It’s paradoxical that the more faithful a reproduction attempts to be, the more it can distort the original. Yet such inaccuracies are never new: lacunae and illusionary tricks are constitutive of perception and bound up with any original. If ‘When Attitudes Become Form – Bern 1969/Venice 2013’ is a reproduction, then what, exactly, does it reproduce? Curator and Fondazione Prada director Germano Celant worked with artist Thomas Demand and architect Rem Koolhaas to transpose the art works and the layout of Harald Szeemann’s seminal ‘Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form: Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information’ (1969–70) to contemporary Venice. A 1:1 model of the Kunsthalle Bern iteration of that show’s staging now stands in the centre of the regal Ca’ Corner della Regina. Cracks are visible; it’s a recent past grafted onto an ancient present. One looks up from an overwhelming sequence of works by an almost parodically major set of artists (Richard Artschwager, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, etc.), to see, Calvino-like, the ceiling of a sinking 18th-century Venetian palace.
Celant conceives of Szeemann’s exhibition as a ‘readymade’, which he seeks to ‘reenact or restage’. (Demand has spoken to me of a ‘reactivation’, whereas Koolhaas refers to the exhibition as a ‘set’.) The indeterminacy of these mixed metaphors is telling, for it’s unclear what, precisely, is on view. There are, of course, the ‘actual’ works – fastidiously and rather miraculously transposed – but what does this mean? Szeemann’s original exhibition title was ‘Anti-Form’, toying with problems of dematerialization; accordingly, a piece like Boetti’s Io che prendo il sole a Torino il 19 gennaio 1969 (Me Sunbathing in Turin, 19 January 1969) is so classic as to feel present in cultural memory yet weirdly invisible when viewed today, since the photographic reproductions have already managed to infect the original. Often absence speaks louder than presence, as Lawrence Weiner’s A 36” x 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall (1968/2013) suggests. If a work such as Richard Serra’s Belts (1966–7) could not be exhibited due to its fragility, then it’s important to remember that we can’t be certain which works were really shown in Bern, either: it was frenetically installed, a fact somewhat glossed over when it travelled to the ICA in London in September that same year. This was, of course, before the advent of today’s fastidious exhibition documentation. Certain pieces included in the Bern catalogue were not actually exhibited, while some exhibited works were omitted from the record.
Yet all this lends a new form of truth to these works, seen today: what is telling is how the pieces on view in Venice do not so much materialize into ‘form’ as hover or flicker between their material and immaterial housings. The interplay of absence and presence in individual works finds a fractal expansion in the curatorial team’s straight-faced, though quixotic, attempt at re-rendering an elliptical form. Common to the curatorial teams, past and present, is an attempt to reconcile the anxiety of dogmatic empiricism with epistemological, programmatic and stylistic precepts. Despite the 2013 group’s scholastic sifting through the incomplete documentation of 148 works, and their case-by-case restaging, a Borgesian reality remains: the documentary basis of this reconstruction is largely fictional.
The Bern show, for all its initial scandal and ultimate canonization, had few visitors and an abject reception: Szeemann was pressured to resign a month after the exhibition’s closing, the process of which is traced in the excellent archival section of the Ca’ Corner’s first floor. If memories, as Demand suggests in the accompanying catalogue, are ‘already artificial’, then it follows that they are also corrupted – by edits and displaced facts. For example, upon installing Beuys’ Fettecke (Fat Corner, 1969/2013), using shop-bought Swiss margarine, the curatorial team in Venice wondered whether the Fettecke was ‘too yellow’, but then relented: nobody can really account for the material specificities of Beuys’s lipidinal ‘attitude’ – especially when it comes to something like colour.
Repetition, for Sigmund Freud, is an instantiation and extension of prior neurosis. The institutionalization of Szeemann’s exhibition – as convergence of Land art, Conceptualism and Arte Povera – tends, through the corrective lens of memory, to flatten the idiosyncratic and contradictory nature of that initial showing. Walking in Venice through a ‘Kunsthalle’ simulacrum shouldn’t allow us to forget that Szeemann’s exhibition of ‘attitudes becoming form’ was a vague notion (what is an ‘attitude’? Isn’t a ‘form’ both material and idea?). A 1969 black and white photograph, taken by Harry Shunk or János Kender during the Bern opening, shows a soldier dialing Walter De Maria’s piece Art by Telephone (1967). The man’s gloves are carelessly placed over the placard that Szeemann installed, under De Maria’s postal instructions, to read: ‘If this telephone rings, you may answer it. Walter De Maria is on the line and would like to talk to you.’ However, De Maria never phoned in during the 1969 opening, so it’s unclear what this visitor was doing with his finger on the rotary, especially since one could only receive calls, not dial. This restaging, of heard and unheard voices dialing back through time, repeats the lacunae that marked the original exhibition.
I was glad to see Table of Contents (1966), a work originally exhibited in Bern by Bay Area Conceptualist Paul Cotton: a table is divided in half via a vertical plane, with a small panel embedded in it that suggests a mirror (but is actually a hole). It recalls the mirror boxes that have, since the 1990s, been used as therapy for ‘phantom limbs’: correction via erratic doubling. The 1990s, of course, also represented the advent of mainstream, computerized data flow, leading to the simultaneous amnesia/remembrance of contemporary Internet image transfer – which, to me, seems like the real condition of possibility for this restaging, as erroneously accurate as it was concretely virtual. So is it any wonder that the old catalogue printed the title of Cotton’s piece, Table of Contents (1966) – in what amounted to a beautiful Freudian slip – as Table Top?