“Machines à penser”, the exhibition that just closed at the Prada Foundation, took place in the context of the Venice Architecture Biennale and focussed on an elemental architectural element with wide-ranging symbolic implications: the hut. It also focussed of the retreat as an art historical topos. The project was the result of an intellectual examination of the theme of the mind and of culture and, more in particular, on the relationship between space and thought, between the act of inhabiting and philosophical reflection. The analogy between inhabiting one’s own mind and the act of retiring to an isolated physical space to produce ‘thought’ is key for extracting meaning from this show and also for understanding the way the curator Dieter Roelstraete aimed at engaging the visitor in a different way. To do this, he created an über-intellectual and, at times, pretentious exhibition that functions as an environment (or a landscape) where the visitor is invited to experience through objects, installations, ready-mades, photographs, video art and a film what was like to be in exile, flight and/or displacement for Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 1951) and Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969).
The focus was on physical or mental places which favoured these great thinkers in their reflection and intellectual production. In particular, the project concentrated on the cabins that two of them, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, had built in locations that were to some extent distant from the city, and in which they wrote their respective fundamental works, as well as on the dimension of distance and displacement experienced by the third of them, Adorno, during his years in exile in Los Angeles. For the latter, the dimension of the hut is brought into focus in Adorno’s Hut, a work in the shape of a small wooden and metal house by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, who in turn, in 1987, decided to isolate himself in a remote area of the country, and managed his own garden as though it were a city-state.
The situations experienced by Heidegger, who was unrepentantly in favour of Nazism, and by Wittgenstein and Adorno, both from cosmopolitan Jewish families, therefore differed greatly. As Roelstraete maintains in the exhibition catalogue, for Heidegger the cabin “was not only a philosophical idea in wood and stone, but also a rhetoric device as well as a performance”. This was not the case for Wittgenstein, whose life consisted in a series of flights due to an internal need, and whose refuge, situated in a fjord in Skjolden, Norway, was effectively extreme, neither by any means was it the case for Adorno, whose exile was due to Nazi persecution.
The exhibition begins with these references. In the centre, we find a reproduction of the two refuges of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, while for Adorno, his concentration space is linked, if anything, to music, his great passion. This is why, as well as Adorno’s Hut by Finlay, on the main floor of the building together with the other two huts, there is the large sound installation by Susan Philipsz’s Part File Score (2014), accompanied by a large photograph by Patrick Lakey showing the interior of Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, which served as a place for the exchange of ideas for the philosopher and the community of intellectual defectors which formed in the city during the period of the Third Reich. The exhibition continues through references and chains of meaning, and includes other works, in more or less stringent relation to the three philosophers and the idea of distance and isolation. The photographs of buildings by Patrick Lackey are almost ubiquitous: Adorno and Horkheimer’s Institute fur Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, Germany; Schopenhauer’s Schone Aussicht also in Frankfurt, Frommann’s House in Jena, Fichter’s House also in Jena, Schiller’s Garden House, Marx’s reading room, Schiller’s desk, Nietzche’s House in Sils Maria, Switzerland and Wittgenstein’s Whewell’s Court at Cambridge University. Anselm Kiefer made a sculpture produced through dialogue with the cinematographer and writer Alexander Kluge, who was close to Adorno in the final years of his post at the Frankfurt School; Kluge, in turn, produced for the exhibition a video that uses montage and editing as a way of fusing, through the means of video, different recollections he had of Adorno’s passion for cinema as a medium.
At the piano nobile of the Fondazione’s Ca’ Corner della Regina there are the two actual size reproductions of Wittgenstein’s and Heiddegger’s huts. In the former there is a surprising terracota bust sculpted by Ludwig Wittgenstein himself. Inside the huts there are photographs, pottery, magazines that come across as deliberately confusing. At this point, the show interacts with the viewer to create anxiety and confusion. There are also a number of objects which widen the semantic and temporal field of reference. In the space between the two huts there are three vases in terracotta, porcelain and rubber, specially made for the exhibition by Goshka Macuga. They represent the heads of the three philosophers, and sprout plants and flowers but they are actually maquettes of the huts and the land that surrounded them. At this point, it is very difficult to see this show as an art show but instead as an architectural themed park which topic is the physical, pscyhological and metaphorical need of intellectuals to retire to their retreats and into their own selves. The problem for conveying this message lies in the neutralising effect that the Fondazione Prada brings about as a site. Is this an intellectual exercise, a pompous show of virtuous erudition or a high brow theme park n’sync with the Architecture Biennale? How to react? Personally, I think that the curator uses this unease to create a meaning and from this point of view, the show is a success.
The low point of the show is its ‘proto-Christian’ historical section where the curator comes accross as improvised and unprepared. The decision to focus on the Christian hermit and Father of the Church, Saint Jerome, who lived between the 4th and 5th centuries and not on more significant Venetian figures such as Barbaro Brothers or Pietro Bembo who cultivated their intellectual personnae in the isolation of their retreats designed by Andrea Palladio at their Villa in Maser, Vicenza, not far from where the Fondazione stands today. I am saying this because this analogy between Saint Jerome and Heiddegger’s nazi performance of a retreat is too far fetched. Besides the decision to ignore the relationship between Venice and the topic at hand reinforced the Fondazione’s neutralising effect as an unspecific site. The decision to include a series of Renaissance paintings and prints on the myth of Saint Jerome in a small Renaissance study in wood inlay linked to the tradition of the Wunderkammer without further exploring the link between that kind of and the mnemotechnic methods endorsed by Neo-Platonic thought at the time shows that the curator was unprepared. This in such a highly intellectual show cannot happen. This is, of course, the problem with a contemporary art curator who suddenly decides to delve into the art of the past without proper research. It might be said though that in the aforementioned Wunderkammer, the curator placed a few rare editions of works by Heidegger and Wittgenstein which, in his opinion, might have been enough excuse to include such a piece of furniture. If that is the case, Dieter Roelstraete’s intention is more decorative and theatrical than conceptual.
Through mutations of meaning and cross references, that rarefied exhibition was imbued with the tensions of history and the irremediable contradictions of thought. Thus, for example, in Heidegger’s house, we could find photographs taken in Todtnauberg between 1967 and 1968 by the photojournalist – of Jewish descent – Digne Meller-Marcovicz. The exhibition did not explicitly reveal any more than this; but a muffled cry lied just below the surface, and that was more and more apparent as one ventured into the labyrinth of references. These deliberate contradictions provocatively followed the visitor through the whole exhibition and created the idea of an environment composed by many photographs, videos and maquettes of landscapes that eventually transformed the show into an allegory of romanticised individualism.
“Machines à penser” was a cryptic exhibition which required preparation and offered uneven satisfaction to those who were able to interpret the dense interweaving of subtexts. The theme of anxiety of flight and internal exile were extremely meaningful but a bit superficial and impressionistic. In other words, it turned need into virtue by transforming the uneasiness of the visitor into fuel for the anxiety that its topic tried to project. J A T