What is a curator, and why do we need to mediate art?
This essay will explore the role of the curator as an artist, critic and mediator, and the importance this mediation has to art. Curators are artists; they concern themselves with perception, participation, and engagement above simply aesthetic, perfection and neutrality. Mediation is key to perception, the role of the curator and the mediation of art is essential as art has become even more dematerialised. Less about the objects and the plinths, or even the screen, curation brings an experience involving the viewer and their individual relationship to the work. Curation frames and or re frames art, giving it contexts within a much broader dialogue than that of a studio.
Curation in art stems from the Salons of France, where until the early 20th century the ‘curation’, or showcasing of art, was controlled by artistic academics in organised exhibitions. We could argue that the curation of such exhibitions was purely about taste. The Salons of Revolutionary France that were put together by arbiters of taste rather than curators, creating an idealistic picture designed to enhance “Enlightment” and not there to challenge the viewer. These salons rejected artists that we consider the greats like Seurat. In the 1940’s artist, embraced critical theory into their work and the perception of the work. Art began to be adapted and modified to a site. This mediation allowed the work to affect the site. Curation moved away from the concept of perfection and neutrality present in salons, becoming about puncturing the myth that art is separate to the chaos of life.
A Reading in the Salon off Mme Geoffrin (1755)
Art cannot ignore that it has to critically engage, and become less about just making a product and more about the participation of the viewer, through the mediation of curators. Art has started to recognise the corporality of the viewer, dragging them in to participate, creating a physical interaction. This idea of art, based on or inspired, by human relations and social context was given the term “Relational Aesthetics” by curator Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s.
“The First question we should ask ourselves when looking at a work of art is: – Does it give me the chance to exist in front of it, or, on the contrary, does it deny me as a subject, refusing the consider the other in its structure?” – (Bourriaud, 2009: 57)
This relational aspect to art is historic. Take the example of Duchamp’s “Mile of String” (1942) from “First Papers of Surrealism”. Duchamp was the last person to install his work into this exhibition consisting of what was, at the time, considered ‘primitive art’. He installed his mile of string into the gallery, creating a web like intervention that threaded around the entire space, almost obliterating the view of the other works in the exhibition. The string prohibited engagement with the exhibition, giving us the most surreal experience of all, expecting to go into the gallery, but finding you cannot.
“Mile of String” (1942), Marcel Duchamp.
Curating is an art form, and artists become the medium of curators. Lucy Lippard, critic and curator showcased this relationship between artist and curator in “557, 087 Seattle: An exhibition organized by Lucy R Lippard” (1969). She invited artists to write an instruction that she would enact. The authorship of an exhibition can become foggy, with the artist becoming the medium of the curator. The exhibition could be considered the art of the curator and in the case of Lippard this is certainly true. Authorship potentially starts to move to the curator.
“557, 087 Seattle: An exhibition organized by Lucy R Lippard” (1969), Lucy R Lippard
Of course you still get the salon style hang more noticeably evident in the Royal Academy summer shows. The curation of these annual shows however, even though stemming from the French salon, strays from their rules about inclusion, by consisting of a wide range of different artists, medias, formats and styles. The exhibition feels more like a showcase than an exhibition. Rooms are curated into different themes. However within this certain works stand out and it is easy to overlook others. A flaw with this kind of mediation. Large scale exhibitions like this often have certain themes that they work with.The curator uses a particular theme to bring together a diverse body of work. Like the exhibition at the Haywood Gallery two years ago “The Human Factor” (2014)curated to bring together major works of 25 leading international artists who have fashioned new ways of using the human form. These works differ in medium, style and scale, but through the curation and title they link and play off one another, enhancing the impact of the individual works.
In conclusion the role of the curator as a mediator of art is important to the way in which we experience art. Curation has evolved from being simply just about aesthetics and about the physical product in favour of becoming about the experience of the way in which we see these products and the critical theory behind that. It is necessary to mediate art because so much art has become dematerialised and mediation becomes a way of shaping that. It is the role of the mediator to keep things moving and to give us something which we do not expect, changing the way in which the work is experienced.