4.3 / Review

When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes

By Mark Van Proyen October 23, 2012

This one takes the cake for being 2012’s most provocatively titled art exhibition, partly because its appellation tempts us to inaugurate an art-historical drinking game based on adding clauses like “that become grant applications,” or “that require therapy.” But let’s get to the point: the curator Jens Hoffman has assembled a sprawling amalgamation of the work of eighty-four contemporary artists into a tightly packed installation staged as a curatorial homage to Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition from the spring of 1969 titled When Attitudes Become Form, held at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland.

For many reasons, the earlier exhibition ranks as the single most influential presentation of contemporary art during the Cold War period. Hindsight now suggests that it was the conceptual and organizational template that hatched most of the subsequent iterations of Documenta, and by extension, many of the Documenta-wanna-be biennials that now proliferate like kudzu across the globe. It was also the first major gathering of the work of artists associated with Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Earthworks, Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, and Fluxus and was the first significant exhibition to chart the close affinities between the most recognized artists operating in New York and those based in Europe. Since that time, the majority of artists who participated in Szeemann’s original Attitudes have had at least one solo museum exhibition, and no serious art historical examination of the past fifty years can omit the central importance of Szeemann’s landmark show. But that was forty-three years ago, which leads us to ask: Why do a sequel?

One answer to that question lies in the fact that there are still a great many artists who treat the deployment of material, form, and idea in much the same ways as did the earlier group—which seems to be the most salient point made by Hoffman’s exhibition. My choice of the word deployment is pointed, because many of the artists in question put minimal effort into organizing material, form, and idea, due to a philosophical emphasis on how these ingredients are inherently self-organized without the embossment of artistic temperament. What suffices in both shows for the conveyance of meaning was and is the simple choice and combination of seemingly diverse materials set up to both reflect and contest conventional contexts and definitions. One of the shortcomings of the current show, however, is that the passing of time has rendered the majority of its now de rigueur suggestions of contest as exercises in a callow and morbid mannerism. The subtitle for the original Szeemann exhibition was the injunctive phrase, live in your head, and Hoffman’s sequel updates it with the relatively passive life in your head, styled on signage to precisely echo the typography of the original exhibition catalog. But either way, the Samuel Beckett-ization of contemporary art is an old and well-worn story.

Simon Dybbroe Møller. Norman Mailer Paradox VI, 2012; rope, plastic, and cement; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Réna Montero and Stephanie Tabb. Model overview, 2012, of Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form, Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, 1969. Courtesy of the Artists and the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art.

Clearly, the materialist and conceptual emphases found in both exhibitions was influenced by the earlier generation’s interest in the work and ideas of Marcel Duchamp, an influence that runs thematically through the current show. Duchamp’s 1926 film Anemic Cinema is evoked by four works that use the retro clatter of 16mm film projectors to throw flickering images onto gallery walls. One such example, 1700 (2009) by Matthew Buckingham, projects the white-on-black characters 1700 onto a wall while its soundtrack plays fragments of a Bach sonata that was composed during that year. Tim Lee’s Untitled (2010), which is perched in a stairwell, shows a loop of vintage footage that captures Buster Keaton tumbling down a flight of stairs. Coming closest to the Duchampian wellspring is Wheel (2011) by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Palva, which projects tightly framed concentric images of spinning wheels, including a rather iconic bicycle wheel.

Alexander Gutke’s 16mm film installation, Singularity (2010), also features a loop of celluloid, but it is set up on a complex system of sprockets that pull it, Rube-Goldberg-fashion, through both floors of the exhibition space, finally returning to a projector set close to a wall, upon which viewers can see the flickering image of a measuring tape. Duchamp’s 1914 Network of Stoppages is also given a tidy update in Nicolas Bacal’s Lightyears (2008), consisting of twelve measuring tapes of differing lengths affixed in an elliptical configuration on the wall.

Visible from the outside of the Wattis Institute are two of the more compelling works in the exhibition, one of which is titled Norman Mailer Paradox (2012), by Simon Dybbroe Møller, an oblique study of relative buoyancy. Here, viewers see a long piece of thick hawser rope connecting a plaster copy of a Greek figure with an empty plastic tank—think Italian Arte Povera. But my favorite piece inside or out is Taysir Batniji’s selection of fourteen Lamda prints from the series GH0809 (2009–10) which are placed in the gallery window and look like mock real-estate flyers. With biting irony, these announce that bombed-out buildings in Gaza have come onto an imaginary market as “fixer-upper” opportunities for savvy investors. It was the only work in the entire exhibition that reached into contemporary consciousness in a way that was unburdened by a nostalgic fetishism for the bygone Szeemann moment.

The somewhat disturbing fact is that the single most interesting component of Hoffman’s Attitudes redux is the small model of the Kunsthalle Bern containing dollhouse-size replicas of many of the works that were included in Szeemann’s original exhibition. The model, created by Réna Montero and Stephanie Tabb, is an eerie repository for miniaturized avatars (fabricated by Andy Vogt, Sarah Smith, and Terrance Graven) of works that are now undeniable standards in any survey of the history of contemporary art. As such, they give viewers a worthwhile tour down memory lane, helping us to understand the role that each work played in Szeemann’s installation.


When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes is on view at CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts, in San Francisco, through December 1, 2012.

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