Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata at the Prada Foundation, Venice

by Sandra Orellana Sears, August 2012

Reproducibility is a concept we have grown far too accustomed to. The development of digital media has allowed for the limitless reproduction and dissemination of the finest masterpieces, providing intimate, instantaneous access to the once inaccessible. This also goes for less revered works of art, which with the onset of digital distribution have been given considerably more coverage than they would have in any preceding generation of art history. In an instant, we can compare the images of artworks, even if the relationship between two works of art is tenuous, the images allow for a relationship to begin forming—visually, intellectually.

This is the critical problem with art viewing via the internet, and what makes exhibitions like Small Utopia. Ars Mutiplicata at the Prada Foundation indispensable. How does one distinguish quality works of art from the undeserving ones? By actually confronting the works of art. Simply comparing two image windows in your desktop will not suffice. A carefully selected exhibition can be extremely effective in reestablishing the didactic function of art and correlations between art works and movements. For an art viewer hungry for purposeful curating, Small Utopia is a breath of fresh air, the antithesis of “best of” exhibitions that rely heavily on spectacle-driven showmanship (think Koons, Hirst, Cattelan).  The selection of works is almost overbearingly studious with fastidious attention to detail. But in the end, it is this exacting precision that makes the exhibition so striking.

If you have not been, the Prada Foundation exhibition space is staggering in its marvelous Venetian splendor. The eighteenth-century palazzo was renovated by Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli, and can be found at Ca’ Corner della Regina. It is more than 65,000 square feet, complete with a façade of Istrian stone and squared-off rustication over the ground floor and mezzanine. It is breathtaking, and the palatial setting overlooking the Grand Canal would lend an eerie mysticism to any piece of art. Yet Germano Celant, the exhibition curator and artistic director of the foundation, avoids relying too heavily on the aesthetic allure of the building’s historical architecture. Instead, an extensive compendium of artworks—which includes over 600 objects, in fact—is methodically exhibited in an array of vitrines, accompanied by diligent labels and thematic explanations throughout the galleries of the museum

Celant draws parallels between artistic practices of the historical avant gardes (Cubism, Italian Futurism, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Dutch Neoplasticism, German Bauhaus, Dadaism and Surrealism) and concomitant social and technological phenomena such as the growth of publishing, film, television and radio. At the time of their conception, these were considered new media, which led to the multiplication and mass circuit of the avant garde, a kind of Utopian vision of the future of art making—ars multiplicata.

The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata investigates the artistic practice of multiplication and reproduction, and how it manifested over time. What did this social and artistic development look, feel and sound like? The ground floor of the exhibition emphasizes the importance of the publication of magazines, books and manifestos. Art books, magazines, journals and letters can be found from seminal artists across the globe—Andy Warhol’s Index (Book) from 1967, William Copley’s S.M.S. Shit Must Stop No. 2 portfolio containing works by Duchamp, John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World [You Will Only Make Matters Worse] and Ed Ruscha’s folded accordion, 26 Gasoline Stations, a book of black-and-white photographs originally published in 1963.

Small Utopia underscores the expansive, global impact of these reproductions, which entailed a variety of disciplines and art practices. Exhibited alongside these uniquely American publications are German Bauhaus magazines and Bauhausbücher books edited by Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian in 1925. In the same room, Umberto Boccioni’s 1914 Futurist Painting Sculpture is shown with Fillippo Marinetti’s (the founder of the Italian Futurist movement) Zang Tumb Tumb of the same year, as well as Benedetta Capa Marinetti’s (Marinetti’s wife) The Journey of Garará from 1931.

In addition, there is a gallery devoted solely to music and sound recordings by various artists, from Lawrence Weiner to Yoko Ono and Alan Kaprow, to Henri Chopin’s audio poems. In another room, experimental flux films by Tom Perkins, James Riddle and Mieko Shiomi, among others, play on a constant loop. The second floor is devoted entirely to art objects including sculpture, installation, paintings and readymades. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel can be found exhibited next to Magritte’s The Future of Statues. A series of Warhol’s Brillo Soap Pad and Campbell’s Tomato Juice boxes make an appearance in tandem with eighteen copies of Claes Oldenburg’s Wedding Souvenir from 1963, plaster casts of white, whopping, individual slices of wedding cake. A whimsical delight for the eyes.

Editions, reproductions and multiples comprise the common thread throughout the exhibition, which is epitomized by Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise from 1941, a run-of-the-mill suitcase containing miniaturized versions of his most prominent readymades (including Fountain of 1917, a urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’, and L.H.O.O.Q., a cheap print of the Mona Lisa upon which Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee). Three editions of this piece are on display—tiny copies of larger copies of the real thing.

In contrast to the array of readymades as well as pieces referring to the concept of the readymade itself (Beuys, Manzoni, Warhol, Oldenberg, Judd and DeMaria), there are, in contrast, functional objects such as clothing, hats, ceramics, furniture, glassware and toys also on display. These objects were created by artists using the framework of household items to transform their artistic practice or theorization into a more accessible, consumable product for the general public. As a result, a mish-mash of familiar objects with an unfamiliar, sometimes shocking aesthetic emerged, and perhaps more importantly, reproductions of these objects. Imagine a Futurist waistcoat and wooden bear toy (Fortunato Depero), an abstracted child’s wheelbarrow (Gerrit Rietveld), teacups and saucers sprinkled with Bauhaus-inspired geometric patterns (Wassily Kandinsky), a table with bird’s legs (Meret Oppenheim) and a lobster-shaped telephone (Salvador Dalí). In essence, artists were exploring the aesthetic function of objects already familiar to the public, as well as experimenting with how reproduction affects the relationship between art and reality.

This tension between art and reproducibility is at the crux of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which he argues that technological reproduction shapes our aesthetic experience of art objects. Benjamin also expresses a great concern that the growth of mechanical reproduction will be followed by the destruction of the aura of the work of art. He refers to the concept of the aura to describe the authenticity that emanates from a work of art (or not). Of course at the time, Benjamin was referring specifically to the ill effects of film and photography on the aura, not the ubiquitous mammoth of technology the Internet would inevitably become, providing access to unlimited artworks or objects through digital images.

Surely, the reproducibility and accessibility of objects has been amplified by the web, and in many ways, this is a blessing. Individuals are exposed to works of art that may have been unreachable before the Internet became a kind of eternal archive for art. However, there is something to be said about the interface between viewer and object, that initial response that can be only be elicited by a firsthand encounter.

While the curatorial precision and rigor of Small Utopia makes these works, in a sense, less accessible, the viewer is invited to experience their aesthetic in the flesh. The proliferation of reproduction and dissemination in our culture has jaded us, our senses now dulled by the constant bombardment of images and perhaps by the effortlessness with which we access them (enter the title into your search bar or alternatively, take a virtual tour of the Louvre or Met online). The thread that stitches these artworks together is delicate, but fiercely deliberate. The age of mechanical reproduction inevitably transformed these objects and artworks, but they still maintain a certain aura when viewed today. This exhibition serves as a reminder that we should actively seek out authentic, firsthand contact with art in order to truly grasp its place in history—experiencing the works in three dimensions is crucial. Listen to the record. Hold the book in your hands. Watch the film on a projection screen. These aesthetic confrontations are considerably more invigorating than playing and replaying a Youtube clip. Ars Multiplicata reminds us that as the age of mechanical reproduction continues to evolve, we must be even more discerning when it comes to copies and editions. Close-up, engaged encounters should always take precedence.

The Small Utopia. Ars Multiplicata
6 July–24 November, 2012
Fondazione Prada