When exhibitions become form (part 2)

23 Dec

(This post continues from the previous post, about the restaging of the 1969 exhibition held in Bern, “When Attitudes become Form,” in 2013 in Venice. You may want to read that one first.)

To restage an exhibition from 1969 in 2013 with as much fidelity as possible both to the original selection of works displayed and the original disposition and layout requires managing a series of transpositions. The result is a festival of anachronisms. It occurred to me that one could make a typology of the kinds of transfer on display. Here is what I came up with.

Absence. Some works in the 1969 no longer exist and could not be remade (either for legal or practical reasons).  These were shown as absent, with dotted white lines marking the place on the floor that they inhabited in the original show. Not one person I heave heard talk about this reinstallation has failed to note sardonically that the effect was like that of the outline of dead bodies at a crime scene. One work in the exhibition passed from the present to the absent state during the course of the exhibition. Walter de Maria’s telephone piece, mentioned in the previous post, required the existence of the artist, who at any moment might call the phone located inside the exhibition. Sadly, the artist died in July, and at that point the organizers decided that the piece had to go, since it does not consist merely in the presence of the telephone and the text announcing what it is doing there; it requires the potential real presence of the artist on the line. Thus, the telephone and text were removed, and the dotted white lines appeared.

2_169716711LS00010_Fondazione-1024x681Miuccia Prada was the first to answer the phone and talk to Walter de Maria live at the 2013 exhibition’s opening.

Substitution. Sostituzione was the term adopted by the curator of the 2013 reinstall, Germano Celant, who himself had a role in picking the Italian artists represented in the 1969 exhibition. (Which means that he was himself only partly a sostituzione.) Their English translation was “replacement,” but I think substitution is just fine as a translation. This is a substitute for the original missing work, using the same material as the original work, to the same scale, in the same shape. My understanding was that the artist has to be alive to oversee the making of a substitution. One wall of the original exhibition carried (or should I say buttressed) three of Richard Serra’s prop pieces. In the 2013 reinstall, the two flanking works were substitutions and the central one was original. Interestingly, the substitutions had much more rust and surface irregularity than the original work, which was quite smooth and clean. It seemed to me as if the substitutions were protesting a little too much, like millennial punks with too many piercings.

Reenacted. That is the term used, with no Italian equivalent. Some works were the traces of a performance that had to be re-performed in 2013. For example, Joseph Beuys made a piece in 1969 called Fettecke, or “Fat Corner,” which consisted of margarine packed into the meeting of two walls and of ground and wall on one side of a room, creating three wedges of fat. When left too long, margarine turns grey. Thus the piece was installed afresh, and if I remember correctly was reinstalled at least once during the course of the 2013 exhibition to keep it bright yellow. (Was it reinstalled during the run of the 1969 exhibition, or did they just let it go grey?)

Dislocation. The term in Italian was dislocazione, which they proposed to translate with the term “displacement,” but what is wrong with “dislocation?” This is the term I understand least well. It describes a piece made with basically the same materials as the original but with greater latitude allowed in the configuration, either because the original work was not well documented and could not be followed exactly, such as Rafael Ferrer’s “Chain Link Fence Piece,” or because the configuration was understood to be malleable, such as Keith Sonnier’s “Untitled (Neon and Cloth).”

Exhibition copy. This is now a widely accepted category of substitution, designed to meet the increasing demands for works to be shown in exhibitions. Alan Ruppersberg’s “Untitled Travel Piece, Part 1,” consisted of a partially overlapping stack of four newspapers: The Omaha World Herald of December 17, 1968; The Chicago Tribune of December 18, 1968; The Cleveland Plain Dealer of December 19, 1968; The Salt Lake City Desert News of December 19, 1968. The exhibition copy offers a stack of correctly sized paper, with a printout (essentially a photocopy) on the first page of each newspaper. The other pages were blank. It was disappointing. The currency of the original piece (which by now is sitting somewhere, sorely yellow) was lost.

Relic. This is the original work, presented again. This seems simple enough, but sometimes the original work no longer resembles itself. For example, Richard Tuttle’s “Canvas Dark Blue” of 1967 is now pale violet, and his “Pale Purple Canvas” of the same year is light grey. Since these are works made with minimal artistic intervention, they could have been remade using fresh textiles. Substitutions would have been closer to the originals than the originals themselves.


Finally, there was the housing of the show itself, recreated in a Venetian palazzo, but maintaining as far as possible the original proportions, sequence, and look of the rooms in Bern. This was the work of the artist Thomas Demand, master of recreated environments. The original wall colors and baseboards were copied as to color, but not in the original materials. The floors at Bern were notably various, and at Venice we strode on linoleum (or something a lot like linoleum) printed with one to one photographic images taken from the original Bern floors. To the greatest degree, the meeting of the floor patterns with the disposed works of art was followed in Venice. In typical Demand fashion, no bones were made about the artifice involved, which was sufficient to produce the effect of transport without being overly niggly in the details. The places were the recreation ended and ceded space back to the palazzo–drywall cut to fit around the profile of a pilaster and entablature–were highly legible device-baring moments.

What do we call this final, encompassing category of transfer? It was a practice quite common in the Middle Ages, when certain Western foundations offered recreations of bits and pieces of Holy Land architecture. Medieval architectural copies of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem dot the landscape of Western Europe, inviting devotees to experience the original loca sancta extraterritorially. There, too, certain features were adhered to faithfully while in other areas license was allowed. Those architectural copies were called in the period “figures” or “simulacra” of the originals in the Holy Land. I like the idea of calling Demand’s transposed spaces “figures.”

When exhibitions become form (part 1)

24 Oct

When I went to Venice recently, I was especially interested to see a “reinstall” of a famous exhibition held in the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969, called When Attitudes Become Form (Live in Your Head). The show was a challenge at the time as it presented a large amount of post-Minimalist and Conceptual art and Process art to the European public for the first time–before the protocols for how to exhibit such art had been worked out. It was an exhibition that was fiercely contemporary, in the obvious sense that its curator, Harald Szeeman, wanted up to the minute work and indeed made many discoveries of art and artists in the months and weeks preceding the show. It was contemporary also in the strict sense that some of the work was site-specific and process-oriented and so required that the artists be present, making and installing work hours before the opening. (A film exists that shows Joseph Beuys molding margarine into corners downstairs from Lawrence Weiner, who is hacking away at a piece of drywall, while Richard Artschwager installs his Blips here and there.) It was contemporary also in the fact that this was work that overtly declared that it needed to be completed by a viewer who interacts with it and makes sense of it, or no sense of it. The most strictly contemporary work in the show, arguably, was Walter De Maria’s, which was literally art telephoned into the gallery:  a telephone was installed that was liable to ring at any time.


He did ring, more than once, but he always got around to it late at night in New York, which meant the wee hours in Europe. (He joked to Szeeman that he only ever seemed to ring the “Palace at 4am.”)

We live in an intensively retrospective era, in art, in music, in culture generally. Artists often work as quasi- curators. pop musicians pride themselves on their arcane knowledge of music history, and foodies go for heritage grains and heirloom tomatoes, while others give up on these mannerisms and go Paleolithic. (No need to get into fashion since it has always been intensively retrospective.) Lately, art exhibitions have been making a point of mingling contemporary art with older art–older modern art but also really older art. This has happened in the last two Venice Biennials and in the last Dokumenta, as well as in many other places. We live in what future historians will call the age of curatorship. If artists often behave like curators, lately curators have been producing shows that look like art installations. The figure of the modern curator emerged with the rise of site-specific art and Process art, since this work required a mediator, a sort of producer in the movie industry sense, who could make it happen and usher it to the public’s attention, setting up the conditions for the art work’s realization by an engaged viewership. Lately, the retrospective imperative has produced shows that not only install works but re-propose famous exhibitions, or famous rooms:  for example, a Dan Flavin retrospective in 2006 reinstalled his 1964 Green Gallery show, because it was felt that although the works in that show had been presented and offered for sale as individual objects, the original installation has also been a coherent statement, a subtle managing of the problem that in light art one work literally illuminates the others. Art work could not be strictly separated from curation, so the whole original configuration was reinstalled.

Harald Szeeman is the prototype of the star-curator; When Attitudes become Form has long been been a mythic event, more or less contemporary art’s Woodstock. It was only a matter of time before this show would have to be re-done. A show that aspired to absolute contemporaneity would now be lovingly and exactingly made to happen again. That would be a true test for the formidable machinery of the exhibition industry. It is a quixotic enterprise in the true sense, in that the absurdity of it becomes the occasion for something strange and beautiful and in fact new.

(The next post will step into the recreation.)



9 Oct

It has been a while since I’ve written because it has been a while since I’ve traveled. I don’t mean a trip here or there, but travel, where one trip trapezes from another or loops inside another, for weeks or months.  Being present with the unfamiliar is a mantra of the dedicated traveler, but to me the point of travel is that it puts you in more than one place at once. I am here and also elsewhere. This may be true always, but travel dramatizes the fact. With the internet this is more obviously true than ever. But it is also true that here has been partly elsewhere for a very long time. I hate the notion of hybridity because it presupposes that there were first two or more “native” things, which were then mixed. Any historian of culture can show you fairly easily that any of the posited native elements were themselves always already marbled with imports, borrowings, riffings–all the way down, all the way to the beginning. Mixture gave birth to culture.

Airplanes and Skype are only accelerating an old process, which has been global for a while. When your world is art, as mine is, the acceleration is very palpable, because we have (since about 1970) inhabited an exhibition culture. Artworks are now supposed to move; some are made to move. The mechanisms of the art world perform a constant triage, deciding what works will travel, how they will travel, to what degree the experience of a work requires physical presence and thus physical transfer, and to what degree it does not. Exhibitions are our medium and our mirror. They are emblematic of our condition.

Robert Smithson diagnosed the syndrome at a critical moment in its development; his terms provide the tools for understanding what has happened since his time. In 1967-68 he developed his Non-sites as a way of managing the status of a work of art between places. The artwork happens in the implied travel (or fictitious travel, or as he also called it, anti-travel) between a “here” that is present but somehow unreal, because it is weirdly extraterritorial (the White Cube), and a “there” in the world that exists but is in an indeterminate state–matter in undifferentiated form that is now constituted as a target by the samples and indications offered in this strange, displaced “here.”

Servis culture, not service culture.

4 May

Here is a tip for travelers in Beirut: when you get into a cab, you say “Servis” and the taxi costs a quarter the normal price, but then is also free to pick up other passengers along the way. You get a practically free ride, and a generally jollier one.

I decided to go to Tripoli on one of my days there, and after inquiring at the hotel about a car and getting a price that raised ethical questions for me (“Do you really feel like playing the role of pasha, today?”), I decided to take the bus, which I was told was 4 thousand lebanese pounds, i.e., a little under $3.00. My very old taxi driver, who was manning a marvelous but clunky early 70s Cadillac, couldn’t find the station and had a very bad habit of stopping in the middle of traffic when he was confused (every few seconds) so I got out and paid him an outrageous 10 thousand lebanese pounds ($7) for the failed trip. I asked a gentleman on the street where the bus station was and he asked, skipping a couple of steps, “Vous allez où?” “Trablous,” I replied, and immediately he gestured up the street, with what I am now going to call a Beiruti flourish: “Voilà, monsieur.” I turned to see a small bus trundling down the road, spewing exhaust. Looking back once to check his face, which remained calm and slightly amused, I hailed it, imagining it wouldn’t stop. But it did! It was no random act of generosity: this was a Servis mini-bus, which picks people up and drops them off as it makes its way up the coast. The other triumph was that it turned out to be 1 thousand pounds cheaper than the normal bus. One-way Beirut to Tripoli: $2.00.

My model traveller is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was given to dining with counts in castles one night and walking and camping with gypsies the next. I was staying in a very nice hotel (another tip: when in Beirut splurge and stay in The Albergo) and happily taking the $2 Servis bus to Tripoli, soon to make my way through labyrinthine streets where no one speaks a European language. So yes, I soon started to feel unseemly pride for being one with the people, just, you know, going up to Tripoli and getting on with my business there. Of course, everyone else on the bus was saying, “What’s he doing here?” which I am going to hope in some cases was followed by, “Well, good for him.”

I observed the beautiful flexibility of the system, the fluidity with which people mounted and disembarked, the cordial familiarity they had with the driver, the driver’s intelligence and fluency as he navigated traffic, pulled over when asked, took money as people dismounted, always remembering where they got on and how much their pro-rated fare was. I was happy and curious to see women using the service, traditional women who nonetheless had to go about their daily activities and couldn’t afford to let niceties such as moral codes stand in their way. (On the Arabian peninsula, one never sees a woman getting around on her own. At most women accompany each other.) I was enjoying the variety of speeds allowed on a Middle Eastern highway. The resulting effect is apparently chaotic, with vehicles using the same roadway for widely varying purposes, but in fact it was a pretty functional ballet. There was active traffic the whole way, but it flowed.

I talked a bit to the man next to me, who spoke English and French fairly well. He is Christian. Others on the bus were Muslim. But the main feeling was that everyone was Lebanese, afloat together on their unpredictable Lebanese boat. Life wasn’t easy but at the same time things were on the whole pretty good. They were lucky to be here, not in Syria. They belonged here. They were getting on with things, shuttling from one arena of activity to another. They were connected to their people at each end of their trajectory, probably pretty closely, and for the time they were in transit they were in loose association with their fellow citizens.

On the Arabian peninsula, the immigrants, not the citizens, take public transport. The citizens are very wealthy and drive nice cars and then interact with people in malls and restaurants in a strictly service relationship. Their “dense” interactions stay almost entirely within the tribe, which is to say the extended family. The Beirut-Tripoli mini-bus was not part of a service culture but a Servis culture: people working out a way to share a service and so bring the cost of it way down. The bus driver was not working for a company for a salary but paying what he had to pay for the bus, or the license to drive it, and working for himself, like a taxi driver.

We were driving along a beautiful coast, a fact that was probably more present to me than to the others on the bus, yet I am convinced that it was part of their experience as well. The fact is, no one lives in the region of Palestine, with all its troubles, and is not continually aware that naturally speaking it is a blessed land. As the bus made its way along the road, a continuously populated and trafficked stretch of coastline, I was thinking that through all the modern surface features what I was doing and witnessing was centuries old.  The corridor between these two major trading ports must always have been fairly active, more or less in this way.

At a certain point it became clear that the driver had gotten himself into a manhood-measuring contest with another, younger and more obviously macho mini-bus driver, who would overtake us, beeping and practically thumping his chest, only to be overtaken by our driver in turn. Our driver remained cheery to people inside the bus while hurling abuse at his rival every time he succeeded in passing him. In the end, we won, and I couldn’t help feeling proud of my guy, who was getting on in years but was tough as nails. He’s seen it all and wasn’t taking shit from anybody. For me, it’s a memory, one that makes me chuckle every time I think of it. And then I remember that he is doing much the same thing every day, even right now.

Magnetism and orientation.

1 May


The mosque in front of my building is out of alignment with the buildings around it. Although I’ve been here four months, I am excited by it every time I look out my window. (Sorry for the smudgy photo but this is what happens to windows in highrises exposed to sandstorms.)  It looks like two grids crossing at an oblique angle, the articulated grid of the city and the grid implied by the four square walls of the mosque. But that is not what is happening. Mosques are not on a grid. They are in a radial pattern, all pointing to the Kaaba in Mecca. Wherever you are, you have to find the qibla, the direction of prayer. This is not easy to do, especially considering the curvature of the earth. Some early mosques miss the mark, a fascinating fact. That may be because they hadn’t yet sorted out the technicalities, or, as some argue, because they hadn’t agreed that the qibla should be focused on Mecca. For purely sentimental reasons I favor the former explanation. In any case, now it’s easy. You can go to a website and it will tell you how many degrees from north you should point yourself based on your current location.

“My” mosque is not simply set on a bias to the grid of the city. The fact of the divergence registers a more dynamic interaction. This building is being pulled out of alignment by a call to which the other buildings remain deaf.

The magnetism of mosques poses a contrast to the orientation of churches and constantly takes me by surprise. With some exceptions, the apses of churches point east. You can go so far east it becomes west, but churches keep pointing east. In the Middle Ages, the earthly paradise, the one Adam and Eve were kicked out of, was understood to be at the most easterly point on the earth. Churches proceed from the premise that as long as they are earthly they should point to the paradise that is known, in expectation of the one in heaven. Mosques also point to a known place, though it is true that the Black Stone embedded in one corner of the Kaaba is believed to have fallen from the sky in order to show Adam and Eve where to build the first altar, so in effect mosques point to an extraterrestrial body that has found a place on earth.

In any case, mosques point in different directions depending on where you are. In Abu Dhabi they point almost due west. But I got on a plane to Cairo and found them pointing north. A month later I was in Beirut, and found them pointing south. It was easy to see this in the Al Omari mosque because it is a converted church. The church was built by European crusaders in their version of Gothic and then taken over by the Mamluks after they kicked the crusaders out of the holy land in 1291. (See my earlier post about that.)

Al Omari mosque, Beirut

The carpet looks like it has been installed to align with the principal axis of the former church. But that is a coincidence produced by the fact that Mecca is directly south of here. Those bands on the carpet are guiding lines for the feet and knees of praying people. The man at the far end of the photo, standing in the former apse of the church, is in mid-prayer.

When you go to Istanbul, Mecca is to the east but not due east. It is south of east. This becomes clear when you look at, say, Kalenderhane, a Byzantine church that was converted into a mosque after the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The carpet sets out a very beautiful misalignment. It is a dramatic angle, but nothing so pedestrian and obvious as 45 degrees. It clearly expresses the fact that that sanctuary has been converted, with flair but no unnecessary drama. I would call it a jaunty divergence if it wasn’t very silly to say so. To me it seems that if the angle were any less or more it wouldn’t have quite this “absolute obliquity”–if there is such a concept.

Kalenderhane mosque, Istanbul

The Raouché Rock, Beirut.

25 Apr

I was enjoying the fantastic coastline and the idea of looking out from the eastern dead end of the Mediterranean, straight out towards the Gibraltar strait at the other end. All those travelers who came from the West and were overjoyed to have reached these shores!

Then my friend Rasha explained its local significance: “It’s a place where there is a diving competition organized by the thugs and the tough boys. And it’s a place where people commit suicide.”

Sergei the irrepressible.

24 Apr

About 15 years ago, shortly before putting make up on me and making me wear glittery-archaic priestly garb and an outlandish hat in one of her films, my friend Gariné Torossian sat me down and had me watch films by the Georgian-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, the fabricator of delirious fantasies in saturated texture and color. Outspoken and irreverent, though hardly a political player, he was imprisoned several times by the Soviet authorities and in various ways prevented from making all but a handful of films. His films are layered rather than linear, meditations rather than stories, collages unfolding through time, and so he found ways to continue creating under adverse conditions mostly by making assemblage art: cutting things up and putting them together, secreting new associations out of them. “A collage is a compressed film,” he famously said. He might also have said, a collage is a repressed film.

For that reason, and also because he was an irrepressible collector of wonderful junk (as well as beautiful nice things), a visit to the “home museum” of this artist is a particularly rich experience. The Kavafy museum in Alexandria is just a silent bore. The Parajanov museum (the contents of his Tbilisi home were moved to the house he was going to move into in Yerevan) is a loud, carnivalesque, intensely involving work. You just can’t understand his films until you witness his art emerging out of his home-bound contact with poetry in its potential state, which is more or less how he saw most things. Another reason I am compelled to pay attention to him and love him is that in certain photos, such as the one above, he looks uncannily like my father.

Here is a sampling of one sequence among the things to be seen in the home collection.


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