The Absent Spectator 1: The Present Was Now

Filipa Ramos


—Reviews of unseen exhibitions—

This text is part of an ongoing project of reviewing exhibitions that its author was temporally or physically unable to see.

The absent spectator aims at testing the possibilities of using a common format of writing on exhibitions—that of the review—to address the processes of edification of cultural memory. By doing so, the project attempts to comprehend the dynamics of neglectfulness, resurgence, nostalgia and canonization in cultural practices.

Many questions have arisen over the course of this procedure: If a review is a viewing again, is there any possibility to observe the unseen from the “point of view” of an absent spectator? If so, how might it function? Is the researching subject condemned to the condition of a mediator: one who sees through the eyes, who thinks with the thoughts, and who feels the impressions of another? What sort of advantage might an absent spectator have? Can she or he go beyond description and elaborate critical judgments? Can he or she make use of the historical present tense; opening a direct relation with the past? Can the interaction of the absent subject with the unseen trigger a new memory? Can it enhance intuitions and visions, which only time may have otherwise brought to light?

The absent spectator will attempt to answer to these questions and challenges through the exercise of writing. The Present Was Now is the first part of the series.


View of Contemporanea, Villa Borghese Parking Lot, Rome, 1973–1974, Courtesy Archivio Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, Photo Massimo Piersanti

Inverting the sedimentary urban logic in Rome (in which recent layers lay on top of the older ones), the contemporary finds its place beneath the classical: underground, when the recently-finished Villa Borghese parking garage (located below the homonymous museum) hosted the ambitious multidisciplinary project Contemporanea (arte 1973–1955).1

It is the end of November 1973.2 It takes willingness to face Rome’s damp cold and spend a considerable amount of time inside an unheated parcheggio. As if the new needs to be exhibited in a rough, hostile atmosphere: magnificent but distant from the omnipresent memories of the past of the Eternal City.

This seems to be the appropriate moment to pay tribute to the iridescent present, as it is happening elsewhere. In fact, not long ago, in 1969, two major European venues hosted major exhibitions aimed at capturing and presenting the spirit of the time: Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, with Op Losse Schroeven, curated by Wim Beeren, and Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern.3

In Italy, during these years, probably the strongest wavelength with the international cultural scene was attested to not by means of exhibits but through the echoes of the turmoil of 1968, which triggered the boycott and occupation of those art institutions that were considered symbols of the bourgeois culture, such as the Venice Biennale and the Milan Triennale.4

It is in this context that a group of cultural organizers from Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, an organization (founded in Rome in 1970 by Graziella Lonardi Bontempo) that promotes a lively dialogue with contemporary culture, decided to have their say on the contemporary, which represented such a symbolic value that it named the whole project.5

Rome is full of museums but none of them seemed appropriate for this adventure. This ambitious project required a more radical (and culturally wider) environment, one that created the possibility of relating to art in a new context. So it was that the Villa parking garage became the set for Contemporanea. Its charismatic architect, Luigi Moretti, was close to the artistic scene. He had also planned the Watergate complex, which was named “the” political scandal of 1972, the year just previous to the show. But if President Richard Nixon was yet to resign, Moretti would not assist in the transformation of the 10 000 square meters of his car park into a major cultural venue, as he died during the summer of 1973.

The intention to use such a location was closely connected to the nature of the project, which aimed to promote a cross-disciplinary approach in which the boundaries between subjects were to be abolished in order to sketch a wide panorama of the contemporary creative scene.

Exhibition view of Contemporanea, Villa Borghese Parking Lot, Rome, 1973–1974 Photo Archivio Sartogo

Contemporanea is presented as a manifesto-like program that strongly reinforces the ethical and scientific vocation of the critic, conceived as a person who is able to unite contemporary culture with time, and to deal with both in a holistic way; not to exhibit mastery and knowledge but to provide access to the present moment.

Achille Bonito Oliva, the general curator of the project, opens the catalogue with a complex—and all but accessible—reflection on the relation of the critic with time, and his or her responsibility to the past, present and future.6 
According to Oliva, the critic should transform historical, diachronic time into critical time, using it as an instrument of research and not as a tool to predict the future of culture. Such an act would be a mere exhibitionism of erudition. The future, in order to take place, must be assured of its unpredictability and instability. The critic should relate to it in a constructive, open way, and a cultural project should generate the uncertainty of a non-lived experience, based upon the event as an eruption in daily life.7 

Exhibition view of Contemporanea, Villa Borghese Parking Lot, Rome, 1973–1974 Photo Cristina Ghergo

This being the aim of Contemporanea, its success largely relies on the presentation and display of continuously changing live events in a new, dynamic way.

The latter is immediately perceived upon entering the exhibition space, which is left wide open thanks to the perceptive device designed by the architect Piero Sartogo. No pavilions or walls divide the different areas. Instead, the articulation of the visitor’s walk across the sections of the exhibition is structured through the introduction of rows of transversal planes of wire mesh, inserted perpendicular to the main axis of the parking space. The quantity of metal diagrams increases along the way, generating a rhythm of acceleration and deceleration in the opposite directions of the viewing experience. The result is a structure that gives the impression of being ethereal: visible, but that is also traversed by the gaze.

The angle of observation changes it, making it transparent (when observed frontally), solid (when observed diagonally), or a pure line (when observed laterally). The overlapping of the nets produces an effect of “solid air,” whose resistance the viewer must overcome.8

It is within the volumes delimited by the nets that the ten sections that define the different trends and artists are evidenced. These are: Art; Cinema; Theatre; Architecture and Design; Photography; Music; Dance; Artists’s Books and Records; Visual and Concrete Poetry, and Counterinformation. In all of them, contemporaneously, live actions of different scale and nature take place, some sporadically while others occur throughout the duration of the project. Such is the case of the Architecture and Design section (curated by Alessandro Mendini, the chief editor of Casabella, deeply involved with the radical design movement), which hosts a non-stop projection of a thousand slides by national and international individuals and collectives, showing images of architects, urban planners, designers and artists (such as Ant Farm, Norman Foster, Vittorio Gregotti, Le Corbusier, Mario Merz, Superstudio and Robert Venturi).

The Cinema (curated by Paolo Bertetto, due-to-become director of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema), Theatre (by Giuseppe Bartolucci), Music and Dance sections (coordinated by Fabio Sargentini, director of the gallery L’Attico, the most experimental Roman commercial platform of the period) rely on the continuous creation of new events that crossed disciplines and practices.9If the Theatre section showcases mainly national companies, the Music section presents live acts by Phillip Glass, Terry Riley and Cornelius Cardew, but also by La Monte Young, Giuseppe Chiari and Charlemagne Palestine. Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas, Steve Paxton and others intertwine dance and performance in the Dance section. Sound, music and movement, the articulation between bodies and kinetic experiments with objects and images, are constant presences, echoing and reverberating throughout the space.

Exhibition view of Contemporanea, Villa Borghese Parking Lot, Rome, 1973–1974 Photo Archivio Sartogo

Ironically, the least interdisciplinary and most hermetic sector is the Art one. Curated by Bonito Oliva, it is divided into four themes: Analytic; Process; Synthetic; and Open. Most of the works are presented on the large floor areas or suspended from the metal grids of the display. Together with the artists’s books and records section (curated by Michel Claura and Yvon Lambert), it presents over one hundred individuals (from Ad Reinhard, Alighiero Boetti and Allan Kaprow to Andy Warhol and Lawrence Weiner), creating a biennial-scale event that aims to offer a panorama of the major international cultural scene, which is understood to be European and North American.

Most of the artists are Western and male. Namely, in the arts sector, of the ninety participants no more than fifteen percent are female; forty-five are European and forty-five are North American. How closely Italy is related to the American context is thus quite clear.

In light of this statistical sample, would it be fair to interpret being contemporary as being conformist? Perhaps, although Contemporanea does not differ much from the general cultural context of these years. New times, new economies, new geopolitical strategies and new notions of the politically correct will still introduce visible changes in such panorama.

Little of the space is devoted to lesser-known practitioners, and most of the represented individuals and groups (once more, especially in the Visual Arts section) are well-established. Even so, novelties have been introduced, and artists such as Luigi Ontani and Marina Abramović are enjoying their first large public appearances, representing a new generation’s approach to the performative body. An external attraction to the exhibition is Christo’s monumental wrapping of Porta Pinciana and Mura Aureliane, probably inspired by the success of the 1969 unfolding of the Kunsthalle Bern, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the institution.

Installation view of Contemporanea with work by Christo, Rome, 1973–1974, courtesy Roma Sparita, 2012

Despite an overall conventionality of the selection criteria, Contemporanea features some relevant innovative aspects. It goes beyond the traditional use of time, leaving its doors open until late hours, and presenting live events and films in the evenings. Pier Paolo Pasolini is said to be a faithful attendant of the screenings, which present more than eighty films that are intended to defy—if not deny—entertainment. It includes experimental, documentary and feature films by Stan Brakhage, Philippe Garrel, Jean-Luc Godard, Alexander Kluge, Stanley Kramer, Jacques Rivette, Glauber Rocha, Jean Rouch, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and many others.

This questioning of entertainment assumes another face in the Counterinformation section (curated by Bruno Corà, director of the “alternative information” office of the Incontri), which displays a variegated selection of press cuts, images, pamphlets and other important documents that reveal contradictory and irresolute aspects of political and social nature.

Beyond aesthetic judgements and cultural valuation systems, the Counterinformation section—and its intertwining of culture and politics, appropriating one to communicate the other and vice versa, but still working within two distinct realms—will surely be one of the major legacies of the whole project, as it proposes an approach to the present in which the social role of the artist is reinforced, by taking part in an event that exhibits a clear interest in society as a whole.

It is difficult to say if it has been a wise combination of mainstream names and attitudes, presented in an unprotected environment, and mingled with alternative cultural and political tendencies that will determine the success of the project, which has already been viewed by more than 100 000 visitors, and considerably reviewed both by national and international press.9 Or if, instead, it is the blockbuster agenda that will bring many people closer to the engaged subjects. What seems certain at least, is that the auspicious and passionate motto of the project, Wolf Vostell’s declaration that “It’s things that you’re unfamiliar with that will change your life”, has become fully meaningful in relation to this exhibition and its inclusion of concrete, real life facts.10 Contemporanea has the potential to become a life-changing event. It is making headway in the activation of the necessary openness that subsequent projects will be required to have.

  • 1.  Translated as Contemporary arts 1973–1955 and hereafter referred to as Contemporanea
  • 2.  Contemporanea took place from 30 November 1973 until 28 February 1974. 
  • 3.  For an analysis of the two exhibitions, cf. Christian Rattemeyer, Exhibiting the New Art “Op Losse Schroeven” and “When Attitudes Become Form 1969” (London: Afterall Books, 2011)
  • 4.  The 34th Biennale (1968) opened in a tense climate that culminated in its occupation and the refusal of most artists to open the pavilions. This pushed the organization to rethink itself and to adopt a new status, due to be perceived in the 1974 edition (dedicated to Chile after the 1973 coup d’état). But more than dealing with the political context in a lively way, it gave way to illustrating the politicized and to its gradual transformation into the promotion of contemporary art and its spectacle. For a general introduction to the theme cf. Francesca Franco “The Curatorial Canon of the Venice Biennale 1875–1974”, Manifesta Journal 11 (2011): 66–74. For more information cf. Enzo Di Martino, The History of the Venice Biennale 1895–2005 (Venice: Papiro Arte, 2005). 
  • 5.  Among other projects, Incontri also organized Vitalità del negativo nell’arte italiana 1960–1970 (Vitality of the Negative in Italian Art 1960–1970), a survey of the new Italian art scene curated by Achille Bonito Oliva in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. For more information, cf. Vitalità del negativo nell’arte italiana 1960–1970, catalogue of the exhibition (Florence: Centro Di, 1971). 
  • 6.  Contemporanea arte (1955–1973) (Florence: Centro Di, 1973). 
  • 7.  Achille Bonito Oliva, “Contemporary Arts”, Contemporanea exhibition catalogue, Incontri Internazionali d’Arte (Florence: Centro Di, 1973): 25–32. 
  • 8.  The attention given to the invention of this display support by Piero Sartogo, an architect who previously worked with the organizers of the exhibition in projects such as Amore Mio (Montepulciano, 1970) and Vitalità del Negativo (Rome, 1970), and who will continue to do so throughout the following two decades, can also be perceived on the eight pages of the catalogue (15–22), dedicated to illustrating the device through text, photographs and diagrams. 
  • 9.  National Press included: L’Espresso, 10 February 1974; Domus no. 531 (February 1974) (with the article “Exhibition in Rome: Contemporanea” by Gregory Battcock); Cronache di architettura, (February 1974); AR no. 925 (March 1974); Casabella no. 386 (April 1974). International Press included: The Times, 21 December 1973; The New York Times, 19 February 1974; The Architects, 27 February 1974. 
  • 10.  “Sono le cose che non conoscete che cambieranno la vostra vita”, sentence published as advertisement for the exhibition. Newspaper L’Unità, 30 November 1973.