From single exhibitions to full on Biennales, ever more art shows are being curated by artists. But what does that mean for the art? Jeni Fulton delves into the impact of unorthodox forms of curation on traditional means of artistic expression and media
What can artists do that curators can’t
The large-scale exhibition is having an identity crisis. On the one hand there are those, such as the 55th Venice Biennale, that function as everything-but-the-kitchen-sink surveys; on the other there are shows like the last dOCUMENTA (13), in which the curatorial concepts are so oblique that visitors drown in a sea of auxiliary texts. The relevance of the star curator has also been called into question in other respects; that omnipotent, peripatetic figure of the Nineties and early Aughties, embodied by those such as Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach.
Once upon a time these visionaries elevated the curatorial task to an act of transcendence: assembling art so that the exhibition achieved meaning over and above its constituent parts. But today their stock has fallen. In an era of curated playlists, chocolate selections and exercise routines, the term has become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless. To retrieve it from obsolescence, then, requires a fresh perspective – and this seems to be forthcoming in the age-old yet contemporary figure of the artist-curator. The facts speak for themselves: earlier this year Thomas Demand and Goshka Macuga crafted eclectic shows at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, and later this summer, Christian Jankowski will curate the 11th edition of Manifesta and DIS Collective are due to take over the 9th Berlin Biennale. Next year artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset will be responsible for the Istanbul Biennial. So what is driving this trend, and what can artists do that curators can’t?
According to DIS, an artist collective known mainly by its website, their move into curation is the result of viewing the process as an extension of their practice. “The Berlin Biennale is another platform with its own format, constraints, and possibilities, albeit at a much larger scale,” reads a co-authored response from the group. “It’s exciting to see how the digital unfolds into physical space, and how to bring the energy and themes of DIS Magazine into immersive and visceral situations, whether in the form of an installation, a performance, or a party.” Likewise, Jankowski has also followed an unusual exhibition model. At Manifesta 11, each participating artist chose a partner from Zurich’s multitude of professions. It’s a refreshing approach, but it’s had teething problems. “Therapists proved popular!” laughs Jankowski, who notes that, “the exhibition is about the future of the working world and the changes triggered by the fourth industrial revolution and the resultant destruction of jobs.”
“It’s time to get out of the studio, out of the white cube, maybe even out of the usual interpretation of artworks” – Christian Jankowski
By partnering with professionals, Manifesta artists are including perspectives from outside the art world. Considerations of critical aesthetics and artistic critique are subsumed under attempts to restructure relationships between labour as a theory and labour in practice. “The increased professionalisation of the workplace creates ever-more specialised niches, and therefore increasingly specific lenses through which the world is perceived,” Jankowski says. “Therefore you can pair these perceptions with artists’ approaches, which themselves are very specific. In doing so, this generates its own language: an artist working with medical diagrams, for example, won’t end up with anything you can use for heart transplants — it becomes a symbolic, rather than factual work.”
Jankowski hopes that “these collaborators will inscribe their voices, opinions and expectations on the art,” demonstrating his belief that art is better served when “it develops a life of its own outside the artworld.” In contrast, photographer Thomas Demand’s ideas are much more art-oriented. The title of his recent exhibition, ‘L’image Volee, for example, refers to artistic appropriation, or, in his own words, “how everyone stands on each others’ shoulders.” It follows three related but distinct strands: “The exhibition is about stealing pictures. In the first strand it’s about taking the artwork and running. The second is about taking what’s on the picture, and the third one is about stealing something by making a picture.” The different aspects of Demand’s exhibition act as commentaries on each other: theft as in physical removal; theft as in appropriation; theft as surveillance. His wide-ranging exhibition begins with “Stolen Rug”, a carpet that artist Richard Artschwager commissioned with the intention for it to be stolen as part of the exhibition “Art by Telephone”. It continues in this vein, with Pierre Huyghe’s “De Hory Modigliani”, a fake Modigliani painted by the notorious forger Elmyr de Hory, as well as meditations on stolen works and the ubiquity of appropriation in contemporary art. “The works don’t follow a theme or history,” Demand continues. “They may be in part, philosophical, but they are not following a systematic order. One artist told me about another artist and so it kind of came together like an imaginary show, an imaginary collection. All these things I really would have done myself, and I would like to have them.”
Contemporary art denying art history
Much contemporary art denies art history and focuses on society and the image cultures it has produced instead. This collapse of art and non-art, between image, work and object is similarly expressed in DIS’s view on curation. As they tell Sleek: “We’re in a moment layered with conflicting ideologies that manifest in contemporary aesthetics, where even one image, product, or work of art inhabits self-contradictory positions.” In their opinion, the best present-day art world examples of this disjunction include Debora Delmar’s geo-political juice bar; Simon Denny’s blockchain expo; Wu Tsang’s lesbian kung fu film, and Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ sci-fi post-capitalist startup. For DIS, these artists also share “a felt, human perspective on an age of rapid automation and find connections that aid in a restructuring of narrative. They hyperlink entertainment and theory, commodity and artefact, macro-news and micro-experience. This is rarely didactic, but embodies an underlying feeling you already had.”
Rather than relying on established, and at times, out-dated theoretical concepts, fellow artists and curators are commissioned to write on subjects that have an immediate link to the exhibition.
The artist-curated exhibition, then, can serve as a platform to explore the contemporary subject. As Jankowski says: “Its time to get out of the studio, out of the white cube, maybe even out of the usual interpretation of artworks.” DIS concur, stating that they wanted to move away from the usual biennale “survey model”: “For us, as non-professionals in this realm, we were attracted to the idea of being tourists both in the institutional biennial framework, and in Berlin. We’re not interested in separating art from fashion, music from writing, play from work. It’s not so much about the individual strands of our practice as it is about how we approach and bring these strands together.”
The figure of the artist-curator has a storied history. From Gustave Courbet staging a pop-up show of his own works opposite the 1855 French Salon exhibition to the maverick conceptual practices and the contemporary merging of large scale exhibition with artistic practice, the model has pioneered new modes of showing, and indeed, making art. In the Nineties, Phillipe Parreno was also experimenting with exhibitions as artworks in their own right. This was the heyday of relational aesthetics, and his ‘exhibition installations’ were intended as parcours for the viewer, as an immersive experience, where each object is linked to another, leaving the viewer to join the dots. Parreno’s works are physical interventions, where image, concept and order play equal and complimentary roles, and it is this approach that Jankowski and DIS are extending.
Another, contemporary feature of the artist-curated exhibition is self-theorisation. Rather than relying on established, and at times, out-dated theoretical concepts, fellow artists and curators are commissioned to write on subjects that have an immediate link to the exhibition. DIS, for instance, has dedicated a website to the subject “Fear of Content”, an ironic comment on the current state of digital anxiety, image overload, and “biennial fatigue” – a disorder suffered by art fanatics and industry players alike.
This of course raises the question of how the practice of each collective influences their curatorial work, and how they site their work within the exhibition. With regards to DIS, the influence is clear: the Berlin Biennale will be structured like an online magazine, a hyperlinked way of thinking that doesn’t follow a sequential chronology. Demand included one of his own pieces, but this was more or less “by accident”, as at the last minute, an artist withdrew. And Jankowski’s Manifesta bears clear hallmarks of his own, often collaborative, practice. As he says “I’m very good at mediating between experts and all kinds of people, from professional athletes to politicians. I enjoy negotiating with people, bringing together unusual constellations, like being the wrong guest at a party. By being the wrong guest, you are questioning the social fabric of the party. Collaboration is key to my practice, and this extended to the way I approached the biennial.”
With contemporary art once again focussing on image cultures – often digital ones – the border between art and life has become porous once more, and in places, has dissolved altogether. To re-engage with the world, to attempt to address pressing social questions, to (re)investigate the continued relationship of contemporary art to social forms of expression – these are the tasks that the artist-curator addresses, where traditional means of artistic expression and media seem to fall short.
Taken from SLEEK 50, buy here
The 9th Berlin Biennale runs until 18 September 2016 in Berlin, Germany
Manifesta 11 runs until 18 September 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland