March 7, 2016
Response #3: Harald Szeeman, How Does an Exhibition Come into Being?
Szeemann’s diaristic writing reveals in precise detail what exactly is the work of the curator, and what must take place for an exhibition to exist. What is most striking is that Szeemann’s work requires much more than a rigorous knowledge of art. To actually put that knowledge into use, the curator must become more than art historian and move from theory to practice and this movement from concept to execution requires an array of skills. The curator becomes responsible for the logistical gymnastics of organizing places and people into one cohesive whole. The curatorial process is the process of critical thought enacted: selecting elements from sources of disparate origin, culturally, geographically, temporally, ideologically, philosophically, and somehow attempting to find—or to forge—a common ground where all of the elements can coexist. If in thought the common ground is the space of the mind, in curating the common ground is the exhibition space.
The exhibition space must provide us with the four- dimensional space of thought rendered in the physical, three-dimensional world. It is precisely because of the lofty nature of that aim that the white cube becomes the site for fantasies of transcendence and a mode of existence not contingent upon time or space. Though in our case we exchange the white cube for a pair of narrow corridors, this does not exempt us from the responsibility to address those fantasies. Regardless of the size, shape, or color of the exhibition space, the act of curating necessarily involves a synthesis of objects onto a plane that is first imaginary, then physical.
Thus the work of a curator is like that of an inter-dimensional astronaut. Each artist has their own world, their own language, and their own internal logic that is embedded into their work. Many times in an exhibition, the internal logics of these worlds contradict one another, but the curator must reconcile these contradictions and respect how each artist conceives of their world. This work is inter-planetary because it requires an understanding of each artist as a discrete world, or a set of self-sustaining principles in which they live and create art. In contributing their art to an exhibition, the artist offers up their own personal Voyager Golden Record: the laws of their planet are encoded into a relic then cast into vacuous exhibition space. Thus, moving from artwork to artwork in the space of the exhibition is moving from planet to planet: each work is an artifact of worlds governed by different laws, language, and physics.
In order to synthesize these worlds the curator must simultaneously acknowledge the completeness of one world while engaging with others. Szeemann’s writing reflects this tension of acknowledging the validity of one artist’s world but all the while not refuting another’s. This comes across in his tone and his sequencing:
9 am: Continuation of the discussion with Gilardi. He sees the artist no longer as a victim of psychoanalytical and sociological obligations and obstacles, but rather as the executor of the ‘whole being,’ that is to say, no longer as a mechanical outgrowth of the contemporary system.
Noon: Return to Düsseldorf.1
The sequential structure in Szeeman’s writing becomes a metaphor for the nature of his work. He moves diplomatically between artists, conceding to accept each world that the artists propose as valid. The curator embraces these worlds in all their particularities, even when their fundamental laws conflict with or outright negate one another.
April 4th, 2016
As we move deeper into our own curatorial undertaking this semester, I will surely find it useful to think of our process in the same way. Certainly as curators we encounter administrative, logistical, and financial responsibilities, as well as responsibilities to our artists and their work. But it is also important for us, particularly because of our positions as students, to address our responsibility to ourselves, that is, to think about own work and ask ourselves in a less material sense: What exactly do we as curators make?
On our very first day of class we were asked: what is painting today? Do we like it? Do we care about it? We offered hesitant answers, perhaps out of uncertainty. With these questions laying unresolved in our minds, we voyaged out into our artists’ planets. And in bringing those planets together in this exhibition, what we have made is both the question and the space to be filled with answers. A call, and collective response from our peers. We have come to speak only by listening; we send a message by receiving one. So, we offer our exhibition not as our answer, but as a testament to how we have listened, to how others have answered us.
— Cullen Pitney
1 Harald Szeeman, How Does an Exhibition Come Into Being? 176.