‘Under handed’ is a term understood to describe crafty/subversive actions. So in New Zealand it is both idiomatically and quite literally attached to the most infamous event of its sporting history – ‘The Underarm Bowling Incident’ of a 1981 Cricket match between New Zealand and Australia in which the Australian Captain ordered for the last ball of the game to be bowled underarm to the New Zealand batsman. While within the rules, it’s almost impossible to hit a ball delivered in that way. For those not familiar with the game of Cricket, the controversy lies in that the ball is expected to be thrown over-arm at speeds of over 100 kmph, instead of bouncing limply along the ground until it rolls to a stop at the opposition’s feet.
Now 2010, we’re clearly post what Michael Brenson, former art critic for the New York Times, called the curatorial moment of the 1990’s. The antagonistic and cyclical rhetoric surrounding curatorial practice has many rolling in their eyes by now, and going about their group shows with either indifference or defiance towards any expectation that it should be the product of a curatorial gesture. From the radically simplistic Peres Projects exhibition: “Lit”, to the candid celebrity smorgasbords of Kwadrat: “Die Große Herbstausstellung” and Temporäre Kunsthalle’s “Scorpio’s Garden”, the apparent disinclination of these shows towards staking out any curatorial position stands in stark contrast to those still very much concerned with fleshing out topical explorations, like “Communism Never Happened” at Galerie Feinkost.
The sport analogy, which would have been a dating or war analogy could have been a dating or war analogy if I really understood one, is an attempt to explain a certain spirit of abdication sensed recently in group shows: instead of aiming well beyond you with abstract concepts and highly developed ideas, many have defaulted on the need for any conceptual thesis in favor of simple and transparent agendas. A preference perhaps that precipitates something similar to what Geneva based curator and writer Yann Chateigne Tytelman called, after Duchamp, a move by some, in these suspicious times, towards more ‘exoteric’ goals.
Given the current climate – with critical audiences wary of the tendency of group shows to impose meta-narratives and obviate individual artistic concerns – any vacuum of curatorial authorship gives the faint impression of capitulation. It should be noted that ‘capitulation’ in this context is not meant as an admission of defeat, but rather as an expression of will-full disengagement. Not fighting the rules, but stepping out off the provisional ground where they apply.
The exhibition “Scorpio’s Garden” pre-emptively bridged many of the critical pitfalls laid out for curatorial acts, by deciding that it wasn’t ‘an exhibition’. With over 30 artists exhibiting and performing, the show was introduced as a ‘subjective snapshot of the current Berlin art scene’, and chose the term ‘compiled’ rather than ‘curated’ by Danish artist Kirstine Roepstorff. Considering the amount of effort and resources that went into herding such a variety of big names like Isa Genzken, Dash Snow and Elmgreen & Dragset…etc, it was hard to tell whether the admitted absence of any objective concept was an act of subversion or apology.
Either way, the title offered a number of semantic elaborations which many curators/compilers would have been tempted to apply as a type of thematic adhesive: that Berlin was founded on Oct 28 1237 under the Scorpion zodiac, and that it is a garden of sorts. Both could have been dredged endlessly of metaphors for organic growth and organization (rhizomes, radicants), or the engendering characteristics of this astrological sign. That the title concept was left largely fallow is evidence there was a decision somewhere along the line to refrain from constructing any fanciful unifying theory. As Kirstine explained to me, “I couldn’t see myself in the role of a curator, nailing my friends and/or colleagues into a conceptual strategy. For this situation, I felt more freedom as a compiler compiling what I intuitively felt would create a dynamic Berliner picture”.
Subjectivity is obviously less a victim of attack when it doesn’t claim to be anything more than that, other than maybe a reason to put a lot of cool people under one roof. If anywhere, this was evident at the massive group hanging of Kwadrat’s “Die Große Herbstausstellung”. With the density of cigarette smoke and the 20 people within a square meter radius of me, the only works I managed to see at the opening were those I bumped into trying to find the other side of the room. Although I didn’t see much of the exhibition’s content, I don’t feel I missed out on its subject: operator/curator Martin Kwade’s gift of connectedness. The shape of curation, if any, Claudia Wahjudi from “Der Tagesspiegel” once called ‘a pyramid scheme of recommendation’. While Kwadrat’s slightly nepotistic and autonomous style of doing things doubtlessly has its conscientious objectors, its worth asking if anybody knows of any democratic way of running a gallery anyway, and if so what the merits of it would be. Exhibitions, we largely know and accept, are social and hierarchical texts whatever form they take on.
In saying that, some are purely formal texts. The eponymously titled exhibition Lit at Peres Projects was based on several artists commonly working with fluorescent light. While seeming either a little ambivalent or regressive, choosing such a basic formal focus may however be completely avant-garde. I say avant-garde with a recent statement in mind from the curator’s collective “WHW/What, How & For Whom”. Ending their general discussion on the situation of Contemporary Art, “Yes Dear Friends, I Detect In This Hall The Odour Of Depression” in Texte zur Kunst, Issue 74, they forwarded the message “We need to do things we are not used to, for example, saying things that everybody knows”. A similar sentiment was expressed by Roepstorff, “Our mental activity, our egos and our effort(s) have a tendency to find complex ways to read and explain the basics… For some reason there is a tendency to fear and avoid the simple version”.
Since Peres Projects is a commercial gallery and primarily in the ‘art dealing’ rather than the ‘exhibition making’ market, they may be irrelevant to this discussion anyway. But such definitions are increasingly redundant when some dealers have their eggs firmly in both baskets. Galerie Feinkost for example is a dealer gallery that defines itself also as a curated space. Unsurprisingly, the potential conflict of interest is a topic that has been raised with American Curator/Director/Dealer/Collector Aaron Moulton. Who in an interview with Robert Shapazian, perhaps didn’t help other’s suspicions by answering questions over how these roles overlap and influence each other, with Burlusconian comments like “I’m no saint, believe me”. And confirmed any potential fear that he uses curating and dealing to create marketable context, meaning and credibility for his artists and gallery in his mission statement: “Feinkost is a gallery that operates as a ‘curatorial platform’, a contact point for information and a place to ‘generate’ and support ‘the market for the artists we work with’”. Inner quotation marks are mine.
The success of which has been met with mixed views. Feinkost’s 2007 exhibition “The Art World” was described by Ivan Mečl in an “Umělec” review as “sporting a seemingly scholarly title” but where “no big investigation took place”. Sounding similarly ambitious, “Communism Never Happened” proposed to explore, ‘different modes of archiving, processing, assimilating and forgetting’. The title and concept brief intimate that this may be a real committed investigation of historiography. Rather, history is merely thematized. Aaron explains that the show is less about communism and more about ‘aggressively addressing the institutionalization of memory’. So, the show is formulated around methods of remembering, with artists/works inductively chosen to flesh out and articulate something corresponding to these cerebral processes.
Nearly half of the artists had no explicit conceptual concern, nor biographical connection with communism, and the curator himself admits in recent Artmargins interview (“Communism Never Happened – a conversation with Aaron Moutlon”), “I know nothing about communism”. Even if this is acknowledged at full disclosure and somehow offered as point, it’s hard not to see an opportunism radiating from this initiative; using a location, it’s pertinent history and artistic production as catalysts for banking in on cultural capital and exercising politicized yet arbitrary and unsubstantiated curatorial statements. I recently read about a remnant of the Berlin Wall that sits in the back garden of the Westin Grand Berlin for paying tourists and guests to take their own hammer and have a chip at.
Whether materially, or ideologically, exhibitions are lucrative products. It is precisely their interrelation of materiality and subjectivity that is so appealing to free-market societies – whose social and economic systems are based on this very cooperation. Considering these condition, if group exhibitions are to really achieve anything more significant than merely practicing a set of economic and social values operated by leverage of association and relationships, they have to do more than take up an opportunity where there is one. The problem is how to do this lucidly and intelligibly, while avoiding the type of pretentious and self gratifying curatorial felicities Frank Stella once called, ‘mastabatory insights’.