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Tim Lee, Nina Beier & Jens Hoffmann on Remaking Szeemann’s Attitudes

CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco September 13 to December 1, 2012

Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information),” presented at the Kunsthalle Bern, is one of the legendary exhibitions of the recent past. Mostly known by its short title, “When Attitudes Become Form,” it brought together new tendencies in the art of its time, known today as Post-minimalism, Arte Povera, Land art and Conceptual art.

While Szeemann’s exhibition has since been discussed, researched and examined in a wide range of essays, books and conferences, an investigation into its history and impact in the format of an exhibition wasn’t presented until just a few weeks ago, when “When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes,” an exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann, opened at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco. Just prior to the show’s opening, Hoffmann entered into an email conversation with two of the artists in the Wattis show—Vancouver’s Tim Lee and Berlin’s Nina Beier—to discuss “Attitudes” old and new. Here is what they said.

Jens Hoffmann: What do you think about the idea of revisiting a historically important exhibition by creating a sequel of sorts as a form of creating a history of exhibitions? Where do you see your role as artists in this remake?

Tim Lee: I just watched The Bourne Legacy, a movie that is neither a remake nor a full sequel, nor can it be aptly qualified as a franchise reboot. The film is confounding in the way it can’t be neatly categorized—it both follows and diverts from its predecessors and merely makes conscious a knowledge of the former in order to tell a completely different story.

I can see “When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes” as falling in a somewhat similar and ambiguous category. Both the film and the exhibition inscribe their primary references in their titles as a way to both measure the historical impact of the original and as a starting point from which its standards and achievements can be potentially renewed.

In this respect, my work as an artist has always used variations of the remake/sequel/reboot as a central strategy. Although I think this is the first time I’ve actually been in an exhibition that follows a similar approach, which is amusing in thinking about how the potential for renewal can become even more delirious.

Nina Beier: I have always been fascinated with the documents of “When Attitudes Become Form”—it comes across to me like a case of pieces of a puzzle that have fallen perfectly into place. It was a great orchestration where the works came together as a graphic composition and they dialogued, argued and made sense of each other.

This has perhaps set the bar for any group show following it, and I believe you may be asking for trouble by openly making a follow-up to such a legendary show. It may be a Bourne scenario, but an important difference is that the first such movie was in no way a masterpiece, while our show will inevitably be held up against the initial one. It is a gutsy and ambitious endeavor, and as an artist in the show I am basically and blindly trusting you, Jens. I can’t wait to see how you are going to pull it off.

One of the things I am curious about is how you plan to integrate historical material from the previous show.

Jens Hoffmann: One of the key components for the creation of the exhibition was a conversation Szeemann and I had in 2002 when we spoke at length about his exhibition. A transcription of this conversation will also appear in the publication.

That direct relationship with Szeemann was something that gave me the confidence that I could do this. I knew Szeemann, we corresponded frequently, we hung out from time to time, and we planned to do a show together in London. He then died, and we never finished the project, but I do not think I would have done this without knowing him.

I should also say that while working on our present show, a lot of elements surfaced that made me realize what chaos the original show actually was.

There is a section at the outset of the Wattis exhibition that is fully dedicated to the original show. I had model-makers build a large-scale model of the Kunsthalle Bern with miniatures of all the works in the show; there is a documentary that was done by Swiss television with many interviews that allow us to hear the story also from the side of the artists; there are historical photographs taken during the installation period and a few other elements.

Once you pass that room, you are in the new show, and there is not much that references the original show anymore. So the first room is like a “what happened so far” situation that you often have at the start of a sequel. I am not sure what the exhibition is as far as category or type are concerned; I call it a remake, a rejuvenation, a revolution and a rebellion.

Nina Beier: As a simultaneous recap and decontamination room of preconceived notions? I like it!

Jens Hoffmann: The exhibition is part of an examination of historically important exhibitions that I have done over the last few years in various forms. There have been academic considerations of historical exhibitions, but these have mostly taken place in the context of art history, and they have focused on the evolution of art and have not been exhibitions. The newly emerging forms of examination are coming from a curatorial point of view; they are more focused on innovations and trends in the making of exhibitions.

Tim Lee: I’m actually very interested in hearing more about the chaos surrounding Szeeman’s show. When I think of “When Attitudes Become Form,” I inevitably think of 1969 and of conceptual art becoming capital-c Conceptual art proper; and when I think of Conceptual art, I think of how Szeeman’s show in Bern was just one of a crucial few at that pivotal moment.

Along with “When Attitudes Become Form,” Kynaston McShine organized “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while Konrad Fischer also organized “Konzeption-Conception” at the Stadtisches Museum in Leverkusen and Lucy Lippard organized “557,087” and “955,000” for the Seattle Art Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery, respectively—all these exhibitions took place in 1969 and 1970.

A quick scan of the artists in each of the five exhibitions reveal the by-now-familiar names of those who appeared in all of them (Hanne Darboven, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Jan Dibbets and Robert Barry among them) along with some perhaps surprising artists who appeared in the four latter shows and not in Szeeman’s (On Kawara, Ed Ruscha, Adrian Piper, Daniel Buren and Dan Graham).

Still, it’s the artists who appeared in Szeeman’s exhibition and not in the others that are revealing—precisely because we don’t think of them as artists who register as classically “Conceptual.” The presence of Yves Klein, Robert Ryman and Richard Tuttle in “When Attitudes Become Form” is telling simply because one has to negotiate their wayward contributions to the genre, which each encompass, in their own way, the more subjectively motivated and proto-modernist discourses in painting, drawing and sculpture. And it is here that the eccentricity of Szeeman’s show, and its relation to other shows of its time, could be historically measured.

With this, I’m curious, Jens, to see how you think about and might approach Szeeman’s show as both canon-forming and idiosyncratic at the same time.

Jens Hoffmann: What many people forget is that Szeemann’s show looked not only at Conceptual art, but just as much at what we today call Performance art, Post-minimalism, Land art and Arte Povera. It was a bit of a random group of artists; what united them was that they all radically questioned the (artistic) order of their day.

To give you an idea of the situation: Many artists who are represented in the publication never made it into the show, and many of the artists who participated are artists we do not really think about that much anymore. There were no non-Western artists, and only three female artists, something that is utterly impossible to imagine today and hardly progressive even at that time. Szeeman also included a lot of artists who were just around in Europe at the time so that he did not have to pay for travel expanses. All in all, it was a bit of a mess and a lot of it was simply very arbitrary.

In your list of exhibitions, Tim, you are missing a few that were extremely crucial for Szeemann. One was “9 at Leo Castelli” organized by Robert Morris, which took place in New York in 1968. Szeemann saw this show at Castelli’s warehouse and invited all of the participating artists to be in his exhibition. The other one was “Op Losse Schroeven” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1969. It included many of the same artists as Szeemann’s exhibition and opened only a few days before “When Attitudes Become Form,” allowing Szeemann to bring many of the artists from Amsterdam down to Bern without having to pay expensive airfare.

What you say about the original exhibition being highly eclectic is spot on, and I think it is something we tend to forget. This form of eccentricity was very much part of what I was intrigued by. I have looked at hundreds of artists’ works for the Wattis exhibition, and the ones that remain—about 80 in total—are artists who in someway carried on a spirit that grew out of that particular exhibition, i.e. artists who work with performance, who reconsider minimalism, who engage in a dialogue with classic Conceptualism or are interested in simple sculptural gestures and everyday materials.

One big difference with the current exhibition is that the show is global in scope, acknowledging that the globalization of the art world has probably been the biggest change since the time of the 1969 exhibition.

Tim Lee: Confronting a tradition is a way of relativizing it, and it’s a means of making the inherent problems of a past order or standard apparent in order to move past them. Conceptual art, of course, asserted itself through an ongoing conflict with Modernism and a mode of art becoming less visual and more anonymous—or, to put it another way, more generic and less socio-, gender- or ethno-specific. “When Attitudes Become Form” plays a big part in this story, particularly in how it featured practitioners who were almost unanimously Western European/American and male.

It’s interesting to think of how, over the past few decades, the globalization of Conceptualism as contemporary art’s lingua franca is also simultaneous with its auto-critique. But what, if any could be qualified, are these new norms, and are they now in the process of being relativized themselves?

Jens Hoffmann: Szeemann’s show has become so mythical, and I was interested in deconstructing this myth or at least offering the audience the chance to develop an informed opinion about the original show and to make up their own minds as to what they think this exhibition was all about and how and why it has become so legendary.

Apart from my interview with Szeemann in the catalogue, there are also texts by Julian Myers, who is focusing on what I would call curatorial innovations introduced by Szeemann, a text by Christian Rattemeyer regarding the artistic innovations, and a text by Connie Lewallen about the North American participants in the exhibition.

I think the book, the archival material, and the model with the work of the artists involved in the exhibition will give the viewer a pretty good overview of what this show was all about.

Nina Beier: These catalogue texts, along with the first room of the Wattis exhibition, do sound like a thorough and straightforward uncovering of Szeemann’s exhibition. One could perhaps even say that the use of the model carries emblematic qualities of your project, as it is usually a tool to envision or plan exhibitions; when it plays the role of representation, it seems to manifestly want to baffle our perspective on the show.

I would like to hear more about the role of the contemporary constituent of the exhibition. I am interested in the challenges of making an examination of a historical group exhibition using the medium of the group exhibition. I wonder what happens to the exhibition experience when it plays a double role of being both an analysis or expansion on another show and an actual show at the same time.

And if the initial show was total chaos, is it then best revived by a similarly disorganized exhibition? Or will it need to be a carefully thought out arrangement bearing the same diligence as an academic paper on the subject would?

Jens Hoffmann: I think that the contemporary part is also an element that will allow us to confront the past directly and will help us move away from the ghosts that seem to still haunt us coming out of this particular exhibition.

I consciously decided not to present any original works from the Szeemann show, nor to have any of the artists of the Bern exhibition involved. For me, “When Attitudes Become Form” is history. I do not think there has been any other show that has been analyzed to such a extreme extent as “When Attitudes Become Form,” and since my medium as an exhibition-maker is the exhibition, I wanted to attack it from this angle.

The experience of the first part of the show will be that of an examination via documents (the film, the model, the photos, etc.). The second, and by far the much bigger part, about 85 per cent of the gallery space, will be for the display of the contemporary works. Hopefully the latter will be an experience that can relate to the past but move decidedly further into the contemporary.

I am not saying the original show was only chaos. It was just not the show that many people think it was. Exhibition-making was, at that time, for better or worse, just not what it is today, and the liberties that the artists and the curator took were far bigger than what we can do today.

The result of the new show will be a bit of both; I am interested in Szeemann’s improv style, but on the other hand, there are of course a lot of elements that I need to seriously consider in terms of how I relate the works to one another to not simply create a random sequel. I think it is not an academic paper in form of an exhibition, but as I’ve said, rather a restoration, a remake, a rejuvenation and also a rebellion.

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