MIRIAM LA ROSA: Re-enacting Exhibitions/The Exhibition as a Medium

"When Attitudes become Form" Kunsthalle Bern 1969

“When Attitudes Become Form” at Kunsthalle Bern, 1969

Exhibiting exhibitions is becoming a rather common practice. Many curators engage with homages to historical shows, often within larger displays, either accurately re-proposing – sometimes even re-constructing – what it previously was, or re-evoking the historical reference in an unfaithful, but still reverential, way. Think of, for instance, the last notorious remake of When Attitudes Become Forms at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The 1969 show, originally curated by Harald Szeeman, was faithfully reconstructed in its entirety of walls, floors and works, and the Kunsthalle twentieth-century rooms appropriated the frescoed spaces of the building Ca’Corner della Regina [1].

Sometime ago, moved by a certain curiosity towards the subject, I wrote two essays on ‘Re-enacting Exhibitions’ [2]. My aim was to explore this tendency through an approach based on performance rather than on historical reconstruction. Despite the lack of extensive literature on the topic, I found a useful reference in ‘Remembering Exhibitions’: From Point To Line To Web by Reesa Greenberg. The article tackles the contemporary practices of ‘exhibitions of/within exhibitions’ by locating them within the act of remembering. Through Greenberg’s words ‘Remembering exhibitions’ comes to be a proper exhibition genre comprising of three different typologies: replica, riff, and reprise (Greenberg, 2009). However, despite the numerous examples offered, Greenberg’s analysis mainly reminds of some sort of lieux de memoire adopted with the sole scope of documentation. Replicas, riffs and reprises do clearly appear like alternatives and/or extended modalities to document the past and reflect upon exhibition history. But what is the relevance of this phenomenon for a contemporary curatorial practice?

By borrowing the notion of simulacrum as theorised by Baudriallard and Deleuze I attempted to give an answer to this question. We know that for Baudrillard, a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but a copy without original, a “hyperreal”: fruit of a process of simulation of reality (Baudrillard, 1981). For Deleuze, instead, a simulacrum is that opportunity by which accepted ideals or privileged positions can be challenged and overturned (Deleuze, 1983): it is a situation; an occasion for new debate. Thus, when approached as Deleuzian simulacra, ‘Re-enacting Exhibitions’ gain a both provoking and performative role: they become pretexts to leave a legacy and generate a discourse.

Someone may argue that a potential danger with exhibitions’ re-enactment is the creation of a trend: a fashionable format to which institutions might recur to revisit their iconic displays. But as curator Jens Hoffmann cleverly stated in a 2012 interview for CANADIANART [3]: how many exhibitions can we mention, with sufficient mass appeal and consistency, to become iconic? The act of re-enacting then puts under discussion an additional notion: that of authorship. In fact, each re-enactment generally involves the presence of new actors, new directors or, in our contexts, new curators.

In 2014, Tate Modern and ICA, London, opened two exhibitions on Richard Hamilton. Among the numerous works by the artist, Tate Modern showcased a reconstruction of the show This is Tomorrow, originally displayed at Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, while ICA re-proposed two installations created by Hamilton for its previous location at 17-18 Dover Street, nearly sixty years before; Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and an Exhibit (1957). The exhibitions were faithful correspondents of their originals, however, they at the same time embodied two different types of re-enactment: in the case of the ICA, the location of the re-enactment was coincident with that of the original and the new curator became a sort of new author – to a certain extent, the institution itself stepped into the realm of authorship. On the contrary, in Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern the original show was re-contextualised in a new place other than time; the notion of authorship was yet clearly linked to the artist, i.e. Richard Hamilton, whilst the institution took the role of an official voice in his regard.

In the same year, two shows on Stephen Willats opened at Raven Row and Whitechapel Gallery, London, under the titles: Control Stephen Willats Work 1962 – 69, and Concerning Our Present Way of Living. The first one, a survey of works by Stephen Willats from the sixties, displayed, alongside other exhibits, a reconstruction of the exhibition Stephen Willats. Visual Automatics and Visual Transmitters – originally showed at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1968. The second one was, instead, an archive exhibition, taking place 35 years after Willats’ solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery with the same title. In these two cases, the way of re-enacting had dissimilar scopes and functions. Whilst Raven Row engaged with re-enactment on the basis of an art historical re-discussion and according to its mission of superseding clichés around art history’s criticism, Whitechapel Gallery chose an institution-centred approach; archive-driven and discursive towards the present.

Thinking about authorship in exhibitions’ re-enactments is crucial; especially, when the role of the artist and the curator is coincident. To a certain extent, in fact, in ‘Re-enacting Exhibitions’ each new curator is a sort of new author, meaning that their voice takes a step forward in the interpretation of the original connotation of a show (and a work). Nonetheless, when the curator of the original exhibition is also the artist – i.e. Richard Hamilton – defining authorship becomes problematic.

Exhibitions’ reenactments, with their performative character and re-discussion of authorship, are examples of how exhibitions can turn into artworks. Or, in other words, the exhibition becoming a medium. But what are the implications of this notion, in the discourse around contemporary art and, in particular, regarding issues such as medium specificity and post medium-condition?


Miriam La Rosa

[1] Between 1 June and 3 November 2013, The Fondazione Prada in Venice presented When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 on the occasion of the 2013 Venice Biennale Il Palazzo Enciclopedico/The Encyclopaedic Palace curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Germano Celant curated the exhibition at Ca’Corner della Regina in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Khoolas, initiating an insightful discussion from three different perspectives: the curatorial, the artistic and the architectural

[2] You can read more here: https://www.academia.edu/7382188/_Re-enacting_Exhibitions_A_Case_Study._Stephen_Willats_between_Raven_Row_and_the_Whitechapel_Gallery; and here: https://www.academia.edu/7060695/Re-enacting_Exhibitions_an_attempt_to_go_beyond_memory

[3] Hoffmann, 2013, in: www.canadianart.ca, Accessed: February 19, 2014

Baudrillard, J., (1994), Simulacra and Simulations, University of Michigan Press. (French version originally published in 1981 by Editions Galilée)

Deleuze, G., (1983), ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’ translated by Krauss, R., in October, n.27, (winter 1983) pp.45-56

Greenberg, R., (2009) ‘”Remembering Exhibitions’: From Point to Line to Web”, in
Tate Papers, Issue 12

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