Monday 3 December 2012

essay | Curatorial Community

By Daryl Goh
It is a common practice that artists collaborate with other artists to create ideas and art works. Increasingly, such approaches are deployed between artists and curators. The exhibition produced out of such contexts can sometimes be regarded as art works. It is not uncommon for artists to be curators, and curators to be artists. Explore the notions of a ‘curatorial community’. (6 Modules)

The fast-expanding role of a curator should be in consideration with the potential overlaps, complements, and contrasts with the role of an artist. Curators are becoming more involved in the production of meaning and the craft of curating has been increasingly read through the notions of artistry and creativity. The functions, roles, positions and influence that they exert has changed and created a new form of relationship between the general audience, the artists, and the art institution. Art critic and curator, Michael Brenson reflects these changes in an interesting way. He posits the following as key characteristics of a contemporary curator: diplomat, economist, aesthetician, critic, politician, audience developer, historian and marketer. Concurrently, artistic practices have expanded past the boundaries of the production of objects, and have incorporated other practices of collaborating, editing and interpreting. Some of them associate directly with the curator. Such expansion of roles has led to the blurring of lines between the artists and the curator, and the formation of the role, the “artist/curator”.

The term “artist/curator” is employed to describe artists who curate. This function may be purely pragmatic for instance, if there is no one else to do the job, or if they perceive a significant gap in the work being presented and exhibited by other curators and institutions. Paul Couillard of Curators in Context, suggest that “It is important to remember that there has always been curating done by artist – and there are many models whereby artists have taken responsibility for the exhibition and dissemination of their work”. In fact, this practice goes way back to 1648 in France where a group of court artists sent a petition to King Louis XIV to request the establishment of a Royal Academy of Painting, which would distinguish their work from the artisan trades. To make their case, they exhibited a grand display of works that glorified the monarch and demonstrated that painting was dedicated to the pursuit of virtue. The Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was eventually secured alongside academies in Holland, England and Italy. With it, the status of the new academic artist as a professional came with a big distinction from the guilded tradesman. It is not a coincidence that such practices announce a time where art and its relations to criticism and curation were undergoing intense professionalism. Manifestations of the artist as curator are connected to moments where they took it upon themselves to reform the socially decreed politics regarding their profession, thereby redefining the cultural status of works of art.

On the other hand, the term “curator/artist”, works within a different set of circumstances. As the role of the curator shifts towards further participation in the production of meaning, curatorial work could be justified as creative or artistic in ways that would have been difficult to conceive of in its more conventional and custodial state. The increased potential for creativity led to the rise of what could be described as the ‘auteur curator’. This model of curatorial function positions the curator as a visionary, with the exhibition as his medium of communication. The curator/artist usually works independently rather than within an institution or organization. Such a curatorial role has often been the target of criticism, particularly in terms of subsuming the artists and works within his vision. Harald Szeemann, the curator of Documenta 5 in 1972, is perhaps the typical auteur curator.

In his essay included Jens Hoffmann’s 1993 project “The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist”, John Baldessari writes that “Curators seemingly want to be artists. Architects want to be artists. I don’t know if this is an unhealthy trend or not. What disturbs me is a growing tendency for artists to be used as art materials, like paint, canvas, etc. I am uneasy about being used as an ingredient for an exhibition recipe, i.e., to illustrate a curator’s thesis. A logical extreme of this point of view would be for me to be included in an exhibition entitled ‘Artists Over 6 Feet 6 Inches’, since I am 6’7”. Does this have anything to do with the work I do? It’s sandpapering the edges off the art to make it fit a recipe”. The fear about this notion of the curator as an artists is echoed by curator Robert Storr as he expresses his refusal to call curating a medium since it ‘automatically conceded the point to those who will elevate curators to the status critics have achieved through the “auteurization” process’. Storr also situates the origins of the idea of the curator as artist in Oscar Wilde’s 1890 essay “The Critic as Artist” which theorized the eye of the beholder producing the work of art. Storr concludes, “No I do not think that curators are artists. And if they insist, then they will ultimately be judged bad curators as well as bad artists”. This ends up reiterating the divide between artist and curator that inadvertently returns the power of judgment to the critic. Despite this negativity, we can look at the “curator/artist” with a more positive glance. The “curator/artist” model might be a means of identification or style of practice, and a way to articulate and define one’s own practice on personal terms.

It is also often suggested that the contemporary curator does not occupy a fixed authorial position but rather, constantly shift in relation to artists, artworks, and institutions. It is clear that the curator’s role cannot be considered as a static set of actions or decisions, but rather, a dynamic and fluid process that constantly shifts and evolves in response to dialogues, conflicts and collaborations. Curated exhibitions were likened to Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade Aided’ artworks, where the display or exhibition is aided by the curator’s ‘manipulation of the environment, the lighting, the labels, the placement of other works of art’. The role of the curator has come to occupy a deliberately less academic stance, often embodying a more participatory or hands-on function. The contemporary curator is sometimes a radically secularized artist. He is an artist because he does everything artists do. But he is an artist who has lost the artist’s aura, one who no longer has magical powers at his disposal, who cannot endow objects with art’s status. He does not use objects but rather abuses them and makes them profane. This makes the figure of the contemporary curator attractive and so essential in today’s artistic landscape. As such, curators are no longer limited to being critical observers but are increasingly understood as instigators, subjective participants actively defining or redefining art and culture. It may be tough to give a concrete definition to the curator. However, its role is simply – to respond to what artists propose.

An issue that comes into place is regarding the artist as a curator, exhibiting his own work. Is this a good practice? Firstly, artist as curator brings a fresh eye with new and unexpected choices. A basic argument is that if his work fit the standard of the exhibition, all is well. The question is not so much of why they should not include themselves, but why should they? Regardless of whether the work fits the standards of the show, its inclusion comes across on the ground viewer as self-serving. It is difficult to see how this type of show helps in the artist’s career. If they list on their resume that they exhibited their work with an impressive line up of artists, they would have to mention their part in selecting them as well. If they omit the latter, it comes across as ethical violation.

Many believe that artists have increasingly become puppets to fill the shoes of the curator. Some regard the curation of a large exhibition as mainly a large marketing tool for the art world without having anything to do with art. While exhibitions are also markets for the exchange of ideas, art still has a purpose to remodel and represent the world. In the end it seems to be an unbeatable system, and in some ways the exhibition is still an interesting and fluid medium. Who should curate it then? An artist, a curator, a carpenter? Just as long as the person has a vision, social and organizational skills, the result will be hated and also loved. No matter how the curators for shows are chosen, or what profession they come from, it is important that the curator is, at the end of the day, only a ‘partner in crime’ alongside the artists. He should be respectful of the creative autonomy and expectations of the artist. The job of curating becomes a sophisticated form of an intellectual discourse that sometimes positions itself on parallel to that of an artist. The challenge is to creatively negotiate a balance between the desire for critical and artistic authorship, the needs of the artists, and the struggle to develop new avenues and audiences.

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