BY Sam Thorne in Frieze | 01 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 152


Three new publications about globalization and contemporary curating

BY Sam Thorne in Frieze | 01 JAN 13

[Missing Image]

‘The artworld stands to the real world in something like the relationship in which the City of God stands to the Earthly City.’ This is Arthur C. Danto, writing in 1964 under the spell of St Augustine. What happened to this divine community? Almost 50 years later, the Stanford-based art historian Pamela M. Lee argues that paradise has been irrevocably lost. Her central claim in Forgetting the Art World (MIT, 2012) is that any gap between the spheres of art and the ‘real’ was collapsed by globalization. In place of Danto’s City of God, the art world has been entirely absorbed into profane everyday life. For Lee, forgetting the art world means acknowledging ‘both its ubiquity and the continuity of its techniques with a world that we once thought it surveyed’.

Lee’s book comprises several case studies of artists – Andreas Gursky, Thomas Hirschhorn, Takashi Murakami and various ‘pseudo-collectives’ (such as The Atlas Group and Raqs Media Collective) – who came to prominence during the 1990s. She usefully focuses on the specifics of the technologies employed by these figures: Murakami’s use of Adobe Illustrator, for instance, software that utilizes vector lines rather than resolution-dependent raster graph-ics, to enable his work’s ‘friction-free movement across media’; or the ‘strange­ly graphic crispness’ of Gursky’s digital compositing, which trades on a virtual eclipse of distance. Process comes to be indivisible from the activities of globalization itself.

Lee’s previous two books focused on the 1960s, and Forgetting the Art World feels occasionally ill at ease in the 21st century. Despite in-depth discussions of Photoshopped vistas, Lee is sometimes blind to the ways in which art work today can live online, ignoring the influential theories of network culture, dispersion and degraded images put forward in recent years by writers such as Kazys Varnelis, and artists such as Seth Price and Hito Steyerl, among others. Lee concludes by quoting an April 2011 tweet from an assistant of Ai Weiwei, announcing that the dissident artist had been detained by police. This sounds a cautionary note about the entwining of the convergence of artists, theirwork and networked publics – it suggests a line of enquiry that should have been more sustained.

Paul O’Neill’s The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (MIT, 2012) takes on a similar time-frame to Forgetting the Art World, and comprises an assiduously researched analysis of the emergence of contemporary curatorial discourse. Its starting point is 1987, the year in which Le Magasin in Grenoble launched the first postgraduate curatorial training programme in Europe. Not coincidentally, the late 1980s also saw the beginning of an explosion of international biennials, and, what O’Neill calls, the ‘strange kind of fame’ for a number of curators associated with the 1990s.

O’Neill – a Bristol-based artist, curator and writer – has edited several useful books, including Curating and the Educational Turn (2010), and this latest publication is certainly one of the most invaluable histories of contemporary curating that I’ve come across. Though relatively slim, it combines a good deal of primary research (such as interviews with Seth Siegelaub and Brian O’Doherty) with wide-ranging case studies and an impressive synthesis of the now-vast body of related writing. The book tracks a shift from the curator as a behind-the-scenes carer, to a nomadic, semi-auton­o­mous and very public figure – a cultural producer as diplomat. O’Neill identifies three key postwar developments: what Siegelaub calls the ‘demystification’ of the curatorial role during the late 1960s (when the terms Austellungsmacher and faiseur d’expositions first emerged, signifying an organizer of large exhibitions unaffiliated with a museum); the primacy of the curator-as-author model of the late 1980s (Harald Szeemann, Jean-Hubert Martin, Rudi Fuchs); and, most recently, the consolidation of a curator-centred discourse in the 1990s.

While Lee’s account can come close to deifying the generation of curators she sees as having opened up biennials to postcolonial discourse, O’Neill is frequently terse – the delegations and game-playing of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jens Hoffmann attract particular criticism. He also notes that Obrist’s interviews with the leading curators of an earlier generation, such as Szeemann and Pontus Hultén, can feel like ‘self-positioning’. But O’Neill leaves himself open to the same accusation, devoting several pages and two installation shots to an exhibition series he organized in 2010 at SMART Project Space in Amsterdam. In comparison, there is not a single image of Documenta 11 (2002) or ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (1989), two of his key case studies. O’Neill rightly refers to the latter as ‘the first large-scale international group exhibition to have raised the issue of inclusion of contemporary art and artists from non-Western centres of production’, though the same could be said for that year’s Third Havana Biennial (the subject of a 2011 study published by Afterall), which goes unmentioned. As well as a lack of any images from exhibitions outside of Europe or the US, the Middle East is barely acknowledged, yet this could have been an interesting angle, given the recent ambivalence towards the title ‘curator’ in that region: the Beirut Art Center, for instance, has no curatorial staff, while SALT in Istanbul has a policy of never crediting an exhibition to a single curator. (Vasif Kortun, the founder of the latter, has suggested the term ‘post-curatorial’ for the institution’s activities.)

Terry Smith’s Thinking Contemporary Curating (ICI, 2012) grew out of the 2011 conference ‘The Now Museum’, organized by Independent Curators International in New York. ICI’s executive director Kate Fowle noted an ‘uneasy breakdown in communication among the speakers’, in particular between curators and art historians. This is, in some ways, the impetus for both Smith’s and O’Neill’s enterprises: despite what sometimes feels like an inundation of publishing about curating, this is a still-forming field, with little agreement over terms. The central question posed by Thinking Contemporary Curating, the first in a series titled ‘Perspectives in Curating’, is: ‘What is distinctive about contemporary curatorial thought?’ While I’m unsure whether Smith answers this question satisfactorily, the ground he covers along the way, both geographically and historically, is impressive.

Smith – an Australian art historian, one-time member of Art & Language and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh – suggests that around the year 2000, ‘three competing perspectives on the prevailing direction of contemporary curating emerged’. These he attributes to Kirk Varnedoe (and concerns what Smith calls ‘remodernism’), Okwui Enwezor (the ‘postcolonial constellation’) and Nicolas Bourriaud (‘relational aesthetics’). These tendencies sought to, respectively, expand the white cube, decolonize the biennial and domesticate the gallery space. While Thinking Contemporary Curating provides several potted histories, much of the book is devoted to the aftermath of these three trajectories. The book inevitably shares some of Lee’s preoccupations with a globalized art and art world, though Smith favours the term ‘worldly’ (a notion also central to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA13). This work, ‘the art of transnational transitionality’, is the kind that proliferates in biennials, ‘the major vehicles of contemporary art’; like O’Neill, Smith is concerned that biennials are suffering from a crisis of overproduction and structural ossification. He is also very alive to how digital culture will affect institutions and exhibition-making in the future, and acknowledges (though doesn’t name) those under-the-radar proliferators who work online, in alternative spaces and temporary settings.

The last 25 years have seen not only the rise (and recent waning?) of the independent curator, but also curating’s rapid institutionalization. Little more than a decade ago, for instance, there were only five curatorial studies programmes in the world, with barely half a dozen publications available on the subject. While the amount of publishing on curating is now difficult to keep track of, how many books are there that stand up to acknowledged classics such as the anthology Thinking About Exhibitions (edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce w. Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, 1996) and Mary Anne Staniszewski’s The Power of Display (1998)? Both Smith and O’Neill note that much writing on curating can be tedious, self-regarding and insular, too often led by self-interested curators and built on shaky historical foun-dations. An enormous amount remains to be done, not least continuing Smith’s suggestion that a history of curating needs to be developed that is distinct from the growing number of exhibition histories. Both his and O’Neill’s books suggest that these gaps are being filled.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.