Another Still Life

In 1997, together with Suzi Attiwill, I curated an exhibition held at West Space Gallery in Melbourne.

The purpose of the exhibition, Curated, was to examine what curators did, as what curators were doing seemed to be gaining ever greater prominence in the art world, at times even eclipsing the role of the artist.

This was especially noticeable in the contemporary arts but was also being seen in exhibitions of historical works by ‘star’ international curators, as well as the increasing numbers of artists who used curatorial processes and curatorial places as the raw material for their work. (The American writer Lisa Corrin describes museum-critical art as being so ubiquitous that it was deserving of its own ‘ism’, as in ‘museum-ism’.

It sounded a simple enough idea, but the trick lay in how it was to be done.

This is what was decided upon, as it appeared in the catalogue to the exhibition.


6 curators; 6 different curatorial responses.
Location: West Space Galley Inc.
Curators: Suzi Attiwill and Damon Moon plus six curators.
Time: 16 October – 1 November 1997.

Outline: Six curators have been allocated a space in the gallery within which to explore any aspects of curatorial practice they choose and in whatever way they wish. There is one stipulation only – as the object is not to have six mini shows of artists’ work but to exhibit curatorial practice, no original artworks are allowed.

The invited curators include those who have worked in different gallery spaces, such as public institutions, university galleries and artist-run spaces.

The two main galleries are occupied by the six curators. The smaller space displays documentation associated with, and produced in the making of, the exhibition. The office continues in its role as a mediated space between the gallery infrastructure and the exhibition.

The boundaries of the exhibition extend to include a forum, Jack High, to be held at West Space and a dedicated issue of the journal Dialogue called Greens.

Currently there is increasing debate about the role of the curator in contemporary visual arts practice. Curated attempts to make this role visible in different ways.

As curators we are seeking to make visible the curatorial practice within the gallery space. We, as curators, will curate curators curating themselves.

Suzi Attiwill and Damon Moon.

(I’m not sure now how the lawn bowls metaphor worked its way so thoroughly into the project, but it seemed appropriate at the time.)

We invited a number of curators to participate in the project, and – perhaps surprisingly – almost all accepted. We also invited one artist, Sandra Bridie, whose practice included a curatorial alter ego, B.S. Hope.

Aside from Sandra Bridie, the curators were Natalie King, Stuart Koop, Jason Smith, Peter Timms and Rachel Young. Maudie Palmer included the exhibition as part of the visual arts component of the Melbourne International Festival and Julian Burnside QC generously agreed to fund the project. In addition, a number of writers, curators and academics took part in a forum broadcast by the ABC and contributed articles to an issue of the journal Dialogue published to accompany the exhibition.

All in all, the whole thing was extremely well organised and well executed but, given the limitations placed on the curators, what did a visitor to the gallery actually see?

In the first room Natalie King used wall text to reproduce quotes from various authors and artists. Rachel Young altered a wall by painting it a deep burgundy colour and Stuart Koop installed shelving, modelled on the type one finds in a greengrocers, which he then filled with oranges, ensuring that this room not only looked beautiful but smelled good as well.

In a second room Jason Smith covered a desk with correspondence received in his position as Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. This included the infamous ‘Rothko letter’, a …’form-letter … developed in response to regular enquiries received concerning the correct display of a Rothko painting owned by the NGV’. (Apparently people were always writing in concerned it had been hung upside down.) There was also a tape recording of messages left on his answering machine, a strategy which probably caused some trepidation amongst sectors of the Melbourne arts community but was nonetheless quite funny and added a certain chattiness to the proceedings. On the wall was a line of photographs of Sandra Bridie posing as the aforementioned fictitious curator B.S. Hope going about her business as a fictitious curator, and on the floor was Peter Timms’ curious small sculpture of a distorted jigsaw puzzle incorporating a picture frame.

In other words, most of the curators chose to work with mechanisms of display or documentation. Only Peter Timms opted to make an object that was …’a … metaphor of the curatorial process’ without directly referencing those processes.

The exhibition certainly looked good, in a cool and considered way. Thanks to Suzi Attiwill it was beautifully designed and it had a strong curatorial premise which led to ‘valuable outcomes’ in terms of publications and debate, and it seemingly didn’t suffer at all from the fact that it was an exhibition without art. (Unless of course you count Sandra Bridie’s contribution, which made an art out of pretending not to be art.)

Now, at this point the perceptive reader will offer the rejoinder that as soon as these objects were displayed within an art gallery they simply became art. To which I could counter that since these things were deliberately nominated as being not art it would be ascribing a great deal of power to the gallery to imagine it could turn everyday objects into art, like water into wine.

Yet, to all intents and purposes, this is exactly what happened, and what’s more I bet no one reading this article who has any knowledge of the contemporary arts would find this in the least bit surprising.

Curated went beyond the now accepted boundaries where artists place just about anything into the gallery space in the name of art by demonstrating that you actually don’t need the artist at all. All you need is the designated place of art and people who are practised in using that space, something which obviously has important ramifications for the training of artists.

Before investigating what these might be, I’ll cite another example of this phenomenon whereby everyday objects are transfigured in the name of art, this time involving the work the Australian potter Gywn Hanssen Pigott.

Hanssen Pigott has become very well known for making pots which she then arranges in groups, on the understanding that these groups of pots constitute the artwork. (The power of Hanssen Pigott’s oeuvre has been so widely felt, especially in the crafts, that another ‘ism’ is probably called for, perhaps as in ‘arrangement-ism’.)

Lately she has taken this idea further, by arranging ceramics she has not made. This can be seen in her exhibition ‘Parades – Freer Ceramics Installed by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’ at the Smithsonian Institute, which involved choosing ceramics from the collection which were then exhibited in that institution.

These arrangements, or installations, were each given titles – ‘Still Life with Pickle Jar’, ‘Garden’, ‘Remembrance’, ‘Blue Parade’, ‘Trail with Pale Bowls’, ‘Float’ and ‘Studio’ – with the objects chosen by the simple expedient of deciding if they looked good together. According to the Smithsonian’s press release, she …’ignore[s] place and date and focuses wholly on colour, form, pattern and relationship, [demonstrating] a curiously sympathetic approach to the taste of Charles Lang Freer who acquired most of the selected objects a century earlier.’

This begs the question as to how one could possibly fail in that attempt, given the extraordinarily beautiful nature of the objects involved and their underlying similarities. What is certain - and here one might applaud Hanssen Pigott for her bravery in the ‘Yes Minister’ sense of the word - is that in these arrangements each of the component pieces are literally of museum quality, whereas in the case of her own works the individual pieces are often quite nondescript.

In the case of Hanssen Pigott’s work at the Smithsonian, her actions were deliberately designated as being not curation. This was reiterated at a talk I attended at the Art Gallery of South Australia where she described the suggestion of a curator at the Smithsonian regarding the addition of a small white bowl to one of the arrangements as being made on aesthetic grounds – how it looked - in contrast to the more usual criteria associated with arranging works in a museum around an idea – what it meant – something which has long served to differentiate the roles of artists from curators.

The fact that Hanssen Pigott didn’t make the individual pots doesn’t lessen the arrangement’s putative or actual status as art. In fact, there was a kind of ‘value adding’ at work here, whereby the collection is imaginatively re-configured to the benefit of both the institution and the artist, and, hopefully, the audience. In addition, there are magnificent photographs which remain as documents and have at least the possibility of existing as artworks in their own right. (I will leave vexed issues of photographer and copyright to the reader’s imagination.) A further benefit was that the whole project had a very much longer life than the usual commercial gallery exhibiting cycle, being on view for over a year.

By virtue of her status as an artist Gwyn Hanssen Pigott was accorded the rare opportunity of using an existing collection to make a new work, but I suspect that any practised curator could have achieved the same result, albeit without the marketing advantage a ‘name’ undoubtedly brings.

In these case studies it seems we are being presented with radical models of how meaning is constructed in two quite different areas of the visual arts, but they are just overt examples of a process which occurs all the time, whereby the mechanisms of display and consumption that surround a work are often as important as the work itself, sometimes more so. The implications for the training of the artist, or more accurately for those institutions that assume the role of training, are profound.

For a start, any idea of the de facto primacy of the individual, newly created artwork must be questioned, yet in my experience the student is inculcated with the notion that the act of creativity is all important. They are led to believe that their artistic lives depend on accomplishing an almost impossible task, that of coming up with something original in a society which is drowning in images and objects. It’s unfair and it’s counterproductive. The more emphasis placed on what is yet to be made, the less chance anyone will have the time or inclination to learn anything from what already has been made.

A truly radical model for art education would recognise that things should be made, but not new things; techniques should not be taught as a means to an end, but practised as an end in themselves; and a great deal of attention would be given to appraising how art reacts with the space around it, be that a physical or cultural space, and how the physical or cultural space in turn dictates what becomes art.

If at the end of all this the desire is there to make something new then it will stand a much better chance of really being new. But then again, everything old can be new again.

Damon Moon
Willunga 2011