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Frans Francken, A Collector’s Cabinet, 1625

To Show or Not To Show

by Jens Hoffmann and Maria Lind

Jens Hoffmann and Maria Lind weave a lively discussion on two different perspectives on curating. One attempts to explore the exhibition format along all its paths, including those seldom taken; the other has an “expanded” conception whose main goal is to make art become public. The problem remains that of quality, which in the present productive outburst seems to be seriously at risk.

Jens Hoffmann: Curating, to me, is fundamentally linked to exhibition making. I feel some frustration with how the term “curating” has been adopted by all sorts of fields to describe any process that involves making a selection of something. DJs curate the music lineup at a party, cooks curate the menu at a restaurant, decorators curate the living rooms of clients, and so on. For me curating is about formulating a certain theory or argument, based upon which one makes a selection of artworks or other objects with the aim of creating an exhibition in which those objects and artworks are displayed to the public. You have been an advocate for an expanded notion of curating that goes beyond exhibition making, and I would like to start our conversation by asking you why so many curators who seek curatorial innovation think that progress can only be achieved by abandoning the format of the exhibition.

Maria Lind: Innovation needs some kind of urgency in order to avoid becoming formalized. In my case, thinking about and developing new and/or altered formats and approaches in relation to curating is connected with art itself, with its sensibility, attitude etc. My process starts with art rather than theories or arguments, which enter at a later stage. My tendency is also to challenge the status quo, not for its own sake but because the current conditions are often problematic, or insufficient. For example, when I was directing Kunstverein München we did a retrospective with Christine Borland for the duration of a year, in which only one work was shown at a time, and this was intimately connected to how her work operates. It is dense, it requires a lot of time to make and then to engage with, and it also deals with the passage of time. Or our work on Rirkrit Tiravanija’s retrospective that took the form of a weekend meeting and then a weeklong workshop with his former students, as well as curators and critics, who have engaged with his work over time. The format was closely related to the logic of the work.
What specifically do you think needs exploration in terms of exhibition making today? Particular exhibition formats? From my point of view, exhibition making works best as a somewhat organic process, not solely based on calculated and pre-programmed upheaval. To say that curating equals exhibition making is like saying that art is the same as painting. Both painting and exhibition making have been dominating their respective fields. Which is too reductive.

JH: I do not think your analogy makes any sense. Painting and curating are totally different activities, with very different objectives and histories. If someone says that art equals painting then that is fine; it is their opinion. I see lots of curatorial work that is about other things besides curating exhibitions, but it just doesn’t interest me at all.

ML: By the way, it is a misconception that I have abandoned exhibition making. All along I have worked consciously, and with great pleasure, with exhibitions, in white cubes and other types of spaces in parallel with other ways of making art happen and go public. I have in fact continuously made exhibitions, for example “Formalities” at Iaspis, “Personal Protocols and Other Preferences”, and “The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art” at CCS Bard, and “One Thing After the Other” at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Stockholm. And so have many other curators who have simultaneously embraced other ways of allowing art to exist. It is about what makes the most sense in relation to the kind of art, the time, and the place.

JH: I have seen several of the projects that you mention, and none of them felt to me like an exhibition. I also find it hard to measure quality in these cases. Traditionally I could say someone is an interesting curator because they know how to work with artists, how to install an exhibition, how to write a good catalogue essay. Today anyone can put together a lecture program based on an idea that they read about in a journal and call themselves a curator. I think it’s just too easy. Exhibition making is a craft, and I treasure that.
Too many curators seem to think exhibition making is a thing of the past and that today it has to be all about what I call the paracuratorial: lectures, screenings, exhibitions without art, working with artists on projects without ever producing anything that could be exhibited. I would not be worried about it if I saw it only here and there, but there is a big push toward it, and I feel that we actually still do not really understand the potential of exhibitions. They are an important social ritual, with vast possibilities. I do not think that the exhibition as a format for the display of art has been fully explored, and it certainly has not been exhausted.

ML: Obviously for me curating involves working with many different formats, depending on what is at hand. The core is “how to make art go public,” circling around art and taking cues from what I understand to be its specificities, as well as from the context and time, driven by equal amounts of enthusiastic curiosity and analytical skepticism. And a sense that things can be different. Art has this amazing capacity to explore, convey, and forge that. Art is an unsurpassed form of understanding and a maker of new imaginaries. And if I want to allow that to come across and exist in a shared space, then it is necessary to develop formats that can support and even enhance that, accounting for complexities. To stay with one format would be like one form of packaging for everything. It seems a little peculiar that you think that the presentations and orchestrations of art works in a white cube exhibition space mentioned above do not “feel like exhibitions” – I thought that was precisely what you are looking for. Can you elaborate on that?

JH: I know a lot of curators who have very dogmatic ideas about their work and dismiss anything that is not part of their own worldview. I personally like to look at and consider as many different positions as possible as long as I feel there is a certain depth and seriousness to them. Of course exhibition making is not limited to just one format. You know my work and how many exhibition formats I have embraced and perhaps even conceived, and the wide range of artworks and other aesthetic objects I consider, which constantly challenges normative codes about exhibition making. I do it while staying by and large within the gallery space. Perhaps all of this also has to do with my interest in objects as elements that carry and speak about history, and how we experience them when we see them in a museum. I am interested in the idea of staging and the theatrical experience, which grows out of my studies in theater.

ML: Is there a side to your practice that you feel is under-addressed?

JH: I am not sure if anyone actually addresses my practice. But I really am an exhibition maker, even if I write a lot, teach all the time, publish a journal, work on collections, and all of that. The core is making exhibitions and creating that particular experience.

ML: You have consistently explored various types of exhibitions. (I stick to using “format” for different ways of making art go public, exhibitions being one of them, screening series another, and “types” as a subcategory within each format like a group exhibition, a monographic exhibition etc; we can also think about exhibitions as a medium.) Which is also why I continue to be interested in following what you do. I appreciate this kind of focus and specialization, in the wake of superficial approaches to curating. We have both remained art nerds, and on top of that you are an exhibition nerd. I am perhaps becoming a nerd of the histories and practices of curating. It is important to be able to, when appropriate, go beyond the pure facilitation and “caressing” of art. Being subservient can be good, even useful, but sometimes we also need to take up the challenge of art and answer back. Which for me means taking art and artists super seriously.

JH: There is certainly more quantity than quality when it comes to current exhibition making, but to take that as a trigger to say “exhibition making is dead” seems a bit shortsighted.

ML: Even if I don’t agree with them – I am not even sure who they are – I can understand when people claim that exhibition making belongs to the past. Because a daunting majority of exhibitions today seems to be made by rote, with very little care or precision. Just mechanically, as a tired routine. Which is not the case with your exhibitions. Although there is a mechanical aspect to the 12th Istanbul Biennial, and its repetition of the same setup five times, which I have described elsewhere as similar to the logic of bureaucratic implementation.

JH: I am not sure about your use of the terms “mechanical” or “bureaucratic” in this context. It seems very reductive and willingly trying to discredit the format of the exhibition. There is nothing mechanical about developing a methodology for how one makes exhibitions and applying that to different ideas, subjects, contexts. I do not want to go into the Istanbul Biennial here too much, but perhaps you did not look at the five sections carefully enough to see that each one was trying to articulate something very distinct.

ML: That is my point, that if you want to articulate something very distinct it is almost always necessary to make it specific – context-sensitive - each time. Which is why the repetition five times does not work for me – each part would have needed its own treatment and shape. The methodology was overriding the art. So it is not at all to do with discrediting the format of the exhibition.

JH: Perhaps we should talk about what we think is good exhibition making.

ML: Rather than “good exhibition-making,” I would talk about interesting and relevant exhibition making practices in which there is a clear emphasis on the exhibition as a format. I would count your practice there, as well as the work of Julie Ault, Chus Martínez, SØren Grammel, and (in a more classical sense) Lynne Cooke. There is a conscious and sensitive elaboration of the format of the exhibition at play. Your work would for me be an example of how exhibition making can be used curatorially. In other words, you have challenged the status quo within your area, which is exhibition making. This makes me think of artists who have explored and partly transcended their medium and yet remain committed to that very medium, such as Leya Mira Brander and classical printing, Viktor Rosdahl and figurative painting, and Hito Steyerl and the video essay.

JH: I feel there is more and more of an anything-goes attitude in the art world. Art and curating have become so popular that they have suffered a tremendous decline in quality. That is also partly because there are fewer and fewer standards by which to evaluate the quality of the work that is being done. The moment curating got disconnected from exhibition making, at least partially, it was a free-for-all. I would go as far as to say that the sorts of speculations that you are doing with curating are partly to blame for that, and also part of the reason why I am hesitant to call myself a curator any more.

ML: I prefer to avoid the individual, the curator, and talk in terms of “the curatorial” as a methodology that can be employed in many different capacities such as those of traditional curators, educators, editors, et cetera.

JH: Please explain what exactly you mean by “the curatorial.”

ML: I mean a practice that goes beyond curating, which I see as the technical modality of making art go public in various ways. “Curating” is “business as usual” in terms of putting together an exhibition, organizing a commission, programming a screening series, et cetera. “The curatorial” goes further, implying a methodology that takes art as its starting point but then situates it in relation to specific contexts, times, and questions in order to challenge the status quo. And it does so from various positions, such as that of a curator, an editor, an educator, a communications person, and so on. This means that the curatorial can be employed, or performed, by people in a number of different capacities within the ecosystem of art. For me there is a qualitative difference between curating and the curatorial. The latter, like Chantal Mouffe’s notion of the political in relation to politics, carries a potential for change.
The “anyone can claim to be a curator” situation is definitely a problem. For me, one of the major challenges of curating today is the curating programs, specially the ones with tuition. However, I see it slightly differently than you. Curating as a career path affects both the activity of exhibition making in the narrower sense, and curating at large. I have seen too many first exhibitions after which students and other beginners feel that they have become curators. This is part of the “license” problem – that curating programs give degrees, certificates, that claim to show that people have actually become curators when they are merely beginning to acquire their own methodologies. Curating is an applied activity that cannot exist without substantial hands-on experience. This always becomes evident when writers and philosophers start to curate. They are rarely successful.

JH: Curatorial education is indeed a difficult topic. We are at the very start of trying to establish the field, and it will probably take many more decades until we find ways of teaching curating that are truly satisfying to us and to the students. To me it remains a mystery why someone would decide to do a two-year course in curating rather than study literature, philosophy, or art history.

ML: You can contain neither things nor people. They will inevitably take their own routes and perform various mutations. It is like writing: once a rare activity in the hands of a few, and now used in ever-developing ways. Which does not mean that the art of writing novels is obsolete, or that new and fantastic forms of writing cannot be invented. In some sense I can call myself a writer. I want to call for specificity and precision. I do not want to let things slip away. People get away too easily with sloppy work.

JH: I could not agree more with your last statement.

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