Friday 17 August 2012

Journal | Internship at SAM - Session 1 | Contentions and Constraints: What is the role of a Curator?

By Riya de los Reyes


Patrick Flores, Past Periphery: Curation in Southeast Asia
Robert Storr, Show and Tell

The first session was casual, candid and informal even though Siuli told us to lay our "burning questions" down on the table from the get-go. The session was mainly about understanding how SAM functions as a government-funded institution, how it negotiates its role as a regional player in contemporary art and how it positions itself as a museum for the public. We got a first-hand account of what a curator at a contemporary art museum does and the duties that the job entails - research, outreach, organization, residency, etc.

What I gathered from the readings and the discussion last Tuesday is that curatorship is "an activity rather than the position, status, or convention [...] identified with the aura of the museum" [Past Periphery, p.10). At the same time, it is also problematic that curating has become a ‘buzzword’, with people throwing the word about and claiming themselves to be curators without properly defining what curating actually means. And this is understandable, since Flores admits that curatorship is a contentious term, on top of being a dexterous practice that – according to Robert Storr – involves self-discipline, selection, respect, representation and ‘art diplomacy’.

·         Understanding Curatorial Practice in Southeast Asia
In Past Periphery: Curation in Southeast Asia, Flores outlines how the curating of contemporary art has evolved in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Indonesia. The article also delineates “the shift from the modern to the contemporary” in Southeast Asia, such that curators consequently “serve[d] as conduits of artworks and careers, facilitating exchange between the art institutions, the artists and the public.”

I initially found the article to be rather dense (art history-ish) but upon close-reading, I noted that Flores tended to first put forward generic assumptions most people probably have concerning what curating is about and then proceeds to expound on ‘curatorship’ situated in the Southeast Asian context. He is basically trying to clarify these assumptions based on his knowledge of how curatorship of contemporary art has evolved in the region – to which he concludes that:

…the motivations of curators and the impulse of their practice:
1. extension of creative activity and theoretical/discursive reflection;
2. art education and communication to the public on contemporary art;
3. institutional power; and
4. professional development. (see p. 19)
·         What is contemporary art? Why curate contemporary art?
The curation of contemporary art functions as a means to bridge the generational conflict that arises “with the shift from the modern to the contemporary”. Flores notes Apinan Poshyananda’s observation of the “dynamism” shared by the contemporary and culture:“‘culture’ whose root defined as developing force...Different generations hold different definitions of ‘contemporary culture’. I am saying that being extreme is like perceiving culture from the perspective of a seventy-year-old versus seventeen-year-old individuals. Although coming from different circles, there must be some similarities when the two meet. [...] As a matter of fact, they should socialize and mix since they do live in the same period and society.”

The contemporary means “being in the same period of time” in the same way one might call peers within one’s age bracket as his/her ‘contemporaries’. This definition reflects continuity/change, particularly because what was considered contemporary years ago “was pretty much different from today”. The contemporary, therefore, is a critique of the modern... but very quickly and quite ironically can become self-conscious/self-critical the moment (and this is inevitable) a “new contemporary” replaces the incumbent. It is characterized by a shifting fluidity that exposes the dynamism – but also the fickleness – of the ‘here and now’.

But why bridge this generational conflict? Flores highlights “the link between the curation of contemporary art and the politics of heritage, democracy and globalization”. The contemporary discourse is inevitably intertwined with “issues of modernity and identity, which had been ratified quite strenously by nation-building projects in Southeast Asia from the sixties through the eighties.” This remains pertinent, with many Southeast Asian nations still uncertain – if not, in contention or in constant negotiation – of what ‘nationhood’, ‘heritage’ and ‘identity’ really means.

To explain contemporary art, Flores quotes Jim Supangkat:

...a very basic principle of contemporary art: to bring into awareness that the paradigm of world art in a modernist point of view, that we have been familiar with us so far, was based on a limited reality.

·         Curatorial Roles: Selector and ‘Exhibition-maker’
Flores and Storr similarly defined the curator as a selector, with the former distinguishing the curator from merely being ‘a keeper of things’ (also see Wikipedia entry about Curator) and the latter describing the curator as an‘exhibition-maker’. During our trip to the NUS Museum two weeks ago, Mustafa related his encounter with a woman who wrote a letter to the newspaper about a document featured in the exhibit (I can’t remember what the document was exactly but it’s something to do with the British returning to Singapore after the war). She became the keeper, the ‘guardian’ of that document. The curator –in this case, Mustafa – was not a ‘keeper’, but rather the ‘selector’ who consciously decided to include the document in the Camping and Tramping... exhibit.

Flores cites the art historian, John Clark, regarding the role of the curator: “selector; thinker; mediator of thought; cohort provider; talent scout; theatrical agent; journalist; market maker; cultural provocateur, prototype designer, entrepreneur”. Siuli, for instance, informed us of her role in choosing upcoming artists through the President's Young Talents (PYT) platform, which was apparently the brainchild of Ahmad from NUS Museum. Curators judge artworks, as well as artists – their techniques/craftmanship, the way they communicate their artwork and also how they prove their passion for their work. The curator chooses to place value on certain artworks, but also determines the value of the artist – effectively, promoting “a particular style of thought, through the dissemination of knowledge”. Curators therefore “validate the art in ciculation” (i.e., influence the ‘zeitgeist’ in contemporary art), and decide what qualifies as valuable artworks and who personifies a dedicated/deserving artist.

In his article, Storr likens the curator to an editor (which, of course, struck me immediately since I work in a publishing house). The curator as an ‘exhibition-maker’ is “the first, most critical reviewer in the way that a good editor is the first, most critical reader”. Storr emphasized two important 'values' of the curator/selector/exhibition-maker: Self-Discipline and Art Diplomacy. The curator has to negotiate the interests of the institution and the artists, so he/she has to make the call with regards to, say, the feasibility of the exhibition, and also to 'not give in to pressures' should artistic merit be in opposition with institutional interests. Quoting Siuli (though not in so many words), "As a curator, and particularly when judging/interpreting art or negotiating the institution's or artist's demands, you need to find/have found your 'core'/your own voice."

·         Curatorial Responsibilities: Representation and Respect
As such, I would like to bring up the points that I found most important and definitely relevant to 'finding one's own voice' as a curator - i.e. Representation and Respect.

i. Towards the artists and their artwork

Within the Southeast Asian context, Flores stresses that - as representatives of the artists - the curator "intervenes in making the voices of the artists heard, of speaking on their behalf in the global art world's main language, which is English, or serving as informant of foreign curators who roam the world for prospective talent."

Storr, on the other hand, believes that - as representatives of the artists - the curator is tasked to explain the artistic work by "revealing itself" (ie. 'showing', as opposed to 'telling') in and through the exhibition. Selecting and ascribing value to their work are not the only ways through which a curator gives an artist respect. He/She must be able to give "friendly skepticism" and be able to refuse (and "backed by clearly articulated reasons") the artist's suggestions, for instance, if they would be unfeasible/detrimental to the 'success' of the exhibition. Being critical, provided done with a generative/productive effect, is an expression of 'care'/cure/compassion to spot shortcomings and provoke discourse on how something might be improved.

ii. Towards the public

For a curator working in a public institution, he/she is supposed to represent the interests of the public and therefore required to treat the public with what Storr termed “democratic respect”. The exhibit catalogue, for instance, should neither contain ‘jargons’ nor should it bear the tone of ‘talking down’ to the reader but at the same time refrain from oversimplifying difficult issues. is plain both as a practical matter and as a matter of principle that the ultimate decisions are made by the viewer. The job of the exhibition-maker is to do all that can be done so that those decisions will be well-informed, rooted in perception and, in a positive sense, inconclusive.

“Inconclusive” here means that the exhibition has to remain ‘open-ended’ as a space for discovery. The curator should not explain away or dictate the message/meaning of the exhibition, but rather craft the exhibit such that viewer thinks of it “as the beginning of a renewable acquaintance with someone or something that will take a long time to know well and whom one will never know completely.” (p. 27, Show and Tell)

By extension, Flores suggests that the contemporary art museum should be seen “in terms of either a ‘lure’ or an ‘activator’. Lure because it guarantees visibility (tourism, media, investment) for the locality in which it is situated and activator because it stimulates a new urban system”. He also highlights the tendencies of Southeast Asian contemporary art curators to ensure a ‘democratic’ representation of the region’s artwork and artistic community, so as to veer away from Supangkat’s assessment that modernity was based on a “limited reality”.

Although curatorship is a contentious term ("to curate is not the exclusive privilege of curators"), its role can be defined. It is important to anticipate what the viewer expects from the exhibit - to know how best to represent artworks and artists in an exhibition and how much the artwork 'reveals itself' to its viewer, and I guess also consider the institution's 'target audience' (in SAM's case, the public). The curator must balance the artistic expressions with the public's potential responses to them.

This also leads to understanding the different institutional intent influencing the character and nature of exhibitions, as well as how exhibitions engage its viewer. SAM apparently prefers to 'seduce' the viewer ("to lay the string that marks a trail in and out" - see Show and Tell, p. 25) rather than overwhelming them with shocking/'difficult' art that would confuse or turn off the viewer.

Over dinner, I talked about my love for fabrics (my mother used to run a dress-making business when I was younger). I initially disliked Indonesian batik (I preferred Malaysian batik). However, I developed an interest in it after my recent trip to a museum in Surakarta where I saw different types of Batik (e.g. batik Cina, different batik patterns denoting status, places, etc.) I lamented, "But I feel like there are only so many ways one can exhibit textiles..."

Siuli then informed me about Samantha Tio's recent exhibit: Admittedly, I have mainly seen exhibitions done by museums and therefore would like to explore and be exposed to how other art galleries or curating platforms (aside from museums) display different types of exhibits -- "to seek other perspectives and to find/maintain my own voice" as an aspiring curator.

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