The Demagnetized Compass

Adam Feldmeth

Introduction by Leslie Dick

In July 2009, Adam Feldmeth went to the Venice Biennale. Immediately struck by apparent inconsistencies in a reconstruction of a Blinky Palermo installation from 1976, he set about his investigation. Using his iPhone like the classic detective’s magnifying glass, Feldmeth made careful observations, contacted various parties involved, and traced the clues, all the while collecting photographs of the scene, as well as generating scans, schematic drawings, diagrams, and conducting experiments. In January 2011, Feldmeth presented the evidence in a lecture with projections at the California Institute of the Arts. The following text is an edited excerpt from this presentation. In the process of discovering the underlying premises of this curatorial project, Feldmeth’s analysis opens up a set of questions regarding site-specificity, memory, and the deeper problems of repeating history.

 Diagram of the “Ambiente Arte” exhibition in the Padiglione Centrale, Venice, 1976, from Michael Asher, <em>Writings 1973–1983 on Works 1969–1979</em> (Nova Scotia: the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1983).

Diagram of the “Ambiente Arte” exhibition in the Padiglione Centrale, Venice, 1976, from Michael Asher, Writings 1973–1983 on Works 1969–1979(Nova Scotia: the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1983). Courtesy of Michael Asher.

I had hoped to talk here while the Blinky Palermo retrospective was still up at LACMA, but that became impossible.1 Nevertheless, I have the opportunity to be here tonight while the de-installation of that exhibition is taking place.

“Himmelsrichtungen, 1976; Reconstruction, 2009; Steel, Glass, Paint.”2 In 1976, Palermo made an architectural environment in the “Ambiente Arte” exhibition, curated by Germano Celant, at the Venice Biennale. The title of Palermo’s work has been variously translated as “Ordinal Points,” “Cardinal Points,” “The Four Cardinal Points,” and “Directions of the Sky.” These interpretations emphasize what a functioning compass, magnetically charged to the earth, signifies.

In Christine Mehring’s Blinky Palermo: Abstraction of an Era, she writes:

In Italy, Palermo installed four large glass panels framed in black steel and covered from behind with thick layers of paint, in respectively yellow, red, white, and black, diagonally across the corners of a room with a central skylight. As can readily be reconstructed based on mapping surviving color photographs onto the ground plan of the building, the yellow panel was located in the north, the black in the east, the white in the south, and the red in the west.3

For the steel, Mehring provides us with the adjective “black.” She translates the title as “Ordinal Directions”; she provides the dates of the Biennale, July 18 through October 16, 1976,4 and she indicates the use of oil-based paint. In the most rudimentary way, steel, glass, and paint describe the material installation. It is, however, crucial how additional modifiers are applied to these three industrially produced materials.

Diagram of the “Fare Mondi / Making Worlds” exhibition in the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni, Venice, 2009.

Diagram of the “Fare Mondi / Making Worlds” exhibition in the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni, Venice, 2009, from official Venice Biennale program brochure.

Made up primarily of artists associated at the time with tendencies now ascribed to Arte Povera and California Light and Space work, the contemporary section of the 1976 Biennale provided each artist with an individual room in the exhibition.5 According to the floor plan, Palermo had room 8.6 Robert Irwin was in the adjoining room 17,7 and Daniel Buren in room 9.8 Their contributions flanked room 8.9 Each exposed a direct passage to the exterior and its climate.10

The floor plan for the 2009 exhibition shows that the reconstruction of Palermo’s work has moved into Irwin’s space from 1976.11 This was in part because the partition wall, delineating the expanse of room 8, had been removed during the interim.12

Documentation of 2009 reconstruction attempt of <em>Himmelsrichtungen</em> (1976) in “Fare Mondi / Making Worlds” at the venice biennale, November 2009.

Documentation of 2009 reconstruction attempt of Himmelsrichtungen (1976) in “Fare Mondi / Making Worlds” at the venice biennale, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth. Upward view from south corner, underneath white pane.

On July 21, 2009, I entered the building in the Giardini, eventually walking from a room of Rachel Harrison’s works into the Palermo reconstruction. I recognized the work under suggestion yet sensed variables I couldn’t quite reach. The formal didactic in the room noted:

The formal didactic in the room noted:

To reconstruct a work of art always involves difference and repetition. Palermo’s Himmelsrichtungen was conceived as a site-specific installation for this pavilion in 1976, and was destroyed after being dismantled. This is a reconstruction, which follows the rich information of the Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee of the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia. To revisit a previous moment of the Biennial in this way will always provoke critical discussions. This discussion is an integral part of the project.13

To the right of this didactic and on the other side of a doorway were five documents tacked to the wall, presumably the rich information of the Biennale Archive: black-and-white photocopies of the 1976 catalog pages documenting Buren and Palermo’s contributions; a color scan of a black-and-white photograph, printed in grayscale; and two invoices from 1976, from the paint and glass suppliers.14

Black, red, yellow, and white acrylic; 252 tubes and 28 jars of “flow formula,” and 27 large tubes of “standard [formula].”15 The invoice for the glass company provides information on length and width: four 200 x 300 centimeter sheets, three pieces that measured 100 x 211, and one at 84.5 x 143.5 centimeters.16 Above this documentation on the wall, handwritten in black marker, were the words: “Reconstruction in progress; attempt 1, June 2009.”17

I read the didactic and looked at the documentation display. I spent some time in the room making a few mental notes and ended up searching for an email address and writing that night to Daniel Birnbaum, who was directing the Biennale, with a couple of questions.

Documentation of black and white photocopy of p. 219 from the “Ambiente Arte” catalog with views of <em>Himmelsrichtungen</em>, November 2009.

Documentation of black and white photocopy of p. 219 from the “Ambiente Arte” catalog with views of Himmelsrichtungen, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth. Photocopy tacked to wall June 2009. Handwritten note added September 2009.

In autumn 2009, various periodicals reviewed the Biennale. Images of the reconstruction were included in Artforum and Art in America. From what I’ve read, every acknowledgement of the reconstruction in reviews contains a positive remark on its inclusion and/or the curatorial effort. This seems odd because in regards to the “difference and repetition” that was indicated, I was seeing a great deal more of the former than the latter. I wasn’t able to recognize, after a while, anything except inconsistencies, variables that were on a different frequency from the available descriptions I remembered of Himmelsrichtungen.

Regarding color, Palermo was German and a student of Joseph Beuys, which has led to one thought that the colors correspond to national identity, as represented in the German flag.18 This nationalist interpretation either neglects the title entirely or treats it as loosely metaphorical. A differing hypothesis recognizes that these colors are found in Native American cardinal symbology.19 The colors of the German flag(s) relate to Palermo as a student of Beuys, while a symbology from the American West corresponds to a location beyond national borders.20

Compass experiment facing due North, November 2009.

Compass experiment facing due North, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

The building in the Giardini (in 1976 called the Padiglione Centrale, the Italian Pavilion, and in 2009 the Palazzo delle Esposizioni) is not built on a N, S, E, W axis. It is at a clockwise tilt, approximately NE, SW, SE, NW. Kuper suggests the reason for each corner having a designated color is to produce a N, S, E, W alignment: to charge the room as an environment-cum-compass.21 Perhaps this makes sense in a big exhibition building, where one can feel lost amongst multiple rooms, or in Venice, a city without grid logic. Further, it may point to an environment or alignment beyond borders, be it phenomenological or artistic.

The reconstruction, with the white looking more spearmint green, the yellow looking more dingy lime, frays either hypothesis from maintaining any traction. There was a divide between where I was standing and the implication of the installed elements. I couldn’t locate myself.

Palermo was notably reticent in commenting on his own work. One remark is applicable to the portion of his practice that has since been labeled as the “wall paintings,” experiments with wall planes within adjoining architectural composites. “[The work] does not stay in the photograph; it stays only in the memory of someone who actually stood inside [the space].”22

Palermo’s statement draws a distinction. You can’t enter into this work through treating such documentation as a window. I found myself wondering to what extent the photocopies on that wall were guiding the reconstruction, curatorially and publicly. This would be inadvertently moving against the very grain that Palermo asserted as fundamental to encountering such work.

In 1976, room 8 was raw; brick foundation walls held peeling white paint. Palermo supposedly took this as a point of engagement, in that the inclusions of the glass and the paint would provide a smooth counter-weight to a weathered and decrepit interior. Structural steel, a distinction from the wooden beams overhead, bracketed this bridge.

iPhone documentation of visitors reading didactic under white pane of reconstruction attempt, with primary document display at right, November 2009.

iPhone documentation of visitors reading didactic under white pane of reconstruction attempt, with primary document display at right, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

In 2009, a redesign of the southeast end of the Palazzo into a cafeteria took place during the early stages of exhibition planning. This construction included tearing out the plaster from a wall in an adjacent room, formerly 17, substantially exposing the underlying brick. When curators came for an early site visit, as was told to me, the potential for reconstruction appeared if the removal of plaster from an additional two walls along the perimeter of the room was carried out. The benefit of this removal is the exposure of an environmental history laid bare: a build up of a patch-worked foundation.

The installed beams in 2009 were steel. The distance from the floor to the beams’ lowest point was 210 centimeters. This is where the attempt, intention, and dream of doing a reconstruction met the logistics and pragmatics of present day Venice. Safety codes had been updated in the last thirty-three years. The curators decided this height would be approximately accurate for the reconstruction, as they found no exact record of the installation height from 1976.

The most prevalent way a sheet of glass is produced is through a floating process.23 This glass yields a 0.1 percentage of iron(II) oxide, a stated impurity of the process that causes a green tint. This tinting is present unless further chemicals are added to purify the product into crystal glass.24 This green is noticeable from the side view of nearly any sheet of glass, while the view through the sheet is often transparent.25

Safety codes again determined the decision regarding the glass used for the reconstruction. Laminated safety glass similar to that found in car windshields was required, which has an interlayer of polyvinyl butyral (PVB), a resin bonded between two or more layers of glass.26

Illustration of iron oxide amplification through layered gradation of loose, three-millimeter-thick sheets of float glass.

Illustration of iron oxide amplification through layered gradation of loose, three-millimeter-thick sheets of float glass. http://www.jti.net.cn/uploadfile/webeditor/20092314154959.jpg. Courtesy of Joint Talent Industries Limited.

When pieces are stacked, the visibility of green is equally multiplied. The 1976 invoice indicated the glass was 6 millimeters in depth. In 2009, my measurements of the glass with PVB interlayer record 25 millimeters.27 Due to these differences, colors change.

A difference in dimension was not limited solely to depth. The off-the-press sheets were 200 x 360 centimeters, a significant departure from the “200 x 300 cm” that appeared on the invoice tacked to the wall.28

The white, yellow, and red paints were gloss. The black was matte. All were house paint. The paint was generously applied to the corner-facing sides of each pane of glass.29

Germano Celant visited the reconstruction before the exhibition opened in June and confirmed, “This is exactly how it was.”30

On August 4, I found myself in Berlin. I took the opportunity to learn what more I could from this artwork.31 While on my way to a bookstore I ended up walking past the Neue Nationalgalerie.32 On this occasion the gallery was hosting an exhibition by Imi Knoebel, who was a close friend to Palermo.33 He had painted the interior of the glass perimeter walls white.34

Knoebel made white walls where there were none. This gesture, a direct engagement with the exposure that this building allows onto the artworks inside of it, evidently blocked the ability to look in, emphatically privatizing the exhibition within the space. At almost any other time one could walk around this pavilion and, from a distance and multiple vantage points be able to publicly observe the private exhibitions inside. Knoebel’s architectural commentary veiled the interior; only through purchasing a ticket was it possible to gain access to his exhibition. To enter the space visually was to enter it corporeally.

Intending to return at a later date, on August 16, I realized the exhibition had closed on the ninth. I raced down, hoping that de-installation would concentrate initially on works inside before the glass was cleaned. This was the case. I arrived an hour before dusk with all but one perimeter wall cleaned for the day. I returned the next morning, sat down on the plaza, and watched as the space was opened back up from the inside, the removal of the fourth wall, as it were.

Documentation of expanded document display of 2009 reconstruction attempt, requested by Adam Feldmeth, September 2009.

Documentation of expanded document display of 2009 reconstruction attempt, requested by Adam Feldmeth, September 2009. Courtesy of the Venice Biennale Press Office.

On the same day, some of Palermo’s works on paper were included in a show at the Deutsche Guggenheim.35 The artworks themselves were not the draw; more important was a reading room I anticipated would adjoin the exhibition.

While looking down at an obscure catalog, my thoughts raced. “Wait a moment, I’m in the Deutsche Guggenheim. Wasn’t there a Gerhard Richter work called Acht Grau that happened here? And he was a friend to Palermo. And didn’t Acht Grau involve large pieces of glass? Are they correlated to Himmelsrichtungen?” I looked up: across from me in the little L-shaped reading room was the Acht Grau catalog!36 I opened it and lo and behold, in an essay by Benjamin Buchloh, there were two views of Himmelsrichtungen in color.37 They were being used as historical markers, precedents for this 2002 work by Richter. While I had seen this catalog previously, I had not remembered these supplemental images. This was the first time I had come across a color image of the white pane since seeing the reconstruction.38

In the meantime, I had written again to Birnbaum and asked if it would be possible for me to travel to him so that we might talk face to face. He responded agreeably and we arranged a date. On August 19, I took a morning train and arrived in Frankfurt by midday.39

Before I could question the deviation in color, Birnbaum stated that there were no existing color photographs of the 1976 installation. I interjected and confirmed otherwise, pulling out my iPhone, which I had used to photograph the images from the Acht Grau catalog.40 Birnbaum excitedly acknowledged this evidence as contrary to the reconstruction.41 With a clear awareness of his responsibility, we set out to confront the problem.

Documentation of color photocopies from <em>Acht Grau</em> catalog, with Daniel Birnbaum’s handwritten notation, added to document display in september 2009, November 2009.

Documentation of color photocopies from Acht Grau catalog, with Daniel Birnbaum’s handwritten notation, added to document display in september 2009, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

The conversation shifted to a consultation as to whether a physical correction could occur, while still adhering to safety codes, in light of this new information. I posited that Plexiglas would be a non- distorting, cost-effective substitute yet warned that its primary drawback was that it too would constitute a deviation. I then posed an alternative: why not simply produce color photocopies and build onto the document display that had already been initiated?42

On September 4, two color photocopies were added to the documents tacked up in the room, as well as four handwritten questions, which Birnbaum and artistic organizer, Jochen Volz, had asked themselves shortly after the reconstruction was installed. The copied pages from the Richter catalog included handwritten bibliographic information in the margin, as well as an indication that the listed dimensions are incorrect.43

A footnote appears on one of the pages:

In 1976, Palermo produced his first major work using baked enamel on colored glass panes.44 Palermo produced Himmelsrichtungen (figs. 4 and 5) for the groundbreaking exhibition Ambiente Arte organized by Germano Celant for the 1976 Venice Biennale, the same exhibition that showed one of Dan Graham’s most crucial works using glass and mirrors, Public Space/Two Audiences.45 Richter confirmed in a conversation with this author [Buchloh] that Palermo’s Himmelsrichtungen left a major impression on him when he saw

the exhibition.

“Works on skylight by Daniel Buren,” another handwritten note, was added by Birnbaum to one of the black-and-white photocopies.46 This addition heightened attention to the titling from the 1976 catalog, appearing in fine print immediately above it. Here, the work was not titled Himmelsrichtungen, but Nord, sud, est, ovest.

Documentation of docent tour utilizing color photocopies of document display in discussion with school group, November 2009.

Documentation of docent tour utilizing color photocopies of document display in discussion with school group, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

Documentation of visitors studying documents in reconstruction attempt, November 2009.

Documentation of visitors studying documents in reconstruction attempt, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

The curators’ four questions:

One, Materiality: The glass produces a green hue most visible in the white panel. Was this really the case in 1976? Or did they use Plexiglas? Or was there a kind of glass that did not produce this effect 33 years ago?

Two, Placement: North remains north, and south is still south. But the building is the “same” and so is the institutional context. But if the architecture of the building has changed so that the space in question doesn’t exist, what is the most correct placement of the work? A space that has the right dimensions and the right skylight, or a reconstructed space that requires new walls to be built? We opted for the former.

Three, Time specificity: Between 1976 and 2009 the visual, cultural, and “legal” context has changed. The safety regulations in public buildings have changed, making a “correct” reconstruction illegal. Would a version that is illegal today be a more truthful reconstruction of a piece that was totally legal in 1976? We opted for the legal.

Four: Is the work a conceptual work that can be reconstructed after the demise of the artist? Or is it a painting that requires the unique brushwork of the painter’s hand? We don’t know.

These questions, while still curatorial, introduce a distinct tone of voice, divergent from that found in the didactic statement.

Regarding question one: the color images operate in conjunction with and expand on the clarity of this question. Without acting as an answer, the images encourage deeper consideration of its utility.

Documentation of visitor studying documents in reconstruction attempt, November 2009.

Documentation of visitor studying documents in reconstruction attempt, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

Question two skirts the particular issues that make the reconstruction what it is, precisely by indicating that “right dimensions” and “right skylight” are truth-based assertions. Because there is a skylight overhead and the room approximates the dimensions of 1976 does not mean ambivalence goes away and that we come back to some form of semblance. The skylight in room 8 was/ is proportionally more expansive than the skylight in the reconstruction. Yes, a skylight is found in both, yet in terms of the amount of light coming in, as well as the color of the sky presenting itself on the other side of that expanse of glass, where are we discerning differences?

In addition, I don’t understand the statement that the institutional context of the building has remained the same. It’s still the Biennale; the structure still stands in a rudimentary capacity, but the history that’s occurred before and after 1976 has built up the walls themselves. Pulling down the plaster is a clear indication that it has continued to change, that it is in no way the same.

Note the presumption in the third question that the initial installation was accomplished legally.

In the final question, if a work is deemed conceptual, it can therefore be reconstructed. This would seem to suggest a notion of Conceptualism in which execution instructions are provided. Palermo’s declared understanding of the document’s functionality runs counter to that of blueprints.

As for the brushwork, it’s not entirely clear if Palermo actually painted with his own hand. Two quite different accounts come from the same man, Franz Dahlem, who was present during the 1976 installation.47 He told Birnbaum that he himself painted the black pane of glass. On another occasion, he told Kuper that Palermo was unenthusiastic during installation, sitting in a corner, while Dahlem executed the entire painting. In regards to the artist’s hand, it is unclear who the painter was. I am unsure how the question of “unique brushwork” applies there.48

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009.

Close-up view of paint marks on floor in reconstruction attempt, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

From July onward I had become all the more curious as to who had painted the reconstruction. Initially, Birnbaum indicated to me that construction workers had installed the I-beams and the glass, and art students from the Academy in Venice, in an educational offsite initiative with the Biennale Foundation, applied the paint. Later, however, he updated me, reporting this wasn’t the case. The intention of involving students was vetoed by Dahlem, who advised that the construction workers should execute the painting portion as well.49

The display of these additional documents and notes effectively initiated a second phase of the reconstruction, albeit unannounced,50 a notion originally expressed by Birnbaum when referring to plausible material changes. Due to the presence of the Acht Grau catalog pages, portions of Buchloh’s essay as well as footnotes were now included in the room. This contradicted the didactic statement, which claimed that the “rich information” of the display was coming from the Biennale’s own archive. An outside source cultivated a spatial history that was beyond the room and the Biennale context. A series of names was invoked: Richter, “Ambiente Arte,” Celant, Graham, Buchloh. These names confront the static, abstract, contained artwork alluded to in phase one during the first half of the 2009 exhibition.

A differing white in color, as seen in the photocopy now displayed underneath the “white” pane, provided a basic visual discontinuity. Tours in Italian, English, German, and French, utilized the photographic color footnote as a way to contextualize the artwork and its reconstruction within educational discussion.

The installation height of the color photocopies, which seemed unusually low, stemmed from the height of the installer, a young boy, whose mother was director of the Biennale press office. Birnbaum saw inviting their participation as a tangible learning opportunity for the child.51 Additionally, I witnessed two occasions in which the reconstruction was applied as an elementary learning aid.52 This below-eye-level installation engaged a wider rotational range of eyes, neck, and body. The black-and-white photocopies at eye level were now lodged between variables of the “same” color.53 Negotiating the effects of the present color(s) in this way seemed to pragmatically calibrate the room into a questionable space.

I returned for the final two weeks of the Biennale in November, locating myself during exhibition hours in the room.54 I observed that, upon entering the room, around half the public would immediately utilize the document display as an orientation device. At this point, certain aspects, previously falling to the periphery, could be evaluated to enrich what was present.55

Numerous specks, drips, and splotches had dried on the floor and walls in each corner. “Blood spatter” in the red corner emphasized what was already a strange crime scene. In some places, there was evidence of attempts to cover up drips made while the paint was still wet, causing smearing behind one pane. These minute aspects become crucial to what the reconstruction attempt presents–to what was happening in this room, to what was constructed and what was unintentionally exhibited.56

The quasi-mirroring agency of Himmelsrichtungen,57 activated more explicitly in Acht Grau, reflected not people in the room but the architecture, the arranged elements of the installation, and the skylight above.58 In 2009, a ventilation system now hung between the glass and the skylight.59

When I first met Birnbaum, he told me I was the first person to ask questions of him pertaining to the reconstruction on its own terms. Some scholars I’ve come in contact with, who are directly affiliated with Palermo’s work, had recognized an incongruous reconstruction. On two occasions, I was told that in the end the attempt to reconstruct outweighed issues in variance.

Upon entering the room in November, I immediately noticed two safety lights had been installed on the southwest wall, above and between the white and red panes. This is another instance in which health and safety codes were asserted. The reason given was that due to shorter and darker days, onsite Biennale personnel were prompted to add floodlights in the room to maintain a level of visibility. This addition occurred in mid-October, unbeknownst to the curators. The inclusion of interior light further ruptures and complicates the disorientation and distance from the 1976 construction. It prompted what I observe to be a third phase.

There was now a determined wall plane from which an angle of light was cutting across the space. The lights were on during exhibition hours,60 though there was sufficient natural light for most of this timeframe. Dusk was from 5:00 p.m. onwards; the intensity of the safety lights only amplified the uneven lighting of the room and reconstruction therein. One morning, all power went off in the building for a six-minute period. During that time the room was lit solely by November daylight. Although everyone in the room recognized the lights had gone off, no observable connection seemed to be made that these lights were an elementary contradiction in the first place.61

The lights amplified the crime scene. The white used to cover up drips was refracted. The harsh light revealed glossy brush marks on the wall, the same used on the white pane.

The beams, following the textual “black steel” description, had received a coat of black paint during installation.62 The black used seemed congruous with the pigment of the black pane. Had one of the four colors now been made present in every corner of the room, rather than in its designated one?

An evacuation plan was posted in the northeast doorway between the Rachel Harrison room and the reconstruction. Indicating the nearest exit paths in case of an emergency, it also marked due north as an arrow pointing to the top of the page. This incorrect disorientation of the building further supplanted the compass-like reorientation of the installation.

From the countless photographs taken by the public, only a handful have appeared on the Internet.63}} Found on the Kunstforum website, photographs of the reconstruction seem to be doctored.64 Altering the brightness of the image removes all green from the white pane while greatly intensifying the white of the wall.65

There is word of another reconstruction returning to Barcelona, not within the span of a temporary exhibition, but permanently, a Celant initiative.66 If all reconstructive examples were laid out, a specific context of each would show five distinct orientations: Venice (H76), Barcelona (H02), London (H03), Venice (H09), and Barcelona (H_).

The point of curiosity and contention that I began to observe had developed from the very fact that an environment in which the colors were shifting was caused by the structure I was unavoidably viewing them through: a specific glass, brought on by contemporary safety codes, ultimately impacting the way in which the reconstruction constructed its own presence. The white paint succinctly exhibited the color of the glass.

While the glass in some capacity acts as a substrate for the painterly application of color, it was through its own interposed tint that the two alternated: the paint became a pseudo-substrate for the display of the glass color. The reconstruction, instead of returning the north, south, east, west alignment, or the German flag, actually brought emphasis back onto the architecture that supported it. The white of the one plaster wall was a ground not only for the “white” pane, but also the didactic, the document display, and the lights thereafter.

Neither this nor other discrepancies were initially addressed, even though didactic and documents had requested critical observance. This evasion was a contingency encouraged through a grayscale, black-and-white photo printout, copied book pages, and two invoices from an onsite archive. There was nothing, however, in this material that established a ground to enable the potential consideration of where “difference and repetition” was taking place. For example, why weren’t the contemporary invoices provided alongside the 1976 ones? I explored the option of finding these and having them added as well. After some delay, I asked contacts at the Biennale Foundation whether I could privately study them. I was told that this would be nearly impossible as the materials purchased for the reconstruction are buried within the general construction budget for the group exhibition, not in a separate art project budget, as the reconstruction was not an artwork.

In this case, was the artwork in the room at all? Through the formal didactic we are made aware it was destroyed in 1976, part of a previous Biennale exhibition, and now, we are presented with a reconstruction of something site-specific.67

“Site-specificity” as an artistic approach in the 1970s was not determined solely by location and geographical means, but was also situated by the temporality of the display. This is an aspect more readily forgotten as adopted styles, methods, and aesthetic tendencies grew out from the early instances. With the rise of adoption, recognition of the early practitioners’ imports built up in tandem to a desire on the part of exhibition spaces to receive a work that was specific to their site. What began as an objective tactic of rationalizing the particular infrastructures of an institution by means of confronting the physical, architectural spaces as catalyst, had morphed into institutions wanting to be in the spotlight of themselves. To have a site-specific work made on their grounds was taken to be a work made for them–specific becomes special–just for them and no one else: a glass slipper.68

The early examples of site-specificity were aware of the clock striking twelve and the vanishing process. The return of the exhibition space to its previous state was a necessary contingency. This acknowledgement seems almost relished, the magic and its ramifications all the more exhilarating and impressionable.69

H09 conforms to a present-day usage of site-specificity, in which the determined criteria for engagement are not limited to the existing characteristics of the space prior to the installment of the work. What is constituted not only involves research into the history and formation of the site through its characteristics, both exposed and underlying, but also into the history of previous examples deemed “site-specific,” which may aesthetically correspond to the proposed project. In other words, instances of site-specificity are now self-conscious acts, conscious of a history, which shapes the terms of production in a way that simply was not the case in 1976.

Inevitably, the reconstruction was of its time. That this reconstruction made mistakes is its very strength–in having been left to be mistaken, its weakness. If we squinted, we might feel like we were in 1976, or we might feel in some sense like we were in the artwork.

When I began opening my eyes, I found myself in 2009. The majority of what I have discussed tonight has been in relation to a variant in 1976 I never stood inside. If I observe that it doesn’t stay in the documents, but only inside the memory of someone who stood inside the space, what I have is not a derivative from 1976, but an example unto itself. What I have is what I did stand inside. Concurrently, it’s difficult when implications made in didactic, supplemental material, presented in situ, suggest a reconstruction directly observant of the past, inviting an engagement with something not present, physically or didactically.

Close-up view of mounted pane with yellow pigment, brush marks, foam buffer, glass cross-section with polyvinyl butyral interlayer and resulting effect through pane, primer and black pigment, yellow paint drips, layer of dust, and fingerprints on steel I-beam, November 2009.

Close-up view of mounted pane with yellow pigment, brush marks, foam buffer, glass cross-section with polyvinyl butyral interlayer and resulting effect through pane, primer and black pigment, yellow paint drips, layer of dust, and fingerprints on steel I-beam, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

View of used sugar packet on ledge of painted I-beam with layer of dust and fingerprints, November 2009.

View of used sugar packet on ledge of painted I-beam with layer of dust and fingerprints, November 2009. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

Installation view of southwest plaster wall with didactic, document display, white and red panes, reflected air ducts and safety lights, November 2009. Note: reflection of safety lights in red pane is a secondary reflection from the black pane.

Installation view of southwest plaster wall with didactic, document display, white and red panes, reflected air ducts and safety lights, November 2009. Note: reflection of safety lights in red pane is a secondary reflection from the black pane. Photo: Adam Feldmeth.

In light of the 2009 reconstruction, it seemed vital that the color documentation was introduced into the space within the timeframe of the exhibition. It was the most minimal, logical way to continue, based on the arrangement already initiated by the curators. The first half of the exhibition presented a reconstruction only accurate by assumption; for the second half, the room became active as individuals began exploring its limits. The specific intent of the additions was to place emphasis on the reactivation of the educational capacity that Daniel Birnbaum had hoped this reconstruction, and the exhibition at large, could stimulate. Whereas the Knoebel show at the Neue Nationalgalerie had merely excluded the passing viewer from its internal arrangement, here the putative viewer initially saw everything, and nothing. The green glass was always in plain sight, yet only authorized university students were to be invited into the critical discussion, to enter the discursive field opened up by the reconstruction. The educational moment was postponed to a later date, after the exhibition closed, for a group who would engage the “reconstruction attempt” historically and re-constructively. This group of students led by an authorial educator never materialized. Yet, if learners were required, they were already there, within the crowds.

Adam Feldmeth lives and works in Los Angeles and Berlin.


  1. “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 31, 2010-January 16, 2011.
  2. Wall didactic listing the title and materials for the reconstruction of Palermo’s Himmelsrichtungen in the “Fare Mondi/Making Worlds” exhibition at the Venice Biennale, 2009.
  3. Christine Mehring, Blinky Palermo: Abstraction of an Era (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 161. Since the 1976 Biennale, the work has been encountered most often in small, black-and-white images in various catalog publications.
  4. The 2009 Biennale was open from June 7 through November 22.
  5. The participating artists of this section were Vito Acconci, Michael Asher, Joseph Beuys, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Robert Irwin, Jannis Kounellis, Sol Lewitt, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman, Maria Nordman, Palermo, and Doug Wheeler. Note: Palermo, rather than Blinky Palermo.
  6. It’s unclear to me why a triangle was used on the plan to articulate something four-sided.
  7. In his space, Irwin cut a six-foot-square opening in a wall that led directly outside. This cut framed a Venetian setting with canal and gardens. He observed that because rooms 13 through 17 had central passageways, one could effectively stand at 13 and look all the way down into his space, with his back wall substantiating a limit, interrupting that through line, that through space of vision. He also installed a piece of glass in between rooms 16 and 17 to block exterior sound and humidity from this sightline. If someone happened to be standing at 13 and began walking towards this framed landscape, a transparent limit would be met at the threshold of the room, a corporeal obstruction. The only formal way in which to enter into the Irwin space would be by going all the way back down this throughway, exiting the building, entering at room 1, moving up around to room 7, and through room 8.
  8. Buren’s work, however, blanketed the entire expanse of the exhibition, where he applied his stripe motif to all of the skylights. In room 9, the skylight was opened.
  9. The “Ambiente Arte” catalog with documentation of Buren’s contribution (page 224) shows a man walking into room 8 under an I-beam just above his height on the right side of the image. A second image on this page framing a skylight with stripes is taken looking up from this beam into room 8. Irwin’s cut is visible in an image documenting Himmelsrichtungen (page 219). Germano Celant, Ambiente/Arte: Dal futurism alla body art (Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1977).
  10. To what extent did the alterations in these adjoining rooms affect the air passage and internal climate of room 8?
  11. The reconstruction was situated in the room numbered 24 on the 2009 plan, which had been room 17 on the 1976 plan. In 1976, the numbering designated the room; in 2009, the numbering signified the work of a particular artist. The number 24 (“Palermo”) appears in a second location on the 2009 plan, in a central room containing the work of six artists. Here it represents two artworks by Palermo also included in “Fare Mondi/Making Worlds”: a wall-mounted object, Graue Scheibe (1966), and a framed drawing, Raumecke II (1965).
  12. Instead of spending limited funds on rebuilding a partition to re-establish the former room 8, a decision was made to leave the room open for a contemporary artist, in this case Rachel Harrison. The curatorial team decided that the reconstruction, in their terms, would work in the former room 17 because its proportions and characteristics were relatively close to room 8.
  13. Palermo died in February 1977, only a few months after the Biennale closed. During de-installation, these large pieces of glass shattered. Stories vary: Palermo did not care to keep the work; it was always intended to be temporal to the timeline of exhibition (“site-specific”); the destruction was accidental. There is also a rumor that some of the pieces were salvaged, and are in storage somewhere in Germany.
  14. This was most likely the first time in which the actual paint quantities and glass dimensions were displayed.
  15. Recall, Mehring indicated oil paint.
  16. These additional pieces may have been used as test strips.
  17. Although not stated anywhere, this indication of the first of subsequent attempts anticipated an intended multi-university art student workshop to take place in spring/ summer 2010, in which a larger critical discussion would occur. This workshop was not realized.
  18. Black, red, and gold do comprise the bands on the flag. A variant GDR flag also includes white: a factoring in of Palermo’s birth in Leipzig.
  19. Attributed to cardinal points in unison with the movement of the sun across the sky, specific sets of four colors reflect a correlation to N, S, E, W by many groups. Each group respects a different set and/ or orientation of colors to directions. It should be noted that there are also internal contemporary disputes amongst members of groups as to what orientation is accurate to their heritage. Palermo had visited the American West; the scale of land and cultures he found there correspond as impressionable keys within this hypothesis. As well, this advanced a consideration of the work’s relation to Land Art. Natural light coming into the space in Venice and onto the color-backed glass furthered this line of thought, in that sunlight and its movement through the day lit the room and colors therein. Initially, a Cheyenne color set was attributed to the work. Susanne Kuper recalibrated this conception, noting that the Cheyenne’s schema is not represented in accordance to Palermo’s placement of the colors. She confirmed this in part by having a compass brought into the area where room 8 had been located.
  20. AUDIENCE: Adam, wait, the color [indiscernible]. ADAM FELDMETH: What happened? What did I do? [The cable connecting the computer to the digital projector became loose, shifting the colors of the projected image.] AUDIENCE: [Talking simultaneously] AF: Colors change. AUDIENCE: Tighten these. I know. AF: Wait. Stop touching it. AUDIENCE: Bravo. AF: Perhaps it’ll happen again. Someone indicate that because I’m not looking at the [projected] image.
  21. Susanne Kuper, “About Space and Time: Blinky Palermo’s Wall drawings and Paintings,” Blinky Palermo Retrospective 1964-1977 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 75.
  22. Mehring, 92. A reason for such a statement may have come from other artists in the 1970s exploring the capacities of the documentation of ephemeral works as potential conduits of the artistic moment. Palermo’s documents have subsequently been exhibited as placeholders for the “wall paintings,” such as in the room dedicated to their display at LACMA.
  23. Molten glass is floated over a bed of molten metal, http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Float_glass.
  24. This method was invented and the term “crystal glass” coined on the Venetian island of Murano. Venice as a city has an extensive history in the glass trade. Celant shared an anecdote with Birnbaum that Palermo’s use of the glass is tied to the Piazza San Marco in Venice. As was told, Palermo was particularly struck by the large storefront plate glass windows of high-end jewelry shops, which line the piazza. This anecdote appears to be a part of an oral history, not a recorded one.
  25. http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Glass.
  26. Other insulating attributes of PVB include blocking ninety-nine percent of ultraviolet light and dampening sound waves to an extent. http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/laminated_glass.
  27. There is an anecdote that, due to budgetary constraints, in 1976, a crystal clear glass was unaffordable and one with a green tint was used. Pia Gottschaler, Palermo: Inside His Images (Technische Universitat, Munchen, Dissertation, 2004), 68-69. It could very well be that there was some green in the glass in 1976. Yet due to shifts in thickness and the sandwiching of two pieces, the green of the iron(II) oxide was still significantly elevated in 2009.
  28. Unless an individual held a sense of the two-by-three aspect ratio, there was nothing stopping the direct assumption that the glass used for reconstruction was equivalent to the stated dimensions on the displayed invoice.
  29. The aspect that the glass has two approachable sides–one glassy smooth with color coming through in a monochromatic way in a naturally lit room and the other covered in textural brushwork in a shadowed corner–seemingly is and was a component of the internal dynamics of the work.
  30. As told by Birnbaum in conversation. It is unclear how inclusive Celant’s remark is here, whether he was referring specifically to the accuracy of the thick paint application or more broadly to the effectiveness of reconstitution.
  31. I had at the time only a foggy sensibility of what I had read and seen as a student in the CalArts library. [Gesturing due south in the direction of the library.]
  32. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, this square exhibition space with an upper plaza-level pavilion is made up of a glass facade with an expansive, open interior.
  33. Knoebel and Palermo studied together in Beuys’s class in Dusseldorf.
  34. Knoebel was invited to interact/react to the specific architecture of the Upper Pavilion. This interaction inaugurated a series of commissioned exhibitions at the space.
  35. A 2.5 kilometer walk from the Neue Nationalgalerie.
  36. Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter: Acht Grau (Berlin: Hatje Cantz/Deutsche Guggenheim, 2002).
  37. The Germano Celant Foundation holds the rights to these, the only color documentation of the work.
  38. The only other place I have found photographs of the work published in color is in the catalog of the 2002 Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) Palermo retrospective, curated by Celant; however, only the view of the red and the yellow panes is printed in this. The four pieces are inconceivably listed at 26.7 x 21 x 0.2 centimeters each, the dimensions of a four-part painting on metal with the same title. The catalog ends on Himmelsrichtungen, seemingly a keynote for the exhibition, which then traveled to the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2003. A reconstruction of the work was made in Barcelona; however, due to lack of funds, it could not materialize in London. As is clear in catalog images, the reconstruction in Barcelona exhibited its own unique variables. Blinky Palermo, Blinky Palermo (Barcelona: Actar/MACBA, 2003), 230-35.
  39. At the time, Birnbaum was in his ninth year as Rector of the Staedelschule fine arts academy, the location of our meeting.
  40. Richter, 18-19.
  41. Prior to the Biennale, Birnbaum emphasized that the venue would be “a site for production and experimentation.” Tim Griffin, “New Beginnings,” Artforum (May 2009), 163.
  42. The display had attempted to provide some form of historical reciprocity by distinguishing what was made in 2009 from what was recorded in 1976, through the use and presentation of the Biennale’s own archival holdings.
  43. “Two of four elements, each 100 x 130 x 50 cm.” It seems every time this work has been cataloged throughout the years, the material listing as well as the dimensions are substantially varied. Oil paint, acrylic, glass, steel, black steel. It’s been indicated that acrylglas (German for Plexiglas) was used. There are sub-varieties: acrylic on acrylglas, oil on acrylglas. All the scholarship can’t seem to agree or hone in to what was used on the most rudimentary level. In one case, the descriptive placement of the colors in the respective corners has simultaneously been misarranged and mis- credited to Kuper while being used as a counterpoint to the misdiagnosed Cheyenne orientation. Gottschaler, 69.
  44. Incorrect.
  45. Graham’s Public Space/ Two Audiences (1976) was located in room 10. It was reconstructed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in the retrospective “Dan Graham: Beyond,” February 15-May 25, 2009.
  46. Birnbaum told me in August that Buren had contacted him after the Biennale’s opening to note that his name wasn’t listed anywhere, while his work was on view in the exhibition in the representational format of a photocopy.
  47. An early supporter of Palermo and his work, Dahlem acted as a consultant in the reconstruction.
  48. However, if the issue is addressed as an implication of the contemporary moment, in regards to authorship by way of the hand, it is possible to recognize that, along with the fourth question, a significant amount of the hand was now present in the room, in the form of handwriting. Volz’s writing was on the wall, Birnbaum’s on paper.
  49. Palermo’s wall paintings were criticized in their time by some as being nothing more than paint on a wall. Mehring, 111. Gottschaler footnotes another story by Dahlem in which he remembers Palermo initially planning to list the piece as a collaboration, naming himself and Dahlem as coauthors, but artist Arnulf Rainer had subsequently convinced Palermo to maintain sole authorship on the wall label. Gottschaler, 69.
  50. However, a different style of tack, used to hang the two color photocopies and the four questions, was noticeable, indicative of a division in the supplemental documentation.
  51. With the student workshop making use of the reconstruction still intended, the room, from the get-go, was a catalyst for learning.
  52. In one instance, a pregnant mother and toddler enter as the child begins exclaiming, “Rosso! Verde…” “no, that’s Giallo,” corrects the mother, “look, this one over here,” pointing to the white pane, “that is Verde.” the child continues, “Nero!” the mother approves and they continue on their way. In another, a child swiftly enters the room, wheeled in by stroller, and is whirled around as the mother calls out the colors successively, “Red, yellow, black, green.”
  53. One looks up to a “white” and then down to a “white.”
  54. On a Monday, the day in the week the Giardini was closed, I set out to find if the addresses listed on the invoices still housed the businesses from 1976. The address of the paint supplier, Cartoleria Accademia, at 1051A Accademia, was not locatable, yet around the corner at 1044 Accademia was the location of the current Academy stationery store. The address of the 1976 glass supplier, Vetri Cristalli, was still used as such; however, Vetreria al Gaffaro is currently operating out of the space.
  55. My attentive detection of the room was noticed as well. In one instance, someone had lost a dragonfly hair clip on the ground. After I had leaned in, examined and photographed it, and then stepped away, a man proceeded to lean in and inspect it himself, which subsequently brought others to observe where he was looking. A moment of cultivated observation took place. A woman eventually determined it wasn’t artwork and that it could be picked up and pocketed. Prior to the hair clip,I had conducted other small experiments: for example, placing a coin on the floor and noting how long it took for someone to notice it. An engagement with the floor follows as the next extension of the rotational perspective from physical panes to color photocopies. I was curious to the extent individuals were looking down as well as looking up in the room, exploring more than just what was provided directly, at eye-level and overhead. Indirect observation had changed what had previously been directly assumable. This was crucial.
  56. In the final two weeks, a coffee cup, empty water bottle, folded crossword puzzle, varied bits of trash, a layer of dust, and fingerprints had collected on the beams.
  57. Venice was a primary exporter of tin-mercury-backed mirrors, a luxury good, around the time of their invention during the Renaissance. http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mirror.
  58. In 1976, the arranged elements are noted as being “inserted between the viewer and the actual space.” Kuper, 75. it should also be observed that panes of glass were placed between a viewer and Buren’s stripes on the skylight and the sky above.
  59. A portion of ducting behind the red corner was detached as the curators determined it would be visually interruptive. The remainder was foregrounded in the reflection on the glass.
  60. 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
  61. The lit color photocopies below showed no complement to support their inclusion.
  62. On close inspection with the naked eye, in the color photographs, the beams appear black yet also corroded; like the building’s interior, they were raw and weathered. This corrosion is also noticeable on Buren’s page in the 1976 catalog, in which the beam in the passage is foregrounded. The heightened contrast on the black-and-white photocopy rendered this distinction indeterminable.
  63. Most individuals photographed the works in exhibition as if the digital collection of images could take the place of looking at them. While some explored the room, the majority of people passed through, only glancing. Perhaps because there was nothing impeding the open floor, the room was interpreted more as a space of passage and passing glance than of pause.Contemporary Art Daily provided the caption: “[O]riginally made in 1976 and reconstructed for ‘Making Worlds’ this year. Four colored plastic panels are mounted high in the corners of a small, brick-walled room on black I-beams. A few documents hung on the wall documenting the original installation and its production. It’s a welcome grounding for the rest of the show, and a sensitive articulation of the exhibition’s theme.” http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2009/06/venice-the-palazzo-at-the-giardini-part-3/ A Dutch website noted: “A scientifically sound reconstruction…performed at the same spot.” http:// www.xs4all.nl/~chmkoome/ pagina’s/biennale%20venetie%2009.htm.
  64. http://www.kunstforum.de/inhaltsverzeichnis_biennale53a sp?band=198&artikel=198178.
  65. I have experimented with this on my own documentation and acquired quite similar results. The green tinting is effectively purged from the glass, leaving it grayer than the pigment on its reverse side.
  66. Celant has been variously involved in all iterations of Himmelsrichtungen. Additionally intriguing is the architectural model of Himmelsrichtungen that is rumored to be in the Germano Celant Foundation. I know of no scholarly custodian who has seen this object.
  67. In the Artforum interview prior to the Biennale’s opening, Birnbaum mentions the reconstruction within a history of its destruction, stating, “it was destroyed after the Biennale then, and we’ll do the same after the show this year.” This comment is made directly after mention of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s performance involving the artist shattering large mirrors with a sledge-hammer, which also took place as part of the 2009 exhibition. Birnbaum remarks that these examples “[offer] counterproposals to the precious object.” Griffin, 165. Yet, does incorporating the re-destruction as a component part to the reconstruction frame more the artwork or the preciousness of its myth? Considering the romanticism implied in the gesture, what method would they use for this re-destruction? Would a sledgehammer be taken to safety glass?
  68. In the fairytale, the glass slipper does not transform back to its worldly state in the way that the horses and carriage return; on the contrary, the slipper remains tangible and the key for the prince to bring back his princess. The gift bestowed onto her, to attend the ball “properly,” becomes the specificity that allows the prince to reactivate Cinderella’s temporal princess-ness, to reconstruct his not so royal lady.
  69. A lmost like being able to have the cake and eat it too,
    yet in this case perhaps pumpkin pie is more apt.
Further Reading