Get Mousse at Home:



Lewis Baltz, Park City, Interior, Number 14 (detail), 1979
From “Houseguests: Jennifer Bornstein Selects from the Grunwald Collection”, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2008. © Lewis Baltz. Courtesy: UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

A Plea for Exhibitions

by Jens Hoffmann

The time has come to get rid of obsolete, uninspiring exhibition categories—the solo show, the mid-career survey, the group show. Over the last four decades, the diversification of artistic practices has suggested a new approach to the activity of curating. The traditional concept of organizing an exhibition has given way to a flourishing of “events”, talks, performances, films… A growing number of curators, ranging from Catherine David to Okwui Enwezor, from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Ute Meta Bauer, to Matthew Higgs, have introduced alternative models, aimed at debate and dialogue with other fields of knowledge, and at political involvement and radical exhibition strategies. Jens Hoffmann offers us an overview of this exciting mutation.

That curatorial practice has developed rapidly over the last few decades is not exactly news. Particularly in Europe, where museums are less dependent on private donors and foundations than in the United States, and thus issues of fundraising are less of a concern to curators, we have seen quite radical programming emerge. Curating has marched forward with big steps and has become increasingly diversified.

This diversification has allowed the field to move beyond traditional ideas of exhibition making. But new tendencies in curating have been less about what novel models of exhibition making could be, and more about how to overcome the idea of exhibition making itself. In some cases the “death of the exhibition” has already been proclaimed! Of particular focus has been the expansion of related programming such as educational events, artistic and curatorial residencies, publications, talks, films, and performances, and how to eventually make all of these activities the core of curatorial undertakings. These trends are the results of a number of developments, among them the expansion and diversification of artistic practices over the last four decades. They are also motivated by a desire on the part of curators, infused with political consciousness and intellectual curiosity, to connect with the broader social and political issues of our times, which inform, and perhaps surpass in importance, artistic practices.

Larger institutions try to attract and widen their audiences through so-called events such as film screenings, lecture series, and performance evenings. While many of these additional programs initially originated from the desire to present art forms that could not be shown in the galleries and to provide context for exhibitions on view, of late this aspect of institutional programming has, for better or worse, taken on a life of its own. It is not surprising that a static display of art objects in the form of an exhibition could be perceived as insufficiently attractive, not dynamic or entertaining enough, since it does not much enable social interaction and it requires not only patience but also effort on the part of the audience to engage with seemingly difficult artistic and curatorial arguments. This is not to say that exhibitions should not be entertaining. But they surely should not be entertainment; looking at a well-curated exhibition should be an effort, an effort that is not easily digestible. It should ultimately be an educational, intellectually stimulating, inspiring experience.

While larger museums have used non-exhibition-centered programming to attract bigger and more diverse audiences, smaller institutions that are less audience-focused and more intellectually and politically minded have discovered that these non-exhibition-based curatorial efforts offer ways to move beyond the traditional concept of exhibitions as displays of artworks in a white cube. In the last 20 or so years, with the academization of curatorial practice and the growth of discourse-oriented artistic practices, theory has become a key aspect not only of the eloquent argument of the premise of a specific exhibition, but also of the analysis of culture and politics at large, with or without any obvious relationship to actual artistic production. Catherine David’s Documenta X (1997) was a prime example of an exhibition whose accompanying program, 100 Days - 100 Guests, enabled academic art-world discourses outside the exhibition space1. Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta XI (2002) took the idea even further with five symposia, the Platforms, which took place around the world2. Critical and expanded programming is now a core element of any respectable art institution. Seminars and the publication of academic materials have become standard offerings, often replacing traditional catalogues. One recent trend has been the investigation of new pedagogical modes and alternative education models such as temporary schools, evening workshops, weekend seminars, and traveling libraries within the walls of the museum. The unsuccessful attempt to start an art school by the curators of Manifesta 6 (titled “Exhibition as School”) in Cyprus in 2006 finally found form in a number of public presentations and educational activities at the United Nations Plaza in Berlin. Initiated by one of the Manifesta 6 co-curators, Anton Vidokle, these lasted from 2006 until 2009 and extended to New York through the New Museum’s Night School (2008-9)3.

Robert Gober, Untitled (Shoe), 1990
From “Dead! Dead! Dead!”, Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto, 1997. Courtesy: Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto. Photo: Robert Keziere.

Many non-exhibition-based curatorial activities of the last decade were originally connected with New Institutionalism, a term coined in 2003 by the Norwegian curator Jonas Ekeberg4 and later analyzed by the German curator Nina Möntmann in her 2006 book Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique, and Collaborations. New Institutionalism was never a coherent curatorial movement, but rather a short-lived phenomenon triggered by unorthodox curatorial models with a social and political bent. It was associated with the curators Charles Esche, Maria Lind, Maria Hlavajova, Vasif Kortun, and several others, and disappeared quickly but still casts a shadow over how curators today understand institutional programming. While perhaps not directly connected with New Institutionalism, the work of curator Ute Meta Bauer and to a certain extent the programming of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) under director Manuel J. Borja-Villel should be mentioned here. Both have, in different ways, strongly advocated a more theoretically conscious, critically aware, and politically sensitive curatorial approach that often prioritizes non-exhibition-based curatorial undertakings over the display of artworks.

Meta Bauer often takes a kind of hybrid approach in these terms, integrating archives and visual material related to social and political research into a structure that is part exhibition, part arena for intellectual exchange and political debate. Not at all turning away from the idea of an exhibition as a forum for the display of art objects, Meta Bauer’s practice combines rigorous academic thinking with a radical approach to exhibition formats. Her exhibition “?”, part of the now-legendary exhibition “NowHere” (1996) at the Louisiana Museum outside of Copenhagen, stands out as an early example of a more theoretically inclined method of exhibition making. “NowHere” incorporated institutional critical thinking into the curatorial process and analyzed exhibitions as social events by trying to examine the history of the venue as a bastion of humanist and liberal, yet elitist and bourgeois, ideology5. While it was not perceived as a success – it perhaps broke too radically with traditional exhibition formats – it was valuable as an early experiment in attempting a dialogue with more discourse-oriented artistic practices. In many ways it predated what was later described as the “curatorialization of institutional critique”, a way of curating that borrowed heavily from the critical and self-reflexive practices of artists such as Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, or Michael Asher, to mention only a few – a mode that affected not only the content and message of an exhibition, but also its form.

When speaking about innovation in exhibition making, it is important to distinguish between content-related innovations, such as the integration in the 1990s of new discourses related to identity politics and post-colonialism into the exhibition premise (in many cases these simply replaced older debates) and innovations involving the form of the exhibition itself, moving it away from the traditional white-cube presentation. The evolution of the large-scale international biennial (away from the original Venice model with the national pavilions) is certainly one of the biggest innovations in exhibition making of the last two decades. Yet there is surprisingly little diversity in the curating of biennials; most of them end up being global overviews, presenting what is going on around the world in the sphere of contemporary art at a given time under some vague theme. Yet there are isolated exceptions that are more consistent and theoretically rigorous. The 11th International Istanbul Biennial in 2009, titled “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, offered just such an exception. And it is worth mentioning the radical changes that Manifesta, the nomadic European biennial, has undergone in its recent iterations, concerning itself more and more with European politics: immigration, deindustrialization, and Europe’s relationships with its neighbors in Africa and the Middle East and moving further away from the pure display of artworks.

“Take Me (I’m Yours)”, Serpentine Gallery, London,, 1995
Courtesy: Serpentine Gallery, London.

One of the major innovators in exhibition making has clearly been the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who began his career in the early-1990s and certainly owed much of his creative impulse to the more unorthodox curators working in the 1970s and 1980s (Harald Szeemann, Johannes Cladders, Walter Hopps, Lucy Lippard, Jan Hoet, Kasper König, and Pontus Hultén, to mention only a few). Obrist vehemently supported the idea of looking at artworks in relation to other fields and connected the display of artworks with the disciplines of architecture, filmmaking, literature, and science. He presented exhibitions in unusual locations, such as the houses of historically important architects and writers, his kitchen, a hotel room6. In other cases he relied heavily on audience participation, in exhibitions such as “Do It” (begun in 1993) and “Take Me (I’m Yours)” (1995)7 . As of late even Obrist seems to have moved away from the exhibition as the main focus of his curatorial undertakings and centers his activities more on publishing, in particular his interview project and the conversation marathons. However, almost all of the innovative work done by exhibition makers in mainstream art institutions over the last decade owes much to ideas that Obrist first introduced. Another curator who should be mentioned here is Matthew Higgs, who has been developing alternative exhibition models for years, since 2004 as the director of White Columns in New York, and before that at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. What makes Higgs’s work exceptional is not so much the exhibitions themselves as the way they come about, and the diversity of elements combined within them: everything from art historical artifacts to music, outsider art, and elements of popular culture.

Some innovation has also come from the involvement of artists in the curatorial process, especially in the arena of collection displays. While the trend of artists curating exhibitions was initially an interesting way both to examine how artists think about exhibition making, art history, and other artists as well as to question institutional hierarchies and roles, it quickly spun out of control. One particularly unfortunate instance was the Jeff Koons-curated show “Skin Fruit” (E) (2010) at the New Museum in New York, which was based on the collection of the Greek collector Dakis Joannou. A more positive example, on the other hand, is “Houseguests”, the Hammer Museum’s series of displays from their Grunwald collection of prints and drawings, initiated in 2008 by Hammer curator Allegra Pesenti. Curated, or perhaps better, selected, by Los Angeles-based artists, “Houseguests” has thus far involved the artists Jennifer Bornstein and Francesca Gabbiani. These modest, small-scale presentations give the historical Grunwald Center works a new spin, making them attractive to audiences mostly interested in contemporary art. Both editions thus far have been notable for their meticulous installation, the dialogue they created between past and present, and their clear and yet sophisticated curatorial premises.

In conclusion I would like to mention two very different, and both highly innovative, makers of exhibitions. The first is the independent art space Triple Candie in Harlem, New York. Although to call Triple Candie an alternative or independent art space does not do it justice. Since its inception in 2001 it has become a bastion of curatorial innovation, in particular with what the organization calls “exhibitions about art without art”. Two of its best-known exhibitions have been “David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective” (G) (2005), which was realized via photocopies and computer printouts and without the artist’s approval, and “Cady Noland Approximately: Selected Work, 1984-2000” (2006), the first survey of Noland’s art, consisting of 13 sculptural approximations built using incomplete information gathered on the internet. Both of these exhibitions were highly controversial but introduced a number of innovations, among them simply new ways to organize radical exhibitions without much of a budget.

Moma's interior.

The second is the Toronto-based collector, artist, scholar, philanthropist, and curator Ydessa Hendeles. The unique and innovative qualities of her work have fortunately received increased attention over the last few years, yet only a small handful of people have ever had the privilege of seeing her exhibitions in person. With such shows as her now-legendary “The Teddy Bear Project” (2002), “Partners” (2003), “Predators and Prey” (2006), and “Dead! Dead! Dead!” (2007), Hendeles pushed the idea of radically subjective curating to an entirely new level by often dealing with her childhood agonies and her families past, and also, perhaps because of her personal involvement with the subjects of her shows, examined how contemporary art can occupy a context populated by objects from the larger sphere of cultural history. “Dead! Dead! Dead!” was loosely organized around the traditional British puppet show featuring the characters of Punch and Judy. Hendeles combined a large selection of historical Punch and Judy puppets, Joan Crawford’s charm bracelets, and Victorian-era billy clubs with works by Charles Ray, James Coleman, Thomas Schütte, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Dzama, and others to create a complex collage that spoke eloquently about violence, death, power, discontent, frustration, and class society.

These and other examples of innovative excellence from the last decade reveal not only that the art exhibition is alive and well, but that there is an enormous amount of work still to be done. Unfortunately, looking at most major art museums today, particularly in the United States, we see very little innovation in exhibition making. I personally like to wonder what would have happened if we curators had put our efforts of the last 20 years less into expanding and diversifying what curating could mean outside the white cube, and more into radically examining what takes place within the four walls of the gallery space – a space to which I personally feel extremely dedicated. Making exhibitions is necessary, not only for the presentation of artworks but also as a very particular mode of rendering intellectual thinking in a creative, visual, and experiential way.

Perhaps some curators have abandoned the idea of exhibition making too soon – before it was ever fully explored. New forms will emerge more readily if we can only relinquish the tired categories of solo, mid-career, group, historical survey, and so on, striving instead for the personal and quixotic as well as the academically rigorous. It is also always useful for contemporary art curators to look beyond the realm of visual art. A visit to a natural or cultural history museum can be an illuminating experience, making dramatically apparent the boundless potential of the exhibition, and I personally have always enjoyed escaping the confines of the contemporary art world in such ways. Hopefully we will see more and more innovation directed toward the form of the exhibition in the years to come. I certainly promise to do my part.

To the top