The Art of Curating and the Curating of Art
Source:Utopian display Author:Jens Hoffmann Date: 2014-03-28 Size:
Artists might just be the ones who will save the curators...

This lecture is based on an essay that I wrote in 2004 for the forthcoming issue of the MANIFESTA JOURNAL, which is investigating the relationship between artists and curators in the set-up of art exhibitions today. It seemed appropriate to me to go back to this particular text and this specific discussion in the framework of the series of the lectures here at NABA under the title UTOPIAN DISPLAY as it outlines particular shifts in exhibition making and curatorial practice that seem in my opinion to be key to this sequence of talks and lectures.

The aim of my essay was to circumnavigate the tangled relationship between artists and curators and particular to investigate exhibitions in which artists have taken on the role of curators. Furthermore the text tried to examine how this relationship has fostered a greater creativity on the side of curators, turning them from simple exhibition organizers into exhibition auteurs and creators themselves.

Traditionally, curators were responsible for acquiring and preserving works of art for museum collections, organizing their display and analyzing them in some form. In recent years, this began to change, as the coordination of exhibitions, mostly temporary group exhibitions, became the focus of curatorial investigation and operation.

When we look just a few decades back, the curator was someone who would quite anonymously organize an exhibition in a museum or another form of art institution in rather conventional terms. During the second half of the 20th century, curators began to emancipate themselves from being purely the custodians of museum collections or the administrative organizers of exhibitions. They began to articulate a particular form of creativity in the organization of exhibitions, which were increasingly based on particular themes or other over-arching curatorial concepts. From Harald Szeemann to Hans-Ulrich Obrist this chapter came to a close towards the end of the 1990s when a more differentiated and complex notion of curating emerged. Today many curators display a thematic consistency in their work and despite the long proclaimed death of the author they are being compared more and more with authors who would demonstrate an artistic development through time, creating an oeuvre not unlike a film director, a writer or a visual artist. Over the last decades, a diversity of curatorial approaches has helped to make this emancipation possible and we have never seen more variation in curatorial models. Today even the most conservative art institutions are acknowledging that curators occupy a more central role in the development of exhibitions than only a couple of years ago and have hired many of the curators formally working independently to run museums, art centers and kunsthallen around the globe.

Interesting for the discussion here is a tendency in curating that is following a string of continuous critique mainly articulated by artists that question this new centrality of the curator in the organization of exhibitions.

What is particularly engaging is that the emancipation of curating would not have happened without the artists and their concepts and strategies. In order to break free from the artistic and curatorial routine as well as from the political power structures of museum and other art institutions curators have clearly learned from artists. On the one hand we see curators that appropriate models from so-called Institutional Critique, on the other, we see curators that try to question and take apart exhibition structures and institutional models with strategies known from 1960s and 70s Conceptual art. Here the institutional conditions and the fundamental parameters of exhibitions become the conceptual material for curatorial work and institutional programs. What those appropriations of artistic strategies by curators have created, is a closer relationship between artists and curators and often a more visible involvement of artists in curatorial practice. Interestingly enough the issue of authorship brings artists and curators together again when we think about the fact that more and more art emerges out of a conscious confrontation with its own history and through that assumes a different form of authorship not unlike the one of the curator. By confronting, questioning and examining the standards of the past, the artists signal that they knowingly interpolate themselves into a tradition in which individual difference arises out of strategies of reading, recognizing and transforming past models into something else and new, just as a curator would do it.

Artists that curate exhibitions are not necessarily a new species. Through out the history of art we see plenty of examples of artists taking the making of an exhibition into their own hands. One of the best known historical examples is an exhibition curated by French painter Gustave Courbet, who, when not admitted to show during the World Fair in Paris in 1855, organized an exhibition on his own entitled Le R‚alism that gave birth to a entirely new style of painting. Specifically the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century organized many of their exhibitions without the help of any institution or curator, which many of these movements despised anyhow. The profession of curating at that time was largely related to that of the custodians in museums, the caretakers of a collection, rather than that of a creative individual organizing an exhibition in the way we know it today.

Think for example about the famous Armory Show in 1913 organized by American painters Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies with significant curatorial input from Marcel Duchamp who had just arrived in New York that year. Duchamp fundamentally influenced the selection of artists for this exhibition, which in fact introduced Modern Art to the United States. Yet, Duchamp is also interesting for another reason. His gesture of taking everyday objects into the exhibition context not only radically transformed the way we think about art but it also changed the way we think about the making of exhibitions. He showed how strongly this form of presentation shapes our understanding and experience of art. Duchamp managed to uncover the mechanisms of the exhibition context when he made clear that any object exhibited in an exhibition could potentially be a work of art and change its identity and meaning through this simple gesture.

Moment Ginza, an exhibition by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in 1996 for the Magasin, an art center in Grenoble, France is a more recent and also very different example for a show organized by an artist and relates to the idea of exhibition making as a continuation of art making. The show aimed to recreate a particular atmosphere and situation on Ginza Street in Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon, the moment when the street is closed for traffic and taken over by pedestrians. The engaging element about this particular exhibition is that the show was in fact nothing else than an artwork by Gonzalez-Foerster, who brought together other artists’ work to create her own individual work of art, an environment that would relocate the specific atmosphere of Ginza to Grenoble by means of artists’ work.

Far more spectacular was an exhibition entitled Freeze (1989), which was curated by a group of students from Goldsmith College in London, most noticeably the artist Damien Hirst. A show that, under the heading YBA (Young British Artists), subsequently propelled most of its participants to temporary super-stardom. While it had only a limited influence on the development of art on a global scale, it had a tremendous impact on the British art scene and, in particular, their relationship to the public. This show, like others curated by artists, was born out of the desire to show art works to a public under a self-organizing principle. It was less the aspiration to question the roles of artist and curator or to reflect upon the nature of exhibitions and their parameters or even to understand exhibition making as art making with different means. What drove Freeze was the ambition to present art to a wider public without having to wait for a curator, a gallery owner or an institution to come along, pick them up and show them.

Yet another example of exhibitions as works of art curated by artists are a group of shows related to the context of Institutional Critique. Towards the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, a group of exhibitions organized by artists began to critically engage with the system of exhibitions and art institutions, most notably The Play of the Unmentionable by Joseph Kosuth, organized at the Brooklyn Museum in 1990 and Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992) at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Both exhibitions re-curated the collections of the two museums from an artist’s point of view, Kosuth’s in connection to issues of censorship, Wilson’s in regards to Baltimore’s relation to the history of slavery. Another exhibition that would fall under the heading of Institutional Critique curated by an artist was Viewing Matters: Upstairs curated by Hans Haacke in 1996 at the Museeum Boijmans-Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in which the artist worked with the permanent collection of the museum. The shows that the artist collective Group Material curated within the Whitney Biennials in 1985 and 1991 are additional examples for a critical investigation into curatorial processes by artists through the making of exhibitions. Americana (1985) set up as an alternative to the Whitney Biennial in its effort to be a survey of US art, became a form of “Salon de Refus‚s” and included artwork that Group Material thought should have been in the Biennial. In 1991 they organized Aids Time Line consisting of various kinds of art works and materials relating to the Aids crises, an issue the artists believed should have been addressed by the Biennial. Two other noticeable exhibitions/programs of that period curated by female artists were Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here…(1989) and Barbara Kruger’s Pictures and Promises: A Display of Advertising, Slogans and Interventions (1981). Rosler’s program comprised of a cycle of three group exhibitions and four public forums accompanied by a resourceful publication. Hosted by the Dia Art Foundation in New York, the project focused on questions relating to urbanism, homelessness, housing, and tenant organization as well as architectural and urban planning, real and utopian. In the same way as Rosler continued with her program of personal artistic investigation into issues of larger social and political significance Kruger’s show can be seen as an extension of her reflections regarding the power of mass media and advertisement. Pictures and Promises took place at The Kitchen in New York and included a dense installation of advertisements juxtaposed with works by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine, Laurie Simmons, James Welling, Hans Haacke, Hannah Wilke and others.

A decade later another US artist, Mike Kelly, began to curate one of the best known artist-curated exhibition of recent times: The Uncanny. Kelly began to work on this project as early as 1993 when it was part of the celebrated exhibition Sonsbeek 93 in The Netherlands curated by Valerie Smith. A decade later Kelly redesigned and updated his exhibition in cooperation with Tate Liverpool and also presented the exhibition in Sigmund Freud’s hometown Vienna. The show featured artists such as: Paul McCarthy, Judy Fox, Tony Matelli, Ron Mueck, Paul Thek, Tony Oursler in addition to Kelly’s own collection of sculptures called The Harems, consisting of 15 different objects which the artist associates with his childhood and adolescence in general. With The Uncanny Kelly explored issues of memory, recollection, horror, and anxiety in connection to his own personal collection of objects.

At this point, I want to branch out to bring in two examples of projects I personally have been involved with that specifically confuse the roles of artist and curator against the backdrop of a critical examination of large scale international group exhibitions: The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist (2003) and the 6th Caribbean Biennial (1999). Both introduced other parameters for the idea of curating as art and art as curating namely the possibility of co-authorship in regards to the making of an exhibition.

The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist originally developed out of a conversation with German artist Carsten H”ller. The project began in 2003 when we asked a group of around 30 artists to send us a short written concept for the next Documenta. The question on which this project was based on was rather simple: “What would you do if you would be asked to curate the next Documenta?” Yet, instead of asking this question to a number of curators we asked artists to respond and write us their ideas, reflections and thoughts in relation to large-scale group exhibitions and the complex relationship between artist and curator. All contributions were subsequently published in a book that brought together over 30 essays on the issue. Interestingly enough the project was mainly understood as a form of advocacy for the cause of the artist and triggered many reactions in relation to the supposedly existing power structure between curators and artists.

The 6th Caribbean Biennial, which I co-curated with Maurizio Cattelan in 1999, disordered most parameters of an exhibition. Not only did no exhibition ever take place but the co-authorship was part of Cattelan’s original strategy for the creation of this artwork of his. The exhibition was essentially a critique aimed at the boom of Biennials in the 1990s set up by an artist and a curator. However, during the process of its creation, it became evidentially clear that it was a work of art made by the artist who had integrated me, a curator, into this piece to give it the validation of being an actual art exhibition. We selected the ten artists that had most frequently participated in Biennials during the 1990s and brought them together on a little Caribbean island for a week of holiday after having done the usual marketing and promotion campaign generally associated with a Biennial. We placed large-scale advertisements announcing the Biennial in the most widely distributed art magazines, sent out invitation cards and press releases, formed a board of directors and even appointed a president of the Biennial. Obviously all of this was false, apart from the two curators and the artists actually traveling to the island. As cynical as this project might come across, its complex nature rescued it from being simply another comical stunt in which the art world would congratulate itself for supposedly being reflective.

Another notable example of artists and curators collaborating in the making of an exhibition was Utopia Station at the 2003 Venice Biennial which was jointly set up by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, the art historian Molly Nesbit and the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. However, this specific form of curatorial partnership has clearly not begun recently. Interesting for this discussion are the activities of the Independent Group, an assembly of artists, writers, designers and architects centered around writer and critic Lawrence Alloway in London during the 1950s. Alloway was at that time the Director of Exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which functioned as a hub for the many activities of the Independent Group. They put together such visionary shows as Collages and Objects (1954) and an Exhibit (1957) which Alloway co-curated with artists Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore and about which Hamilton remarked: “I wanted to make the exhibition into an artform in its own right – an exhibition about an exhibition.” Over the years the ICA has followed the tradition of artist curated exhibitions. A very inspirational exhibition curated by an artist at the ICA was the Institute of Cultural Anxiety, which coincided with a number of artist curated exhibitions at that time in the UK. Organized by Jeremy Millar in 1994 the Institute of Cultural Anxiety set out to challenge society’s belief in scientific research questioning its neutrality on the grounds of conceptual fluidity. The exhibition included artists such as Liam Gillick, Russell Haswell, Sheila Lawason, Chet Fleming, Philip Riley and others.

Since being appointed as the Director of Exhibitions at the ICA in 2004 I started the exploration of the involvement of artists in the programming of an institution. Two exhibitions mark the beginning of this investigation: Artists’ Favorites and Kl_tterkammer, both presented in 2004. Artists’ Favorites asked the questions: Which artworks do artists consider important and influential? Which pieces would artists like to see exhibited? What artworks have had an influence on other artists’ work? It examined these questions by inviting a distinguished group of internationally active artists from various generations to each select and introduce an artwork of personal significance. In addition, each artist was asked to elaborate on the reasons behind their choice. These statements were presented alongside the artworks in the gallery. By selecting one of their favorite artworks the artists began a conversation regarding their own individual practice and about particular influences on their work. Consequently building a net of relationships, references and affinities that went further than their own practice and the artwork they selected for the exhibition. In essence the selected works held an altered significance, standing not only for themselves and the artists that created them but in addition representing the artists who selected them. The result – a subjective and multifarious collection of artists’ individual choices – suggested the associative relationships between artists and artworks, whilst at the same time mirroring the broad spectrum of contemporary practice.

With the exhibition Kl_tterkammer German artist John Bock and I took the idea even further and conceived an exhibition in which Bock took on the role of the artist and the curator and ultimately allowed the separation of solo exhibition and group exhibition to collapse. Rather than presenting a survey of his films, performances and installations produced since the mid-1990s, Bock conceived an exhibition, which brings together his major interests and influences. The title, Kl_tterkammer, refers to Bock’s upbringing on a remote farm in northern Germany, where it designates an area used as a storage or working environment. In a similar fashion, Bock treated the ICA galleries as an enormous play thought space. In his practice, the artist samples a diverse range of artistic and non-artistic disciplines resulting in disordered and often absurd connections. Mixing art references with theatre, economics and fashion, Bock realized a vast and often-anarchic collage that amplifies the chaos of the everyday and reaffirms the contradictions of an unknown reality that exists beyond our common understanding of the world. Kl_tterkammer continued the artist’s frantic investigation into the possibilities of how we experience and make sense of the world. Avoiding a single position that attempts to rationalize contemporary art or thinking, the artist has created an unrestricted installation full of intentional inconsistencies that never aim at reaching any form of conclusion. Within the Lower Gallery of the ICA four seemingly haphazard buildings, connected by a series of crawl spaces, ladders and walkways, were constructed with everyday materials: from hay bales to aluminum foil; textiles to scaffolding. Into these structures, Bock assembled a surreal collection of artworks by more than 40 artists, appropriating sculptures, paintings, films and artifacts he created a large group exhibition of works that that had in some form inspired or influenced him over the years. Kl_tterkammer was, however, also a monumental artwork, a vast expansion of the concerns and interests that drive Bock’s own practice. The artist selected from across the visual arts, history, film and theatre individuals who share his interest in action, experiment with everyday materials and play with humor and the absurd.

A historically important example for this discussion in regards to the collaboration of artists and curators in the organization of exhibitions within institutional frameworks was the collaboration between artist El Lissitsky and the visionary curator Alexander Dorner. Dorner desired a radically different curatorial mode, which would reintegrate cultural practices into everyday life. He was interested in the concept of a flexible museum, the equivalent of a power plant with its perpetual 24-hour activity. He believed that the only way to overcome the inertia of the curatorial practices of his time was to offer radical trans-disciplinary approaches. Dorner maintained that only these could provide an adequate context for the complexity of contemporary society, and reveal the diversity of the aesthetic practices it had produced. One of his main undertakings was the creation of the Abstract Cabinet, set up in 1927 in collaboration with artist El Lissitsky for the museum in Hanover, Germany where Dorner was working. Dorner’s and Lissitsky’s intention was to create a trans-disciplinary environment as an appropriate expression of the diversity of the artistic expression of their time by exhibiting paintings, drawings and sculpture.

Other significant instances in relation to artists and curators working together is an exhibition simply called ? curated by Ute Meta Bauer and the artist Fared Armaly as a section of the exhibition Now Here at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark in 1996 in which the collection of the museum was put into the storage space to create room for contemporary art. Armaly’s and Bauer’s section was addressing the idea of the museum as a site for “cultural production” and it is interesting to note that Bauer herself was an artist working mainly in collaborations before turning professionally to the practice of curating. That an artist’s voice is always present in the set up of group exhibitions and that most curators dialogue and confer with artists when curating a show is something that was acknowledged by What If? curated by Maria Lind in 1999 and famously “filtered” by British artist Liam Gillick, a show that would look into art on the verge of architecture and design and the relationships between those fields.

The shift of roles can also move the other way around when curators all of a sudden become artists themselves. Many critics have pointed out that curators such as Szeemann, Obrist and others are in fact artists that use the medium of the exhibition as other artists use the medium of painting. Yet it feels more like an easy dismissal of their achievements as curators and their desire to discursively address curating and its potential and not only what art could possibly be. Consequently, it seems important to draw a clear line between the different practices to be able to place the different variations of the art of curating and curating of art correctly, in order to be able to foster a differentiated discussion of this issue. Despite this there are practitioners such as Seth Sieglaub who probably took on every role that existed in the art world, from gallery owner and publisher, to curator, artist and writer, etc. or more recently someone like curator, writer and artist Matthew Higgs. Both deliberately blur all borders and became so-called ‘multitaskers’ for which clear definitions do not seem important at all.

A lot of anxiety is generated in relation to the fact that more creatively and critically working curators are moving into institutions and apparently shifting sides. But looking at examples in which this has happened most independent curators that moved into institutions have managed to change the institutions more than the institution has managed to change them: Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the Muse‚ d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris, Nicolas Schaffhausen at the Kunstverein in Frankfurt, Vasif Kortun at Platform Garanti in Istanbul, Maria Lind at the Kunstverein in Munich, Maria Hlavajova at the Basis for Actuelle Kunst in Utrecht, Nicolas Bourriaud and J‚r“me Sans at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and many more. The are all institutional curators but far from being institutionalized curators!

But still, the institutionalization of curating and particularly the academization through many, some would say too many, curatorial courses and programs around the world seems like a danger even a threat to numerous artists and curators. The question is, however, if it will be a benefit for the practice of curating to be domesticated once again or if it will suffer from being robbed of all the discrepancies, contradictions, as well as its often anarchic character.

No matter what, as long as artists are taking on the job of curators there is no worry that it will ever become a one-dimensional and uncreative game with a stable set of rules played by a group of uncreative exhibition organizers. After all, artists might just be the ones who will save the curators.

[Editor] 孙雯