July 20, 2009

A Brief Conversation on Curating

With words from Hans Ulrich Obrist (Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery), Pontus Hultén (Museum Director), Johannes Cladders (Director, Abteiberg Museum), Jean Leering (Director, Van Abbemuseum), Werner Hofmann (Director, Hamburger Kunsthalle), Harald Szeeman (Maker of Exhibitions), Seth Siegelaub (art dealer, publisher & exhibition organiser), Anne D’harnoncourt (Director, Philadelphia Museum of Art), Lucy Lippard (Art Critic/Theorist)

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I was wondering what acted as triggers for you, who were your role models in terms of curatorial pioneers, what were the influences for you when you started?

TONY TREHY: My strongest influence was actually the spatial thinking of Mikhail Tal, the Latvian Chess genius. I used to play competitively – and to study Tal’s games is to enter a world of staggering multi-dimensionality. For this reason, it surprises me that the artworld doesn’t make more of Duchamp’s Chess games. It is really significant that he gave up art for ten years to play chess. L'Opposition et les cases conjuguees sont reconciliees is a major conceptual work. The biggest influence on my curating was an artist: Ulrich Rückriem. I started working with him in 1997, commissioning a massive outdoor installation in Radcliffe, but over time I travelled to various galleries to visit him and saw works in his studio – it’s no coincidence I think that many of his installations are based on solutions to the Queen’s Problem in Chess/Mathematics. As well as his fine-grained insight about spatial relationships, I learned vital things about how to handle details and also his rejection of interpretation.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Can you tell me which are your favourite museums?

ANNE D’HARNONCOURT: I think Menil is certainly one of them, it has a very beautiful building that reflects not only, obviously, the talent of Renzo Piano, but also what Dominique de Menil really wanted which was to give people contemplation of space.

TONY TREHY: For me too, it’s how the space works rather than necessarily programmes or collections; I really like the Schaulager in Basel; I have a fondness for the Bonnkunstmuseum – but that might be because the first time I saw it was through a fabulous installation, again by Rückriem. I also like K21 spaces in Düsseldorf.

ANNE D’HARNONCOURT: Speaking of architecture, there’s the Sir John Soane’s museum in London, to go into the past a bit.

TONY TREHY: Yes, I have only recently been introduced to the Soane by the poet Carol Watts. As well as the sense that the museum is his labyrinthine mind, there is also a subtle thing that happens before you go in – because it’s quite a tight space, they have limited number of visitors inside at any one time, so you have to wait in line on the pavement outside – completely different than say the cattle queuing to get in the Louvre. This gives you the sense of anticipation of a special experience.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Interestingly I think that it happens more in smaller models of museums. I think that in some ways museums risk becoming too successful and have entered a vicious circle, always wanting to attract larger audiences. They have become victims of their own success. Sometimes I wish that there would be small houses again, models like Johannes Cladders’ project before he founded the Städtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach. And I think that Cladders was more interesting there than in a big museum. Somehow he himself realised this, resigning as soon as the big museum was built.

TONY TREHY: Marianne Eigenheer and I are developing ideas at the moment around the very question of how small European museums can function in the current situation.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Alexander Dorner, director of the Landesmuseum, Hannover, from 1921-1936, said that museums should be Kraftwerke, dynamic powerhouses, capable of spontaneous change.

PONTUS HULTÉN: A museum director’s task is to create a public – not just to do great shows, but to create an audience that trusts the institution. People don’t come just because it’s Robert Rauschenberg, but because what’s in the museum is usually interesting. But you can’t fool around with quality. If you do things for the sake of convenience, or because you’re forced to do something you don’t agree with, you’ve got to make the public believe in you over again. You can show something weak once in a while, but not often…

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: The problem is that increasingly art institutions are detached from the artists.

JOHANNES CLADDERS: So it is. Institutions have become disconnected from artists. They celebrate themselves and their patrons…

TONY TREHY: and State control…

JOHANNES CLADDERS: …Their prime function, transforming a work into a work of art, has become obsolete. The institution confirms its own identity as an institution, and thus the question of the number of visitors plays an increasingly important role.

TONY TREHY: The accountancy nonsense of performance indicators…

JOHANNES CLADDERS: What is this all about? The quality of a work cannot be measured by the quantity of people that visit an institution. I want works that most visitors would not consider works of art, in an architectural context that makes people discuss them culturally – even if one possible result is that such works do not satisfy every individual need.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: This would be the primary function of a museum?

JOHANNES CLADDERS: Yes, the primary idea of a museum, but supported by the elements of its construction. The museum is a non-verbal mediating system. The question of points of view or the democratization (meaning: the viewer has to decide for him/herself), all belong to this mediation system.

TONY TREHY: and there in lays a problem – increasingly in the UK at least, the mediating system is being overlaid with verbal imperatives that very specifically decide for the viewer.

SETH SIEGELAUB: But isn’t this one of the more important functions of museums, to kill things, to finish them off, to give them the authority, and thus distance them from people by taking them out of their real everyday context? Even over and above the will of the actors involved within any given museum, I think the structure of museums tend toward this kind of activity: historicisation. It is sort of cemetery for art – I think I must have heard this somewhere – the heaven for dead useless objects.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Both Sandberg and Dorner defended the idea of the museum as a laboratory. Johannes Cladders also insisted on this idea of the museum as a space in which one should take risks, a space that should be used as a means to build bridges between various disciplines. Do you also find this idea of the museum as relevant?

TONY TREHY: more than relevant: it has to be immanent. It seems to me that one of the defining characteristics of historic moment is that ideas are interchanging between artforms; artists, musicians, poets, philosophers are talking to each other. I think that this influencing is important to you too, Hans. The Text Festival concept is an attempt to draw out the connections and dialogues between innovative poetics and language in the conceptual tradition used in contemporary art.

JOHANNES CLADDERS: I have always believed that it is the artist who creates a work, but a society that turns it into a work of art, an idea that is already in Duchamp and a lot of other places. In most cases, museums have failed to see the consequences of this notion. I have always considered myself to be a ‘co-producer’ of art... in the sense of participating as a museum – as a mediating institution – in the process that transforms a work into a work of art. So it was always clear to me that I did not need to do anything for works already declared art by common consent. Instead, I was interested in those that had not found that consent and so that were still works, not works of art.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: How do you understand the notion of the museum now? How do you see the future of the museum? Are you optimistic?

JEAN LEERING: The future is a big question mark. Things have regressed since the mid-1970s.

JOHANNES CLADDERS: Nowadays, museums go to enormous lengths to get publicity, something that just was not necessary in the past. Scandal went with every new exhibition, which is inconceivable today. Today, many people are trying to profit from these early successes by saying, “We have to do this, too.” So now – and here I am exaggerating – we have a museum of contemporary art in every town and village. The available material gets quickly used up unless you want exhibit every local artist. Whoever is of interest at the moment will be approached by 25 institutions. Previously, the same artist would have been simultaneously asked by three, at best.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Despite the current increase in information about art via the Internet and other media, knowledge still depends a lot on meeting people. I see exhibitions as a result of dialogues, where the curator functions in the ideal case as a catalyst.

HARALD SZEEMAN: The problem is that information can be retrieved via the internet, but you have to go to the site in question in order to see if there is something behind it, whether the material has enough presence to survive. The best work is always the least reproducible. So you speed from one studio to the next, from one original to another, hoping that some day it will all come together in an organism called an exhibition.

TONY TREHY: It may be more than the ‘problem’ of a contemporary art museum in very town and the “25 institutions” chasing whoever is of interest at the moment. In the poetry world for instance Ron Silliman has demonstrated that the massive increase in living poets as compared to past times creates a ‘background noise’ which covers up whoever is actually of interest. The “25 institutions” phenomenon is one of herding. There is a strange dichotomy whereby the arts are always interested in the ‘new’, the latest fine young thing, but much of such work is paper-thin. In a way Johannes’ comment about the time when there were only 3 galleries taking the risks, programming what was actually important, is still possible.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: As Marcel Broodthaers said, “Every exhibition is one possibility surrounded by many other possibilities which are worth being explored.”

SETH SIEGELAUB: True enough. That is the one way I look upon my way of organising exhibitions projects – so many different ways, different possibilities, different aspects, of investigating the production of exhibitions. You have to try to understand all of these decisions that create the context of the art experience, both for looking at it, but also making it, as the ‘consumers’ are also the ‘producers’.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: And how would you then define the role of the curator? John Cage said that curating should be ‘a utility’; then when I spoke to Walter Hoops be was quoting Duchamp – a curator shouldn’t stand in the way. Félix Fénéon said the curator should be a pedestrian bridge. What would be your definition of the curator?

ANNE D’HARNONCOURT: I think the curator is someone who makes connections between art and the public. I see curators as enablers, if you will, as people who are crazy about art and they want to share their being crazy about art with other people. But I think they also have to be very careful not to impose their own reactions too much, their own prejudices, on other people. And that’s hard because on the other hand you can only be yourself: you can only see the work that you see with the eyes that you have. I think of curators as opening people’s eyes to the pleasure of art, to the strength of art, to the subversiveness of art, whatever it is.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: That’s a great definition…

TONY TREHY: No it’s not; it’s a form of curatorial liberalism. My definition is that curators are Glass Bead Game players (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_Bead_Game) - this is why Chess resonates so directly with art. Duchamp wrote: “One intriguing aspect of the game that does imply artistic connotations is the geometrical patterns and variations of the actual set up of the pieces in the combinative, tactical, strategical and positional sense. It is a sad means of expression though - somewhat like religious art- it is not very gay. If anything, it is a struggle.” He was talking about Chess but it interchanges to curating. Curators are a composite: part scientist, part architect, part music composer – maybe part poet.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: What is interesting in relation to that is for me also the question of display feature. In a long interview I carried out with Richard Hamilton last year, he went as far as to say that only exhibitions which invented a display feature would actually be remembered – the display feature obviously being very related to Duchamp’s inventions. I was wondering what role the display feature would play for you, and how you see that whole idea in relation to architecture.

ANNE D’HARNONCOURT: I think we remember art in many ways; one we certainly remember is individual encounters with works of art that are like a thunderclap. We suddenly find ourselves in front of something, whatever it is, and we are mesmerized and can’t forget it. And it is not an issue of the display feature, usually, that you are talking about. It is an encounter and that can happen anywhere; it can happen in an exhibition that is so badly installed, or in a museum in a dusty corners.

TONY TREHY: In a sense though, that is a statement of the obvious – the power of an artwork is the work of the artist. As you say, a great work can shine through even an insensitive installation; I am with Richard Hamilton on this one. I think it is the curator’s challenge for each show to invent what he calls the display feature.


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