Monday, February 21, 2011

Hans Ulrich Obrist : A Brief History of Curating : JRP/Ringier, 2008

It may be gauche to be writing about a book published years ago but what the heck, here goes. Hans Ulrich Obrist has complied a series of interviews that he had with curatorial luminaries that impacted contemporary art. Interviewees include: Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén, Johannes Cladders, Jean Leering Harald Szeemann, Franz Meyer, Seth Siegelaud, Werner Hofman, Walter Zanini, Anne d’Harnoncourt and Lucy Lippard. It is not quite a page-turner but it is information packed and by the end of it, the concept of curation, of the museum, and of how it all works is made clearer.

Hans Ulrich Obrist in these interviews = HUO. It is extremely funny, to see HUO in ridiculously large font at the beginning of every interview. Every time I would see this HUO I would mentally make an acronym, in the vain of “Hairy Ugly Otter” or “Holy Utter Ogre” this mean little exercise may reflect my undeserved disdain towards Hans. He is Swiss, a director of many things including Serpentine Gallery in London and is omnipotent in the art world. He seems like an alien-levitating-art-god with a massive brain and clammy disposition. He is the ultimate aesthete and he loves curating so much that he made this book so that there isn’t a continuation of an “amnesia”, as he says, to the history of this field. Although Hans’ questions are slim, specific and unflowery, this book is very much him in tone and about what he wants to make sure is remembered. After reading this book my reflexive frown on seeing his name is lessened by his obvious appreciation and dedication to the field of curation.

It will be too arduous for everybody to do a thorough summation of each interview, each should be read carefully, but some highlights will be recalled. The interviews’ general framework is a such; how did you start curating, reference to specific shows that were notable, who were your influences, stories told of certain artists or exhibitions, what next, what’s something unrealized. The general sense one gets, is that the time in which these curators practiced, museums were much different places than they are know. Museums then seemed to be more like today’s smaller galleries, very diy. Then curators were transporting art in cabs, overnight installations, thinking of an idea and just doing it, no meetings, no committees. Those that were faced with stricter limitations used this as a platform for creating something new. It was the 60s, it was the 60s everywhere, including the arts and this must have been exciting and liberating and somehow revolutionary.

The most interesting interviews, to me, where of Harald Szeemann and Anne d’Harnoncourt. Szeemann seems to have possessed innate ability, humor and also sincere curiosity. His shows sound utterly interesting and were shows that required a curator. He defined himself as an Ausstellungsmacher, one that does all involved with an exhibition; the concept, the nails in the wall, the press release the archivist, all of it. His phrases such as, “The best work is always the least reproducible. So you speed from one studio to the next, from one original to another, hoping that someday it will all come together in an organism called an exhibition” are reassuring. d’Harnoncourt was the daughter of René d’Harnoncourt, who was also a very influential curator, and in this interview Hans seemed to loosen up a bit because he was talking to a friend. Her methodology and grace at recall was fantastic to read. Ideas such as, “We shouldn’t forget that in all of our- you might say arrogance- about making the most beautiful or the most effective installation, what life depends on is encounters” gives even greater weight to her early death.

The interview with Anne d’Harnoncourt was one of the only two interviews with women, the other being Lucy Lippard, who is of course great but her selection seemed a bit of a token. I know very well that in respects to the time period this book was focusing on, mostly in the 60s and 70s, women were not as positioned in the arts as they are now, but really, couldn’t there be a bit more representation in this department? Too bad for Walter Zanini as well, he is the only non Euro-American-centic curator, representing all of South America, Sao Paulo specifically. He was also the only person to have “(Laughter)” noted in his interview. The only meaningful inclusion of women prior to d’Harnoncourt’s interview beginning on page 168, is when Szeemann agrees with Beuys’ prediction that “at the end of this century culture will be the province of women.” That sentence made we want to give a big kiss to both of them.

Although this book can only contain so much, hence the title, there where many things that triggered more questions and curiosities. First there were the names then kept popping up. Willem Sandberg, curator of the Stedelijk Museum, seemed to be brilliantly influential, and I wish there was more to read on him. Then there is Kynaston Mcshine, curator at The Museum of Modern Art, NY that also seemed very advanced for his time, and was one of the people that did not want to be interviewed…intriguing. I would love to know the back-story, seems that it could be the counter weight to the curation schmooze fest. And then there is Alexander Dorner, whose mention was the only time Hans had an “!” after a sentence. It was strange how much Hans inserted Dorner’s influence time and again when it was met with recognition but no extrapolation. The most omnipresent artist throughout was Joseph Beuys. Also no MoMA curators were interviewed, even though there were many references to curators from that institution as well as pivotal dissensions.

After reading all the interviews there is not a conclusion to be made, but a more general confirmation that curating, the field, and its history is individual and also that it is very different today. There isn’t a sense of sentimental nostalgia in that these interviews are more like time capsules then guides. This field requires the necessities all things in life do; timing, luck, hard work, curiosity, fascination and most importantly the need to interact and communicate. There is no key to being a successful curator and the way that these curators of the past accomplished all they did is made more possible in this evidence. The curating of today is much different; from the museums, the galleries, the degrees available, to the stakes and costs, all of these things have changed the rules, the starting point. Could the field, the art world be honest about how things truly operate now?

“Curator” is a fraught word and concept, everyone and their dog can be a curator these days merely by appendaging a form of this word to a press release, a blog, a zine, an outfit, a coffee shop display. People self appoint themselves as curators to enable them to foray into the art world glitter ball. It is literally bandied about like a hip accessory and this is sad and annoying because curating does and should still mean something. These interviews are evidence of this and they tell these tales that are truly interesting and there should be many more of them. Anyone who wants to wear the couture of curator should read this book, if for nothing else to be more respectful when you say that word and to maybe realize it is something to be deserved.

*Special thanks to Andrew Russeth who lent me this book