This summer, one of the must-see shows of the Venice Biennale wasn’t to be found among the national pavilions: instead, it was at Ca’ Corner della Regina, where the Fondazione Prada boldly decided to restage Harald Szeemann‘s seminal exhibition, “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form.” The latter sent shockwaves through the art world – and elicited a lot of ill will from the greater public – when it opened at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. The show included work from emerging talents like Joseph Beuys, Joseph Kosuth, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, whose 36 inch square in the wall was one of favorites (Hands-down, our absolute favorite was the contribution by the recently-deceased Walter De Maria: a telephone, which the artist purportedly would call from time to time, speaking to whomever answered.)
Szeemann’s legacy – as curator of the 1972 Documenta 5 and the author of the game-changing 1980 Aperto section of the Venice Biennale, among others – has been somewhat recouped in the Age of Obrist and well-meaning curatorial studies programs. In 2012, one of Jens Hoffmann‘s last acts at the Wattis Institute was an examination of the history, mythology and influence of the exhibition, via an 80-artist group show, titled “When Attitudes Became Form Becomes Attitude.”
Fondazione Prada took on the legacy more directly, restaging the show to the best of its abilities. (Works unable to be procured or remade were marked out with white chalk outlines, which made the experience feel like less of “Who did this?” and more “Whodunnit?”) As this was the era that introduced the need for the term “site-specific” into everyday artspeak, curator Germano Celant called in Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand (whose talent for imitation apparently has him relegated to the role of set designer) to recreate the Kunsthalle Bern within Prada’s palazzo, Ca’ Corner della Regina. The exhibition text refers to this move as a “double occupancy”: first, the artists take over the museum, and then the museum takes over the palazzo. The bland, Swiss walls with their standard-issue crown-molding and regulation radiators are imperfectly grafted onto the palazzo, so that the new faux interiors are cut through with marbled walls and columns. In addition to an epic 732 page catalogue, the Fondazion Prada exhibition website offers plenty of information and some great pictures of the exhibition, including a video walkthrough (get past the opening photo-call footage. It’s worth it.)
While the effort brought a lot of attention to the exhibition and the included artists, the one question no one seemed to be able to answer was “Why?” Without contest, this is an important exhibition with plenty of material to revisit, though, precisely because the exhibition was so radical in 1969, it now hardly seems ground-breaking to any Art Basel vet. But more importantly, if site were so key, why go to the trouble of the Koolhaas branding, the fake walls, etc? Why not just stage it in Kunsthalle Bern?
This questions gains a bittersweet poignancy this week, after Kunsthalle Bern’s current director Fabrice Stroun, circulated an open letter, garnering support for an institution now poised on the brink of collapse, for want of public support. Like Szeemann, Stroun – who took over for acting director Philippe Pirotte in 2012 – has a tendency towards fearlessness, which means a program that isn’t always in line with the mainstream audience. In such a short tenure, Stroun hasn’t had much time to show just what he can do, but he has put together great shows like the one by Isabelle Cornaro in March 2013 and the recently-opened exhibition of Virginia Overton. It seems now his energies will be focused on garnering support for his institution, including an online petition.
The team at Kunsthalle Bern is working on the official English translation of their statement, so we will hold off from translating our own for now. We can say, however, that these are strange times indeed when one of the world’s glitziest fashion labels is collaborating with one of the foremost international architects and an artist to recreate an institution that may be closing for lack of interest or support.