“The chicken is a symbolic thing… chicken can be the lowest common denominator of currency, but also the highest questioning of where we are.” That’s curator Rachael Thomas speaking in a YouTube video released by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) about its current exhibition, I knOw yoU. I’m going to go ahead and pinpoint it as the moment in which curated group shows of contemporary art in Ireland finally jumped the shark.
What the museum’s head of exhibitions is saying isn’t actually as absurd as it sounds out of context. I knOw yoU is a group show of new European art about currencies and alternative modes of interchange. The German artist behind the chicken is also one of its three curators, Tobias Rehberger. According to his video, the cooked fowl is a metaphor “for a very kind of basic moment of trade, which probably started with trading food.” That’s fair enough, but he goes even further with a recession-related uber-extrapolation that meets the show’s owing and knowing double-entendre title head-on: “a fried chicken is suddenly kind of an anonymous chicken,” he says, “which kind of means, you know, if they fry you nobody knows you anymore.”
It makes a certain kind of sense, but the problem is how close all of this teeters towards absurdity masquerading as serious thought. The show is about cultural, social and economic values. Rehberger’s collage features a photograph of the half-built new European Central Bank, a cartoonish graphic of the Frankfurt skyline and that chicken. It looks more roasted than fried but never mind, I’ve had enough of the chicken already. In fact, I think I may have had enough of curated group shows of this kind.
When was the last time you left a curated group show of contemporary art wowed by its message or bowled over by its impact? When was the last time you left feeling anything other than mildly entertained, or with more than one or two pieces of art from that show stuck in your mind?
I knOw yoU is another in a long line of curator-led, thematic group exhibitions that are less and less about individual artists, artworks and their intended message (if they ever were) and more and more about curators putting their stamp on a particular group of artists or moulding a hand-picked selection of artworks to fit one more clever theme. Even genuinely interested viewers are starting to wonder who, or what, it’s all for.
That term “jumping the shark” was coined to describe the moment when a dying television show uses a desperately over-the-top gimmick to try and retain viewers. It’s named after a 1977 Happy Days scene in which Fonzie jumps over a shark while water-skiing. The series lasted another seven years, but it was all downhill from there. When a show jumps the shark its creators are seldom aware of the cartoonish nature of their efforts to jumpstart a stale idea, until it’s too late.
Rehberger’s chicken makes most sense in the context of the rest of his work. As part of an ambitious curated group show it may as well stand for the fact that such shows are struggling to offer viewers an in-point that does not completely alienate them. Their curators are now so wrapped up in the self-affirming language of contemporary curatorial practice they cannot see that the model they are working from is broken. Instead of delving further in – with artist-curators inviting curated artists to curate some more, as with I knOw yoU – it’s time they stepped outside a model that foregrounds curatorial practice over the art it curates to understand why audiences are starting to tune out.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to champion the relevance and value of the kind of thematic shows contemporary art curators produce. Regardless of their intended theme, frequently such shows are mostly about the contemporary art world talking to itself.
Curators are aware of this problem of “audience”. They try to solve it with curator’s statements, wall texts and a proliferation of education programmes to help audiences find an “in”. But what if all of this serves to exclude non-art world viewers even more, by telling them the curators are the ones with the correct answers and their own instincts are wrong or useless without this knowledge? The general public may not share the art history and theory background curators wield as their greatest weapon, but if there’s no way in, except through the wall text, how good is the art in the first place?
There’s a generally unchallenged presumption that contemporary art is difficult and we need curators to explain it. I don’t think the art is at fault, I think the problem is how curators have come to present it.
This month Tate Britain announced a re-hang of its collection. Gone are the wall texts, the curatorial explanations and the thematic arrangements. Instead the work has been hung chronologically, to tell the story of British art from the 1500s to the present day. As with the Hugh Lane Gallery’s arrangement of its collection in Dublin, what this throws into stark relief is the fact that contemporary art makes most sense in the context of what came before.
Curators are good at highlighting relationships between pieces of art and this can be illuminating. The problem emerges when they produce shows that function predominantly as an illustrated essay in three dimensions. It’s an academic format that that demands prior knowledge on the part of its audience. No wonder viewers are feeling alienated.
The other way in which contemporary art makes most sense is in the context of more of the artist’s work, in other words within a solo show. Of IMMA’s shows at Earlsfort Terrace, no comparison can be made between the well-staged but piecemeal impact of its science-themed Out of Time exhibition and the overall punch of Alice Maher’s comprehensive solo outing.
It doesn’t have to be on a large scale. In Cork last week, recent graduate Rory Mullen’s solo show in a box-like vacant retail unit had more to recommend it – in terms of its value as a single, strong statement by an artist – than the worthy but bitty False Optimism exhibition of artists from Berlin running concurrently at the Crawford Art Gallery. Curators need to take a step back and let individual artists reclaim the gallery space.
We still need curators. We need them to curate open submission shows, which can provide a snapshot of art being made right now; to make the best selections and arrangements of work for mid-career surveys and major solo retrospectives; to put together the kind of era-spanning art historical shows that will help the audience catch up. We need shows of collectives who work with similar aims or ideas and shows that illuminate certain styles or moments in time. We need less of the thematic approach that foregrounds the curator as the creative spark, effectively basking in the reflected glory of the artworks they admire.
Group shows are important, but nothing beats an exhibition that champions the vision of an individual artist. In a solo show, artworks jostle and bump off each other like siblings to make sense in the overall context of the artist’s approach. Disparate works brought together by a curator with a theme may illuminate each other, but in the end they can only jostle for our attention.
I knOw yoU has gotten one thing right. Much of this is about currency, in both monetary and career-building terms. Emerging artists are curators now too, not least because it’s financially easier to organise a group show. Curating has become a viable way to supplement your income as an artist. Certain themes – science, Europe, health – are more likely to attract sponsorship and funding than others. An institution that shows hundreds of artists in a year of themed group shows will please the bean counters more than one that showcases just twelve in a series of solo presentations.
It’s not all about the money. We need to keep an eye on legacy too. Early and mid-career artists deserve more chances at solo shows; chronological hangs may help tell a clearer story. Perhaps the biggest proof that the thematic curatorial approach to contemporary art is failing lies in the fact that the general public still prefers realism over abstraction and figurative painting over conceptual work. If the era of curated group shows has peaked it’s because curators are not helping the general public to understand what’s going on at the most challenging edges of contemporary art. Online this week, a debate raged about Tate Britain’s re-hang. “I’m interested in what the artist wants me to think and feel – not the curator,” said one commenter. Me too. Now, who’s going to tell the curators?
I knOw yoU is at the Irish Museum of Modern Art at Earlsfort Terrace until 1 September 2013.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Culture, Irish edition on 26/05/13.