Bologna, Italy

Christopher Williams

Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Bologna

“THE ACHIEVEMENTS of the Italian Communists are nowhere more evident than in the city of Bologna.” Thus Donald Sassoon opened his introduction to the English version of the collection of essays Red Bologna (1977), which familiarized an international audience with the progressive policies of the Italian town’s Communist government. Among Bologna’s ambitious projects of the time was an impressive new building for the town’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna, which was officially opened on May 1, 1975. Designed by Leone Pancaldi and situated in the industrial north of the city, the building appeared somewhat Brutalist; inside, the architect had fashioned open and well-lit areas for the display of art.

Over the years, however, the building slowly darkened. Fake walls were constructed over once-generous windows; existing walls were extended and the gaps that used to afford visitors fluid passage through the space filled in. Incrustations of white-painted Sheetrock facilitated expansive exhibitions by Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel, and others. Visitors got to see more and more art, but certainly not under the conditions that Pancaldi had imagined. Finally, in the early 1990s, the decision to move GAM was made: Later this year, the institution will inhabit a much more tourist-friendly site in the center of town, where it is to be known as MAMBo (i.e., Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna). Pancaldi’s building, meanwhile, will likely be used for trade fairs and similar events.

To mark the end of GAM, curators Gianfranco Maraniello—also director of the institution—and Andrea Viliani had the inspired idea of inviting Christopher Williams to mount the final exhibition. Titled “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 5),” it largely involved the artist making interventions in the building itself. In recent years, visitors entered GAM through what had been intended by Pancaldi as a cinema and small exhibition space; Williams opened up the original entrance so that locals with some memory of the building would feel as if they were revisiting a former time. He removed false walls in the main gallery, revealing Pancaldi’s windows and views over a small park, and uncovered elegant recessed spaces that had been shut off to maximize the available surface area. The expansive central atrium, which rises to some fifty feet and is illuminated by a large skylight, had typically been reserved for the centerpiece of any exhibition. In a move that evoked Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” of 1951, Williams installed five large white mobile display walls in this atrium and left each completely bare. The gallery became a trap for shifting light, the empty walls changing tones as clouds passed by high above.

Not all the artist’s interventions aimed to recapture the beauty of the building in the manner of a sensitive restorer, however. Sometimes Williams took down false walls only to reinstall them in another part of the building, which now appeared hastily boarded up. In one gallery, Williams removed sections of the display walls so that they again reflected Pancaldi’s design. But rather than smooth them down following the demolition, he left them in a raw state, so it appeared that the galleries had been visited by the ghost of Gordon Matta-Clark. And although Williams’s cuts here allowed visitors again to walk the routes over the marble floor plotted out by the architect, it remained obvious which sections had been polished over the years and which covered up by the wall extensions.

Toward the back of the exhibition space, Williams displayed the architect’s original blueprints for the building on a low plinth. Nearby was a series of vitrines—also designed by Pancaldi—which Williams had retrieved from GAM’s storage rooms. One contained material relating to international responses to the politics of ’70s Bologna—copies of Red Bologna in English, German, and Italian were presented along with the Semiotext(e) publication Italy: Autonomia; Post-Political Politics (1980). Another vitrine held a doll-size replica of the puppet Topo Gigio, who first appeared on an Italian children’s television show in the ’60s, along with a children’s photo-story book titled Das Apfelmäuschen (The Little Apple-Mouse). Elsewhere, as a kind of exhibition-within-an-exhibition, there was a wall cabinet in which six tiny Asger Jorn ceramic sculptures, all from 1971, were on view. Some of these elements drew attention to the very activity of intervention itself: The inclusion of Jorn’s works, for example, reminded one of Situationist precedents for Williams’s maneuvers, and the image of a mouse living in an apple on the cover of Das Apfelmäuschen suggested by analogy that Williams was a kind of intruder burrowing into the museum.

But what, taken together, did all these interventions achieve? They certainly succeeded in sensitizing viewers to the austere beauty of Pancaldi’s architecture, a beauty newly revealed just before the move to a new site in “historic” Bologna. If the decision to relocate the institution can be thought of as a symptom of contemporary spectacle culture’s attachment to a romanticized idea of history, Williams managed to resuscitate the memory of a more recent but less postcard-friendly past. Crucially, however, because his actions on the architecture resulted as much in ruination as restoration, he summoned the past without lapsing into nostalgia, without pining for Communist Bologna of the ’70s as a lost utopia. The effect of both tidying and messing up the building simultaneously created a confusing sense of time within the exhibition. Some spaces felt like a throwback to the ’70s, others like a premonition of what the building will soon become. With this collage of time periods, Williams insisted on the irretrievability of the past.

A sense of temporal disturbance also came across powerfully in the performance-based elements that accompanied the material aspects of Williams’s project. Prior to the show’s opening, Williams had asked Maraniello to recite word for word the speech that the original director of the institution had read at its inauguration in 1975; Maraniello resisted somewhat and wanted to add comments relating to the present time. Williams’s response was to cut each sentence of the newly expanded text in half, so that the speech was again at its 1975 length. Thus, the exhibition opened with a kind of Dada performance—a recital in which institutional rhetoric was sliced into nonsense poetry. There was also a radio project, not officially connected to the show at GAM, on air every weeknight this past February. Co-organized by Williams with critic John Kelsey, and titled Radio Danièle (in homage to the late film director Danièle Huillet), it recalled the legendary pirate radio station Radio Alice, which was founded in Bologna in 1976.

I almost feel tempted to conclude my discussion of the exhibition here: It is so important, I think, to stress the artist’s investigations of history and architecture, especially since those familiar with Williams’s work through his photographs know only half his project. The exhibition at GAM made it clear how Williams’s work is related to that of younger artists working in a similar vein (Matthew Buckingham’s 2005 Kunstmuseum St. Gallen project Specularia comes to mind, for example) and also—more obviously—to that of his onetime teacher Michael Asher, whose subtle displacements addressed both the specific histories of the institutions in which he worked and the wider cultures in which those institutions were established. However, Williams’s site-specific interventions in Bologna were presented together with—and inseparable from—twenty-six photographs from his ongoing project “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle,” 2005–, which the artist arranged across those few walls that he had chosen not to keep bare. There were various compelling points of connection between these photographs and Williams’s treatment of the building. Images of a Polish high-rise (Lodz, October 2, 2004) and a Soviet camera (Kiev MC Arsat [Zodiak-8]. . . , 2005) reference the cold war period in which Pancaldi’s building first appeared. Some images seemed to reflect on different modes of display: There were two prints of a 2005 photograph of the mobile wall system at the Wiener Secession, and a number of photographs that functioned like the vitrines—excerpting objects from their daily functions and isolating them for scrutiny. Other images alerted you to the histories of architectural interventions—indeed, to the fact that the same decade that gave rise to Pancaldi’s building also saw the heyday of institutional critique: On display at three different locations in the galleries were identical prints of a 2006 close-up of one of the ceiling panels Daniel Buren installed in the galleries of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1979.

Yet perhaps the most interesting connection between Williams’s photographic works and his site-specific interventions was that the dynamic in the latter between restoration and ruination, between the impulse to clean up and the impulse to untidy, found its match in the photographs’ propensity simultaneously to clarify and to confuse. At first, it can seem that Williams is simply replicating Albert Renger-Patzsch’s style of photography, updating Neue Sachlichkeit so that each subject can be seen precisely not just in its shape but in its colors, too. Indeed, Williams’s colors seem to be identical to those in the objects he photographs. (In two 2005 images in the show, it is as if the very same dye has infiltrated both the yellow towel and the prints that picture it.) However, such clarity is only ever temporary: No matter how sharp the focus or how accurate the colors, we always wonder exactly why Williams has chosen a particular object, and then we become more puzzled by a photograph’s connection to those hung nearby. Some of the most self-evident photo- graphs come to be the most vexing: Here is a model smiling at the camera—all fine at first, but what is the 1968 Kodak color code doing beside her face? Is this postal package floating—or resting on a sheet of glass? For Williams the camera is an instrument that seems accurately to depict what lies before it, but ends up provoking more questions than it provides answers. Likewise, if at times it seemed that his architectural work in Bologna, in opening up long-sealed apertures, turned the entire museum into a kind of camera, the picture he produced of the institution grew ever more intriguing.

One more connection between the photographs and the other objects on display seems particularly pertinent. Near the vitrine containing Red Bologna was Scritti Politti’s 1978 single Skank Bloc Bologna, spread out so the vinyl, the inner sleeve, and the cover were each displayed separately. The cover gives all the details of the record’s production—how much the record company paid for recording, mastering, pressing, etc. The look of Williams’s images couldn’t be more distant from the Dada-derived aesthetic of this punk single, but, like the makers of the record, the artist often documents all the production details of his photographs in his notoriously long titles. The inclusion of Scritti Politti’s single let one clearly see how Williams deploys not just Neue Sachlichkeit but a variety of artistic strategies, including those of movements supposedly opposed to it. As a result, Williams’s work makes us think not just about the histories of sites and objects, but also about the histories of the means he uses to explore them.

Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.