In recent years there has been a substantial transformation in the relationship between artists and curators with, in certain instances, the curator’s role taking precedence over that of the artist, determining not only the placing of an artist’s work but also, in a more extreme development, its reduction to that of a mere cipher of the curator’s own overplayed authorial conceits. This reversal may be regarded as the curator’s revenge on those Conceptual artists who had concerned themselves, in the 1960s and ‘70s, with tasks previously regarded as the province of curators alone. Writing press and catalogue material, securing exhibition venues, making contact with collectors – such jobs were taken on by artists, to the implied and actual detraction of curators and administrators. The rise of the curator as would-be artist has reversed this position in more than just a nominal or superficial sense.
Goshka Macuga has, however, extended the pattern of this recursive but competitive interaction by developing a practice that is cognizant of her own artistic requirements while being simultaneously tuned into contemporary curatorial interests. Indeed, Macuga’s work reads the curator’s contribution as an implicit aspect of artistic practice, establishing a hybrid form in which it is virtually impossible to separate the second-order from the first-order activities that make up her practice as a whole.
In the exhibition Cave (Sali Gia, London, 1999) Macuga constructed a brown paper mock-up of a cave, into which she inserted a variety of works borrowed from a number of her artist friends. This mode of curating as artistic action was more substantially developed in Picture Room (shown at Gasworks, London, 2003), in which she installed some 40 pieces by other artists within a structure mimicking the picture room designed by Sir John Soane for his house in London. Macuga’s construction presented art works on and behind a series of wall panels which, when opened up, revealed a further two layers of pictures and artefacts. Picture Room not only mined (and mimed) an already extant exhibition space but also, by its insertion within a contemporary gallery, effectively forced two very different formats – the historical museum and the white cube – into a productive dialogical exchange.
Macuga’s show at Kate MacGarry was less ambitious in scope, but several of her long-standing concerns about the nature of framing, selection and collecting were again in evidence. Although she included a number of small wall-mounted works in the show, the most prominent piece was a large assemblage (Library Table, 2005), comprising a table, two customized lamps and five books. The table-top had been specially arranged, with each of the volumes being an existing publication about a single, highly prominent 20th-century artist (Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Martin Kippenberger, Andy Warhol and Sigmar Polke). Macuga’s selection of only five names pointed to the presence of a canon of key figures or moments within Western art. Beyond the obvious fact that each of the selected figures is male, however, it was difficult to see why these five, rather than other central figures, had been singled out.
What distinguished these monographs from other mass-produced copies of the same books were luscious, custom-made bindings, composed of vellum, canvas, leather or goatskin. Each volume was decorated with an image from the relevant artist’s oeuvre. The cover of the Duchamp book bore, for example, the outline of a well-known Man Ray photograph in which Duchamp and Bronia Perlmutter are posed as Adam and Eve. The cover of the Warhol volume directed the viewer to his former occupation as an illustrator of shoes; that for Polke echoed his transparent canvases, and so on. But while this piece staged a clever presentation of the several ‘modern masters’ Macuga had picked, a small sign asked potential readers not to touch the books or the bindings displayed.
An artist’s monograph is a kind of frame, a selective representation of the protagonist’s life and work. In rebinding these books Macuga suggests a radical reconfiguration of the canon, or at least a highly personalized reading of it. But it does not seem that these books were to be judged by their covers alone. What’s interesting and important here is that in complicating this idea of the frame she disrupts other received ideas too: ownership and advantage, authority and access, the multiple and the unique.