BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 MAY 11
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Issue 139

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Towards a partial typology of anglophone exhibition titles

BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 MAY 11

The Eponym
In which a solo exhibition takes its name from the exhibiting artist, for example, ‘Warhol’ (Tate Modern, London, 2002). While the eponym appears to have the virtue of honest description, it is charged with all sorts of business about reputation, personality, power and audience recognition – consider the very different resonances of the titles ‘Warhol’, ‘Andy Warhol’ and ‘Andy’, and then consider how few emerging artists choose to name their first solo shows after themselves. An aside: might the selection of an eponymous exhibition title by a living artist signal a presumptuous bid for classic status, or even an attempt to disclose ‘the real me’, along the lines of eponymous album titles such as Fleet Foxes (2008) or Mariah Carey (1990)?

The Eponym Plus
Most solo shows employ a subtitle and, in most cases, they are either quickly forgotten or never register in the first place. We are far more likely to enquire whether a friend has seen the ‘[artist’s name] exhibition at [exhibiting venue]’ than what he or she made of ‘[artist’s name: exhibition subtitle]’. This is not just an accident of conversational English; it is rare to refer to Lolita (1955) as ‘that book by Nabokov’ (unless, of course, quoting ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ by The Police). We might speculate that the weirdly unmemorable nature of solo show subtitles is, in the case of dead artists, mostly to do with fame (the words ‘Marcel Duchamp’ or ‘Louise Bourgeois’ are usually enough to persuade the average punter) and, in the case of living artists, mostly to do with a set of anxieties about language’s tendency to fix or forestall meaning. More than one artist friend of mine has bemoaned the falling out of fashion of the subtitle ‘New Works’.

The Place and Time
No exhibition title is neutral, even one as plain as the determinedly place- and time-orientated ‘Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900–1968’, staged at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2002. For a start, it begs the question of what exactly was the nature of the hand-over ceremony that apparently took place in the City of Light on New Year’s Eve, 1899.

The Colonic
In which a subtitle is plugged into a title with a colon, in order to evacuate the title’s meaning. It is possible that this approach is informed by academic publishing, although its defects are magnified by the necessity of an exhibition’s moniker being understood by an audience of more than a few dozen specialists. In some cases – as in the Saatchi Gallery’s 2009 show ‘Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East’ – colonics manage to be both boring and offensive. In others – as in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, ‘Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer’ – they baffle. The function of the colon in English usage is syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive or appositive, which is to say that the post-colon element is a logical consequence, description, definition or modification of the pre-colon element. It is not intellectual super-glue.

The Literary
To name an exhibition after a work of fiction or to quote a line from a novel or a poem is an understandably popular strategy. Pick well, and the curator is not only guaranteed a memorable title, but he or she also performs a kind of sympathetic magic, in which the internal and external qualities of the literary work quoted – a particular atmosphere established over several hundred pages of prose, say, or the complexity of a poet’s biography – attach themselves to the show. In recent years, there has been a notable trend towards citing writers whose work is characterized by formal experimentation and an explicit engagement with philosophy, particularly as it pertains to time. We might think of Ezra Pound (invoked by ‘Faces in the Crowd’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2004–5, and ‘Pale Carnage’ at the Arnolfini, Bristol, in 2007) or W.G. Sebald (see ‘After Nature’ at the New Museum, New York, and ‘50 Moons of Saturn’, the 2nd Turin Triennale, both staged in 2008, plus innumerable smaller shows). Google discloses that between 1999 and 2011, there were at least nine different exhibitions named after the Jorge Luis Borges short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) alone. The world still awaits a show named after George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1869).

The Musical
As with the literary title, the musical title seeks to imbue an exhibition with the qualities associated with a particular musician or song. Whatever else the preponderance of shows over the last decade named after tracks by The Smiths, Roxy Music and early-to-mid-period David Bowie tells us, it certainly attests to a preference of a generation of anglophone curators for aesthetically hyper-aware white rock. A question: was ‘Heart and Soul’, a seminal 1999 exhibition held in a South London warehouse that featured works by, among others, Roger Hiorns and Gary Webb, named after the 1980 Joy Division track, or the debut single of late ’80s Shropshire power pop group T’Pau?

The Salutatory
In which a notional person or persons – not always the viewer – is formally or informally addressed. Examples include ‘Dear painter, paint me…’ (Centre Pompidou, Paris and touring, 2002), ‘You have not been honest’ (Museo d’Arte contemporanea DonnaREgina, Naples, 2007) and ‘Fuck Off’ (Eastlink Gallery, Shanghai, 1999). Pros: good for building intimacy with audience, especially of a more unsettling sort. Cons: curators of publicly funded galleries taking inspiration from the now legendary Eastlink show risk, at the very least, a disciplinary hearing.

The Capital Offence
It is a generally accepted rule of email and text message communication that capital letters should rarely stray from their usual habitat at the beginning of sentences or proper nouns. As sensitively selected, rigorously framed and beautifully installed as the forthcoming 54th Venice Biennale, ‘ILLUMInations’, may very well turn out to be, its title is unfortunately a bit of a stinker. Quite simply, the show appears to be SHOUTING.

The Slash Friction Like grizzled cyberpunks greeting the blinking diode of a digital dawn, many 1990s curators marked out the contemporaneity of their exhibitions by embellishing their titles with stray keystrokes (‘@’, ‘>’ etc.) Perhaps the most popular of these was the slash, or ‘/’. Now seldom seen, ‘/’ titles attempt to generate a productive friction between two irreconcilable opposites or (a less kindly interpretation) have it both ways. In any case, a nod, here, is as good as a ;)

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.