Curatorial Auteur Theory

Stemming from its etymological origin, a curator is literally a caretaker. Today, the commonly agreed upon definition of the role is someone who safeguards the objects, enriches the collection they belong to, contributes to art history through his research of them, and lastly, presents them to the public.[1]

It is precisely the latter task “that has most come to define the contemporary practice”[2] and that simultaneously has encouraged curators in their own creative process. Experimental ways of display produced by curators have destabilized the long-established artist-curator dichotomy, because they raise the question: “Is the curator creating something with artistic quality?”

For many artists and critics, the curator is, or believes he is. Especially since godfather of curating Harald Szeemann took a stance as the artist’s creative partner, strong concerns have been voiced about the role of curators, asserting that in their “colonization of artistic practice”[3], they make the exhibition into their Gesamtkunstwerk. They are perceived as using the medium as a tool for personal expression and meaning production, which are generally considered to be the critical functions of the artist.[4] It is a power struggle, in which it appears that “the ‘semantic ascent’ of the curator accompanies the ‘semantic descent’ of the artist and his work.”[5] Hence, curators seem to overshadow artists and turn them into mere exemplifications of their inventive curatorial concept.

However, critics such as Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak and curators such as Jens Hoffmann for example, tend to nuance or invert this trenchant train of thought. By carefully comparing the curator to the auteur-director, a concept coined by Truffaut in 1950s film theory identifying a specific type of director who aspired to develop a deeply subjective and consistent style and theme, these writers assert that curating is similarly an “individually authored activity”[6]. The personal take on what and how works are shown in the frame of a gallery space, becomes the curator’s equivalent of the auteur-director’s idiosyncratic mise-en-scene.

Accordingly, one could argue that curators are not artists the moment they operate in personal, creative way. As art historian and critic Claire Bishop recognizes the “impossibility of a “pure“ and uninflected presentation of art”[7], should the employment of the curator’s subjectivity and following creative power not be embraced? Also curator Isobal Harbison questions this: “How can we still presume that most exhibitions are, and should be, underpinned by objective logic when curators, as much as any of us, are guided by their own deeply personal responses to work?”[8] To call up the curator as an auteur then, does not seem to mean to colonize artistic practice, but simply to acknowledge the particular position of the curator trying to render visible deeply personal opinions inspired by and concerning the artworks in an exhibition’s framework, preferably whilst working closely with artists.

In this context, the curators of The Best Bogus Botanical Garden also very explicitly do not position or consider themselves as artists. Rather, they see curating as a meaning producing activity through intrinsic conviction and personal selection, and they are interested in diversifying traditional typologies of exhibition-making and unhinging the artist/curator dichotomy.

Notes

[1] OBRIST, Ways of Curating, Penguin Books, 2014, p.25; HEINICH and POLLACK, “From Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur”, in: GREENBERG, Reesa, FERGUSON, Bruce, and NAIRNE, Sandy, Thinking About Exhibitions, Routledge, New York, 1996, p.233. Due to the limited scope of this text, unfortunately, it is not possible to refine these definitions in accordance with contemporary practices whereby a curator does not necessarily have to work with a collection, nor with physical objects, and that there are many other (often administrative and networking) tasks involved with curating.
[2] OBRIST, Ways of Curating, Penguin Books, 2014, p.25
[3] VIDOKLE, “Art Without Artists?”, e-flux, no.16, May 2010, available here
[4]  Ibidem
[5] HUBER, “Artist as Curators – Curators as Artists?”, 2004, available here. See also OBRIST, Ways of Curating, Penguin Books, 2014, p.33
[6] VON HANTELMANN, “The Curatorial Paradigm”, The Exhibitionist, no.4, 2011, p.6
[7] BISHOP, “What is a Curator?”, Idea, 2007, available here
[8] HARBISON, “The Art of Curating”, frieze, 23 April 2015, available here

EV