Wednesday, 14 January 2015

HANS ULRICH OBRIST - Ways of Curating


The author is an eminent curator, specialising in Conceptual Art, often in interactive installations and this slim volume outlines a number of his aims and methods. Curating has taken on greater prominence in recent years with the profusion of public and semi-public galleries, an increasing circulation of shows and regular expansive surveys of contemporary art. Effectively, curators now eclipse critics and collectors as arbiters of taste and wield enormous influence over acquisitions, interpretation and presentation, particularly of contemporary art. With that power comes a genuine curiosity about the job and since it is often contrasted with the venal market, with its arrangements for funding, sponsorship, budgets, wages and fees. Then there are factors of selection, placement, promotion, documentation, lighting, traffic flow and attendances, transportation, preservation, insurance, security and even health and safety. All bear upon the curator’s efforts and now beg greater scrutiny. There is a need to know just how all this works and for whom. Unfortunately these are not matters addressed in Ways of Curating.

Instead, the book is concerned with the role of the curator at a loftier level, with sketching a history of the job, a theory of art and a social framework within which various novel options may be exercised. Obrist draws upon his experience over the past twenty years or so and urges even greater agency. A key step is the division of tasks for the curator into four: one is preservation of a heritage, two, adding to the collection, three, research into the history of holdings and four, display of the collection. For Obrist only the fourth is of real interest and argues that developments now see this as an entire job description in itself (p.25). Just how the other tasks are to be described (if not as curating) is skipped and as soon becomes evident; this focus severely constrains the scope of displays.

Obrist’s preference is firstly a personal one and never adequately examined beyond the suggestion that the other duties to curating are perhaps boring or less glamorous. The author recounts his childhood fascination for art in rural Switzerland, although evincing no talent himself and his remarkable teenage acquaintance with many leading artists throughout Europe, as a devotee of the avant-garde, and even as his interests steadily focus upon curating, for some reason he studies economics and social science when he eventually attends university (in St. Gallen). It is not simply that there were no courses exclusively dedicated to exhibition design and management, but that Obrist must have a total disconnect from tradition and less public duties in arts administration. It is a telling detail. While it marks him out as basically self-taught and a bit of a maverick, it also inclines him to exploiting his formidable personal network within the art world, drawing on favours and exhibiting them as bold experiment. From the start, it is all a bit cosy, a bit easy. He devises a show in the kitchen of his student lodgings in 1991 in collaboration with established artists including Swiss Conceptualists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, French Conceptualist, Christian Boltanski, German collagist, Hans-Peter Feldmann and British Conceptualist Richard Wentworth. All installed their own works, Wentworth named the show World Soup (although it is generally known as The Kitchen Show), Fischli and Weiss photographed the exhibits for documentation. Not bad for a twenty-three year old undergraduate. The show ran for three months and attracted just thirty visitors. One of them was a curator from The Cartier Foundation in Paris who subsequently offered him a three month scholarship there. Obrist never looked back.

Who can blame him for his faith in ‘making connections’? – Which is how he sees the curator’s real task (p.1). But this impatience with more formal routes, a little more spadework, eventually robs him of greater discipline and this is precisely what is needed for a little book tracing the means and value of curating. The book is strong on biography; that of pioneers and role models, as well as his own, but weak on analysis, argument and organisation. Chapters are often poorly focussed or wayward (one brackets a sketch of 19th century critic Felix Fénéon with a small exhibition by Obrist in the Hotel Carlton Palace in Paris, another starts to describe the current London scene only to veer into an extended biography of noted 19th century civil servant, critic and reformist Henry Cole), art history is often garbled, (there are a number of howlers, we shall return to in closing) but fatally, reasoning on crucial points concerning the nature of art and kinds of identity to works is hopelessly confused. Since these matters serve as the rationale for the author’s own preferences and practice, they might have repaid a little more attention. While the author is quick to cite his wide reading and famous acquaintances, the abiding impression is of shallow and loose connections.

Take the pesky question of a definition of art. In the book’s prologue Obrist recalls ‘Fischli and Weiss expanded my definition of art – that is perhaps the best definition of art: that which expands the definition’ (p.5). But if art is that which expands itself, then the definition is circular. Art has to start from something that can be expanded, but expansion itself obviously cannot be expanded. So art requires some other property upon which to expand, if the definition is to make sense. The book supplies no such sufficient condition. Curating surely ought not to rest upon this sort of muddle. If art is defined as simply the total of objects categorised under the label (a non-essentialist view) then recent objects or categories ‘expand’ the definition incrementally. But then expansion looks trivial as a property since new objects are added all the time, adjusting size and character of existing category. At most it might prompt sub-division of existing categories. This does not quite offer Obrist the kind of paradigm-changing opportunity he seeks either. On the one hand, expanding the definition of art becomes a routine negotiation for the acceptance of any new work under existing categories, on the other; the definition cannot expand too radically since works must comply with a definition of art at some level – by definition! Art remains art, after all.

But the aim has really been to establish Conceptual Art as the principal means of expansion or invention in fine art of late. At most, a non-essentialist route simply recognises that it paces parallel developments there. The problem only snowballs where Conceptual Art is dealt with in more detail. This arises firstly in the chapter devoted to Obrist’s curated show 'do it' in 1997 (pp. 17 – 21). The show consisted of a list of instructions, each devised by a separate artist, each considered as a script or score, presented in a catalogue. Visitors and gallery staff were expected to enact the instructions, somewhat as ‘performances’. At the end of the exhibition whatever ‘enactments’ had resulted in some sort of rearrangement of the gallery were restored and the book of instructions was either returned or destroyed (the book tells us only that they were removed). This cryptic scenario was supposed to avoid the concept of a ‘signed original’ either as sole or multiple instance, preserved by the gallery for its collection and to focus instead on diverse interpretation. But since the model is that of script or score and performance, signed copies have no strict relevance. The work exists equally as script and/or performance whether the author signed the script or not, participated in the performance or not. Identity of the work is established by authorship not signature. In any case, differences in performances, as in differences in venues are routine for the arrangement and do not necessarily count as interpretations. Interpretations depend upon compliance with script or score. The claim that ‘No two interpretations of the same set of instructions are ever identical' (p.21) is both trivial as performance, and pointless concerning ‘do it' because this state of affairs cannot have been manifest in any of the exhibitions without record of previous performances (and exhibitions) and since one of the ‘rules of the game’ was that no such record be retained, prior examples were unavailable in any case. To claim that ‘do it' made this situation ‘explicit’ (p.21) as a crowning achievement, is not just incorrect but frankly silly.

The book contains other extravagant claims for the show, equally embarrassing but instructive concerning the author’s character. There is the claim that participation by the public resulted in a more active role in culture – even an anti-authoritarian impulse (p.20) but since the show provided all the instructions, the venue and props, indeed takes an imperative grammatical mood even in its title, (recalls the slogan for Nike sportswear, significantly) the claim is pathetically unconvincing. Furthermore, the public’s efforts are disposable or brief, as are the gallery’s, while the artists retain all record of the work and the curator compiles a hefty tome for its documentation, reminding other parties of the tacit pecking order, of where the rewards ultimately lie. Far from being anti-authoritarian, the project looks extremely manipulative, even coercive or exploitative, a feature of much Relational Aesthetics. The idea of participation there extends no further than obedience, preferably on a mass scale. In closing, Obrist appeals to J. L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, bizarrely, whereby a distinction between semantic meaning and meaning conveyed by a speaker’s illocution is somehow supposed to bear upon ‘do it'. But since the show dealt in texts rather than speech, the reference is no more than a veneer of wayward pretension. Finally, claiming an invitational or interrogative grammatical mood for the title (p.21), without a question mark, simply looks dishonest.

Similar problems arise in commentary on other such shows curated by the author, such as ‘Migrateurs’ at the Museum d’Art Moderne Ville de Paris (1993), in which selected artists placed works at unusual sites in the museum. Douglas Gordon contributed a handwritten text to a wall in an office –‘From the moment you read these words until you meet someone with blue/brown/green eyes'. This was also available as an audio recording. Obrist claims the text ‘occupied the perceptual space of the visitor’ and in so doing ‘the artist was migrating his work outside the office gallery space of the museum, outside Cartesian physical space altogether' (p.103). But clearly this is nonsense. The text nominates a duration and most readers or listeners quickly grasp the arbitrary nature of the time claimed as a hypothetical frame for their attention, to be accessed only by language. But the work is the text, written or spoken, not its abstract referent and for a curator to confuse the identity of a work in this way, particularly in an area of some supposed expertise, is extremely disappointing.

The book pretends to high ideals for curating but can never quite manage the detail. The course of Conceptual Art from the nineties on, sees many artists conspicuously commissioning their work as fabrication or staged enactments, from Jeff Koons to Damien Hirst to Wim Delvoye, from Matthew Barney to Vanessa Beecroft to Santiago Sierra, amongst others, steadily taking on more of the role of manager, designer or curator, at just the time when adventurous curating eyes reciprocal territory, more pro-active or creative engagements with artists, venues and works. Inevitably there is a convergence of projects, whereby artists become curators and vice versa. This situation is acknowledged in the book but rejected (p.33). Curators must remain second to artists in the production of art. But since so much of the meaning to Conceptual works in particular relies upon site-specific installation and close consultation with a curator and institution, where does one draw the line? When is an exhibition an installation or vice versa? A book on curating needs to address this issue. This one does not. The issue of grand themes to curated shows draws a sharp warning: ‘Artists and their works must not be used to illustrate a curatorial proposal or premise to which they are subordinated' (p.33). Although, since such shows are temporary and in as much as they offer novel perspectives on works, it is hard to see the harm. Artists are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own work, much less their best critics. Nor is it clear that the author’s curated shows such as Utopia Station (2003) do not fall into the same trap. Elsewhere, the book is quick to condemn the practice of ‘fly-in fly-out curators’, working briefly in far flung corners of the globe, as ‘superficial’ (p.24). But since the author’s itinerary for 2008 saw him curating eleven shows variously in London, Zurich, Moscow, Yokohama and Reykjavik, the advice looks not so much ironic as hypocritical. (And one cannot help wondering where the money came from).

A key plank to the advocacy of greater adventure in curating concerns commissioning unrealised projects from artists, mostly established artists, in which the curator basically acts as a facilitator or producer. Obrist cites a role model in the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, founder of The Ballet Russes and general patron of the arts (p.135). Again, finance is disturbingly absent from these discussions. But implicit within the programme is the assumption that such works support the curator’s definition of ‘expanded’ or progressive art and that his ‘curating’ is largely a matter of securing a suitable venue. This certainly enlarges upon the role of selecting and exhibiting works and usually would fall under the role of suitably extending a collection, something the author has previously shunned, but now smuggles back under his new description for curating on the understanding that the works are largely based around text, performance and installation and in support of a vacuous definition of art. Here again the disconnection from a deeper engagement with art history and a particular collection actually makes for a very confined view of curating, as merely abetting Conceptual Art, short changing public galleries and their permanent collections.

There is a wider pattern to these failings. It is not just that the author does not really know what he is talking about, or does not always mean what he says, or lapses into irresponsible hyperbole in his own cause or is gravely remiss in his research or evasive in his finances, but that these are implicitly to be excused by impeccable connections, loftier ambitions, enough name-dropping. It is a systemic fault. The ways of curating supposedly expand not only what can be shown, how, where and when but on a steadily growing delegation of duties, an increasingly managerial or ‘hands-off’ approach. Part of the reason Obrist can curate so many shows (he has published over two hundred exhibition catalogues, according to a recent article) is because he need only attend to the concept, favoured participants and a suitably credited catalogue. No wonder the details are often sketchy. Sketching is all the expansive curator need now do. But the quick and dirty approach takes its toll on the product. Projects increasingly look shallow and trivial, not because the curator is anxious to avoid grand themes that might somehow offend artists, but because the cosy consultations, the group think reduces concepts to mush. It is not just hectic visits to far flung corners that result in superficial installations and sterility but the lengthening chains of command and shackles of networking. Obrist stresses the importance of connections to curating, co-operation and collaboration, but neglects to mention the drawbacks.

Long-term there are two more. Either a curator’s network slowly becomes more exclusive and concentrates on furthering the interests of its members with a diminishing return, or as stale academicism; or the connections expand beyond standard institutions and disciplines and grow more speculative, less relevant or rewarding. Striking a balance would seem to be a curatorial dilemma, at least for the author. In the book, curating eventually moves beyond displaying art and becomes something like event management for various conferences, seminars, interviews or colloquiums. They become intensely verbal, intellectual affairs. Curating here takes on more of a general educational agenda, allowing all sorts of invited experts from all sorts of places to exchange views. But while eminently sociable, the projects are so open-ended that outcomes are essentially random. There is still the ideal of connecting some sort of community, of engineering a closer engagement, but the diverse selection of guests and agenda beg the question of which community? For, by definition, any community will already have its forums of some kind. This concern with a targeted audience arose over similar claims for Utopia Station and drew extended criticism from Claire Bishop in 2004 concerning the trivialised forms of participation and their limited appeal; basically to the converted.

The book contains rare forays into curating shows of paintings, although not sculpture, photography or other prints and there is a chapter on developments in the 19th century away from a reliance on the state academy and its standards of presentation for paintings. Predictably, all suffer from the author’s impatience with art history, shallow and simplistic agenda. The chapter ‘Courbet, Manet and Whistler’ supposedly traces the way artists reformed exhibition standards, commencing with Gustave Courbet’s independent marquee, after being rejected by the French Academy in 1855. ‘Courbet’s self-mounted exhibition inaugurated the modern period in painting in which the artist rather than the patron became the protagonist' (p.37). Although this rather neglects J.M.W. Turner opening his own gallery in London in 1805 and John Martin’s touring marquees throughout Britain from the 1820s on, that charged admission to see his paintings. Actually, by 1855 Martin was organising an international tour for his last works, taking in North America in a variety of venues, and even included sound and lighting accompaniment. Courbet, while revolutionary in his appeals to realism, added little to standards of exhibition for the time. Manet’s active role in the Salon des Refuses reduced the density of hangings for easel-size works, but as the examples of Courbet and Martin attest, the 19th century had its share of enormous works that brought with them more flexibility in hanging, something the book and the cited account by Brian O’Doherty (pp.28-29) tend to gloss over. As for James McNeill Whistler’s noted redecoration of Frederick Leyland’s dining room – the height of Aestheticism with its Orientalist leanings and Victorian Revivalist opulence, it was never a public exhibition, not strictly an exercise in curating and rightly belongs in discussion on integration of the fine and applied arts, a topic with a long and distinguished research record.

The chapter that awkwardly brackets Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878 - 1956) and Gerhard Richter, describes a small exhibition in 1992 of the artist’s paintings on postcards or postcard-size photographs. It was held in Friedrich Nietzsche’s house in Sils Maria, in Switzerland, which the author and artist occasionally visited together. That would seem to be the only rationale for the venue. On reflection, I suppose the fact that Walser and Nietzsche both went mad might count as a connection for the chapter, or perhaps Switzerland. But apart from details concerning Richter’s painting technique, the best Obrist can manage is to hastily review the history of painters using photography as a source of imagery. Crucially, there is no mention of Richter’s relation to Pop Art and Photo-Realism or the varieties of abstraction and their history since Pop Art, and how the two converge in his work, much less their meaning there. In short, it is the kind of insubstantial waffle that gives curating a bad name. ‘The Broken Mirror’ was a much more ambitious exhibition, curated in collaboration with Kaspar König (also an associate of Richter) for the Vienna Festival in 1993. The title is König’s and Obrist is adamant that the show did not harbour a grand theme or thesis, yet his description suggests otherwise: ‘The mirror, of course, is the Western tradition’s ultimate symbol of mimesis, or the representation of life. Painting was by the late twentieth century a broken mirror in the sense that its function had been superseded, its historical prominence among the fine arts challenged by other media. And yet it persisted in a post-medium condition, in an unstable, incoherent way' (p.100). No explanation is offered for what a ‘post-medium condition’ for painting might be.

More to the point, it would be hard to imagine a more naive view of mimesis or painting. Not all painting depends upon mimesis or resemblance. Not all resemblance results in painting. Pictures of dragons or angels do not imitate or reflect anything really. The resemblance between two apples does not make one of them a picture or painting and even where paintings most resemble other paintings, yet they may picture other actual objects. Resemblance is not sufficient for picturing (whether painting or not). Pictures, (whether painting or not) are not sufficient for resemblance. Moreover, it does not follow that painting is superseded as the principle means of picturing even as developments throughout the 20th century allow photography greater scope and circulation. But rather, such photography itself soon becomes a source of reference and re-classification by painting, as painting. Anyone conversant with the debates in art history and art theory over the past fifty years will be familiar with the arguments over the nature of pictorial representation. Indeed, since the author makes a point of acknowledging the American philosopher Nelson Goodman (p.181), his lack of research on this point looks especially embarrassing. Little wonder though, that the criterion for selecting works for ‘The Broken Mirror’ amounts to not much more than ‘So we invited the widest range of painters we could, eventually ending up with three thousand paintings [!] by forty-three artists' (p.100)- my emphasis. There is no discussion of how this range was devised or divided or what kind of hanging schemes were employed, over how many rooms, much less matters of lighting and sub-categories. At most, the author is impressed that the catalogue observed tradition and listed the artists in order of age. But by then of course, the curator is busy with other projects. 1993 was another big year for Obrist with six curated shows spread across Vienna, Paris and Hamburg. Although to be fair, he probably did not fly in and out; but took the train.

Hopefully these examples demonstrate why a curator should not concentrate on just display, why historical research becomes vital. Even for Obrist to claim novelty in display practice requires an accurate appeal to precedent and without this accuracy the project founders. Moreover it is a familiarity with works, in a convenient collection, their various stylistic features and subtleties rather than acquaintance with the artists that properly allows the curator to devise unusual and illuminating exhibitions. Committees come after. It is the curator’s grasp of this history and practice that determines the scope of curating, rather than half-understood theories or vast unread libraries. This holds for a book on curating as well. Quite apart from details to various exhibitions, the author’s grasp of his subject is undermined by careless errors, such as attributing the rise of democracy to the 17th century (p.27) claiming Edward Ruscha is a former billboard artist (p.105) - at most he was a layout artist for the Carson-Roberts Agency in Los Angeles, following art school in 1960. A more detailed account of the artist’s early days is offered here. Then there is the claim that Fauvism was influenced by The Ballet Russes (p.137). But since Fauvism arrived with the Salon d’Automme of 1905 and a harsh review from Louis Vauxcelles, while the Ballet Russes was not formed until 1909, this too is quite false. For a book to be taken seriously it has to take its subject seriously and there is scant evidence of this in Ways of Curating. The subject of curating is an important one for contemporary art and deserves greater research. Unfortunately Ways of Curating is too scattered and self-serving to contribute much to it.

Hans Ulrich Obrist – Ways of Curating
(with Asad Raza)
Hardcover: 192 pages
No Illustrations! No Index!
Allen Lane (27 Mar. 2014)
ISBN-10: 1846144019
ISBN-13: 978-1846144011

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