Moving and Shaking: Curatorial Praxis in the Israeli Space

Drorit Gur Arie

In 2006, French artist Sophie Calle placed a want ad in the French press, seeking a curator for her show in the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Some two hundred curators responded to her call, but Calle ultimately selected fellow artist Daniel Buren in the belief that an artist-artist relationship would best suit her needs. In interviews for the press Buren rejected the desirable title “curator,” stressing that it was Calle who selected him to support and serve her in her artistic practice, and not vice versa. Buren defined his role as that of a musician performing a score, rather than the conductor of Calle’s artistic orchestra.
In his essay “The Death of the Author” Roland Barthes analyzes the figure of the author in Western literary discourse. He distinguishes between the product of writing, namely the written text, and the writer or author—the individual and his unique characteristics—whom he distances from the text, denying his ownership of the latter. Moreover, Barthes grasps the literary text as an object essentially opposing all authority and undermining the principle of ownership and the meaning associated with it, thus eliminating the limits of interpretation, for “the text is eternally written here and now,” being “a tissue of signs” whose meanings cannot be curtailed. Elaborating on these ideas and projecting them onto the art field, the curator may be deemed an “author”, and the art exhibition may be regarded as the outcome of writing—”a multi-dimensional space” akin to a text, one which is not necessarily the result of documentation, presentation, or representation.1
As an antithesis to the relegation of the Barthian author to the margins or even off-stage, the exhibition “Curators & Co” strives to shed new light on the orchestra conductor—the author or curator—and his unique personality and world view, as a vital point of departure which anchors the text as well as the art exhibition. In “Curators & Co.” the museum functions as a superstructure, embracing and allowing for pluralistic presentation of diverse curatorial views and activities.
The curator of the exhibition, Revital Ben-Asher Peretz, turned to a group of curators with diversified curatorial agendas, who were nourished by various sources of inspiration, and initiated a unique work process underlain by open group discussions, step after step. Each curator, based on his/her credo, chose an artist or a group of artists whose presentation would best express and embody his/her curatorial stance. The approaches to display differ between curators, and are at times even contradictory, but their subordination to a single space generates a new insight, which turns the spotlight on the intricate, unraveled field of contemporary curatorship. Alongside the traditional perception of the curator’s role as mediator between art works and the viewer, or between the artist’s studio and the exhibition space, the show addresses several unique curatorial practices, among them “wall-less curatorship”—a local paraphrase of André Malraux, and “readymade curatorship” which relies on the figure of the creator-curator. The various views unfolded in the exhibition are underlain by the process-oriented curatorial approach constantly guiding Petach Tikva Museum of Art—a professed standpoint based on openness to diverse fields perceived as equivalent, exposure of the affinities between geography and iconography, and emphasis on the morphological flexibility of the architectural exhibition space in accord with the exhibitions staged in it, as a space that serves and supports art, and not vice versa.
Following the Museum’s renovation several years ago, in my capacity as chief curator, I have formulated a curatorial policy centered on observation of the local cultural setting and geopolitical space in a desire to set in motion a dynamic discourse concerning the relationship between center and periphery, East and West, multiculturalism and multilingualism. By virtue of its physical location at the margins of the hegemonic mainstream of the local art field, Petach Tikva Museum of Art has chosen to present invisible areas, to indicate obstructions in the collective gaze turned at the socio-political sphere and the architectural landscape in the Middle East, and to challenge them through processes that refuse to reduce them and flatten the cultural discussion in Israel. Turning the gaze to marginal loci and unraveled spaces habitually excluded from our field of vision, revives those stains and signs which are the active substance, absent-present in the geographical, social, and cultural space. Thus, for example, Dor Guez’s one-person exhibition “Georgiopolis” (2009, curator: Drorit Gur Arie) uttered the voice of a reference group theretofore unexplored in Israeli culture—the Christian Arab community, as an ethnic minority in Israel and a religious-ethnic minority among Muslim Arabs—thereby striving to probe the validity of prevalent conventions as they encounter the private, the personal, and the human. The show offered a platform for a voice which is not one, a voice neither homogenous nor delineable, while restructuring the relationship between image, language, and history along and across the junction of Israeli culture. It was preceded by the exhibition “Sion: A Cinematic Trilogy”—Yosef-Joseph Dadoune’s one-person exhibition (2007, curator: Drorit Gur Arie), which likewise exposed biographical elements while producing a different voice and a different gaze which deviated from the prevalent discourse about the East/Orient towards realms of multiculturalism. “Sion” proposed a state of mind, a language, and contents which exceeded the “political correctness” of contemporary Israeli culture, continuing grand ancient traditions such as epic poetry and religious works. By the same token, the exhibition “High Heels in the Sand” (2005, curator” Revital Ben-Asher Peretz), conceived after a group research process, focused on the rising phenomenon of white slavery in Israel, while questioning art’s power to act vis-à-vis life itself.
By virtue of the same commitment, the curatorial praxis at the Museum grants a platform to artists living and working in and from the margins, who do not necessarily belong to the mainstream. The cinematic show “Down Under: A Cinematic View of the South of Israel” (2010, curators: Drorit Gur Arie and Maya Klein), conceived in collaboration with the Department of Cinema and TV Arts at the Sapir College, Sderot, offered an unmediated encounter with a complex, dissonant reality in Israel’s southern reaches, along the brittle, threatened border between Gaza and Sderot. The exhibition introduced nonhomogenous voices of artists, the majority of whom live and work in the country’s south, documenting day to day life in the shadow of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The show was an opportunity for dialogue between marginal venues which succeed in translating each other’s languages. A “school” of young cinematic work which turns its back on the center and strives to formulate an alternative for the hegemonic cultural discourse, was thus brought into view. Yosef-Joseph Dadoune’s forthcoming exhibition “Ofakim” scheduled to open in the beginning of winter 2012 (curator: Drorit Gur Arie), will continue the process, and offer yet another critical gaze at the relations of society-community-power in that forlorn peripheral space, far-removed from the center of culture—a space to which waves of immigrants were distanced since the 1950s in the name of the Zionist call to conquer the wilderness.
Michelle White and Nato Thompson regard the curator as someone who rejects fixed collective models, as he figures out “how to facilitate and contextualize the ideas of artists and works of art that often operate within the same system that is being critiqued.”2 Perusal of the margins as a position and a practice enables the Museum to function as a laboratory—an open, experimental locus which posits the context and viewing conditions while constantly unstitching traditional definitions. The exhibition “The Space Between” (2007, curator: Drorit Gur Arie)—which proposed to reexamine the conventions of the contemporary space and the disciplining of the gaze and consciousness within the boundaries of the public space (the museum-space included)—transformed the museum into a thicket of corridors which undermined the sanctity of the “white cube” of modernist display and the hierarchy and viewing laws embodied in it. The torn labyrinths constructed to prompt dialogue with the art works and viewers, in continuation of Anthony Vidler’s discussion of the “warped space,”3 violently closed various passages in on the viewer, disorienting him and subverting the boundaries of the space, which became unclear and inconsequential. The exhibition “Blind Spot” (2008, curators: Carmella Jacoby Volk and Einat Manoff) extended another gaze at the museum exhibition space as a point of departure for a critical reading of the urban environment. The exhibition was staged as a tour in an urban space, while disregarding the walls of the museum and the customary exhibition rules. Similarly, the exhibition “Down Under” explored issues pertaining to space and display, this time centered on deconstruction of the traditional viewing layout of a cinema hall and its displacement to the museum. The exhibition endeavored to bridge cinematic viewing patterns and the museum display, and to create a dynamic dialogue between space, medium, and viewer; the curatorial concept proposed a possibility of active viewing and movement between films and spaces, and the creation of new affinities between them, while introducing a spatial continuum which challenged the static separation customary in cinema halls as well as the conditions underlying the museum space itself.
Via this meta-reflexive process, Petach Tikva Museum of Art has engaged in introspection, while simultaneously setting out to explore other spaces. In its various exhibitions, the museum space has been repeatedly opened up to exploration of the boundaries, definitions, and conventions of the spaces featured within it. Constantly changing its appearance, the Museum adapts walls, constructs and disassembles structures, turns from a white cube to a black box, from an open space to a labyrinth, from a reading room to a cinema hall; it is tantamount to a resilient creature whose DNA is innately metamorphic.
“A public only exists ‘by virtue of being addressed’,” maintains Michael Warner—an argument crucial to curatorial practices. Distinguishing between public and counterpublic, Warner defines the latter as a particular formation of a minor character where other discourses can be formulated, essentially antithetical to universality and logocentrism.4 The conceptualization of exhibition making as “a counter-public strategy”—a process promoted by Marion von Osten,5 is congruent with the praxis of the Petach Tikva Museum, which has taken a consistent approach of opening and adapting its exhibition spaces to the needs of the presented art. The renewing spatial formats contribute to breaching the space-dependent narratives, generating a process-oriented way of thinking about the structure of the museum and the exhibition event as a constantly self-constituting discourse.
Curator and critic Simon Sheikh, in his analysis of “exhibition making,” asserts that the historical origins of the modern museum involve structuring of the rational-bourgeois subject in 19th century Europe. The artistic discourse prevalent in the time of the historical emergence of the bourgeois exhibition institutions (museums, salons, galleries), as critical as it may have been, was always regarded as a rational stand toward irrational objects (works, artists). Artworks and artists “had to be irrational in order to be rationalized, which, in turn, produced the rational-critical subject whose values and judgments were represented by the exhibition.”6 Petach Tikva Museum of Art indeed transpires within the history described by Sheikh. While it may be argued that its activity is likewise touched by a rationalization of that which is presented as “other” or “irrational,” its very decision to present (and thus acknowledge) the blind spots, the margins, and the places habitually excluded from the normative space, contains and introduces them into a normalizing cultural sphere. The museum does not masquerade as an other, but rather generates the other; it does not talk about the thing, but rather conveys the thing itself. In other words, in relation to the axis extending between the institutionalized museum and the alternative exhibition space, Petach Tikva Museum of Art is indeed situated in between poles, but not necessarily on the axis itself; rather, perpendicular to it. It essentially combines center and margins, establishment and anti-establishment, existing as a type of oxymoron.
The concerns introduced by “Curators & Co.” necessarily refer one to the changes that have occurred in the role of the curator in the course of history. Etymologically, the word “curator” is associated with care (curare). In the Roman Empire, “curators” were responsible for public functions such as transportation, sanitation, water supply, maintaining order, and policing. In the Middle Ages, “curatorship” was tied with the ecclesiastical domain, introducing a split between the functions of public administration (law) and the care for spiritual health (church). Concurrently, the term “absorbed” the area of care for minors or the insane. Only in the 17th century did the curator become a person in charge of the museum, library, zoo, or some other exhibition institution. The link between care and control runs like a thread throughout all the metamorphoses of the term. In the mid-20th century a change occurred in the perception of curatorship following the activity of such trailblazing curators as Harald Szeemann, who provided a platform for innovative praxis of artists, and held that curatorship must “pulsate” in the situation within which it operates, namely fulfill an active role in the field of art, culture, society, and politics. One may say that the curator’s role thus changed from an external “governor” to an internal “agent” whose activity is intertwined with that of the artists, objects, spaces, and audiences.7 As opposed to his traditional function, the contemporary curator is a “a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest.” Szeemann’s preference for the simple title of Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition-maker) surrenders discontent with the term “curator” which fails to span the required multiplicity of functions.8 One of the most outstanding curators today, Hans-Ulrich Obrist in his book A Brief History of Curating describes the changes in the curator’s function from the silent, hidden place behind-the-scenes of art to his current status as a major player in the artistic arena, who is granted considerable public exposure.9 Since the 1990s, winds of change have been blowing in the curatorial field, introducing new possibilities for familiar display modes—in the form of the creator-curator, collaborations with extra-artistic disciplines, and even the breaching of the museum’s boundaries and its transformation into a place of experimentation and process, a museum which functions as an extension of the world and not as an ivory tower shutting itself off from the public. It is from this very position that the Petach Tikva Museum of Art operates, constantly striving to challenge and further expand it.
Notes
1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968), Image Music Text, trans. Stephan Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).
2. Michelle White and Nato Thompson, “Curator as Producer,” Art Lies: A Contemporary Art Journal, 59 (2009).
3. See: Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000); The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992).
4. Michael Warner, “Public and Counterpublics,” Public Culture, 14:1 (Winter 2002), pp. 49-90.
5. See: Marion von Osten, “Producing Publics – Making Worlds: On the Relationship Between the Art Public and the Counter Public,” Curating Critique, 09/11; a digital publication by oncurating.org.
6. Simon Sheikh, “Constructive Effects: The Techniques of the Curator,” in: Paul O’Neill (ed.), Curating Subjects (Amsterdam & London: De Appel, Center for Contemporary Art & Open Editions, 2007), pp. 175-185, esp. p. 179.
7. See: J.C. Fregnan and Stefan Brüggemann, “Curing Curation,” Art Lies: A Contemporary Art Journal, 59 (2009); David Levi-Strauss, “The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann and Hopps,” www.kebabaquarium.com/filez/LeviStraussBiasOfTheWorld.pdf; Kate Fowle, “Who Cares? Understanding the Role of the Curator Today,” in: Steven Rand and Heather Kouris (eds.), Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating (New York: Apexart, 2007), pp. 26-35.
8. Among these omitted “functions,” David Levi-Strauss mentions “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat”; see Levi-Strauss, ibid.
9. See: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating (Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2008).