The Prada Biennale show: Creative Energy turned into Dead Fetishism

Franco Fanelli on "When Attitudes become Form: Bern 1969, Venice 2013", Ca' Correr della Regina, until 24 November

Think of all the most famous examples of Arte Povera, Process art and Conceptual art: the ones illustrated in the histories of contemporary art, some of them the seminal images of their time.

Well, most of them were all together in the Bern Kunsthalle from 22 March to 27 April 1969 (then in the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld and the ICA in London the same year) in an exhibition that was to make history. Its curator was the 36-year-old Harald Szeemann, who got called the King Midas of contemporary art, capable of turning into gold, coal, sacks of grain, neon tubes, melted wax or margarine. For this is what the works of art were made of.

A curious fate awaited this exhibition, called “When Attitudes Became Form” to emphasise that it was about art linked to the process of making, but also the transformations that it underwent in reaction against the commercial interests attached to the unchanging nature of fetish-works.

Ever since 1969, everyone—critics, historians, philosophers etc—has cited this exhibition as a milestone, but how many actually saw it? Included in the key reference book, Die Kunst der Ausstellung (Insel Verlag, 1991), together with shows such as the Wiener Secession of 1902, the Armory Show of 1913 and the first edition of Documenta, Szeemann’s exhibition became an icon, a myth, a sort of Atlantis in the fabulous geography of modern and contemporary art, and the subject of hundreds of PhD theses.

So when Germano Celant, the father and godfather of Arte Povera and similar art, announced that he would be reconstructing the exhibition as nearly as possible in the rooms of Ca’ Corner della Regina, seat of the Prada Foundation in Venice, there was a frisson in the art world, as demonstrated by the two-and-a-half hour queue to get in on the opening day of the Biennale, under the sadistic glances of the young ushers (combine the haughtiness of the fashion world with the presumption of the art world). The suffering was compounded by having to put up with little lectures in ridiculous English by ushers who had learnt the press release by heart.

Celant has, in fact, had a fiendish idea: to combine the ostensibly scholarly purpose of the exhibition with spectacle, a kind of curatorial Barnum and Bailey. Not only has it gathered together most of the works originally shown in 1969, but it presents an almost exact recreation of the original display.

Thanks to material found in Szeemann’s archive (property of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles) and other period photographs, the event has been reborn in 1:1 scale with the collaboration of the artist Thomas Demand and the architect Rem Koolhaas, who have erected in the Baroque rooms of the “Palazzo Prada” the same walls as in Bern, of the same colour, with the same skirting boards, and a floor that is a photographic rendering of parquet, all just like the original.

In this Chinese box, hundreds of totem works are displayed (the missing pieces are suggested by a drawn outline): the legendary floor piece 36 Copper Square by Carl Andre; the mythical Torsione by Giovanni Anselmo; the shape of Io che Prendo il Sole a Torino il 19 gennaio 1969 by Boetti. Even the margarine of Fat Corner by Beuys has been meticulously applied to the corners of a room. And there is Walter De Maria’s Suicide and Black Telephone, 1966/67, in full conceptual noir mode, the rope work by Flanagan before he got stuck on hares, the lattice by Eva Hesse (one of the few women allowed into the sexist club of Conceptualism), Sit-in by Mario Merz, a manifesto of the 1968 revolution, or the wall detached by Lawrence Weiner (A 36” x 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall)? Not to mention the thrill of seeing the correspondence between Szeemann and Boetti, De Maria, Nauman (who gave him advice on the exhibition) and Gilardi, or the shipping documents accompanying the works, with their insurance valuations.

So what’s wrong with this show? What is it that makes it a monster? These rooms smell disagreeably of an exhumation; they make one feel sad. It is not just because the stuccoed and painted ceilings interfere aggressively with some of the art, such as the ramifications of the glass igloo by Merz, which seem to continue grotesquely in the ceiling rose above it. Perhaps the feeling of unease is not even caused by the oppressive lighting in these cloned rooms, full of works too well known to be put together without overwhelming one’s visual and, above all, psychological perception. It is something more subtle and desperate.

If the imaginary writer Pierre Menard in a story by Borges rewrites Don Quixote and manages to enrich it with further allusions and meaning, the trio Celant-Demand-Koolhaas, in reproducing a myth, have only managed to produce a faithful but lifeless copy. And in this devitalisation of a great and justly famous exhibition, works that were born out of creative energy come across as taxidermied fetishes, juju-less idols, as snuffed out as the torches by Gilberto Zorio in one of the most gloomy rooms of the claustrophobic sequence in Ca’ Corner della Regina.

When I got out I felt I had escaped from the suffocating embrace of a revenant worthy of De Chirico. But this remake is perfectly in tune with the market of today now that the fairs have given up on the fuchsia and chrome-yellows of Murakami and Koons and have taken to showing off the pauperish neutrals of the Seventies. It is a much more radical product than the efforts of the young neo-conceptualists, but highly fashionable at a time when collecting is wearing the hair-shirt of the most hypocritical of penitents.

Published Mon, 03 Jun 2013 17:00:00 GMT

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