Like a dowager ushered into an assisted living facility, the Barnes Foundation collection is transferred to a state-of-the-art museum in Philadelphia where the rooms of its long-time Merion home have been meticulously reproduced. In a gesture of temporary cultural restitution, Peter Greenaway projects a dazzling digital clone of Veronese’s 1563 “Wedding at Cana”—seized by Napoleon and still in the Louvre—at its original site in the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. The reconstruction at Gagosian Gallery of six environments by Lucio Fontana (the earliest, from 1949, involving little more than papier-mâché, fluorescent paint, and black light, the staples of middle school theatricals) conveys the artist’s conceptual audacity to an audience grown nonchalant through overexposure to his slashed canvases.
Our understanding of the art of the near and distant past is now bound up with the ways we deploy and respond to an array of replicas and re-enactments, among them re-fabricated objects that were regarded as ephemeral at the time of their exhibition, site-specific installations re-created in new contexts, and re-performances offered as a routine practice. The phenomenon has been accompanied by a conversation that probes and weighs the precision of the reproduction, the fastidiousness of labeling and the protocols of disclaimers, the extent of participation by the artist (or his foundation or estate), and what might be signified—beyond market appetite and museum programming pressures—by the urge to fabricate an extended present and an (inevitably altered) presence for the objects and actions we once surrendered to the passage of time.
Today’s reiterative turn in art includes the re-staging of entire exhibitions. This is, I suspect, an indicator of the degree to which art history’s discredited canon of masterpieces and masters has been supplanted by a new hierarchy comprising the “exhibitions that made art history” (to borrow the subtitle of Bruce Altshuler’s latest book) and the curators who organized them. It is also an unsurprising product of the sharp tilt in higher education toward the study of the art of the 20th and 21st centuries and of the swelling number of graduate programs in museum and curatorial studies, which offer more vocational promise than does the Talmudic discipline of “straight” art history.
In what may rank as the premier instance of x-treme exhibition re-staging, the Fondazione Prada is re-presenting (through November 24) Harald Szeemann’s 1969 When Attitudes Become Form. Contemporary curatorial studies accord Attitudes a position somewhere between the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation: it is both foundation and game-changer, celebrated for Szeemann’s international (at least American and European) roster, his big-tent embrace of unorthodox practices, his invitation to artists to produce work on site in the Kunsthalle Bern (in effect, to make a studio of the temple), and, not least, his establishment of a new professional identity for the curator as a creative colleague, a midwife of new art, an auteur, an artist in his own right.
Besides assembling as many of the original works as possible, the organizing team of Germano Celant (artistic director of the Fondazione Prada), Thomas Demand, and Rem Koolhaas (the two have worked with Celant on earlier Prada projects) set out to re-create the rooms of the Kunsthalle Bern at their original scale within the foundation’s Venice home, the 18th-century Ca’ Corner della Regina. They have erected white walls, laid parquet and tile over the palazzo’s terrazzo floors, positioned non-functioning radiators and free-standing window frames where real ones had existed in the Bern rooms, and installed the works as they had been before—in uncommon proximity to one another and often sprawling perilously close to the visitor’s shoes.
Along with the formidable resources of the Fondazione Prada, the essential enabling factor was the availability of the Harald Szeemann Archive and Library, which arrived at the Getty Research Institute in 2011 and is, according to the institute, “the largest single archival collection ever acquired by the Getty Research Institute.” If the curator enjoys the status of a creative agent, the re-staging of Attitudes should be appended to the list of document-based artworks born of “archive fever.”
It’s impossible to feel ungrateful amid the reunited art of Attitudes. Nor would I wish for a clinical presentation (as in MoMA’s current show of the early Claes Oldenburg), but the Bern galleries re-created in Venice are like a museum’s prim period rooms—how we marvel at the narrow chairs and fragile utensils of our ancestors! By hijacking the viewer’s imagination, the re-staging renders the exhibition inert: all the works seem to be replicas, even though most are not.
Indeed, what impresses in Venice is not the transporting verisimilitude of the re-staged show but its extreme self-regard, its insistence on drawing attention to its own feats of re-creation, its exhibitionism. In his catalogue introduction, Celant—who participated in Bern with the Arte Povera cohort he championed—both honors and subtly dismisses the 1969 original as an “idol.” He calls the re-staging a “readymade,” likening the re-created Kunsthalle environment and the persistently intrusive features of the Ca’ Corner (moldings, pilasters, sculptures, frescoes) to the wheel and stool of Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.” Pointedly, Celant reproduces the 1964 remake of the lost “original” of 1913. The wheel/stool analogy, he explains, is embodied in the exhibition’s title, When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013.
In the end, the exhibition is a research report materialized, not quite a re-staging of a show but a meta-show about the process of re-staging a show. The organizers have not constructed a 1:1 replica of the Kunsthalle Bern so much as a full-scale enlargement of the 1:100 table-top model, illustrated in the catalogue, with which they planned their exhibition. That Attitudes as remade in Venice is more model than reality may be sensed in the only new art to emerge from the undertaking: photographs shot in the Ca’ Corner by Demand and reproduced in the catalogue and on its dust jacket.
Tightly cropped and sharply illuminated, Demand’s pictures show details of the Ca’ Corner interior with none of the works in the exhibition. He zeroes in on the conspicuous gap where the coarse edge of white drywall approximately follows the profile of 18th-century molding, where black and white floor tiles abut local terrazzo. Abstract and fragmentary, these pictures have less to do with Demand’s best known works (photographs of life-size, three-dimensional mock-ups of interiors) than with his “Model Studies” of 2011, photographs of cardboard and mixed media table-top models, roughly fashioned and suggestive, from the studio of California architect John Lautner. Demand encountered the models, and 70 boxes of Lautner’s papers, at the Getty Research Institute, where he was a visiting scholar in 2010–11, the eve of the arrival there of Szeemann’s archive.
In his brief introduction to the book Model Studies, Demand cites what he calls a “nebulous equation” written by Lautner: “the image is the reality, therefore there is no reality.” We can puzzle around with that one ’til the cows come home and get nowhere. But pondering Lautner’s assertion did induce me to set aside the burden of so much archival heavy lifting and to think of the re-staging of Attitudes in Venice as simply an afterimage: the short-lived residue of a reality that shone brightly and now is gone.