds to a checklist and set of architectural diagrams in the accompanying pamphlet. This all prompts a fair bit of slightly anxious detective work in pairing up art and numbers. Combined with the cache of records below, it’s impossible to shake the constant reminders that this is a recreation.
And in many ways, ‘When Attitudes…’ makes an excellent study for re-invention. The premise of the exhibition and the works it included, as Szeemann’s capacious title conveys, engaged with the process of making as much as the result. The contributing American and European artists - including Richard Tuttle, Mario Merz, Eva Hesse, Alighiero Boetti, Bruce Nauman and Barry Flanagan - worked in a Post-Minimalist vein, informed by Arte Povera and Land Art, responding to the advent of Conceptualism but nonetheless remaining concerned with materiality. Their works, several of which were created during the installation hang, foregrounded issues of originality, translatability, reinvention and site-specificity that play out productively through recreation. Take Sol Lewitt’s ‘Wall Drawing 12: Drawing Series I 1 (A & B) and III 1 (A & B)’ from 1969, or Lawrence Wiener’s ‘A 36’ x 36’ Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall’ (1968), both designed to be made on any wall and to change slightly with each iteration.
Equally, many pieces in ‘When Attitudes…’ explored bodily absence, so that the uncanny, haunting sense that permeates the recreation again feels apposite. The fleshy, visceral layers of Hesse’s ‘Augument’ (1968) are both touchingly vulnerable and creepily repulsive. Richard Artschwager’s ‘Blp’s migrate over the walls, establishing a constant game of hide and seek. Absent presence is a feature of Alighiero Boetti’s ‘Io che prendo il sole a Torino il 19 gennaio’ (1969), for which the artist made a silhouette in the space where his sun-bathing body had been from several hand-moulded lumps of clay, and of Nauman’s ‘Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals’ (1966/2007). It takes on a particularly melancholic slant in Walter De Maria’s ‘Suicide and Black Telephone in Artist’s Studio’ (1966-7). Yet despite the atavistic pleasure afforded by this immersion in a slice of the 1969 art world in all its variety, before the establishment of names and legacies, the recreation fails to engage satisfactorily with its own propositions on several levels.
Recreations can be expensive, and ‘When Attitudes…’ is no exception. It reeks of money: from the couture-besuited guards keeping close watch on attendees, to the beautiful brick of a catalogue weighing in at about £75, to the involvement of the well-heeled Getty Institute, who own Szeemann’s archive. This is eminently apposite, and of course nothing new: Prada have effectively replaced the Phillip Morris tobacco company, proud sponsors of the 1969 show. As well as introducing the ideas of process art and the concept exhibition, ‘When Attitudes…’ ushered in a new era of overt corporate art sponsorship. You don’t need to look much further for an object lesson of money and power uniting to write histories, and select archives for preservation.
It might be a bit much to ask the Prada Foundation to reflect on this, and it would be foolish to deny the importance of money in exhibition making and scholarship alike. But the money question is intimately connected to the wider issues skirted by the exhibition, as to why certain exhibition histories and events are re-created and not others, and what precisely are the expectations placed on re-invention. ‘When Attitudes…’ is hardly an obscure event. It was chosen as the inaugural case study for Afterall’s ‘Exhibition Histories’ book series in 2010, and has been the subject of re-interpretations at CCA Wattis Gallery in San Francisco (2012) and the Whitechapel Art Gallery (2000). The accompanying pamphlet states that the Ca’ Corner intervention is not ‘connected with a festishistic and nostalgic dimension’. Yet nostalgia’s seductive spectre is both irrepressible (especially within the crumbling, frescoed walls of the palazzo, itself part of entire city pickled in museum aspic) and the most interesting element in the whole enterprise. How does nostalgia affect the writing of history’ Is nostalgia necessarily negative’ How can historians address the gaps in the archives as well as their plenitude’
In 1969 the artists made small but significant essays on the museum fabric - a hole in a floor here, a shaky wiring project there - but in 2013 the chaos feels stage-managed, even Disneyfied. There’s nothing innately wrong with that, but the lack of willingness to engage with the selective, antiseptic, undeniably fetishistic return to this particular exhibition makes for an experience that feels like a lot of missed opportunities.