Roving Eye: Defining Exhibitions


After visiting “Intense Proximity,” the Okwui Enwezor-curated Paris triennial at the Palais de Tokyo in June, I headed to Kassel, Germany, for another gigantic exhibition, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA 13. Both large projects (each features over 130 artists), came with equally ambitious yet self-reflexive catalogues.

In dOCUMENTA’s Guidebook, Christov-Bakargiev sets out the parameters of a show that extends beyond its traditional venues (the Fridericianum, the documenta-Halle) to dozens of temporary sites throughout Kassel and locations in Kabul, Alexandria and Banff. In the introduction, the curator explains, “an exhibition is always the act of locating artworks and bodies producing an understanding of the role of partiality, of the importance of engaging with a site and, at the same time, producing a polylogue with other places.” This contingency is spatial but also temporal, she says: “A place of no fixed thing; it has an episodic history and takes its particular aspect through an intense immersion.”

In the guide for “Intense Proximity,” Enwezor defines his project as a proposition for the production of global culture, using art, ethnographic documents and cultural objects. In the first paragraph, the curator claims that “to organize and present an exhibition involves a process of thinking; of analysis and reflection on what has been thought among contending claims, situations, relevance, and judgments in which art and culture are produced. . . .  It involves decisions as to which artistic positions gain preeminence and which signs carry discursive power above all others.”

I was struck by the apparent need felt by both curators to create definitions. Are exhibitions such contested sites that they need to be explained in order for visitors to recognize them? Perhaps.

In the past decade or two, the rapid expansion of the professional field for curators of contemporary art, and the advent of curatorial studies as an academic subject, have prompted a renewed interest in exhibition history and in exhibition-making. In the classroom, in conferences and in specialized publications, an exploding number of curators find themselves defining and redefining the nature of their work and their main site of activity, the exhibition. By framing the term and their roles as curators, Christov-Bakargiev and Enwezor participate in a larger conversation about professionalism.

Both definitions locate the curator’s working method along a spectrum that ranges from the analytical to the phenomenological. Neither casts the word “exhibition” in a light radically different from what it means to most: the public presentation of art works, resulting from a selection of artists. Nor does either chart new territories for exhibition-making, in a way that Christov-Bakargiev’s predecessor Arnold Bode did in 1964, when he defined Documenta 3 as a 100-day event, treating the exhibition as a dynamic, time-based organism.

Nonetheless, the curators offered nuanced assessments of what it means to conceptualize an exhibition. Addressing a “place of no fixed thing,” Christov-Bakargiev imagines the exhibition in an age of global interconnectedness, with a power to produce what she calls “an understanding of the role of partiality” (my emphasis). She suggests that all events are part of a whole, where the presence of objects and bodies in space is also a mark of the absence of all that is connected to them. Partiality might more simply refer to the curator’s bias in locating artworks in a chosen space, favoring one vision, one site, one contemporaneity, over another.

Enwezor unequivocally addresses the judgment inherent to exhibition-making, painting the curator as a figure with sweeping powers to include and exclude artistic practices from contemporary art distribution channels. By contrast, he also admits in his introduction that “more than being an occasion for taking stock and revising or enlarging the parameters of the field of inquiry, an exhibition in many ways is a practice of speculation.” Writing art history, curators of contemporary art do indeed operate within a variable framework.

These issues are not new, and before they became part of a field of curatorial self-investigation, they were taken up by artists. I am reminded of a 1990 text by Yvonne Rainer addressing the subject which served as the preface to Democracy, a compilation of essays and transcripts of panel discussions organized around a series of experimental projects held at the Dia Art Foundation, New York, in 1988-89. (The exhibition was organized by Group Material and brought together artworks by artists and other citizens that assessed the state of American democracy, education, politics and the AIDS crisis.)

Rainer’s introduction,  “The Work of Art in the (Imagined) Age of Unalienated Exhibition,” problematizes the Darwinian selection generally presumed inherent to exhibition-making. She recalls an artist friend of hers observing passively that “the cream always rises to the top.” Rejecting that assumption, she imagines a different type of exhibition, like Democracy, that “does not have to separate or isolate its objects from the conditions in and under which those objects are produced . . . under the smoke screen of ‘quality,’ or the implicitly superior taste involved with selection.” She hailed this as constituting “a radically different approach, one that can offer not only a diversity of objects but can contextualize a social field in and from which the objects are produced and derive their meaning.”

More than 20 years later, the non-alienated exhibition remains elusive, but the path cleared by Rainer remains available.