Almost a month has passed since I visited the exhibition venue Years in the Nørrebro region of Copenhagen around lunch time– and also returned there that same evening. A repeat visit was necessary if I wanted to see the two solo shows by Bjarke Hvass Kure, which were on display at the venue every day, but at different times – all over the course of just four dates. Between the hours of 12 to 4 p.m. When Attitudes Become Form was on, and between 7 and 10 p.m. Outside Of Any Given Context was shown. If it hadn’t been because these two exhibitions addressed such fundamental issues about the inner essence of the curated exhibition I would have left it at that. But I find that I can’t.
And yes, When Attitudes Become Form is an exhibition that relates to what is undoubtedly the most fetishised exhibition in all of curatorial history: Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition bearing that same title, held at Kunsthalle Bern. Indeed, I freely admit that I was sceptical and fully prepared to hate this project when I first read the press release. We have seen it so many times: young cocks of the art walk (in this case even an academy student) cannibalising and cashing in on idioms and exhibition formats that have long since been firmly established by others. And the artists featured at the original Bern exhibition (André, Serra, Weiner, LeWitt, Haacke, etc.) are certainly amongst the most widely canonised figures in recent Western art history. However, the two graphically clean-cut exhibition posters placed at the entry of the old former shop – one for each exhibition – suggested that something else was at play here, too.
Inside the venue visitors found this: An entirely empty room except for a few nails in the wall and the one thing that tops all curatorial students’ wish list this holiday season: the large coffee table book When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 from the current exhibition staged by Fondazione Prada in Venice, which painstakingly reproduces Szeeman’s original exhibition. Not only does this restaging show the original artworks; it is an exact 1:1 replica of the original exhibition, a feat which includes building a modern exhibition architecture in the style of Kunsthalle Bern within the fresco-adorned Venetian palazzo. In every way imaginable the event serves to canonise, even beatify Szeemann’s exhibition, which lives on in this monstrously huge catalogue – where numerous contemporary star curators interpret the legendary exhibition – and also lives on here in Bjarke Hvass Kure’s exhibition staged at a rather more humble address in Copenhagen, far away from curator biz and Italian fashion industry.
With this large, empty, by turns megalomaniac and peculiar setting in mind visitors to Hvass Kure’s exhibition could then venture down into the basement in which a reproduction of an entire corner of the Fondazione Prada exhibition had been set up. A thin plaster wall featured a text piece: “RICHARD LONG MARCH 19–22 1969 A WALKING TOUR IN THE BERNER OBERLAND” – one of the rather more conceptual examples of Long’s Land Art, which represents an unspecified walking tour carried out by the artist prior to the exhibition; a work that only exists by virtue of verbal-linguistic representation. Most of the floor was covered in a board with dotted lines creating a rectangle indicating where a Beuys work was supposed to go: the work consisted of a stack of felt sheets that the Fondazione Prada had apparently been unable to source (whether the felt itself or the original artwork is not quite certain). The absence of the actual work prompted the Venice curators to represent it in this rather peculiar manner, and in Hvass Kure’s rendition in the narrow cellar the effect almost became reminiscent of a crime scene. Where is Beuys? Who is actually “executing” or “doing” Beuys?
Having leafed through the large catalogue – which, being the only object in the sun-filled room, commanded all attention – I was left with such a strong sense of the historical importance of the Szeemann exhibition that I almost felt like settling in the wide window sill to read for the rest of that afternoon. On the other hand the publication was – and is – quite absurd; not only does its extreme adoration for a single exhibition seem out of proportion, its tremendous thickness of 7-8 cm is also a very tangible sign that we have probably not seen the last of publications such as Cream (the Phaidon series in which hot artists are identified by even hotter curators, the whole thing presented with similar opulence) – all reflecting the darker aspects of the age of the curator.
One might well wonder why When Attitudes Become Form – a show that only quite few people actually saw – became the one exhibition that was raised to become canon. Perhaps the real stroke of genius of Szeemann’s exhibition resides in the title itself, which not only points with great poignancy to something inherent in the art scene of the era, but which also accentuates the significance of the curatorial approach. I think Bjarke Hvass Kure saw that. Just as he also saw that When Attitudes Become Form is an extremely good title – for a 2013 exhibition, too. It frames something that – yet again – feels right in our present post-conceptual era. With these thoughts in mind I left the Nørrebro version of When Attitudes Become Form.
When I returned later that night it was dark. The two posters still flanked the entrance – but inside the lights were out, forcing you to move in a dusky light that accentuated the eerie sense of being at a crime scene. And indeed someone had been there in the hours that had elapsed between my visits. For things were not as they had been. The nails in the walls turned out to not simply be signs of sloppy management at an artist-run venue. Now, they held up a small black-and-white photograph – a reproduction of Sherrie Levine’s reproduction of a Walker Evans’ photograph of an interior scene from Evans’ famous series depicting poverty in Depression-era USA. In one corner stood a brightly coloured wooden stick. This, too, was a reproduction, specifically of a work by André Cadere, whose cylindrical wooden poles – so-called Barres de bois rond – were part of a deplacement strategy that saw Cadere placing them in various galleries and institutions; places where he was not invited and where they might not be recognised as art.
With this move the evening exhibition, Outside Of Any Given Context, took an artist-oriented perspective rather than a curator-oriented. The press text, too, was not an appropriated curator’s text; rather, it was an appropriated artist’s text written by Daniel Buren, who wrote an oft-quoted critical text on the occasion of his own participation at Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in 1972. Entitled “Exhibition of exhibitions”, it addresses the relationship between artist and curator.
Buren has discussed the exhibition format most extensively. He has done so directly in his texts as well as in his general oeuvre; not as a direct institutional critique in the vein of e.g. Michael Asher, but rather as a constant revision and examination of what it means to create, take part in, and subsequently represent and document an exhibition. In the text Buren accuses Szeemann of taking on the role as the primary auteur, a role which Szeemann supposedly found inappropriate in 1972, but which he, as we know, fully embraced later on.
The sense of visiting a crime scene, already suggested by the daytime exhibition, did not grow any less forceful in the dusk, particularly in the dark basement. Voices could be heard from down there, and I ventured, channelling The Killing’s Sarah Lund, down the steep stairs. Down there, light shone from a room that had been sealed off during the day; that room was now revealed to be a messy storage space with an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder in the middle. The reels were turning, playing back words spoken in a German voice that varied the intonation and emphasis placed on each word: “Ja ja ja ja ja, Nee Nee Nee… “ If Beuys’ stack of felt had been “reported missing” from the space outlined on the floor in the next room, we got his voice here in the form of yet another Hvass Kure reproduction (complete with reels turning on an original Tandberg recorder) of Beuys’ audio work Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja, Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee from 1968.
I could keep delving into many more aspects of this exhibition, which unfolds like a Chinese puzzle box. For what’s the deal with the Hvass Kure copy of a Josef Strau photographic work? Originally created by Strau on the basis of the original negative for a large Thomas Ruff photograph, Hvass Kure’s copy is slung carelessly on a messy shelf in the back room like some kind of art-evidence (but of what? Hvass Kure’s fakes?) – even as it is also featured on the list of works featured in the exhibition; a list that can be found elsewhere in the same messy pile. You can also find a photograph from the Fondazione Prada exhibition, put down in a slapdash fashion on a shelf with a roll of string on top; the photograph depicts the Beuys and Long corner reproduced by Hvass Kure in the Copenhagen exhibition. This, too, is a piece of evidence of a kind – he did it! And what are the consequences of the fact that the Fondazione Prada, which aimed to stage an exact 1:1 replica of the original 1969 exhibition, made the very strange choice of reproducing the Richard Long work using a different font (as noted by Hvass Kure in his accurate reproduction of the Venice version, which is the version he relates to)? Who, then, is the perpetrator? Indeed, what sort of act has been committed?
Between the hours of day and evening – between the two exhibitions at Years – a major dual is played out. It has to do with an issue that has remained central ever since the concept of “commissioner” was abandoned and the art world began to speak about exhibitions being organised or curated. Who is The Real Slim Shady? Who is the true auteur; the artist or the curator?
Bjarke Hvass Kure discusses this issue by venturing into the field of representation while also creating an exhibition, i.e. by representing Buren, Long, Beuys, Levine, Cadere and so on. Or are we talking about documentation here? In any case this is a parasitical form of representation, for it is unlikely that Hvass Kure has entered into agreements with the artists (or estates) involved, which means that he is in effect transgressing against the artist’s rights, preventing them from accepting or protesting against their participation in the exhibition – not unlike Sturtevant’s reproductions of Duchamp, Warhol, etc., which also used fakes to reflect issues concerning authorship, originals, and authenticity. For in spite of the nerdy and somewhat overly respectful treatment of new classics, Hvass Kure’s reflections of artworks and exhibitions are also fakes, pure and simple. Hvass Kure provides no direct answers to the questions concerning the auteur and the authentic. Indeed, perhaps that would have bee too much to ask. Instead he discusses these matters via works created by other artists and by force of the – truly – original device of using two exhibitions. This is evident in e.g. the two walks directly and indirectly referred to in the two duelling exhibitions: Richard Long’s by day, and André Cadere’s at night.
When Harald Szeemannn invited Cadere to take part in Documenta 5 in 1972 the artist declared that he would travel there on foot. Instead he chose to go by train, thereby challenging his own legend as a pilgrim of art (walking around with a coloured staff) and supposedly also unleashing the wrath of the curator. The question is whether it matters that Cadere cheated Szeemann and did not travel by foot? And will we ever truly know whether Long actually made the walk referred to in the text-based work? Does it affect Szeemann’s role as “primary organiser” (to quote Buren’s term) that he might not actually fully know the works presented? Perhaps Bjarke Hvass Kure’s two exhibitions suggest to us that we can never know entirely which journeys or walkabouts an artist has made. Perhaps he has even made a shortcut.
Having written the piece above I contacted Bjarke Hvass Kure for pictures and asked for an installation shot without visitors, which prompted the following response: “as far the person in the picture is concerned, she is a performer playing a ‘visitor’. That’s why she’s in the picture. I hope I told you. She is part of the exhibition and was there the whole time during opening hours – yet another shift and displacement of reality and fiction. I’m sorry; I was sure you knew! :)”.