Object-Oriented Curating Continues in 2013 Venice Biennale

The "Brain" area of Documenta 13 (Image via blindbild.com)
The “Brain” area of Documenta 13 (Image via blindbild.com)

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.

Jakob Mohr's drawing of an "Influencing Machine" (Image via mikejay.net)
Jakob Mohr’s drawing of an “Influencing Machine” (Image via mikejay.net)

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.

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