Saturday 19 January 2013

essay | untitled

By Ng Shi Wen
Books, e-books, websites, artists books - a collection of images and text spread over linear and non-linear pages are valid curatorial forms. They also play on the differences (and similarities) between document(ation) and material(ization). Compare this to the exhibitionary. (6 Modules)

This statement questions the nature of text -- can they be mediums through which curating can take place? Does the validity of text as a curatorial medium blur the distinction between the document and material (which are objects) and documentation and materialization (which are acts)?

July 2012

What are ‘curatorial forms’? What is curating?

The etymology of the word ‘curate’ conveys care – the care of minors and lunatics, and the care of souls

Yeung Yang, pp.12 in Fominaya and Lee, 2010
Today a curator is expected, or may choose, to take on multiple tasks like conception, artistic direction, administration, project management, programming, publicity, dealership and writing.

Michael Lee, pp. 6 in Fominaya and Lee, 2010

The rise, over the last forty years or so, of exhibition spaces that have no permanent collection has led to a shift in the focus of the role of curator towards that of a ‘filterer’ or ‘selector’.

Magnus Renfrew, pp. 141 in Fominaya and Lee, 2010

Curating can be likened to caring for an (art) object. The curator is expected to care for the works in all its aspects. His or her role also is to communicate the significance of the collection to the public, to act as a “filterer” or “selector” in order to construct a coherent and focused narrative, which can best allow the viewer to perceive the work. The curator acts somewhat like the middle person between the artist and the viewer, like the editor of a book.

Texts and images as valid curatorial forms

In writing, one chooses what to include. There is a process of selection and selecting is a curatorial act. How does one translate sight/experience into text? The process of expressing the visual as text is already an added layer of  interpretation when one considers the fact that texts seek to represent something. In re-presenting, the text maker is implicated, being the agent who decides on how to re-present. Image making is a similar process, for in making an image there is a decision to be made on what to include and exclude. In the case of books, this is followed by another selection process – what images to include and where to place them in a body of text. If the practice of curating is one that is largely synonymous with acting as a “filterer” or “selector”, text and images can be seen as valid curatorial forms.

What is the difference between the document and the material? When are the distinctions blurred?

When considering this perhaps it is best to begin with examples. Many pieces of art, especially sculpture or installation art, are photographed (think Heman Chong’s Stacks). Here the art is documented in the form of photography, but the photographs of the piece will not be sold as art. However, another interesting example that was mentioned during the curating lab intensive was 
that of 2000 yuan bills being slot into books borrowed from a public library. These were then photographed, and the photographs transacted as art. In this case, the only way others could encounter this art was through its documentation. Here, the document has become the material, the art object.

Texts as exhibition

The difference between an exhibition and a display can be crudely described as such – a display is merely the showing off of a collection of objects. They are arranged and manipulated for visual consumption, but may not necessarily be ordered in a thoughtful way. An exhibition, on the other hand, would imply that the “display” has been through some sort of curatorial intervention.

Texts as exhibitions, then, is not an invalid claim. Both are curated (having gone through similar acts of selection and re-representation), as this essay argues above, and seek to communicate an idea or concept to the viewer.

December 2012

I started thinking and talking about curating in July 2012 with a way of  thinking that had been shaped by years of being immersed in my field of study (the social sciences). It is the way of understanding the world and its phenomena by seeking definitive answers. I imagined curating to be similar to a research essay, expressed not in the medium of text but in visuals, both having a clear and focused narrative (coming from the curator) through an unabashed neglect of discordant voices that did not help the narrative. Viewers (of both text and exhibition) would come away having learnt something, or understood the curator’s point – all viewers would derive the same understanding, and from there they were free to agree or disagree with it.

Reviewing my response to module 4 now, what has become strikingly obvious are the gaps in my understanding of curating. 

To curate inevitably also deals with space. The exhibitionary can allow the space to speak, whereas books, or press space, is fixed space that the viewers cannot transcend. Whereas the viewer is an active agent who is free to move in an exhibition space, text is necessarily linear. Pages are ordered, and order has agency.

To curate, if it means to care for the objects in all its aspects, also requires allowing for the objects to speak for themselves, and to provoke thought, as the objects do, and not to provide answers, to tell. In such a framework, the act of translating sight into text seems almost unfair to the art objects, for in doing so, the act of text making is already interfering with objectivity.

This is not to say that texts, or more specifically, books, cannot be valid forms of curating. However the ways textual space and the medium of text itself are interpreted by the viewer is essentially different from the exhibitionary. It may privilege information, or order, or interpretation. What I can take away from this difference in the ways I have negotiated Module 4 pre and post experience is that there is no simple answer to what curating is, and following that, what ‘curatorial forms’ are. Curating is a practice that can take many forms and focus on various aspects of “caring” within the ecology of art today. It is a malleable practice that can be shaped by the commercial, by history, by art and artists, by institutions, the state, etc.


Fominaya and Lee, 2010. Who Cares? 16 Essays On Curating in Asia. Para/Site Art Space with Studio Bibliotheque, Hong Kong.

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