Without the copy, the “original” could scarcely be conceived. After all, it was the centuries-long education from copies that impelled Pliny to sigh over the Greek-made/Roman-commissioned Laocoön as “a work to be preferred to all others.” And the West’s “Renaissance” was itself a considered reinvention of the pagan past haunting Florence and littering Rome. In the 20th and 21st centuries, our global culture reveals its parasitism on the photograph, the indispensible forensic link enabling Marina Abramović to re-enact VALIE EXPORT’s “Action Pants: Genital Panic”(1969/2005), Helen Molesworth to reinvent Allan Kaprow’s “Yard” (1961/2009), and Germano Celant to—what is the right verb?—exhume Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form (1969/2013).
The last is particularly quixotic. Searching for the right verb, in the brochure, Celant uses “re-create,” “reconstructing and restaging,” “revive,” and “reworking” to describe what he is trying to do with his reinstallation of Attitudes. The project’s press release claims that this Fondazione Prada-sponsored show in Venice presents the “physical reality” of events, anti-form artworks, and provocative juxtapositions of Szeemann’s 1969 Bern exhibition—“just as it was.”
Is it decadence or postmodern glory that will accumulate from this highly capitalized undertaking—not to mention the broader “Renaissance” of reinstallation and reperformance, the nostalgic recycling that is part of the present moment? Our successors will decide the question, but perhaps a microhistory of my own investment in reinstallation will reveal the desires and complexities fueling the surge.
In 2008, Jane Farver, director of M.I.T.’s List Visual Arts Center, encountered Hans Haacke after seeing his installation “Wide White Flow” at Paula Cooper Gallery. She told him how much she liked it and he told her that it had first been shown at M.I.T. in 1967. She had no idea. Nor did I, an art historian teaching and occasionally curating at M.I.T. Jane and I decided to mount what, following Molesworth, we called a “reinvention” of the one-person exhibition that had constituted the first significant show for the young German artist. Our title was Hans Haacke 1967, emphasizing the historical distance from 2011.
The artist’s participation was crucial. Little trace of the show remained at M.I.T. beyond the accounts of fascinated student reporters writing for The Tech. There were no significant files or checklists, and even the original gallery was gone. A slim folder of installation photographs in Haacke’s file cabinet provided key data. Poring over Haacke’s images, we saw that “Grass Grows,” long dated to its inclusion in the famous Earth Art show at Cornell in 1969, had actually premiered in 1967 as a pile of dirt and germinating seeds at M.I.T. (where it was known simply as “Grass”). A large example from the well-known “Condensation Cube” series was also to be seen—but its title turned out to be “Weather” (as we learned from the student newspaper). Haacke seemed bemused by both recoveries.
Notions of “recovery” lead us to the core fantasy of our current reanimations: we are not “reinventing” or “representing” the past. We imagine that we are recovering it, saving it in order to inhabit its (lost) plenitude. This betrays our always phantasmic relation to a Real that can never be accessed, the Real as “that which resists symbolization absolutely” (Lacan). In this sense all reinstallations are attempts to construct a sublime in which self-consciousness is suspended: we can simply be. (This must be the pre-Oedipal sense of Celant’s fulsome claim in the brochure that his project produces “a visual womb.)”
But if reinstallation aims at a blissful forgetting, history is forensic, and rife with “symbolization.” Installation photographs are, in this sense, the true medium driving reinstallation. In Haacke’s photographs, it was never daylight. Haacke showed few visitors, although student photographers had documented people holding the manipulable works and setting their fluids in motion. Haacke’s photographs, examined together with the spate of statements the artist wrote while preparing the show (one was printed on the poster), document a precise and passing moment in his early career, when he was concerned exclusively with the non-human, and when systems theory was the way he chose to prosecute an anti-humanist agenda.
Present interests are always at the root of “recovery” efforts, and my own desires as a historian were no different. I wanted to work against the established uptake of Haacke as the ready purveyor of institutional critique in favor of something much less familiar. To want the very strangeness of the past for its resistance to the capitalization of older art objects in the present may be instrumentalist. In any case, I wanted this rare early Haacke, poised as I saw him at a brief apogee of techno-utopianism before his fully social turn. I wanted the silence and autopoesis of these works, the cool aesthetic of his anti-humanism, the early, rather than the later, Systems art.
Haacke gently argued with me about this. He enjoys his enduring reputation as an unimpeachable scourge of civic and corporate corruption. This was where he wanted the emphasis placed, not on some youthful infatuation with a systems theory he later decided had been tarnished by its links to military cybernetics.
Such discussions were mostly relegated to the footnotes in our small catalogue, but at the gallery entrance our wall text alerted visitors that there was no hope of fully capturing the 1967 context for the viewing of the works, whether that context be the breathless newness of systems theory or the hip technological promise of thermoplastic acrylic. Our social relations to art had also changed: viewers were not allowed to manipulate the boxes or push the water level. The interactivity of the pieces became moot, and mute.
As a university gallery, the List is typically regarded as independent of the market. But everything we do as historians and curators creates cultural value—that’s one reason we do it. As I worked to establish what we would be showing in 2011—would it be a refabrication or a refurbishment of something existing?—it became clear that some of Haacke’s early works existed as unnumbered multiples. When I asked how to clarify whether these amounted to editions and, if so, how large, Haacke replied simply, “I like to keep my options open.” Marked by the conceptualism of his generation, Haacke believes that the artist designates the idea and can approve the flexible parameters of its realization at any time. The idea can always be “materialized,” regardless of the market’s anxiety about “the original.”
Whether that conceptualism can rescue the concatenation of works listed as “re-enacted,” “replacement,” and “exhibition copy” in Celant’s brochure, I can’t yet say. Ideally, between the always-vanishing original and our reinventions will be an open discussion, not a salvage paradigm.