“The Truth About Comets” was the title Dorothea Tanning gave a painting back in 1945. She spent the summer of 1943 with Max Ernst, whom she married in 1946, in Sedona, Arizona, where she spent a few years after World War II. The enigmatic image shows two mermaids in a snowy landscape next to whom a kind of stairway to heaven, the handrail of which ends in the dry canopy of a tree. Two comets are to be seen in the cloudy sky, and together with two figures of women bring a colorful and magical gleam to the somber grey countryside.
Foreign friends in the Palazzo
Tanning’s painting hangs in the central show at this year’s Biennale. Massimiliano Gioni, the Artistic Director, called it “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” and thus resorted to the idea of an imaginary museum, the design for which (a 700-meter-high sky-rise with 136 stories) self-taught Italo-American artist Marino Auriti filed an application in 1955 with the US patent office. In the monumental building, and an architectural model of it is there to be admired in the Arsenale, all mankind’s past, present and future knowledge was to be stored. There’s no need to mention that it never got realized. But Auriti’s encyclopedic palace provided not just the title for Gioni. He transforms the Biennale from an exhibition of contemporary art into a museum that takes stock of the offbeat, the overlooked, and the ostracized, in a swirl of outsiders and myth hunters.
Beyond the mainstream
Which brings us back to Dorothea Tanning’s comets. For everything on show comes under the sign of cyclical return and often has a long trip through the universe of art behind it, like a comet through space. In a vitrine lies “The Red Book” hand written and painted by none other than Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung and recording his visions and dreams between 1913 and 1928. Sociologist, literary critic and philosopher Roger Caillois, who once enjoyed life on the edge of the Surrealists, dedicated himself to deciphering nature’s signature by making cut sections of stones. Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris devised occult Tarot symbols and Robert Crumb actually drew a complete “Book of Genesis”.
Gioni is fascinated by artists who refused to conform to some mainstream, some majority let alone dominant culture. Instead of once again placing some newcomers or other on center stage, he opts instead for shamans, self-taught artists and cranks. Yet however marvelously Gioni fills his palazzo with a diversity of real and mental images, however precise the rhythm of the show, however skillful he is in finding a route bypassing an over-heated present world, his encyclopedia remains but a revival.
Undoubtedly, what he evokes is not only a different historical side to Modernism. It is also a different kind of sensitivity, a universe of essentially private obsessions, of the art of the mentally infirm, and extends to visualizations of religious and occult experiences. Whether such an upgrading of the foreign at the heart of Modernity can actually constitute a counterbalance to the expansive thrust of the current art market or simply gets marketed as outsider efforts remains to be seen. That’s not Gioni’s task. However, it’s a dubious appropriation of history that refuses to mention anywhere in the show that it was Harry Szeemann who from the 1970s onwards and starting with documenta 5 gave a platform to “individual mythologies”, to those obsessive-creatives, to the makers of gesamtkunstwerks, to the art of the mentally infirm and to obscure models of the world. And this is especially the case given that it was Harry Szeemann himself who when at the beginning of the century he twice acted as Biennale director returned to the theme in his “Plateau of Humanity”. It was no coincidence that Szeemann on principle did not consider his “Museum of Obsessions” an institution, but as a task for life, a place in the mind, where the fragile could be preserved and new contexts played through.
Without doubt, Gioni has come up with a literally wonderful exhibition. And it’s an exhibition that tries to use the means a museum offers to cool down an overheated market. Yet this also shows, intentionally or not, just how history gets appropriated today. The reference to alternative forms of knowledge remains important, precisely as these often bizarre approaches do not care whether they receive social recognition or can be put to fruitful use. The fact that obsessions are nevertheless political can be seen among other things from the fact that at the end of Auriti’s utopia of an encyclopedic palace stands the World Wide Web and on the horizon its magician’s apprentice, Google. What Gioni misses is the power of dematerialization and the impact this has on art and artists, be they insiders or outsiders. The exhibition thus ends, leaving a sense of farewell hanging in the air. Once again, master artists and outsiders reside as neighbors, once again the architectural version of an encyclopedia is evoked, and yet it has long since been overhauled and replaced by the electronic networks. Once again, at the blackboard Rudolf Steiner brings his customary idealist pathos to bear in explaining the world in its entirety for us, once again myths and mysticisms come floating back from their eccentric orbit and pass Earth, where, oops, long since a different, seemingly more effective economy sets the pace of adding value and consuming resources.
A strange eye remains crucial
Nevertheless, Gioni’s succeeds here and there in capturing those moments in which something breaks into our self-satisfied present world, and which the latter can neither explain nor integrate into its cycle of images without experiencing difficulties. Tino Sehgal for example (and he was rewarded with the Golden Lion for the best artists) has three people squat on the ground, constantly inventing new gestures and speaking in riddles like ancient oracles. Ellen Altfest, whose paintings fragment the body as much as they preserve it, achieves no less a change of perspective. Both are artists who act in the present. And anyone wishing to witness for themselves how the swift rhythm of video clips bonds with farewell and melancholy in an accelerated evolutionary history need only check out Camille Henrot, who won the Silver Lion for her video “Grosse Fatigue”. She manages, in part to the rhythm of a rap, to dissect evolution using dead birds and flying images such that our ostensibly certain knowledge suddenly starts to flutter and dance like an image in a kaleidoscope.
The past survives only in our minds
Our times find it so difficult to recognize past achievements, leading to a harsh battle between preservation and exploitation, as is shown by another project in Venice. In 1969 Harald Szeemann initiated a show at Kunsthalle Bern that has long since become legendary. Entitled “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information” he brought together 69 artists from Europe and the States and about 40 of them had works in the exhibition. The “works” of the others were not present and there was only “information” on them, because as Szeemann said the “works” could not intrinsically be exhibited. Often, it was not finished works that went on display. The artists developed the pieces on location. What Szeemann did was show that we should not simply trust our visual perception and he set out to explore what was then a new art of the consciousness, was driven not least by the wish to burst asunder the “triangle in which art happens”, namely that of studio, gallery and museum.
The list of participants ranged from Carl Andre to Gilberto Zorio, from Joseph Beuys to Bruce Nauman. Robert Morris, Mario Merz, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Jannis Kounellis and Lawrence Weiner likewise took part, as did Hanne Darboven, Eva Hesse and Jo Ann Kaplan. The show covered the entire spectrum of Concept art, Minimal art and Post-Minimal through to Arte Povera. What could be sensed everywhere suddenly took form. The focus was not on results, on “works” and definitely not on pieces that could be sold. The focus was on what art could be under present conditions, what it can achieve and how it can be presented. Out of this evolved an important, contradictory and exciting dialog between the various producers and what they did, irrespective of whether it was a Richard Long who hiked across the country, or a Richard Serra who stood plates of steel against a wall, or a Walter De Maria who invited people by phone to discuss things, or a Szeemann who curated exhibitions. “When Attitudes Become Form” was something of an initiation rite for what later, when contemporary art received greater attention, became regarded as precisely that. In the catalog Szeemann wrote that “the main theme and content is not the main characteristic of art today, namely shaping space, but the human, the artist’s activity itself.”
Now Germano Celant has in “dialog” (so we read) with artist Thomas Demand and architect Rem Kohlhaas reconstructed the legendary show. Not in Bern, but at Fondazione Prada in the Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice. “A Readymade”, is what Celant calls his attempt, his “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013”. The very reconstruction of the walls and floors of a Kunsthalle in the late 1960s and transposing it into a Venetian palace creates a strange uncanny sense in the viewer. This is strengthened by the fact that the same works as were presented in 1969 have again be assembled, whereby chalk lines denote the place where each piece stood that is no longer available. If you walk around these suddenly confined and somehow small spaces, you soon realize what the problem is: either the current show appropriates the past one in order to take its place or it rests on the misunderstanding that through these fragmentary reconstructions of spaces, works and constellations the spirit of that time could be rekindled.
But the spirit is a stubborn beast. Key aspects, such as the penetration into public space, remain excluded. What was once anything but museum-bound is not forced into a museum corset. Which means that things absent get colonized. There is no path back to the innocence of the Bern show, or only a path that on the basis of photographs and documents that have survived allow us to create an idea in our own minds of what it was. And whatever it was that brought the artists together in unity in Bern in 1969 in Bern – none of it can be felt in the Venetian 2013 reconstruction.
Here, again, the comet curves back. It mustn’t simply pass by the art world and greet it from a distant age. No, it gets dissected, analyzed, fragmented, reconstructed until it fits the new age. At the end of the day, the reconstructed show deserves a different title – perhaps “When platitudes become the norm”.
But that’s the way it is, our present world. Only rarely does it appreciate what it has inherited. And often it only recognizes what it has already lost and has then itself reconstructed. However, the intellectual spirit always chooses its own path, and can even walk across the lagoon if need be.
through November 24
When Attitudes Become Form
Fondazione Prada, Venedig
Calle de Ca’ Corner, Santa Croce 2215
thru November 3