‘The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata’, the most recent show at the Venetian branch of the Fondazione Prada, takes as its subject the attempt of 20th-century avant-gardes to (in the words of curator Germano Celant) ‘bring the artefact out of its condition of unique specimen and turn it into a multiple’. The number of replicated items in the show – more than 600, covering a period of 75 years – is impressive. They are divided into groups: magazines, books, records and films on the ground floor; sound objects and furniture on the mezzanine; works of art, textiles, toys, ceramics and glasses on the first floor. Such is their quantity that differences between individual positions, styles and movements seem to blur, as if the serialization of art is a natural by-product of the age of mechanical reproduction. Celant builds a seamless evolution from Futurism and Constructivism to Fluxus, Pop and Kinetic Art, but abruptly finishes the story in the mid-1970s – more or less at the same time Arte Povera, the art movement he was central to, came to an end – by declaring that the rise of the art market transformed the Utopia of free distribution and circulation of art works into merchandise and ‘product-fetishes’.
Seriality and repetition are also key here. The objects are enclosed in large glass vitrines, like transparent boxes, so that from the distance everything seems to float and overlap, as if in a mental archive. Boxes are indeed the stars of ‘The Small Utopia’, both as containers and as objects in themselves. Many of them are exceptionally beautiful – my shortlist would include Len Lye’s abstract film A Colour Box (1935); the toy-like dreamscape Into the Sea (1970) by Dieter Roth and Rudolf Rieser; and portable ‘group shows’ such as Seven Objects in a Box (1966–9) by Tanglewood Press, made of miniature works by Tom Wesselmann, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Allan D’Arcangelo and Andy Warhol; and all six issues of the Surrealist periodical S.M.S. (Shit Must Stop, 1968) edited by William Copley. The obvious prototype for all the editioned ‘art boxes’ produced after it is Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase, 1915–23), which takes centre stage, with four editions included here. In her excellent essay for the catalogue, Duchamp, Man Ray and Replication (2012) – a wonderful book that is far richer than the exhibition itself – Adina Kamien-Kazhdan discloses that from 1941–71 Duchamp produced seven series of the Boîte-en-valise and more than 300 copies of it (in collaboration with Milanese dealer Arturo Schwarz), thus subverting his own chronology and opening up a whole new market for editioned replicas. Accordingly, iconic works of art are presented as plural: side by side are two Bicycle Wheels (1913 and 1964), two snow shovels (In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915 and 1964), and two Fountains (1917 and 1964); as well as ten tins of Piero Manzoni’s infamous Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit, 1961), 15 flowers by Meret Oppenheim (Hafer-blume, Oat Flowers, 1969), four of Joseph Beuys’s sleds (Schlitten, 1969), three car doors by Ed Kienholz (Sawdy, 1971–2), among others.
It would have been interesting to see the exhibition expand beyond the safe boundaries of art history, and look into more contemporary ideas around the multiple and originality (think of Sturtevant’s replicas of Duchamp, for instance), especially since the digital age is reframing these notions in terms of countless ‘versions’ of a form. Only Beatriz Colomina takes a quick glimpse at the present, at the end of her text for the catalogue: ‘New media today brings new portable Utopias,’ she writes. ‘A new generation is perforating the world with the ever-evolving technologies of social media. The logic of the multiple is being taken to a whole new extreme. Serial repetition gives way to viral exchange. Nothing is little any more.’ Perhaps it’s time to think outside the box.