Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Landmark Exhibitions – a report from 10 & 11 October 2008

As blog mechanisms usually load up the most recent post first, so I have chosen to write this report in a manner to reflect that: to report backwards through a packed two-day conference at Tate Modern, centred on the idea of the landmark exhibition.

Fittingly, Saturday ended with Reesa Greenberg on memory as replica, riff and reprise, and a call for greater use of the internet to act as a repository for archival information about exhibitions. She spoke of ideal metasites where the wealth of digital information could be collected and stored, and I was mindful of the words I would write here as another layer in her idea of a public rather than private vault.

Twinned with this was Walter Grasskamp’s presentation about the various documentary strategies for Documenta and Münster sculpture projects, and the separate ability of each project to include their own histories within their displays. His memories of discovering filing cabinets full of non-annotated material at Documenta were evocative, particularly so when he described the journey of a single unnamed photograph. Able to identify the year and position of the photographer by means of the painting visible in the frame, it was only on publication that the person behind the camera – Hans Haacke – came to be known. Haacke was the conference’s own riff.

Preceding this session was a discussion of the biennial as a landmark phenomenon, chaired by Sebastián López. Chin-tao Wu’s stark graphical representations of the power implications of the biennial according to nationality and residence (and as a bonus slide, gender), helped to sharpen ideas about globalisation in international exhibitions, international curators and the locality of a biennial’s site. Recalling the development of the biennial from the earliest biennale ‘mama’ (Venice, of course), Carlos Basualdo suggested a return to the origins of the biennial to provide a clearer sense of where we find ourselves today. In her comments, Lynne Cooke reminded us of the unique perspective of each biennial, suggesting the Sydney biennial or Carnegie international to illustrate her point. The breadth and depth of this panel was extraordinary – each response to a question from the floor was met with many examples from actual experience. During the discussion I was distracted by the idea of ‘elsewhereness’: how ‘elsewhere’ can become is a criteria in its own right. I kept retracing Chin-tao’s graphs.

The entire morning session on Saturday was devoted to Lucy Lippard, introduced by Teresa Gleadowe. Adamant of her status as writer (even her self-titled ‘compiler’) rather than curator, Lippard nonetheless spoke of her close relationships with artists and exhibition-making. She described how her exhibitions were a response to a particular situation, often a political situation – this is the continuum between the 1969-74 ‘number’ projects in which she has been involved, but includes the 2007 exhibition Weather Report: Art & Climate Change at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. I was interested in her roots: a photo of herself when she was working within the library at MoMA was another of this conference’s representations of personal histories that formed a continuum between the speakers. It was here where she talked of the idea of the suitcase exhibition – one that could easily be packed up and shipped out for display elsewhere. Her later c7500 show was, she says, almost a suitcase show, centered on women in conceptualism. She made particular mention that it was rare for curators to travel with their exhibitions – this was quite a contrast to the ease with which the idea of curating on a global scale was to be discussed later that afternoon.

The previous day’s sessions concluded with Koen Brams’ detailed contextualisation of Jef Counelis’ 1960s film of Daniel Buren. This archival film was the focus for widening ripples of influence and interrelationship, of carefully constructed and deconstructed representation.

Daniel Buren, Linda Morris and Guy Brett were the preceding panel. Chaired by Chris Dercon, I watched the audience shift towards the edge of their seats. For me, Buren’s presentation captured something of the tautness of his work, stretched around, between and in front of the frame of the institution: it was seamless and provocative. I noted his line: “Inside the museum you are very free, outside it’s a different story.” Linda Morris’s presentation on the relationship between museums and dealers pinpointed something of another ‘different story’: her call for an analysis of these relationships as the basis for curatorial study refreshingly shifted a focus to a very relevant market-related subject. Guy Brett’s reflection on the ephemera of the exhibition was also a call, this time for the stories of memory and experience.

Immateriality continued in the day’s second session, centred on Les Immatériaux (an acknowledged landmark exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985). John Rajchman spoke of the freedom that this exhibition gained from the history of art and a critical theory, enabled by a new relationship with philosophy. Reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of the Centre, Nathalie Heinich talked about the exhibition’s innovations, particularly the survey, which she pioneered using sociological methodologies. Throughout this series of presentations, Les Immatériaux’s catalogue – or album – was referred to in its capacity as re-orderable sheaf of information. Also I recall Heinich’s explanation of the audio-guide as an epitome of innovation and the unfamiliar: the guide was triggered by a visitor’s movement, but most visitors wouldn’t move until the guide started… I imagined a gallery entrance clogged with bewildered headphone wearers, shuffling the loose leaves of the catalogue. In Suely Rolnick’s focus on Cildo Meireles' Red Shift, there was an intentional sense of a loss of reference through the seemingly illogical progression through this particular work – a personal experience acting as metaphor for a political meaning. The discussion, led by Anthony Hudek, worked around the lessons of Les Immatériaux, not only in the way it existed in its own right, but also the legacy of debate triggered by its activities.

Hans Haacke began the day with a photograph of a red rose – saturating the screen of the famously red Starr auditorium. Pervasive in his presentation was the remark that art is produced in a 'continual social universe'. Haacke’s rigorous research is evident in the confidence with which he articulated the continuing contexts for his work. His keynote paper and conversation with Tate curator Achim Borchardt-Hume set a tone for the two days of good humour, openness, challenge and change.

And so to the beginning. Nicholas Serota’s introduction touched on the way in which the definition of exhibitions and curators have moved away from traditional meanings. It was another riff for the conference: the ability of exhibitions – and those who make them – to deal with a constantly changing (and broadening) context, and ways with which we can recall the importance of those moments of shift.

Landmarks are something we steer by, and this conference went some way to helping provide a map. Or, at least a key by how we might be able to recognise a landmark when we encounter it: a tricky thing to do without a historical perspective. Which of our landmarks will endure?
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