What is the role of the curator?

February 7, 2011

Rising Down (2008) by Julie Mehretu

 

This week I visited On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century at the Museum of Modern Art. It was organized by Connie Butler, the MOMA's Chief Curator of Drawings, and Catherine de Zegher, the former director of the Drawing Center. It was a huge and crowded show---it contained about three hundred drawings arranged in eleven galleries. While I don't want to dismiss prodigiously researched and ambitiously mounted shows like this one, I had to make distinct choices as a viewer to prevent myself from getting frustrated and overwhelmed by all of the visual stimulation and physical activity going on around me. Therefore, I was unable to truly experience Storr’s assertion, that the positioning and pacing of the artwork in an exhibit could facilitate a series of discoveries (Storr 24).  

 

Instead of slowing down to fully appreciate the subtleties of the curatorial decisions behind the installation of the work, I walked briskly through the exhibit, stopping only at pieces that caught my eye or whenever there was space in front of a something that I could examine further. Since much of the work on display was from MOMA’s collections, I skipped over most of the beginning and middle of the exhibit which presented early modern and midcentury experiments with line on flat surfaces or as sculptures. The positioning of this work did not shake my familiarity of them enough to trigger new insights on the practice of drawing. I'm certain though that if I returned to the exhibit when it was quieter, I would have the mental and physical space to reflect on the curators’ insights about these time periods. Unfortunately, while it makes perfect sense that big shows are intended to attract big crowds, these conditions also compromise how exhibitions are individually experienced.    

 

Film Still from Kon Kon Pi (2009) by Cecilia Vicuna

 

Despite this situation, I was immediately impressed that the curators expanded the concept of drawing beyond the accepted medium (of works on paper or other flat surfaces) to include dance, performance, installation, sculpture, and land art. This reflects the curators’ belief that “the exhibition [charts] the radical transformation of the medium between 1910 and 2010, as artists broke down drawing to its core elements, making line the subject of intense exploration” (Museum of Modern Art). The second aspect of the show that impressed me was the inclusion of so many woman artists. Butler and de Zegher’s presentation of women who made historical and contemporary contributions to this discipline has sparked my interest in attending any future exhibits organized by them.          

 

Ankerr (Emu) (1990) by Emily Kam Kngwarray

 

Specifically, I would like to see how they organize exhibits at smaller venues. As one of the world’s leading art institutions, the MOMA has access to incredible artistic, intellectual, and financial resources that can assist exhibition-makers in fully realizing their curatorial ambitions. The challenge then in that situation is figuring out how to harness this wealth of resources to express the exhibition-makers’ and artist’s ideas without bombarding the audience with too much information. Some of the standard practices for a show at the MOMA can distract from having a direct experience of the artwork. For instance, I agree with Storr that audio guides can cause crowds to gather, promotes the skipping of other artwork not covered in the guide, prevents audiences from engaging with the work directly, and eliminates conversations among viewers (24-25). I saw people piled up in front of certain artworks with guides next to their ears, only to bypass most of the exhibit until they got to the next piece explained by the audio guide. On the other hand, I appreciate how comprehensively designed MOMA's websites are for their premiere exhibits because I like to review the material contained there afterwards. Their websites include the images, videos, and wall text from the exhibit, in addition to the audio from the handheld guides.

 

Behind the Scenes: Performance 13: On Line/Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

 

Given Storr's explanation that for exhibitions, “space is the medium in which ideas are visually phrased” and that galleries can function as paragraphs, I must admit that my movement within the show expressed how I jumped ahead to the end of the exhibition’s story (22). The artworks that caught most of my attention were by contemporary women artists in the last two galleries. This includes work by Mimi Gellman, Emily Kam Kngwarray, Cecilia Vicuna, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Sheila Makhijani, and Julie Mehretu. I found this work to be dynamic and compelling, if not also boldly colorful. I was attracted to this work ultimately because I agree with the curators’ thesis that “the meaning of line […] [is] inevitably reflecting the interconnection and interdependency that are increasingly both shaping and emerging from a globalized society. Line, like thought, once understood as linear and progressive, has evolved into a kind of network: fluid, simultaneous, indefinite, and open” (Museum of Modern Art). It is not surprising that contemporary artists are depicting humanity’s increasing acceptance of the interdependence of different kinds of systems and the complexity of knowledge and relationships. For example, some of the strongest work in the show was by artists from India, an emerging global economic market that has a large workforce involved in the information technology industry. The placement of Just a bit more, Ranjani Shettar’s installation of hundreds of delicately shaped beeswax pellets connected by a thin web of thread, floating in the walkway before the entrance of the show, expressed the exhibition-makers’ thesis beautifully and set the tone for how to contextualize the rest of the exhibit.

 

Behind the Scenes: On Line: Ranjani Shettar

 

Despite my initial annoyance at the conditions under which I visited the exhibit, the exhibition-makers accomplished two of the most fundamental markers of success identified by Storr. First, that the exhibit be organized in such a way that it allows the viewer to enter it at any point (or proceed through it in any path), and still be able to grasp its meaning (25) and secondly, that I was able to leave the exhibit “energized, rather than exhausted, and convinced that there is more to be seen, and other ways of seeing it” (27).

 

 

Works Cited

Museum of Modern Art. "On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century." MoMA | The Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2011. <http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/971>.

 

Storr, Robert. "Show and Tell." What makes a great exhibition? Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006. 14-31. Print.

 

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