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Contemporary art galleries typically curate works in one of two ways. Either we get to view artworks chronologically, grouped within specific (if predictable) periods, or the works are presented thematically (under the direction of the curator). The latter has perhaps proved the more versatile for the ‘consumption’ of modern art, underpinning the design of blockbuster exhibitions and sponsored collections. Tate, for example, has a regular programme of thematic exhibitions (often involving the comparative hanging of two or more artists), along with themed rooms of the permanent collection. Notably, however, Tate Britain has recently taken a ‘bold’ decision to rehang the entire gallery chronologically (see Guardian’s ‘in pictures’).
In the main, the reorganisation of the gallery has been met with praise (see: BBC Tate Britain rehang ‘triumphant’); though some are more sceptical. Jonathan Jones, writing for the Guardian, thinks the rehang is a ‘terrible idea’, because, he argues, it relegates many pre-20th century art to the storerooms, which he suggests is a ‘scandalous lack of regard for national treasures – and British history’. Nonetheless, those in favour have noted the significance of putting work into its social context, rater than by schools or styles. It is an approach that bears some relation to John Berger’s arguments in Ways of Seeing. More pertinent, however, as an emerging trend different to a chronological or thematic approach, is what we might call a relational curatorial practice, concerned with an ‘expanded field’ of the art gallery, whereby visitors to the gallery are encouraged to share in a process with the curator to make connections across a variety of artworks, and indeed outwards, linking to the wider domains and demands of visual culture. Such a view can be understood, in part, as a response to a problem faced by galleries in an ever-expanding visual culture. A major AHRC-funded research project, Tate Encounters: Britishness and Visual Cultures (2007-2010; recently been published under the title Post-Critical Museology, by Andrew Dewdney et al. (2013)), shows, for example, how the Tate’s relaunch of its website in 2000 was part of a corporatist extension, and coincided with greater emphasis upon content creation through the inauguration of the Tate Media division. At this point in time, the brief given to the web designers was to ‘disseminate the brand to a global audience’, as Tate prepared the way for the opening of Tate Modern. The argument made by the Tate Encounters project is not that Tate ignored its audiences (quite the opposite), but a deeper point that there is a underlying disconnect between the ‘the art museum and what has been termed the expanded field of visual culture, which it is argued is present for audiences as a feature of everyday life, but not as yet developed in the practices of the art museum’.
Suggestion here of ‘relational’ curatorial practice is inevitably to make some connection to relational aesthetics, generally defined as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’ (Bourriaud, N., Relational Aesthetics, p.113). For Bourriaud the artist is more a ‘catalyst’ of something than the centre of attention. Similarly, then, the relational curator is someone who allows the visitor to bring a range of possibilities to the artworks, so going beyond the interpretative strategies inherent to (and inherited by) art practice and criticism. Tate Liverpool’s curator, Francesco Manacorda, is seemingly in tune with such ideas. In interview, following his appointment at Tate Liverpool, he remarks on his hope to let Tate Liverpool ‘grow and develop through its diverse audiences – be that local people, children and young people, or international visitors. I especially believe that a museum should always be in dialogue with its audience as without it the institution just does not even exist. I hope for Tate Liverpool to become a well loved site for collective experiences and dialogues, and we can only prepare the right situation and invite people to take part in this. Going on a successful journey with our audiences is what I hope for’ (itsliverpool.com).
An example of a ‘relational’ curatorial approach – one that deliberately evokes journeys with its audience – is the summer exhibition at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, under the title of ‘From Me to You – Close but Distant Journeys‘ (2013). Drawing on the museum’s own collection, which dates from the 1940s through to the present, the exhibition is described as an introduction to contemporary art, but specifically attempts to use artworks ‘to create encounters with ‘others’’, so presenting, what the curators’ describe as various ‘journeys’ through the exhibition. These we can understand as physical journeys through a selection of artworks, but also imagined journeys inspired by and associated with (and through) the works. As the curators put it:
To commune and coexist with different things and to accept the existence of multiple worlds—these can be said to form part of the important messages that are widely transmitted by art works. Looking towards ‘others’ in this way may ultimately lead us to question the meaning of ‘self’. The distance that exists between ‘me’ and ‘you’ simultaneously seems both close yet distant. Why not walk along trying to recall all the various faces you have met in the past?
The exhibition presents six journeys. In the first, ‘Stories from Unknown Countries’, visitors are surrounded by videos presenting narratives in various unfamiliar languages. This is followed by a journey through photographs of children in Tokyo by Takashi Homma. As the curators suggest: ‘We find ourselves trying to discover the characteristics of “Tokyo children” within their faces, however they remain unmoved, appearing to defy any attempt at categorisation. It can be said that Homma has used this aspect of the children to create a universal image of “others”’. The third room offers a journey traced through a work by the controversial art group Chim↑Pom; in this case a piece from one of their early projects, ‘Thank You Celeb Project – I’m BOKAN’, which offsets a quest for celebrity with the creation of an artwork made from a landmine. The fourth journey, ‘Gulf Between Me and You’, uses video works of Dennis Oppenheim’s ‘Transfer Drawings‘, Izumi Kato’s ‘basic life forms’, and other artists’ work to unsettle the ‘closest yet furthest distance that exists between “others”’. The fifth journey further develops the theme showing works about animals (and imagined animals) as a means to ‘represent absolute “others” for human beings, but upon which we project our emotions’. Finally, the last room offers a collection of portraits, all hung in tight proximity to one another, forcing (uncomfortable) collisions between the paintings, but also providing a startling effect on entering the room as so many ‘faces look back at us’ (see the photograph at the top of this entry).
Physically, we might say the exhibition is really not so different from any other – although the final room, as noted, offers a fairly unusual, dense hanging of paintings. Yet, the whole setup feels very different. There is a deliberate invitation made to visitors to meet the artworks at some midway point – a sort of neutral spot in which the very definition of things can change, clash, and/or combine. The artworks are not simply there to be viewed, nor even to activate the audience, but are actually needing to answer the call of the viewer. To offer dialogue. Perhaps the next step is to somehow allow the wide ranging views that arise in this space to equally resonate as a collective experience…