The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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JUL-AUG 2013 Issue
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Bern 1969 /Venice 2013

The experience of working in Venice last May for the recreation of When Attitudes Become Form was not quite as uncertain as during the run-up to the original exhibition in Bern. The difference, perhaps, is that now I have a history of installing work that is site-specific and ephemeral in nature. I know the techniques involved. I know what needs to be done to make the work permanent enough to hold up well for the duration of the exhibition as well as to travel if need be. In Bern I installed two ephemeral latex and flock pieces—“Mustee” and “Flocked Wall”—and two neon sculptures: “Untitled (Neon and Cloth),” which was, incidentally, the first neon sculpture I ever made, and “Neon with Bulbs.” In Venice I re-created the ephemeral works as well as the original “Untitled (Neon and Cloth),” but replaced “Neon with Bulbs” with a sculpture from the same series, “Neon Wrapping Neon and Incandescent Bulbs.”

Installation view of When Attitudes Become Form. Keith Sonnier installing “Flocked Wall,” 1969. From left to right, works by Alan Sarret and Gary B. Kuehn. Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, 1969. Courtesy the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard. © J. Paul Getty Trust

In Bern, the exhibition had no defined or fixed parameters. I was simply making work in a truly open and free environment. I didn’t think about context or appearance or theory. I wasn’t even thinking about producing objects for sale. It was more about art and its place in society, about getting work to exist in a site-specific environment, and allowing the process to unfold naturally. It was the perimeter of the architecture that defined presentation and placement.

The process of remaking, and installing, early works is also something I have learned to do very well over the years. Like a musician reading a familiar score, I can refer to my repertoire and form language to build ephemeral, site-specific work in much the same way that I approach the design of large, permanent architectural installations.

In order to re-create some of the same works from the Bern exhibition for Venice, I had to follow a format and replicate, as precisely as possible, works whose original concept was inherently free of any intellectual or formal boundaries, and therefore inherently opposed to this kind of construct.

So I think in a way, the current restaging of Attitudes in Venice could be seen as a rather strange appropriation, maybe even a perversion, of the original premise. But maybe it’s just a reflection of the change in how the art world has come to view illusion as reality.

Grâce à Dieu, I can still muster the energy and the will to create, and to continue to work as an artist in the tout est à vendre culture we have now, where we can always be replaced by another person, another artist, another culture.


Keith Sonnier

KEITH SONNIER lives and works in New York City. Although he is best known for his sculpture, and neon work in particular, his extensive body of work includes film, video, performance, drawing, and printmaking. His most recent exhibitions in New York were with Mary Boone Gallery and in Europe with JGM in Paris, and Haeusler Contemporary in Zurich. He will exhibit with Pace Gallery this winter.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

All Issues