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In the streets of Tallinn. Summer 2012

Today’s Curator – A Bridge, or a Spring-Board? 0

Anna Iltnere

Last weekend, Hans-Ulrich Obrist – the notable curator and Co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery – announced the completion of a very important project: finally, all 2500 hours of recorded footage in which Obrist interviews artists, architects, authors and scientists the world over, will be available to the public, free of charge. Titled “Institute of the 21st Century”, it will be presented online, on July 29. The interviews, which Obrist has recorded over many years (of which a large part have been published in the press or assembled into books), and which are often on-going (several interviewees are met with again and again), are described by the curator himself as a protest against the loss of memory – one of the most salient problems of today’s culture. Obrist doesn’t separate his recorded and written conversations from his curatorial work: “All of my projects are, in some way, conversations.”

Obrist appeared on the horizon of the art scene at the beginning of the 1990’s, when he organized his first exhibition in 1991 – in his own St.Gallen kitchen, attracting 29 visitors in three months. The kitchen exhibition would later serve as the key to his work, in which huge projects are alternated with miniature and intimate expositions, say, in a hotel room (Hotel Carlton Palace: Chambre 763, Paris, 1993).

In Latin, the word curare means “to take care of” (as well as “to heal” and “to govern”). A curator takes care of art works in the classical sense, for example, as it is done in museums. Curators also take care of the artists themselves, as Maria Lind, the Director of Stockholm’s Tensta Konsthall, indicated in an interview with “I am convinced that to be a curator means to help the artist, and to ensure him/her with the best working conditions possible. But at the same time, it is important to confront the artist with difficult questions, thereby challenging the artist a bit – at least until it seems fruitful.” At the beginning of his career, Obrist also posited a similar motto, or wish – to help artists realize their dreams. Curators really do seem to be much like fairy godmothers.


And then came the year 2010, when Anton Vidokle, the artist and co-founder of e-flux, published his article, “Art Without Artists?”, in which he voices his dissatisfaction with the status quo, where the independent curator is inching closer and closer to transforming into an all-powerful superstar, for whom the artists are merely back-up singers: “... there is real resentment out there, not very different from the feelings artists harbored towards art critics in the 1960s and ‘70s. Many artists—from extremely established artists to younger practitioners new to the field of art—feel that curatorial power and arrogance are out of control.” Along with the growth in number of mega-exhibitions, biennials and triennials in the last two decades, the role of the curator has also grown, and his/her name becomes tied to the large exhibitions’ success or failure factor; the curator becomes, in a sense, a “label” or “brand”. In speaking to on the role of the curator, the art expert from Latvia, Alise Tīfentāle, described how an understanding of the position can widely differ: “Some people think that a curator is a parasite and destroyer of an artist’s creative aspirations. Others think that a curator is a financial manager, politician, creator of publicity campaigns and art expert, all in one – most often this occurs at the large biennials and triennials, which are the curators’ own pieces of work. It’s just like in Hollywood, where the director’s (i.e., the curator’s) name guarantees a certain artistic level and financial rewards, but at the same time, he/she allows for a respectable amount of fame and stardom for the actors as well (i.e., the artists). Probably neither side has it right: I’d say that the best curator that I’ve met to this day is the famous Ukranian boxer, Vladimir Klichko, who was the official curator for Ukraine’s national exposition at the 2009 Venice Biennial.” 

And then there’s the legendary Harald Szeeman (1933–2005) who, as head curator at the 2001 Venice Biennial, unabashedly wrote in the event’s accompanying pamphlet that the meaning of large exhibitions depends solely on “who organizes them”. Gone is the “transparent” fairy godmother and the wish to stay in the background. Curators with the same attitude towards their job can be found in projects done on a much smaller scale, as it was said in our interview with the Rael Artel from Estonia, in which she states her conviction that the reigns must be in her hands (similar as to how the Latin curare can mean not only to take care and to heal, but to watch over, command and lead): “I find artists who work with the certain issue. I don’t believe in great freedom of art. The process is always a compromise, and you have to build a road to conversations. I am responsible for the exhibition. That is why I control every moment, how the work is made, and what happens in the exhibition. Otherwise, I can’t sign my name to the exhibition. Of course, you can be super-democratic, but then the results usually won’t be good. It’s especially important to control and coordinate the process when dealing with group exhibitions.” 

It should be said that the above-mentioned Szeeman is justifiably seen as one of the first independent curators to hold the powers already described in the beginning of the article. “In 1972, artists reacted to documenta5 with boycotts and open letters, protesting against Harald Szeemann using artists like paint on canvas, and otherwise overreaching, to use Vidokle’s term. It’s unfortunate that such an uproar is unimaginable today. Which is to say, I agree with many of Vidokle’s points. The thick oral history of curators abusing their prerogatives is growing thicker by the biennial, while art is widely employed to boost curatorial reputations for multi-knowledgeability and to ennoble semi-academic careers. And the idea of a happy, level playing field between artists and curators is indeed far too pastoral. However, even more startling is the idea that curators getting-out-of-the-artist’s-way will remedy the situation,” writes the independent curator, Tirdad Zoghadr, from Berlin, in a reply to Vidokle.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist states in an interview that he tries not to get into the center of things, because it’s just not fruitful: “As Deleuze once said, it is dangerous to occupy a territory, because the moment you believe in power as such, and as soon as that power is in your hands, the work that you are doing becomes immediately plain and uninteresting.”


In taking a historical step backwards and searching for both the objectives and limits of power that a curator should have, one can say that, in short, along with the bringing of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), or urinal, into the realm of art, there arose the acute necessity for a mediator between the public and art. “However, the autonomous modern art object, free from royal patronage and religious significance, demanded increasingly to be interpreted and explained. Thus, over time the curator came to not only present the artwork, but also explained why and how it is art. The blurring of the boundaries between art and life and the ready-made gesture on the one hand, and the disputed futility of avant-garde committed art and its social promise, on the other, increasingly generated the need for curatorial contextualization and interpretation,” writes Sohrab Mohebbi, a writer and curator from Brooklyn. 

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Parisian art critic and anarchist, Félix Fénéon (1861–1944), likened the curator to a pedestrian bridge (Passerelle), that connects the artist to the rest of the world. In a more-or-less letter of response to Vidokle’s editorial, the above-mentioned Mohebbi states that “[...] in order to maintain curatorial specificity and authority, there should be a gap between the artwork and what it means, and the curator is the person who helps the ignorant viewer cross the gap, step by step [...]”

Left: documenta5 curator Harald Szeeman, in the “throne” of art, 1972. Right: documenta13 curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in her “throne”, 40 years later.

Returning to the current day, we must think about what happens if the bridge tries to become a self-sustaining entity, making the destination at the end of the bridge – art – less important than the bridge itself? Doesn’t the bridge then become a ramp that doesn’t lead to anywhere? – that just allows one to jump off of a spring-board of hope and expectations, into the dark chasm of incomprehension and confusion that stretches between the public and a piece of art? I was overtaken by such emotions after seeing the documenta13 exhibition: it was inspiring – while enjoying each work of art separately, and while looking for the current trends. But as soon as I returned to the assertions of the head curator, and her public behavior, it turned into a conceited bowl of mush. Maria Arusoo, artist and curator at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, admitted to that it is difficult to make an objective evaluation of documenta13 if the personality of its curator is so offensive: “But to grasp the exhibition without the filter of Carolyn Christova-Bakargiev’s personality is practically impossible, because that is its main axis of publicity.“

In the latest issue of “Texte Zur Kunst”, on the cover of which is the currently-hot-topic of “The Curator”, is an article about Hans-Ulrich Obrist. In speaking of Obrist’s work and how it relates to both the viewers and the artists, the author of the article, Heinz Bude, writes: “The point is not to pull the rug out from under the feet of the naive believers, but to offer arenas for the participants in which they can meet, see each other, and exchange ideas.” But as I write this article, there’s a National Geographic program on TV, about the “Ghost Bear”. It’s the same North American black bear, just endowed with a unique, recessive gene that causes its fur to grow almost white in color. And instead of blending in with its environment – which consists of moss, lichen, pine trees and brush – and being present within it, the bear wanders around like a ghost, as if it were lost and incongruous.