I’ve long been interested in the practice of time capsuling. It’s the kind of thing that happens all over the world, in little towns, schools, public spaces. A group of people get together and gather up a selection of objects – newspapers, children’s drawings, photographs, toys and other bric-a-brac – that they feel best represent the way they live at that particular moment. What is so interesting to me about this practice is the enormous amount of trust placed in the buried objects. At the core of time capsuling is the slightly irrational idea that an object can be imbued with an idea or an attitude, which it can then carry, through decades underground, to another time and another group of people.
In 1969, in the Bern Kunsthalle, Switzerland, curatorial super-hero Harald Szeemann gave form to a growing attitude amongst artists of the day, which stated that art needn’t be an object – it could be an idea. This zeitgeist-capturing exhibition, Live Inside Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form drew together artist from the schools of conceptual art, land art, arte povera and post-minimalism. Many of the nearly 70 artists represented in the exhibition (Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris amongst them) were relatively unknown at the time and have since become major figures of post-war art history and discourse. Now in Venice 2013, at the Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, the exhibition has been painstakingly recreated (this time simply titled When Attitudes Become Form), offering a unique time capsule of the artistic climate at the end of the 1960s.
Central to both exhibitions is the idea of the ‘ready-made’ object. Classically, the function of a ready-made is to give new meaning to an existing object by taking it out of its original context and placing it in an artistic context. The object then, functions not as an object but as tool for pointing out the role that context and audience play in the creation of a work of art. Ready-mades are no so much objects, as ways of seeing – learn to see art in the everyday and suddenly all of life is a gallery.
This is what is slightly off about the exhibition’s title. It’s not so important that the attitudes have taken form – better is the title of the original Bern exhibition; Live in Your Head. There is a nice ambiguity to the use of the word ‘live’ here – is the title imploring us to reside amongst our own thoughts, or is it a reference to the location of the action? The idea that the attitudes have taken form is misleading because it implies that looking at the form is looking at the art. Instead, I would suggest that looking at the form is merely the provocation – the art is the act of communication. It happens somewhere inside your head.
Take, for example, Alain Jacquet‘s excellent Les fils electronique, which runs up one stairwell in the gallery. The piece takes the form of a pair of electrical wires running along a wall. The wires are partly covered by plaster, partly left exposed. The catalogue which accompanies the exhibition takes great care to let us know that every piece has been installed with the utmost cooperation with the artists involved (or with their estates), but is it important that we are seeing Alain Jacquet’s wires rather than someone else’s? Not really. In the right frame of mind, certainly, Jacquet’s wires are beautiful – but no more than any others. Rather, the piece’s great achievement is one of directing the viewer’s focus, in placing parenthesis around an everyday banality and in doing so making it beautiful. Standing in front of the piece, I wasn’t even really looking at the wires – I was day dreaming, thinking of the endless nervous systems of wires that exists just beneath the skin of any city.
In Venice, the entire When Attitudes Become Form exhibition can itself be thought of as a kind of ready-made object. It has been found amongst the annals of art history and transposed (as delicately as is possible) from Bern, 1969, to Venice, 2013, where the intentions and ‘meanings’ of the original exhibition are allowed to echo through Fondazione Prada’s frescoed interiors, finding new resonances in a modern setting. Its a demonstration that conceptual art is not necessarily tied to the white cube, that the kinds of ideas that Harald Szeeman was highlighting back in 1969 can travel through space and time and not get pulled out of shape too much.
There is a strange poetry too, in seeing room after room in which young, impeccably dressed (this is a Prada funded gallery after all) gallery attendants stand and guard… what exactly? Ideas? Attitudes? History? The odd thing about the situation (and the reason for the guards) is that many pieces in the gallery – which take various forms from a pile of sand to a slab of margarine – are in major art collections and no-doubt insured for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Its understandable, but still somehow bizarre, that a collector would want to own a pile of sand, as if this gives him or her a greater sense of ownership of the idea and historical significance of the sand than someone who merely saw it.
This is the same compulsion that leads people to spend hundreds on a piece of gum once chewed by Britney Spears, or pay double for a coffee in a café that was a one time haunt of Jean Paul Sartre. It’s the same irrational belief in the symbolic power of objects that makes time capsules so fascinating. Particularly in the art world, fetishizing history is big business. But even if you don’t have the money to buy one of the pieces here (you probably don’t) there’s no need to walk away empty handed. Leaving the gallery and stepping back into the tangled alley-ways of Venice, everyday sights – the left over tape and paper of an improperly removed poster, a wooden palette left leaning against a brick wall, a teenage declaration of undying love carved into old fountain – suddenly take on a new significance and this alone is worth the price of admission. Leave the forms in the gallery. Take the attitudes.
FONDAZIONE PRADA CA’CORNER DELLA REGINA
“When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” – GROUP SHOW
Exhibition: 1 June – 3 November, 2013
Calle de Ca’ Corner, Santa Croce 2215, 30135 Venice.