PRINT September 1988


I visited the Hamburger Bahnhof in West Berlin on a clear April morning, accompanied by Harald Szeemann and by Jan Vercruysse, who was there to take a look at the space he had been assigned in this ghost of a train station. The building was empty, except one area where some workers were preparing an installation for I don’t know what event. The evening before, Szeemann had gone over the plan of the building with me in great detail, walking me through his vision of the richly varied show; it was a sumptuous story, but at the same time crossed by veins of nostalgia. Nostalgia for what, I wasn’t sure; only I was sure we shared the feeling.

Then, on that softly lit morning, we went out and around to the back of the building, a kind of vague no-man’s-land (walls still bare from past destruction and long abandonment; a young, slender birch in the middle of a clearing just showing its first leaves of spring). At a distance, I had seen the canal that abutted a side of the station, and across the canal, the Wall. Along the opposite side of the station, stretching as far as the eye could see, were warehouses for shipping and transport firms (“which is very practical for us; we will need strong men and equipment,” Szeemann had told me).

I returned in June for the three consecutive openings of “Zeitlos” (Timeless). The works we had spoken about, and other unexpected ones as well (for example, a baby igloo by Mario Merz, with a bare branch like a plume, irreverent and happy as a small tree that has sprung up spontaneously out of an old ruin), now concretely occupied their “ideal places”; naturally everything was a little cleaner, and yet at first view not much had changed from my earlier visit. Still, bit by bit, as I made my way through, I discovered that, in effect, everything had changed. Indeed, at the beginning, the entrance had undergone a subtle transformation. Ten or so Künstlerfahnen (artists’ flags) planted around a flower bed were fluttering in the front garden; among them, I recognized with pleasure those of Giulio Paolini (a rectangle of sky crossed by a light white-bordered cloud), Niele Toroni (the eight of diamonds playing card, a good omen), and the multishaped charged orange cloths of Ingeborg Lüscher. The six-arched loggia of the upper floor of the facade was crowned by Toroni’s usual empreintes de pinceau no. 50, répétées à intervalles réguliers de 30 cm (strokes from a no. 50 brush, repeated at regular intervals of 30 cm, 1988) in a delicate and sly homage to the Florentine loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti by Brunelleschi, that masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. On the flagpoles of the two side towers were The New World Flag(s), 1988, sumptuous and heavy in gold lamé; James Lee Byars, their maker, stood, dressed in the same material, on a ledge midway up on the building’s facade (recalling a similar performance at the 1972 Documenta, also organized by Szeemann), from time to time pointing a megaphone down toward the public in the garden, a public he couldn’t see, since he was wearing a blindfold that looked golden in the sun. The phrase he kept repeating into his shining megaphone was for the most part stolen by the east wind.

Upon entering the building, one found oneself within Marcel Broodthaers’ L’Entrée de l’Exposition (Entrance to the exhibition, 1974)—eight terracotta planters with palm trees—which struck a chord somewhere between disenchanted irony and sentimental participation, the old, bourgeois melody of the Jardin des Plantes and the Grand Hotel des Palmes. From the balcony, one could immediately take in the archeological valley of modernity’s end, the petrified forest of utopia, the warehouse of expeditions through the “other” world, the great house invaded by containers awaiting their hypothetical move to another hypothetical site. And it was a landscape of boxes: cubes and parallelepipeds for the most part, real (Sol LeWitt, Imi Knoebel, Donald Judd, David Rabinowitch, Didier Vermeiren, Willi Kopf) or virtual (Carl Andre’s rectangle composed of 35 square steel sheets, Byars’ gold-plate square, Wolfgang Laib’s two rectangles of pollen, Richard Long’s Magpie Line, 1985). Nonorthogonal containers were more rare, and were characterized by a rigorous though anomalous geometry and by a primary gigantism (Richard Serra) or by povera-like simplification (Mario Merz, Long’s Madrid Circle, 1986), or by a restless sophistication (Royden Rabinowitch). And within the former halls and offices, more boxes: arranged according to a design of quiet and metaphysical elegance (Donald Judd and Reinhard Mucha, Cy Twombly and Lüscher); boxes as big as wardrobes (Vercruysse’s Kamer I and Kamer IV [Chamber I, 1983–84, and Chamber IV, 1986]). Marisa Merz’s small, longing heads, delicate and violent, were protected by Plexiglas boxes. The small room installed by Christian Boltanski was, literally, another warehouse of boxes, each with the date and photograph of victims and perpetrators of well-known and documented crimes. And didn’t the fugue of two-toned fences by Daniel Buren also present the sectioned views of an enormous Chinese box? And weren’t the two pieces by Thomas Virnich broken boxes? And if not boxes, weren’t the papier-mâché sculptures of Franz West really bundles, patched every which way? And once again outdoors, wasn’t the seemingly impenetrable building of Per Kirkeby a box of bricks, and didn’t Eduardo Chillida’s Hommage à Juan Gris, 1987, recall an element of a very extravagant container translated into the immobile weight of steel? And weren’t the two paintings of Robert Ryman virtual boxes? And didn’t the inscribed granite of Walter De Maria in some way recall the heavy door of a mausoleum? And finally, weren’t the monitors and tape recorders making up Bruce Nauman’s environment really magical boxes? But then even Broodthaers’ L’Entrée de l’Exposition, in addition to the palms, had its cases; and couldn’t the brushstrokes of Toroni, with their approximate squaring, be the surfaces of many miniscule burial niches for the individuals of a great species en route to extinction, if not truly extinct, and wasn’t that obviously the great species of painting?

We could enter certain of these boxes, but only to smell the odor of the void (Vercruysse), or at most to experience a solid so evanescent as to border on the immaterial (Laib’s house, with its interior walls clad with beeswax panels); or we could pass through at our own risk, questioning once again the nature of interior and exterior (Serra’s Shaft, 1988). Others invited us to look inside (Judd, Mucha—except one entirely covered in gray felt). Others remained hermetically closed and jealously preserved their secret (LeWitt, Knoebel), and this was even more true for those that I have defined as virtual.

And then at this point something began to change: if not boxes, weren’t they all funerary monuments containing exquisite corpses of who knows whom, absolute in their silent perfection? Thus a suspicion arose, as we looked around and in our minds once again retraced our steps from the beginning. (And I am not talking only about our steps through this show.) Now that I realized everything had changed, I saw that the space we had entered was no longer a station for a journey that in effect had never begun and was only in the stages of preparation. Rather, it was a church, the grand temple of progressive utopia, transformed into a romantic cemetery.

Dear Harry, we all believed along with you—more or less closely united, as could be read in so many union handouts of the time, in which, so ingenuously!, art, politics, behavior, and culture were exactly the same thing—that when attitudes became forms,1 the world would belong to us and we would have defeated, to use your own words, “time and death.” We believed in, and at times put into practice, a way of life that was difficult because it was different and violent—marked by desires, pleasures, joys, in opposition to that other and more common violence, the violence of a forced conformity. That belief was collective, but also faceted according to the various individual sensibilities, and, through the sole fact of intellectual and sensual loyalty, brought us to the wake of a new dawn, a new, extremely harmonious beginning. It wasn’t easy for anyone, and it was very difficult for many. But it was accomplished. Whether by many or by a few, we can’t say, but it is indisputable that it happened. If today’s landscape still has its good points, and personally, I persist in believing that it does, this is thanks to that direction which was followed, for better or worse, whether by many or few, with a personal generosity that cannot be compensated.

But the era of the fathers is clearly over; the germinal seed thrown on the earth has been absorbed for some time now. The sublime gods have been succeeded by bungling heroes, who haven’t been able to or haven’t known how to stifle or contain strange and in fact also serious personality defects. Perhaps it is now the time of humility for human beings, an unadorned time whose song, which continues to express desires for joy, but no longer those for power, remains intimate and subdued, directed toward the few, toward those present.

Isn’t it odd, this romantic cemetery erected at the far reaches of the global village of the West, near that canal and that Wall—the meaning of which, dear Ulrich Rückriem, goes beyond the, albeit extremely dramatic, anecdote of your nation—that Wall that separates the village from the boundless periphery of the non-West? Amid this cemetery’s monuments, grouped in twos and threes, or in perspective that conceals/reveals them with continual interference and superimposition, one can breathe some fresh air. They still speak: the energy that they contain and that emanates from them is not spent, and our passage amid them is rich with memories and suggestions. We must come here: the site is sacred. And wasn’t that belated installation of Joseph Beuys’ Fond IV/4, 1979, during the course of the third opening—with the sun already low on the horizon, lighting up the glass and metal, and soothing with soft clarity the rough surfaces—involuntarily, softly, an extreme, passionate, respectful funeral service for the great, recently deceased shaman, and for the era he crossed with love and fear? Assistants and helpers in work clothes laid down equal and rigorously orthogonal rectangles of flexible felt, of shiny copper, of dark iron.

That same sun, during the same hour, and during all the hours of the previous and subsequent days until the end of this as always too-brief summer, lit up the glass in Kalkar, 1988, Mucha’s most recent work, while, at the back of one of Vercruysse’s “Kamer” works, the shadow became even thicker, and West’s bundles, young scarecrows, already glowed with that seed of new life beneath the light that passed through them, like that in the Land of Oz at the end of the great adventure.

I only mean that here there are the monuments of the father germinators, but also the signs of a further mutation that may or may not give life to other definitive species that will reign, so to speak, over a future that none of us will know. Or perhaps they will be only hopeful monsters in the evolution toward life forms that are still to come. But we know that the gods remain longer than men do, and their profound justice/injustice is lost/redeemed in the hot heart of men. And as for the heroes, only the amorous ability of the poet will perpetuate the dim memory of their hard trials and their ephemeral triumphs. But what matters is the energy of the living; the rest is a brief story.

Zeitlos”: an evocative name that hides within its own ambiguity a secret that is larger than its meaning.

And perhaps, then, this is only the melancholy interpretation of the solitary tripper, of the fatuous and superfluous tourist who doesn’t know that the cemetery and the pier of embarkation are exactly the same thing, that there is but one great voyage.

Pier Luigi Tazzi is a writer who lives in Florence. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. “When Attitudes Become Forms,” curated by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsihalle Bern in March 1969, focused on the art developments of the mid 1960s, including both the more spare and analytic work of the American conceptualists and the more synthetic, material-based explorations of the European arte povera movement. Among the artists represented in the show: Bruce Nauman. Richard Serra, Walter De Maria, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Sol LcWitt, Richard Long, Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, Ger van Elk, Giovanni Ansclmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Pino Pascali, Emilio Prini, and Gilberto Zorio.