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.)



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