The Form of the Exhibition is a Text*
Building a portfolio is in itself an act of exhibition; it relies on a selection, on a perceptive arrangement in whose framework the work becomes a mediating image between someone who knows and someone who knows something else.1 1 - This idea is articulated as a personal conclusion regarding an issue raised by Manuel Borja-Villel in a lecture given at the The Now Museum: Contemporary Art, Curating Histories, Alternative Models, a conference organized by CUNY Graduate Center, Independent Curators International and the New Museum in New York, in March 2011. Also see www.ici-exhibitions.org/index.php/site/events/the_now_museum. For a journal like esse, the decision to produce a publication around a theme is also a curatorial act; it aims to testify to issues underlying the topic under examination. In light of these observations, how does one develop the iconography of such a theme: Curators?
From the outset, one had to envisage each essay as a space on which to hang a thought, and to conceive each page, not in an attempt to illustrate the artist’s subject matter—an impossible endeavour it seems to me— but to look through the glasses of the spectator, following that thought out loud, developing peculiar (because subjective) trajectories between the visual and the textual.
To develop the iconography of a thought one first has to take samples, which means making choices. My fist instinct was then to list the action verbs used by authors to describe the curator’s role, as if such a listing could give me a palette of traits, could profile the typical figure.
Thinking out loud, I can imagine this super-curator. He might look like that work of shary Boyle’s: an exemplary polyvalence with ubiquitous gaze. If the list of sampled verbs attests to the curator’s field of action, erwin wurm’s work featured on the cover, Be Nice To Your Curator, is a licence for humour and self-mockery regarding the relationship between artist and curator. The Austrian artist has invested a number of years now in work that tests the definition of sculpture. His ironic Don’t Trust Your Curator presents a subversive vision of the artist’s rapport with institutions.
The essays in this issue “agree” on one observation. Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the historicization of the figure of the curator. A grammar of the exhibition has been established, circumscribing a repertoire of gestures surrounding the curatorial role. In this sense, a compendium of the curator seems to have been naturally constituted on the basis of the monograph, the retrospective, and thematics. Yet, this history of museography in Quebec remains to be written. Who will dare undertake it?
Fundamental questions remain for the practice; among them: How to produce knowledge and know-how within the exhibition? How may several temporalities, spatialities, or identities be made to coexist in the same physical space? From the moment the curator’s role was legitimized, it became possible to interchange it with other figures. Who figures among the curator’s contemporaries? What are the emerging models for inscribing art into its own history?
The essays brought together in this issue raise a number of questions. I was given a chance to highlight certain passages with the view of relating them to the various artists’ projects. In turn, images emerged in places I didn’t expected them. I thus welcomed them.
These images from the projects of Shary Boyle, L’orchestre d’hommes-orchestres, Frédéric Lavoie, Kent Monkman, Jacynthe Carrier have then been gathered together in a sampling process, like so many incisions performed on the journal’s raw material, which is thought. One should envisage the reading of each essay as a commented ambulation through a gallery, a portfolio constituting a peculiar iconography given to a group exhibition of the mind.
“Rather than base their approach to exhibition making on art historical conventions, these curators engaged in critical curatorial practice, experimenting with the very nature of the exhibition format.”Sophia Krzys Acord
To experiment is to test, to elicit a phenomenon and to study it. An exhibition is built through action, through doing, by trial and error. And since the meaning of a work may change with the surroundings the curator provides it, it is important to experiment with the configuration of the exhibition, essential to listen to the resulting conversations, especially those that weren’t anticipated, those emanating on the fringe. Experimentation is knowledge through experience spoken out loud. It is therefore also: knowing how to listen.
“Like orchestra conductors, individuals in the new ‘breed’ of CURATORS WERE sought out by institutions for their wide personal networks, effective social abilities, expertise on a particular subject, and powerful visions, rather than for an advanced degree in art history.”Sophia Krzys Acord
Suddenly, in the midst of what I would call serious reflections, a truck appeared in the intertext: that of L’orchestre d’hommes-orchestres. Used in the group’s projects, the truck is sometimes a barrel organ, sometimes a generator of collective memory. It keeps showing up where we least expect it.
“To exhibit haphazardly, in bulk, with no structure to govern the artistic proposition, would be to risk taking this bulk offering as the very nature of living art.”Paul Ardenne
Listen to images. Sort the gear. Organize the reading. Voice its texture. Following this verbal chain, Frédéric Lavoie produced his video BARDA, composing a montage from documentary images to create a diptych video installation. Several sound-effects specialists were invited to endow the images with sound: sequences captured in the city, excerpts selected for their potential acoustic complexity. The outcome is a multiphonic listening experience whose structure allows for selecting among sound sources.
“Their first rule is to serve the artist; OF THE ART ON DISPLAY, ONLY EXHIBIT WHAT ONE FULLY UNDERSTANDS, AND FOLLOW A PROCESS BY WHICH THE ARTIST COMES FIRST.”Paul Ardenne
To know. One emphasizes the verb with satisfaction. Exhibiting what one fully knows. A good idea cannot be exhausted. An idea is not a stroke, but a constellation. Like knowledge assigned to an active role, it is touched by the present, that of the exhibition, which breathes life into it and brings it all together.
“This criticism is in part made possible thanks to the role of the curator, who, while staging his own subjectivity — his ‘obsessions,’ to use Szeemann’s words — enables the debate and the polemics to take place.”Jean-Philippe Uzel
Artists often use staging devices, particularly to revisit historical events and to propose various rereadings. In Kent Monkman’s orchestrated reflection on two biblical allegories — the washing of Christ’s feet by Mary Magdalene and Delilah’s betrayal of Samson — a series of European and First Nations artefacts were borrowed from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and McCord Museum and then arranged to recreate what might be considered the collection of the artist’s alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. In this context, his mise-en-scène enables a subtle and humorous reactualization of the long-standing repressive relationship between First Nations and European colonizers.
“It is in the nature of the curator to exhibit him or herself, just as Buren reproached him for in 1972, but to exhibit in both senses of the term: he exhibits himself by expressing his authorial subjectivity through the selection and arrangement of artworks, but he is also exposed, for better or for worse, to the critics by giving a face to the institution.”Jean-Philippe Uzel
“The aptest statement on museology was given to us by art historian Hubert Damisch: l’amour m’expose.That was in 1989. I have often cited the phrase and still find it as relevant as it is necessary, twenty years later.”Louise Déry
Where the work is exhibited, the artist is revealed (s’expose). The curator is no exception.
“An exhibition never ends, really, and the takedown hardly diminishes the force of the imagination.”Louise Déry
Even if images of the work cannot be made public, Tino Sehgal’s project, produced at the Guggenheim in 2010, may still be conjured here. Visitors were invited to stroll along the museum’s characteristic spiralling architectural form — also suggestive of the linear conception of time — and to speak with participants of different generations: a child, a teenager, an adult, an elderly person, each a mediator who “worked” by questioning our values, or philosophical views. True, a work is a conversation that never ends. It may imbue our imaginations beyond the present of its display.
“Its intent was to identify various institutional models in order to build up an overview of artistic institutions and their strategies signifying critical engagement.”Nathalie Desmet
Constituting a landscape. It’s a curatorial idea, but likely borrowed from the vocabulary of art production. Jacynthe Carrier has built her practice on her investment of the landscape. Creating tableaux vivants with characters who become portmanteau words, she sculpts ways of inhabiting a space without necessarily belonging to it.
“What is of interest is how one curates the condition and status of the lost work of art in a context that seeks to reflect on epistemological issues in relation to collecting and conserving.”Michèle Thériault
Acquiring a work for a collection involves a moral duty for the institution: to ensure its permanence. Yet, if stolen, it would be amoral to assume the object no longer existed. One must preserve its memory nonetheless. For the curator, the exhibition may then be conceived as a way of lending existence to physically unavailable works, namely by employing the performativity of certain kinds of documents. By exhibiting the reports on stolen works, Mélanie Rainville has shown that it is possible to reactivate their presence within a collection, without necessarily fetishizing their absence.
[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]