A panel of four international curators met as part of the Art Basel Hong Kong Conversations series to discuss the ethical responsibilities of site-specific curation.
Moderated by Sharjah Biennial’s co-curator Zoe Butt, the talk opened the floor to questions of space, ownership and presence.
When tasked with creating an exhibition in a historically charged or precarious site, how should curators reflect their surroundings? How should one stage an exhibition in such a place while retaining an accessible connection to larger global conversations? When there are gaps between curatorial responsibilities and general demands – locale, research, finance, caretaking – it becomes the visible duty of the curator to find balance, while still upholding the utmost respect for history and time.
Considering these questions and their personal roles within them were Melati Suryodarmo, artist and Artistic Director of the 2017 Jakarta Biennale; Folakunle Oshun, Founder and Artistic Director of the 2017 Lagos Biennale; Dr Apinan Poshyananda, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the upcoming Bangkok Art Biennale; and Zoe Butt, Artistic Director, Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, and Co-Curator of the next Sharjah Biennial. Their meeting as part of Art Basel Hong Kong’s 2018 Conversations series highlights the diverse regional and educational backgrounds of contemporary arts professionals and the major conundrums that each of them faces. Titled “Curating in Context: Making Exhibitions Work”, the panel considered issues of public outreach, spectacularisation, monetary bias and, most importantly, being present.
Here Zoe Butt, the conversation’s moderator, intervenes with her concerns about “audience-making”. She states:
The development of contemporary art has been due to the biennial platform. Here there is a practice of cultural tourism that generates different kinds of publics, leading to a [curatorial] obsession with audience-making. This can be challenged when you choose sites that are inaccessible.
Ostensibly, a biennial’s necessity for professional and public collaboration finds itself twisted around a desire to bring in certain audiences to justify an exhibition’s location. Curators and artists find themselves in a bit of a bind when met with the need/want for funding and notoriety, while at the same time searching for compassion and unfiltered narratives.
Spaces of negotiation
Oshun enters the conversation with a poignant description of the Lagos Biennale’s chosen site. After a contentious search, the curatorial team landed on a British colonial government railway. He reminds listeners that Nigeria obtained its independence from the British in the 1960s, leading to a collapse of the Lagos railway system. “Thematically, we were thinking along the lines of crisis,” he notes, explaining that the biennial’s first edition should reflect the city and its just-lived history of imperialism and oppression. He states that Lagos “is not a warzone, but you feel that anything can happen at any time”.
Inviting artists to Lagos was not Oshun’s problem; he was already in contact with an array of local artists that could easily fulfil an exhibition’s quota. However, the desire to intertwine international voices within the already-contentious narratives at play was an interesting premise for the young artist and curator. The problem was finding the money to make this a reality, and in Lagos, this was far easier said than done, especially considering Oshun’s anti-government, anti-establishment platform. “He who pays the piper dictates the tune,” he says, referencing the Lagos Biennale’s signifying image of a building built by slaves and sold to a developer before being destroyed. The exhibition then became an emblem of embarrassment for the local government, making it nearly impossible to obtain any sort of state-sponsorship.
Despite the monetary obstacle, the true test of curatorial perseverance was actively engaging with the Lagos Biennale’s site. Taking over the railway site, which has recently become a denounced zone of drugs and homelessness, meant that artists and their viewers had to engage with multiple layers of locational weight: the site required one to trace history and engage with a space that is infamous, but nonetheless a home for some of Lagos’ forgotten citizens. Oshun states:
There was a political effort not to showcase artwork, but to invade a space. People were confused; they couldn’t find the ‘art’.
Dr Apinan Poshyananda of the Bangkok Art Biennale, who has announced the inaugural opening in October of this year, has a more light-hearted approach to the exhibition’s locational take-over. It was recently announced that the upcoming biennial will invade 20 different sites throughout Bangkok, many of which are temples or heritage sites. For centuries, Dr Poshyananda notes, these locations have been melting pots of tradition and practice, where Buddhism, therapy, Brahmanism, astrology and massage are often intertwined. Offering up the spaces for artistic experimentation and engagement, seems for the curatorial advisory team, to be a natural extension of the city’s rich cultural history.
The backdrop for the upcoming Bangkok Art Biennale is ‘bliss’, which has led Dr Poshyananda to focus on site-specificity and ephemerality. He tells the audience:
For biennales to happen in Bangkok, we need to spread out everywhere: museums, galleries, shopping malls, heritage sites and temples. These types of events draw a lot of hype and sensationalism, and we hope to utilise these things to highlight Bangkok and highlight bliss…This is an international language.
The moderator notes that a biennial has access to an incredible number of sites, yet curators are nevertheless tasked with working with local communities and transient visitors. This interaction seeks sustainability. When putting together a show of site-specific work, there is a leadership that is required as a curator; curators are more than caretakers here, but are initiators who must reflect on what their chosen sites mean historically and otherwise. An emphasis must be made on gaining a deep understanding of these permanent spaces and what it means to have the momentary housed within them.
Curators often call this phenomenon ‘intervention’, but it is really “more like an invasion”, particularly when working with spaces that are so precarious. The panellists admit that there have been moments of naivety, where more attention was paid to the artwork and amassing crowds to see it. On the surface, this is an undeniably important factor, yet contemporary curation now requires a plan before an exhibition can be planned. Dr Poshyananda states that a lot of his routine preparation involves going with artists to visit each biennial site, a dedication that is both time consuming and costly, but “more than worth it”. Doing so opens the space to a more personal attachment; these meetings allow the artists “to do their homework and really attach to the site”, giving them new life and allowing it to infiltrate their work.
“This is the excitement of it.” Artists want to have some relevance to their site, a simple enough wish that is all too often sidestepped in large international blockbusters. Beyond this, the moderator notes, there is not a lot of overarching understanding about the role and significance of contemporary art in Southeast Asian societies. A curator’s ability to hone interest and convince the public (and private funders) of this reality is, without a doubt, an impressive feat.
The curators are not trying to import the concept of ‘biennial’ into Lagos or Jakarta or Bangkok or Sharjah; that is a tag that is used in a very subversive way to bring attention to the narratives that the artists and curators are trying to push. After all, a biennial is not about exhibition making. It goes beyond making things happen or turning a space into a spectacle. What is most important is being humble, to present the reality of the locality, region and its people. Curators tend to ‘produce’ art exhibitions, the panellists claim, yet the task of the biennial or contemporary art exhibition is not to present a curated collection of art, but to find who will fit within and “exemplify its space”.
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