The artist list has just been released for New Museum associate director and curator Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale, and it features a slew of established names, including Tacita Dean, Carl Andre, and Bruce Nauman. More provocatively, the show will also feature some appropriated objects from outside the world of contemporary art: “the work of various untrained artists, such as Haitian vodou flags and tantric drawings.”
As one of the world’s most high-profile curators, Gioni’s decisions will be carefully watched and mimicked. But the mingling of contemporary fine art with anonymously created artifacts picks up on a trend that was kicked off last year with curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13. Her version of the show, which happens once every five years in Kassel, Germany, featured objects that ranged from a photograph of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub to the shattered fragments of the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban.
As Steven Henry Madoff wrote in his review of the exhibition, “The question [Christov-Bakargiev] asks at the heart of the heart of her exhibition is not who thinks, but what thinks.” In the curator’s Documenta, all objects are elevated to the status of art objects, or even to the status of human beings. That mindset, which is being pioneered by philosophers who “query the play of the object world in which the human is a single actor among all objects,” as Madoff writes, is often referred to as Object-Oriented Ontology.
Gioni and Christov-Bakargiev alike seem to be picking up on this discourse in their exhibitions. Gioni’s recent Ghosts in the Machine exhibition, also at the New Museum, gave privileged space over to vernacular and outsider objects like paranoid schizophrenic patient Jakob Mohr’s drawings of “influencing machines” and explored the idea of how technology takes on a life and mythology of its own making. Documenta 13 included a “Brain” section of two curving rooms that held a collection of art objects and artifacts indicating “not a history, not an archive, but a set of elements that mark contradictory conditions and committed positions of being in and with the world,” the curator wrote.
To me, this kind of object-oriented curating is a compelling and poetic step forward for the art world. It decentralizes “fine art” and places works of art in the context of our universe of meaningful objects, of which paintings and sculptures are just a few examples. Mingling appropriated artifacts into exhibitions breaks down the insular bubble of museum exhibition-making and brings in some of the currents and realities of the outside world. I expect we’ll be seeing much more of the strategy in the near future.
I believe those fragments of Bamiyan Buddhas were part of Michael Rakowitz’s installation. But there were other objects chosen by the curator rather than appropriated by artists. Even as I point that out, the distinction between an artist appropriating a found object and a curator doing the same thing seems pretty meaningless. I agree that it’s an interesting direction.
Hey Kevin, yeah, you’re right. There were definitely other examples, I’ll have to look again. That distinction seems fairly permeable anyway. Thanks for your comment.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev will be at the Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building on March 26th, giving a talk on dOCUMENTA (13):
I hate this style of curating. Even though non-art objects are placed alongside fine art objects, a hierarchy is still implicitly present. At no point do we ever forget that the appropriated object has been appropriated, while the fine art object has been produced under the aegis of fine art. I understand that it is meant to bring art into life by devaluing the central importance of the fine art object, and to function as a modern return to the more inclusive conception of cultural artifacts from the era of the cabinet of curiosities, but simply juxtaposing high and low, or the fine and non, does not eradicate the hierarchies of art. Additionally such a curatorial approach risks deleting history and context, which always leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
A more efficacious approach would maybe be to present art objects and cultural artifacts that are more tightly woven into the fabric of individuals daily life than fine art (eg, film, pop music, illustration, comix), with the same respect and frequency as fine art.
It’s probably also worth noting that the Rosemarie Trockel show at the New Museum last spring had a similar curatorial logic (in this case based explicitly on the wunderkammer). I thought the show was successful in some respects, particularly in its challenge to the standard male-hero-painter narrative of modernism, but I really question the ethics of Trockel’s challenge to the supremacy of the fine art object with respect to other artifacts including varieties of low art objects and natural objects. Trockel is herself a fine artist, it does not mean the same thing when she produces a scientific illustration for presentation at the New Museum as when an illustrator produces a scientific illustration, and it leaves us with a situation where the fine artist is applauded for challenging the hierarchy while the peripheral illustrator receives only passing respect within the art world. It does nothing to shift the position of the fine artist on the hierarchy, and probably does little if anything to positively affect the position of the artist working in the peripheral language.
this isn’t curating so much as marketing, aiming to convince an all-too-readily agreeable art consumer that they are being made privy to a (slightly) scandalous questioning of art as making objects of value. instead, the “curator” (better labelled a “dresser” or a “dispositioner”) cheekily suggests that they themselves are also capable of making “objects of value” simply by establishing a propinquity with the sanctioned; in other words, they become the sanctioner.
this is an old, old game in art, whose death one would have thought finally achieved a couple years back when hirst (with a century-long assist from duchamp) pounded the nails into the putative coffin. however, if art is dead, we haven’t yet found the body – more likely, it’s been cannibalized by “curators” like gioni for selling off to oligarchs and hedge fund dilettantes.
face it, as soon as the viewer enters the museum (or gallery, or biennale), art becomes a consumer good, a cultural trinket who lost power to move is replaced only by a vacant desire to titillate. this “curatorial” trend is only the latest in a series of desperate attempts by the industry to feign cultural relevance when its output has simply become, well, product.
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