The Future Meets Its Past
BERN, 1969 The artist Alighiero Boetti with installations, pictured at top, in the original show.
By HOLLAND COTTER
VENICE — What’s new in contemporary art? Old. We’re in an age of remake culture, an epidemic of re-enactment fever. Young painters are working in styles that were hot half a century ago. Yesteryear’s performance art is being re-performed. Exhibitions that have been done and done — on Matisse, Picasso, European abstraction — are being done again.
Has the art industry, noted for its nanosecond memory, suddenly become history-conscious? Is the art market, like Hollywood, nervous about anything but proven brands? Is art just plain out of ideas? Whatever the answer, the replicants keep arriving, a recent and particularly ambitious one being an ultrafastidious reconstruction of the 1969 show “When Attitudes Become Form,” at the Prada Foundation in Venice.
The original version, which took place in Bern, Switzerland, has a near-mythical reputation as a late-20th-century landmark. It brought together some of the most adventurous young European and American avant-gardists of the day, exponents of post-Pop, post-Minimalist, supposedly anti-market trends like Conceptual and Process art. It presented them at a high moment of political and cultural turmoil internationally, and in what has been perceived as a radically loosened-up exhibition format, with art created communally, spontaneously, on the spot.
The actual event was fairly low-key. Bern was no one’s idea of an art capital. The exhibition site, a kunsthalle built in 1918, was drably undistinguished. The show opened in the gray month of March, ran for barely a month and drew only a small, bemused crowd.
Puzzlement was understandable. The work, by almost 70 artists, jammed into two floors and a nearby annex, wasn’t quite sculpture and certainly wasn’t painting. Its mediums included ice, fire, broken glass, lead, leather, felt, fluorescent tubing, peas, charcoal and margarine. Ropes snaked through rooms; electric wires wound down a staircase. Nothing was framed or on pedestals or behind stanchions, and visitors trampled on work, though it was hard to tell where the art ended and the damage began.
Some damage was art. A piece by the American “earth artist” Michael Heizer consisted of craters punched with a wrecking ball into the pavement outside the museum. While popular reaction over all ranged from grumpiness to hilarity, officialdom took a more serious view. Certain kunsthalle staff members were so outraged that they effectively forced the resignation of the institution’s director, Harald Szeemann, who was also the exhibition’s curator.