Written with Joseph Doubtfire, published on Curating the Contemporary, April 2015
The term “curator” has moved beyond any singular definition and now occupies a much broader sphere of activities, practices and professions. The curator, as a caretaker-like figure, once functioned solely within the museum, and as such, would often have been entrusted with the overseeing of a particular collection or display. In a move far beyond the museum, curatorial practice now not only exists in relation to art, but also encompasses a panoply of occupational contexts. Insofar as curatorial practice that corresponds to art or the artefact, divergent practices have extended beyond the scope of the museum, gallery or art institution, and thus the potential of the curator’s outcome has become increasingly varied. Through the temporal bringing together of art works, the exhibition has become dominant in the way art is disseminated and its ideas communicated. Hans Ulrich Obrist states that the curator does not merely display objects within a space, but “brings different cultural spheres into contact” (Obrist 2014, p. 24), and as such acts as mediator between artworks, objects and ideas.
The curator facilitates the translation and mediation of artwork from its place of production to its space of public display, or from private to public territory. In bringing artwork, objects or ideas together, the curator marks and evidences his/her understanding of the artefacts and their relationships, whilst allowing such relationships to be communicated non-verbally through visual, contextual or relational dialogue. Exhibition-making has become a potential dialogical space for questioning and is (or at least, can be) throughout its realisation and display, active in the ideas, thoughts and knowledge it provokes.
Through the ever more discussed role of the artist-curator, this paper will attempt to understand the artistic turn of curatorial practice, and identify ways in which independent curatorial practices might be confused with art. In a move away from traditional display, the artist or independent-curator is preoccupied with the exhibition as a medium for expression in and of itself, supposedly dichotomised from artistic practice. Although within this text we employ terminology such as ‘independent’ and ‘professional’ to describe different modes of curatorial practice, “things [including these definitions] are slippery.” (Filipovic 2014, p. 20)
The figure of the artist-curator emerged from the break towards curatorial independence and in the diversification of artistic practice into the realms of research, academia and pedagogy, as well as the curatorial. The artist acting as curator, although temporarily adopting a curatorial mode of practice, is fundamentally an artist. Whilst the work of the artist as curator is indisputably curatorial, this ilk of curatorial practice often exists in a territory of its own, a limbo-like space situated somewhere between curating and art. It is through the work of the artist who acts as curator that we begin to think of the exhibition as art, and see the autonomous curator functioning in some form of artistic capacity.
In her paper When Exhibitions Become Form: On the History of the Artist as Curator, Elena Filipovic states that the “ontological impurity of exhibitions” (Filipovic 2014, p. 4) or the difficult balance between the categorisation of exhibition-making as curating or as art, manifests in a conflict of the agency and presence of both curator and artist. Quoting Simon Sheikh, FIlipovic asks, “what does it mean to shift attention from objects to exhibitions?” (Filipovic 2014, p. 4). The artist who functions as curator, temporarily shifts his/her attention from making work with raw materials to exhibition-making, often with and through the use of the work of other artists. The artist-curator undoubtedly brings their experience as a maker (the manipulator or mediator of materials to their own end and in accordance with their own ideas) to the process of curating an exhibition.
Typically involved in the process of creating, the artist-curator uses space, objects and thus the exhibition as medium with its own agency, curating in line with his/her ideas, interests and most probably with his/her own visual or artistic practice in mind. With the difficulty, not impossibility, of dichotomising that which the artist makes, from that which the artist curates, we begin to comprehend the exhibition as medium. Much discussion would appear to suggest that in the expanding field of the artist performing as curator, the rhetoric of the exhibition appears, to some extent, to have superseded the aptitude of the individual work or the agenda of the artist. When exhibition becomes medium, employed as a material through which to think, and through which to speak, it is often discussed as something that overshadows the artworks it encompasses. The curator, or in this case the artist-curator, in the process of bringing works together, creates new narrative through and with existing narratives, present within the work composed by the work’s maker.
The artist-curated exhibition seems to dissect and destabilise what we might refer to as established curatorial traditions, and is, in this sense, often self-reflexive, examining and referencing exhibition histories, but simultaneously disagreeing with them. The artist-curator consequently questions the very act of curating and exhibition-making. MoMA’s program Artist’s Choice invites artists to curate an exhibition of works from the museum’s collection. This project seems to result in a less traditional and more experimental approach to the selection process than adopted by MoMA’s own curators; the artists pick works from the collection that would otherwise go unnoticed, atypically grouping objects and tangentially interpreting the selection. The artist as curator breaks the boundaries that the professional curator has to work within and instead highlights the oddities in the collection in order to provoke a new situation for art object and viewer. Filipovic argues that artist curated exhibitions “may or may not be considered an artwork, or even an exhibition, but […] ask us to fundamentally reconsider what an artwork or an exhibition are – or could be?” (Filipovic 2014, p. 20).
It might be apt to state that the professional curator (speaking generally), who adopts a more linear approach to exhibition-making, is able to disappear behind the process of mediation, given that, in this form of exhibition, the artworks’ agency takes precedence. For the artist-curator, both the exhibition and the artwork displayed have their own agency, thus disappearing is not quite so easy. The artist-curator curates, in a sense, like the artist makes work, through idea, dialogue and/or inquisition. The dichotomy between an independent or artist-curated exhibition exists in inquiry. Particularly when considered as a medium in its own right, the independent exhibition seems focused on questions and problems, subject as hypothesis, understanding (or not) through process.
The artist-curator has undoubtedly shaped both exhibition histories and methods of contemporary practice. At the very least, the work of the artist-curator has been involved in a rethinking of not only what the exhibition can be, but also how we view the work of figures such as the independent curator.
There is, of course, a dichotomy between the artist as curator and the curator as artist, and thus to understand this separation we acknowledge definitions of ‘the artist’ and ‘the curator’ to better grasp these hybrid roles. Whilst the term ‘artist-curator’ appropriately describes the artist who temporarily performs in a curatorial capacity, the term ‘curator as artist’ wrongly infers that the curator works within the parameters of the artist in the making of actual artworks. In this instance, the term ‘artistic’ is being used not to describe a particular occupation, but a creative disposition, and we comprehend the curator as an artist, despite the curator never having functioned explicitly as such. Instead the role we attempt to define is that of the curator who functions more artistically, but who fundamentally still performs as a curator: the curator as artist as curator. Ruth Noack in her paper Curator as Artist? for the symposium Artist as Curator, states that although the title of her paper might suggest otherwise:
the other of the artist as curator is not the curator as artist, nor is the other of the curator as artist, the artist as curator, in fact the other of the artist as curator is the curator […] adversely the other of the curator as artist is, the artist. (Noack, 2012)
Through the developmental practice of artists performing as curators, we are able to underpin and begin to delineate that which the independent or professional curator does. With some distinction, independent curatorial practices can be understood in very similar terms to that of the artist-curated exhibition. The exhibition used as medium by the artist, allows new approaches to reading curatorial practice in its entirety.
Whilst not all curatorial practices, approaches, exhibitions, etc. are viewable in these terms and under these guises, particular curatorial examples are more approachable because of this shift, and have to some extent, developed from them. A co-dependency, Dorothee Richter suggests, represents the idea that “the curator and the artist now closely imitate each other’s position” (O’Neill 2010, p.252) and thus we can speculate around the marginally discussed figure of the curator as artist. Similarly to the artist curator, the independent curator (or curator as artist) uses the exhibition as medium for creative expression and employs creative methods. The curator as artist in an imitative way also appears to negate traditions of exhibition history and makes exhibitions that are often self-reflexive of the process of curating and the form of the exhibition itself.
Hans Ulrich Obrist’s exhibition Chambre 763 took place in a room at the Hôtel Carlton Palace in Paris. The show, consisting of works by 70 artists was quasi-secret and involved instruction, intervention, site-specific and camouflaged works. The room’s key ring was exchanged for a small work by Jean-Michel Othoniel; Michelangelo Pistoletto covered the room’s column in pages from a yellow book, repositioning it as a sculpture; Rikrit Tiravanija instructed Obrist to take a photograph everyday after his breakfast. The exhibition took place whilst Obrist himself inhabited the room, becoming an artist-like performer. Given not only Obrist’s performative involvement in the exhibition, but also the experimental nature of the show’s premise, we can understand Obrist’s curatorial work as pseudo-artistic. Approaching exhibition as medium, or as self-reflexive practice, the curator as artist as curator thinks through the process of curating, in a similar way to the artist who thinks through making. Thus exhibition-making becomes a method of finding out, and examples of curatorial practice such as Chambre 763 are self-reflexive and re-evaluative of the function of the gallery or museum.
In terms of contemplating the divergent roles of the artist as curator and the curator as artist, Chambre 763 demonstrates a conflict between the agency of the artwork and that of the exhibition. It can be said that we are more likely to remember the curator and his/her conceptual integrity, than the participant artists, thus artwork and artist are “subsumed by the identity of the whole curatorial endeavour” (O’Neill 2010, p. 255). However, “the whole curatorial endeavour” can never supersede the importance of the artwork, without which the exhibition could not exist; instead what is visible is a conflict or back and forth between artistic and curatorial authority.
If innovative practitioners who championed curatorial independence and who are willing to question both their methodology and exhibition history, had not treated exhibitions as inquisitive, research based practice, certain exhibitions that have changed the course of curating would cease to have been realised.
Filipovic, E. (2014) When Exhibitions Become Form: On the History of the Artist as Curator. In: The Artist as Curator, Issue 0. Mousse Magazine, Issue 41. Mousse Publishing, Milan.
Hoffmann, J. (2013) Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating. Mousse Publishing, Milan.
Noack, R. (2012) The Curator as Artist?. The Artist as Curator [online]. 10 November 2012, Central St. Martins, London. Available at: . [Accessed on 10 April 2015]
Obrist, H. U. (2014) Hôtel Carlton Palace: Chambre 763. Köln: Walther König.
Obrist, H. U. (2014) Sharp Tongue, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground. Sternberg Press, London.
O’Neill, P. (2012) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). The MIT Press, Cambridge.
O’Neill, P. (2010) The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse. In: E. Filipovic et al, (Eds.). The Biennial Reader. Bergen Kunsthall/Hatje Kantz, Bergen.
Vidokle, A. (2010) Art Without Artists? e-flux [online]. Available at: . [Accessed on 10 April 2015].