Rules of the Game
Once upon a time, a curator's principal expertise was limited to hanging shows, eyeballing a painting with a connoisseur's gaze and sagely suggesting that it be re-hung a couple of inches to the left. While there were always notable exceptions, it has only been during the last decade that curatorial practice has been reinvented on a grand scale, and that the curator has been elevated to a kind of cult status
Last year saw a plethora of publications devoted to the musings and opinions of contemporary curators, including Stopping the Process?, Conversations at the Castle and Cream, and as exhibition-making becomes a new focus for so-called critical theory, curatorial studies are developing into a growth industry. The seedbed of this emerging cult involves several key scenarios, not least the detailed scrutiny of the museum's ideological baggage that was spearheaded by artists as well as theorists in the 80s. Museums, meanwhile, have increasingly responded to fiscal pressures by creating 'event' exhibitions designed to procure a high media profile. With the gradual globalisation of contemporary art, the mega-show has obtained dramatic prominence: 1997 produced ten international biennials in cities around the world. These exhibitions helped create a conspicuous platform for curators, who were called upon to make sense of a rapidly expanding art world in which traditional critical criteria no longer applied. At a moment when a malaise lingered around the future of the contemporary art museum, the curator appeared as a potential saviour figure.
And suddenly everybody started doing it. In recent years, major exhibitions have been organised by rock musicians, philosophers, film-makers, theatre directors, cultural theorists, anthropologists, writers and artists. In some cases, this use of non-professionals reflects the desperation of museums for novelty and innovation, but it is also evidence of a sea change in curatorial activity. The job description has not only been expanded, but now encompasses multiple models: the curator as producer, as team leader, as search engine, as poser of questions. According to Hou Hanru, who recently co-organised the exhibition 'Cities on the Move', today's curator 'is a typical global man'. Okwui Enwezor, chief curator of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial and the newly appointed director of Documenta XI, complained in a recent interview that 'curatorship has not been properly and adequately theorised so as to push it to that space where it can begin to approach the sophistication of the novel'. When it does, the curator will presumably be a new type of author.
Both Enwezor and Hanru are part of a new breed of nomadic curators who aim to be self-reflective about their practice in a manner that also sets out to correct the excesses of the star-studded mega-exhibitions of the 80s. Yet while ever-more baroque theories of curating are being formulated, few members of this new group seem interested in significantly addressing the most vital area facing any exhibition-organiser: how to reanimate and deepen the audience's experience of art.
Several salient points define the new curatorial rhetoric: an emphasis on globalisation, alternative spaces and distribution mechanisms, audience interaction and an open-ended, team style of curating. Of all these concerns, globalisation is the issue that has been grappled with most vigorously. It's a cliché to say that we live in a moment when art production has become geographically decentred, when no single major urban area or country stands as an aesthetic capital, when all art 'centres' have become peripheries. But the landscape for art is changing, and as an increased pattern of cultural exchange has emerged, the migratory artist has become a notable fixture. In response, curators have organised shows that seem to emulate the inclusiveness of the United Nations - almost as if that was in itself a prerequisite for achieving an exhibition that might truly claim to be 'contemporary'.
The thorny issue in such shows - as first became apparent in the critical assault on Jean-Hubert Martin's 1989 'Magiciens de la terre' - is how to juxtapose works from different cultural traditions in a way that respects and engages with the original context of each. In other words, how to avoid what Patrick Murphy, curator at Philadelphia's ICA, calls the 'stay at home tourism model... of presenting art from other places as if other places are all the same'. Or as if art from other places inevitably offered up a mirror image of the familiar.
Despite admirable efforts to feature artists from areas outside the traditional art hubs, many recent global-style exhibitions end up looking conceptually thin or abstruse; as a group they seem to be instituting a kind of polyglot regionalism as similar casts of international 'discoveries' appear in identically 'open-ended' shows. Cream - a book posing as an exhibition, with ten curators each selecting works by ten different artists - is a case in point. When it was published, some expressed concern that it was a retrograde project which, in 80s-fashion, would set up a new 'hot list' of art stars; but for the most part, the choices made by participating curators reflect a hot list already in place. Without significant texts on the artists' work, the book is little more than a flashy 'event' publication: unwieldy, confusing, and ultimately conformist, it mimics the worst traits of the international biennial.
Amid the rush of curatorial enthusiasm for a UN approach to exhibition-making, a few reasonable voices have emphasised the need for an integration of the global and the local. The New Museum's Dan Cameron has coined the term 'glocal' - not exactly a word that rolls off the tongue - to identify this approach. But the problem even with this modified globalism is that art isn't always made in an international context. Local scenes, as the history of pop music repeatedly demonstrates, are often hothouses of groundbreaking innovation. Through shared responses to their immediate surroundings and to each other's work, neighbouring artists can create a feedback system that intensifies their production and marks it with a specific community of concerns.
But the new global-style curators are prone to dismiss exhibitions with a local focus as examples of 'regionalism', a bête noire of current practice. Instead, they prefer to play out the role of jet-set flâneur. As 21st-century connoisseurs, their trump card is that they possess information available to only a small number of people, because few can manage to spend the time, money and energy constantly travelling the globe in order to stay on top of a growing number of ever-changing local scenes.
Even for the frequent-flier club there are limits, though, and as a result the paradigm of curator as team leader has become increasingly popular. In this scenario, the director of an international mega-exhibition appoints a team of collaborators, each of whom may be responsible for curating a distinct section with its own theme or organising principle. Enwezor, who used this approach for his Johannesburg Biennial, comments that team curating is 'a way to produce a certain kind of density in an exhibition that otherwise might become overly simplified'.
But why an exhibition should 'otherwise become overly simplified' is a puzzling matter. Does the novel, the model of sophistication to which Enwezor apparently aspires, become overly simplified because it has only one author? Yet for the 'typical global man' this is somehow a problem, and team curating has evolved as the solution. The result has been a minor epidemic of multiple-theme exhibitions that - rather than risk a potentially reductive interpretative frame - champion an open-ended, unresolved eclecticism.
In some respects, this position seems to be part of a tired Postmodern reaction against 'master narratives'. Frequently it serves as a cover for a lack of interesting ideas; it also mistakenly assumes that a complicated exhibition is necessarily a complex one. While no one would want to argue for a restrictive style of curating that closes down potential readings of art works, this model often leads to shows that seem unsatisfyingly fuzzy and intellectually timid, failing to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
For some curators, the museum itself is seen as undesirably limiting. Taking inspiration from shows such as Jan Hoet's 'Chambres d'Amis', in which art was shown in Ghent apartments, Barbara Vanderlinden cites the declining interest in rigid structures of permanent exhibition space as a defining aspect of her generation of curators. In her contribution to Stopping the Process? Maia Damianovic sums up this viewpoint by observing that traditional spaces are 'less and less suitable for interaction with vibrant, innovative art ... The practice of presenting artwork in neutral, white interiors is a case in point: these become as sterile as the rooms themselves, far removed from the messiness of differentiated and specific situations'.
Rather than insisting on a wholesale rejection of the museum, other curators have tried to transform and 'relax' its traditionally austere atmosphere by such gimmicky means as chill-out rooms, ambient soundtracks and home-cooking in the galleries. This literal approach to humanising the museum, to imbuing it with a comforting domesticity, seems radically naive. If people simply wanted to feel at home, they'd stay at home; presumably, they visit a museum when they want to engage with art, and such tokenistic gestures do little to enhance and expand their possible relationships with the art on display.
This same kind of dumb literalness is also evident in attempts by various curators to create 'interactive' exhibitions that emphasise audience participation, such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist's 'Do It!' show, which featured instruction pieces by various artists. Ostensibly this approach aims to democratise the museum and knock art off its elitist pedestal, but obediently following a set of mapped-out instructions is clearly a long way from anything that could be considered truly interactive. As Irit Rogoff notes (also in Stopping the Process?), many such exhibitions follow a model of participation where viewers are 'treated like mice in some scientific experiment in which they scuttle through mazes and pedal on carousels in order to prove some point'.
The most thrilling moments in any exhibition are when the art catches us off-guard, takes us by surprise and launches us into moments of unpredictable insight, wonder and pleasure. Unfortunately, the very act of exhibiting an object as 'art' often dampens the possibility of this happening. As a character in Thomas Bernhard's novel Gargoyles (1986) observes after visiting a gallery, the 'art was destroyed by the very act of being exhibited'. It's as if the opportunity for an 'art experience' is snuffed out by the exhibitionist bravado of the display - as if the work was prostituted, in the sense of being degraded or corrupted, by its conspicuous presentation. Perhaps it's no coincidence that one meaning of the Latin root of 'prostitute' is 'to publicly expose or exhibit'; likewise, most art gets exhibited in ways that leave no doubt as to how it should be regarded.
The most compelling adventures in contemporary curating set out to derail this tendency and to re-engage viewers by catching them unawares. Rather than requiring elaborate and complicated schemes, this is often achieved by relatively straightforward means. The Anonymous Museum, collectively run by a group of Chicago artists in the late 80s and early 90s, mounted group shows in which works were displayed without any identifying labels. This simple tactic, which undercut the museum's usual role as dispenser of authoritative information, inevitably had a profound impact on the experience of visitors as the art on display was no longer a known quantity, but took on a slightly mysterious aspect that invited scrutiny and encouraged acts of individual discovery. Jim Shaw's exhibition 'Thrift Store Paintings' achieved a similar result, not only because the identities of most of the contributing artists were unknown, but also because the mind-boggling range of formal solutions and unusual content in the work provoked many visitors to drastically reassess their evaluation of fine art, much of which by comparison seemed constrained and dull.
One way curators can reanimate our curiosity is by instilling doubt about what it is we're looking at, and what rules or criteria we should be using to examine it. This is the approach taken by David Wilson, director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which for almost a decade has left visitors puzzling over the veracity of its exhibits as well as the question of whether it is an actual museum or some kind of elaborate art installation. In a more straightforwardly tendentious fashion, this strategy also distinguishes Fred Wilson's work, most notably his 1992 'Mining the Museum' show at the Maryland Historical Society which mixed up categories of displaying in a way that disrupted the mythic history presented by the host institution's exhibits.
Following a related tangent, a number of artists, among them David Hammons and Jeffrey Vallance, have developed a furtive approach to exhibition-making that directly involves viewers in acts of discovery and re-evaluation. In 1995, Hammons installed a selection of his work in a New York store that sold African and Asian artefacts; not only were his own unlabelled pieces displayed side by side with the traditional wares, but they were also largely fabricated from items in the store. To find Hammons' art, viewers were forced to pay attention and investigate, and ultimately to make judgements about what might, and what might not be, contemporary works of art. In the mid-90s, Vallance curated shows in alternative venues such as the Liberace Museum and Las Vegas Clown Museum, intermingling works by 'artists' with the host institution's permanent collections so that it was often difficult to tell them apart.
To reinvent curatorial practice, it is not enough simply to show different kinds of art, or to show art from different places or in different places. To create exhibitions that enable people to be caught off guard by what they're seeing, curators need to begin by addressing the audience's actual experiences in a gallery. And this involves re-imagining the conceptual context in which art is encountered by viewers.
It's not a question of needing new formats or special venues; indeed, some shows may be more provocative or stimulating in commercial galleries than in offbeat locations. What is needed are strategies that create a psychological space for the critical first phase of our encounter with art works, which occurs on an emotional and experiential level. If curators wish to address a larger audience than their peers, they need to take that into account. You cannot expect viewers to explore the discursive and theoretical issues at stake in a show if the work itself is presented in a way that stifles their curiosity and gives no value to visceral response.
There's no reason why contemporary art exhibitions can't attempt to do many different things, often at the same time, but first of all they must intelligently surprise us. Unless curators are willing to accept that responsibility, rewriting the rules of the game can only be a sterile endeavour.
First published in Issue 44