Since the very beginning of times, humans have created knowledge through the manipulation of natural elements. Today, when walking through museums or exhibitions we can thus experience history and culture through objects, which work as statements of technical and intellectual development through time and space. Objects are introduced to the public as lessons ‘of aesthetic, ethical, political and historical worth: no museum object is mute but is already entitled with a legend and address in cultural and historical space-time. Museums render what is visible legible’ (Preziosi, n.d. cited in Macdonald, 2006).
In the act of exhibiting, objects are defined as artworks. By entering the museum or gallery, art ceases to be neutral and becomes the ‘product of the artist, the commodity of the dealer and the possession of the collector’ (Alloway, 1975 cited in Greenberg, R et al., 1996), thus part of material culture.
Curating itself cannot be a neutral process since, by preserving, selecting, researching and displaying ‘lumps of material culture’ (Pearce, 1992), the curator is inevitably imposing on the scene his assumptions dictated by his personal experiences. The curator is also the ‘first interpreter’ by acting as a medium between ‘the museum as an institution and the public consumers’ (Alloway, 1975 cited in Greenberg, R et al., 1996).
‘It seems axiomatic that it is not possible to exhibit objects without putting a construction upon them. Long before the stage of verbal exposition by label or catalogue, exhibition embodies ordering propositions. To select and put forward any item for display, as something worth looking at, as interesting, is a statement not only about the object but about the culture it comes from. To put three objects in a vitrine involves additional implications of relation. There is no exhibition without construction and therefore–in an extended sense–appropriation’ (Baxandall, 1991).
By giving visibility and legibility to the displayed artworks, the curator acts like a ‘pharmakon’ which ‘cures the powerlessness of the image, its inability to show itself by itself. […] it both cures the image and further contributes to its illness’ (Groys, 2009).
Nonetheless, nowadays, while art is increasingly becoming part of the masses, it has become difficult to create a complete separation between the roles of the artist and the curator. ‘Today, there is no longer any “ontological” difference between making art and displaying art. In the context of contemporary art, to make art is to show things as art. So the question arises: is it possible, and, if so, how is it possible to differentiate between the role of the artist and that of the curator when there is no difference between art’s production and exhibition?’ (Groys, 2009).
Harald Szeeman (1933-2005), a Swiss curator and artist and art historian, has the merit of having introduced the idea of the curator as we know it today. Through the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (1969), Szeeman managed to design himself as an independent and performative exhibition maker. The exhibition is, in fact, considered a landmark for curatorial history as it shaped the role of the curator as a collaborator of the artist, ‘a creative actor who generates original ideas and structures through which art enters public consciousness’ (Phaidon, n.d.). Thanks to Szeemann, the curator not only leads the artists free to express themselves without limits, by creating an exchange and dialogue but also created a unique signature of his presence by orchestrating the artworks and rendering them to the public domain. Held in the Kunsthalle of Bern, Szeemann, willing to detach the idea of artefacts for the wealthy from his work, transformed the exhibition space into a giant artist’s studio, a white cube, a space for discussion.
- Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B. and Nairne, S. (1996). Thinking about exhibitions. London: Routledge. pp. 221-230.
- Macdonald, S. (2006). A companion to museum studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. pp. 50-64.
- Obrist, H., Jeffries, S. and Groves, N. (2014). Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Art of Curation. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/hans-ulrich-obrist-art-curator [Accessed 18 Oct. 2016].
- Pearce, S. (1992) Museums, Objects and Collection. Leicester: Leicester University Press. pp. 4-6.
- Phaidon. (n.d.). The Show That Made Harald Szeemann a Star. Phaidon. [online] Available at: http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/february/08/the-show-that-made-harald-szeemann-a-star/ [Accessed 19 Oct. 2016].