“When Attitudes Become Forms: Bern 1969/Venice 2013″
at Fondazione Prada, Venice
words by Aileen Burns & Johan Lundh
In 2011, Preview Berlin Art Fair organized a number of tours through Tempelhof Airport. We were lucky enough to be invited on a guided walk through this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Primarily known for austere architecture designed by Ernst Sagebiel, the building formed an integral part of Albert Speers’ plan to reconstruct Berlin as the “world capital” Germania. Tempelhof remained in use as an American military base until 1994—ending the country’s 49-year military presence in Berlin—and as a commercial facility until 2008. What we recall most vividly from that three hour walk through the terminal building are those instances when radically distinct aesthetic, ideological and functional elements of space overlapped with one another, each driving at distinct aims that became all the more visible in their proximity to difference. In one bewildering space, the ballroom floor had been transformed into a basketball court, emblazoned with the logo of the Berlin Braves, a surprising and uncharacteristically playful reminder of the airport’s time as a military base. In another instance, our guide escorted us into the vast chamber above the main lobby, which was unremarkable from below with its standard drop-ceiling and bland ticket counters. There was little evidence of what hid above that lobby: an astonishingly high ceiling with monumental pillars that reached from floor to roof, dwarfing those inside its cold and crumbling walls.
The layering of distinct aesthetics and functions in Tempelhof grew over the course of six decades of immense transformation in Germany. The extraordinary impressions these developments create now seem nearly accidental. Although very different in intention, process and circumstance, the experience of visiting “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013,” a re-mounting of Harold Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” is not entirely dissimilar. This experimental reimagining is curated by Germano Celant, with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas as exhibition designers, at Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice. Szeemann’s original project was held at Kunsthalle Bern and is considered a seminal exhibition—one of the first substantial presentations of American and European Conceptual and Land Art, Postminimalism and Arte Povera in Europe. As the coiner of the term Arte Povera, Celant was nearly Szeemann’s contemporary and is in a unique position to revisit “When Attitudes Become Form.” Szeemann’s departure from the kunsthalle after the exhibition arguably marks the beginning of independent curatorial practice as we have come to understand it today—and this particular show has attained an almost mythical status among younger curators seeking out their theoretic and aesthetic roots.
Like the original, this “When Attitudes Become Form” features works by Carl Andre, Giovanni Anselmo, Walter De Maria, Jan Dibbets, Michael Heizer, Eva Hesse, Jannis Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Mario Merz, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner and many more. Amongst the more than thirty works in the show, was a remake of Joseph Beuys’ Fettecke [Fat Corner] (1969), which was an impressive collaboration between the curator and The Estate of Joseph Beuys. Sitting alongside the yellow fat smeared along the line where the floor and wall meet, and sculpturally adhered to the corner of the room, is Beuys’ Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee [Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No No] (1968)—one has to wonder if, like Beuys, the team listened to the latter work while recreating the former. The process of remaking, and the involvement of the estate in the process, is a good indicator of the direction that our field is taking. Ephemeral and site-specific works are being brought back to life in an almost uncanny way. Beuys’ spirit seems to call us from beyond the grave here, with the curator as the occult medium. Whilst Richard Serra’s work is typically made from materials that last, in this restaging of an exhibition, the context is as much a part of the work itself. Serra’s Shovel Plate Prop, Close Pin Prop, Sign Board Prop (1969) leans against a white wall and rests atop a distinctive geometric tiled floor in black and white. This attention to historical context and detail is humorously undermined by the exposed wooden arch of an adjoining palazzo doorway, replete with delicate frescos in pastel blues and white.
Chalky lines trace the contours of absent works like a crime scene. These pieces that couldn’t be borrowed or recreated are also accompanied by archival documentation. It is an elegant technique to spatially record the absence of artworks without overshadowing other pieces in the exhibition. This unobtrusive gesture still succeeded in capturing our attention and calling our imaginations into action. Like Tempelhof Airport, you are not allowed to wander around Fondazione Prada by yourself. A tour guide narrates your encounters and polices your actions, adding a performative layer to the exhibition. The Fondazione Prada tour guide constantly draws your attention to the architecture, rather than the works in the exhibition. Nevertheless, it is a thought provoking and captivating curation of a curated show, where the walls, fixtures and minute features of the Kunsthalle Bern in the late sixties have been rebuilt in an 18th century Venetian Palazzo. The two buildings co-exist in unresolved and provocative ways. Celant recreated quotidian and nondescript radiators, simple grey skirting board and utilitarian square pillars on artistic rather than functional grounds. The interplay between ornate 300 year old frescos and late sixties art are equally absurd and sublime.
As we waited in line for the show, we were excited to see the works to get a sense of their earlier, less precious lives when they mingled amongst one another, not codified by the decades of historicization that would follow. We wanted to see them through the eyes of Szeemann.Because the work was presented as it was in the original exhibition, without barriers or protective glass, one can get close to, or even touch, pieces that are now normally kept out of reach and therefore less tactile and lacking phenomenological impact. The hyper-presence of two competing spaces and many temporalities pushes back against the immediacy of the 60’s display techniques. The curatorial strategy is not subtle and does not pretend to transport viewers back into a great Szeemann exhibition. Instead, Celant expertly layers references, which gives the audience an intangible sense of a past exhibition, relying on the ability of the audience to experience the show as it is, and as it was simultaneously. The majority the audience queuing to get in during the biennial’s preview days were curators and art historians. In a young field such as curating, it is little wonder that we are all entranced by this dual offer: to walk through an exhibition curated by a canonized figure and to visit a remarkable and innovative curatorial endeavor orchestrated for and in the present. “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” is a reconstruction based on archival material and memory rather than a verbatim re-staging.
The 600-page publication that accompanies “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” is as impressive as the exhibition itself and features abundant photographs of the original show, interviews with the curator and his collaborators and texts by some of the most renowned art historians and curators today such as Claire Bishop, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Charles Esche, Boris Groys, Jens Hoffmann and Chus Martínez, among others. Like the show, the publication is geared towards art professionals, for whom no detail is insignificant. “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” has taken a phenomenon of the curator as pilgrim to a whole new level. (Aileen Burns & Johan Lundh)
The exhibition “When Attitudes Become Forms: Bern 1969/Venice 2013″ at Fondazione Prada, Venice, will run through November 3.