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An Exploration of Curatorship

Because I have decided to advance in my curatorial approach, I have enrolled on an online course of the International Curatorial Program at Node Centre in Berlin. It is an 11-month long course split into 10 modules.

Table of content

  • getting a taste of the International Curatorial Program at Node Centre in Berlin

  • 2 crucial exhibitions selected by lecturer, Lauren Ried, from Node Centre

  • historical context of the '70s

  • my point of view

Key Moments in the History of Curating

The first module took upon the task of investigating the key moments in the history of curating. Instead of going chronologically, the lecturer, Lauren Ried, selected just a few critical exhibitions such as Documenta 5 (1972) and The Family of Man (1955).

Documenta is a high-profile art event that lasts for 100 days and takes place every five years usually in Kassel, Germany. In some cases, the art event had partnered with cities like Athens, Greece in 2017.

Documenta started in 1955 and the first 4 times it was directed by its founder Arnold Bode, who actually wanted to share the historical background of contemporary art. However, the turning point was Documenta 5 in 1972, which was directed by Harald Szeemann.

Documenta 5, Archive, Brigitte Hellgoth Visitors looking at seated artist by Duane Hanson
Documenta 5, Archive: Brigitte Hellgoth, Visitors looking at `seated artist` by Duane Hanson

Documenta 5 & Harald Szeeman

From then on each Documenta has had a different director and different curatorial approach which leads us to a specific style of curating when the curator is viewed as an author of an art exhibition or art event.

The subheading of Szeemann´s Documenta 5 was Questioning Reality - Pictorial Worlds Today. The reason why it has actually triggered my interest was that Szeemann focused his attention on an examination of contrast between everyday reality and pictorial images of visual worlds.

Documenta 5, Archive, Carl Eberth, Protest by Bauhaus-situationists at Friedrichsplatz by Bertram Weigel
Documenta 5, Archive, Carl Eberth, Protest by Bauhaus-situationists at Friedrichsplatz by Bertram Weigel

Documenta 5 did not receive positive feedback in its time. The art critics, public and artists themselves heavily criticized the art event.

The art scene was going through changes and shifting from traditional forms of art exhibitions to self-organized art community events, happenings, and other cultural events but those changes did not fully echo in Documenta 5.

The backdrop for it was museums and galleries more than streets and open-air venues which was the trend of that time.

The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

The second selected exhibition was The Family of Man by Steichen which was actually also mentioned in the recommended reading Mythologies by French philosopher Roland Barthers.

The exhibition hold over 500 photographs about the human race and it was supposed to represent peace and humanism. The exhibition originated in NY in 1955 and toured the world for the 8 following years.

The Family of Man - Edward Steichen, Steichen Collections CNA in Luxembourg, Clervaux Castle
The Family of Man - Steichen Collections CNA

Barthers´ Mythologies is a collection of semi-short essays reflecting on the events of his time. One of the essays was about the American exhibition The Family of Man touring Europe at that time.

After reading this essay I would say that Barthes was very critical towards human society and particularly towards racial “injusticies” and “differences” as Barthers called them. As usual, Barthers in his essay talked more about what the exhibition omitted rather than what it contained.

Historical Context of the '70s

Taking into consideration the time frame, I believe it is now time to mention further the historical context of the 2 exhibitions in question which is the '70s.

Apart from the global events such as moon landing, Vietnam War, Cold War, genocides in Africa, terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, Ried mentioned a few important writers whose works were translated into English at that time.

Photo by Joël de Vriend from Unsplash, VW, vintage van
Photo by Joël de Vriend from Unsplash

I have already mentioned Roland Barthers and his Mythologies examining the myth as an ideological abuse. The other two writers were Betty Friedan triggering the 2nd wave of Feminism and Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge.

Michel Foucault and The Archaeology of Knowledge

Seeing the images from Szeeman´s Documenta 5, made me remember a quote from Foucault´s The Archaeology of Knowledge:

...history, in its traditional form, undertook to memorize the monuments of the past and transform them into documents, ….then the documents were transformed into monuments.

Any document or monument is just a subjective interpretation of subjective memory lacking a wider context which tends to picture just a very narrow section of the past or personal experience.

Mythologies by Roland Barthers

Since I have already read Foucault´s The Archeology of Knowledge, I have had a look at the collection of the essays Mythologies by Barthers.

The collection is used to help the reader with deciphering and reading signs which are the hidden drives behind the myths and by the myth I mean pretty much anything surrounding us.

Towards the end of the collection, Barthers clarified the signifier, signify, and sign. I know it might sound a little too abstract but Barthers uses a really nice example of roses and passion to explain the three terms.

A bunch of red roses signifies his/her passion, the signifier (roses) expresses the signified (passion) and a combination of both creates a sign because we cannot remove the message of passion from giving or receiving red roses.

Photo by Ricky Kharawala from Unsplash
Photo by Ricky Kharawala from Unsplash

After having a better understanding of actions and hidden meanings behind them then there is another aspect which is the language of the myth. Yet again Barthers accommodated an easy-to-understand example of a woodcutter and tree.

The woodcutter, who speaks the language of the tree because he is changing the tree by his action or labor eg. by felling the tree, has a meaningful relationship with the tree.

As a consequence, the woodcutter has a valid experience to share but if you are not the woodcutter who is changing the tree then you can only talk about the tree, correspondingly the quality and credibility of information or experience you share has a limited value.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko, Interection of a tree trunk in detail
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko from Unsplash

My Understanding of the Common Ground

Taking into account that the events and writings mentioned above took place nearly 50 years ago, the common ground I can see between Documenta 5, Barthers´ essay and Foucault´s Archeology of Knowledge is the struggle of the illusionary image that the society tries to push, the reasons behind this image and the hardcore reality that we all experience on various levels.

In order to deal with this fierce struggle, the position of the curator as the author has emerged. The exhibitions are not only about reflecting upon reality or what we see/think is the reality or representation of the reality but for the curator as the author, it is actively changing the situations like the woodcutter felling the tree.

However, for that, the curator has to be directly involved in changing the situation of her/his choice. The direct dialogue with the topic or theme of the exhibition and actively forming the topic is what makes the exhibition/art event go beyond just displaying artworks for the public to see.

Written by Veronika Hykova

Studying the International Curatorial Program at Node Centre

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