By DEBORAH KRIEGER, FEB. 2017
The more contemporary art exhibitions I see, the more I find myself fascinated by installation art and participatory art experiences, both on purely formal and personal levels. After I took in The Art Show by the Kienholzes in December, I had a long conversation with a fellow art historian from my alma mater in which we discussed the role of the curator (and the institution) in crafting exhibitions with artworks that require explicit audience participation or that engage directly with the art space as part of its medium. He couldn’t help but wonder what the role of the curator is in mounting this kind of show, where it seems as though the artist hopes to craft the entirety of the audience’s experience. In terms of installation art, the artwork is situated on display often is the artists’ vision, or is at least presented that way. If we think of the curator as the actor who helps facilitate the artist-audience relationship, these kinds of projects give the impression that the role of the curator is becoming extraneous. As installation and performance art become more and more popular, he wanted to know, what did I, as an aspiring curator, think of this trend, which could result in cutting out the curator entirely? Would the role of the curator in these kinds of scenarios be more of a middleman, a mediator, rather than an active participant in creating the exhibition itself? In institutions with permanent gallery spaces, would the curator merely work in an advisory role with this kind of artist, since they ostensibly know the space better?
My response was that the curator is still important even in this scenario. Putting the research and catalogue-writing aspects of what goes into an art show aside, which often falls under the curator’s purview, even if the curator is not working side-by-side with the artist as equals, they still have an incredibly important job in figuring out how to connect the artist to the audience. In short, they have to make the audience, whether comprised of art experts, laymen, and every demographic in between, care about what the artist has done. The decision to put explanatory text on the wall labels or to merely include life dates, date of work, and medium—perhaps the most direct way the meaning (or clues to the meaning) is conveyed to the audience—ostensibly falls to the curator. How best to guide the audience, which might have any level of art-historical knowledge, towards a better understanding of the works on display, navigating a need for some didacticism while still being restrained enough to allow and encourage the viewer to analyze, to puzzle?
While visiting Franz West: ARTISTCLUB at Vienna’s 21er Haus, I couldn’t help but think back to this discussion, and thus considered the exhibition with that mindset. Indeed, as I looked around the exhibition, it became incredibly clear to me what was the work of the curator versus that of the artist. The “Artistclub,” a never-fully-realized dream of West’s, was first conceived in 1999 as an endeavor that would involve collaboration with artists and use the works themselves to directly impact and draw out the audience—thus, perhaps, veering into the territory my friend and I were discussing. What the 21er Haus has done is amass a number of works that West created by himself or in collaboration with artists such as Sarah Lucas, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Urs Fischer (although there are also several works created solely by his collaborators for this exhibition), including installations, paintings, sculpture, video art, text art, furniture, and mixed-media works, all requiring different degrees of engagement.
Of course, given that this show is posthumous since West passed away in 2012, it’s perhaps a little bit easier to assign more credit for the exhibition decisions to the curator. In this iteration, the curator has the ability and the freedom to take some liberties with the original vision in order to translate the work into a language aimed at wider audiences. In the case of bringing Franz West’s “Artistclub” project to life, it becomes evident that the curator has not overly inserted their own imprimatur into the display, while still using the role of the institution and their own judgment to conjure up an apotheosis of the “Artistclub” experience, creating a useful balance. The wall label for each piece in the show, which is a mix of solo and collaborative West projects, is brief and to the point, containing only life/death dates, medium, date of creation, and the basic factual information. (There are more interpretive labels available in the accompanying booklet.) There aren’t any explanations or interpretations by the curators to guide our thought process—perhaps a bit frustrating in this show where the art in question isn’t necessarily figurative or easy to puzzle out. On the other hand, the premise of the exhibition is artificial and highly mediated, since it constructs a more completist view of the “Artistclub” idea than probably existed at any point in West’s life, combining works from across the decades—the “ultimate” idealized version of the “Artistclub.”
In this case, then, we have an example in Franz West: ARTISTCLUB of exactly what I had been considering earlier regarding the Kienholz show and the implications of the role of the curator in a world where the artist aims to reach the audience directly. The spirit of the artist’s work and aim are combined with the curator’s goal of creating an ultimate realization of said work. This quasi-collaboration presents a more retrospective view in order to acclimatize the audience to the idea of an “Artistclub.” Yet one element of this show that ultimately doesn’t quite gel for me is the juxtaposition of it all—the combination of the active, tactile, creation-oriented “Artistclub” and the institutional character of a museum which, by definition, takes on the task of contextualizing and interpreting the creation. Despite the concessions made to interactivity—for example, you enter a small constructed room to take in the video art, and are allowed to sit on the furniture (as jarring as that may seem to habitual museum-goers such as myself)—what was intended to be a dynamic space by its creator has necessarily been fossilized by the function of the museum itself. However, it does seem as though the 21er Haus recognizes this problematic aspect: they have announced programming in the space, such as performances, lectures, and readings, aimed at a variety of ages. Even if the museum’s decision is not in response to this conundrum, it is clear that the institution is dedicated to making West’s vision as real as it can ever be by trying to better align it with its original conception. WM
Deborah Krieger is a graduate of Swarthmore College in Art History, German, and Film and Media Studies. She has been published in the Northwestern Art Review, Hyperallergic, and other art and culture platforms both online and in print. She is a recipient of a Fulbright grant to Vienna, Austria, where she is teaching English, researching contemporary art, and studying at the University of Vienna.view all articles from this author