PRINT January 1999


Ralph Rugoff talks with Lisa Corrin

BEFORE SHE MADE THE MOVE to England and the Serpentine Gallery in 1997, Lisa Corrin served for nearly eight years as chief curator of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. There, in concert with founder George Ciscle, she turned the museum into a model for how institutions could develop new audiences for contemporary art. The Contemporary functions as an intelligent parasite: Boasting neither a collection nor a building, it mounted its exhibitions in other museums and temporary sites in partnership with local arts, education, science, and social service agencies. Dedicated to exploring the relation between culture and artistic practice, the museum aimed to create multidisciplinary shows that would enable diverse audiences to connect their experience of art to daily life.

Despite its name, the Contemporary’s two most celebrated shows revisited historical subjects. Fred Wilson’s 1992 “Mining the Museum,” hosted by the Maryland Historical Society, saw the artist raiding the institution’s storage rooms and reorganizing its displays of artifacts to reveal concealed histories of slavery and racism. In 1995-96, Corrin curated “Going for Baroque: Eighteen Contemporary Artists Fascinated with the Baroque and Rococo” at the Walters Art Gallery, which juxtaposed recent art with works by “old masters.” In investigating why certain contemporary artists were interested in the period, Corrin’s show also reanimated parts of the museum’s collection, especially in rooms where visitors had long grown used to seeing the painting and sculpture on display as fusty historical objects.

Since arriving at the Serpentine, where she is chief curator, Corrin has enhanced her reputation for handling ideas in a fluid and thoughtful manner. She has helped shape an exhibition program that has included shows by Chris Ofili (who went on to win the Turner Prize a couple of months after his Serpentine exhibit) and Mariko Mori as well as the group exhibition “Loose Threads,” which featured a snakes’ nest of woven art. The work was loosely linked by concerns growing in part out of Corrin’s interest in the writings of cyberfeminist Sadie Plant, including her musings on the relation among looms, weaving, and emerging communications structures such as the Internet. I caught up with Corrin in London in October as she was putting the finishing touches on “Loose Threads.” —RR

RALPH RUGOFF: I think one of the greatest challenges for museum curators is how to avoid what I call the “institutional kiss of death.” Most museums sterilize our experience of art. Their display strategies discipline and domesticate the work and promote a kind of detached voyeurism. In short, they’re not very stimulating spaces.

LISA CORRIN: At the Contemporary we intentionally didn’t have a building, because we knew that the architecture immediately frames the way you look at something. We wanted to encourage awareness of those codes so that people experiencing the work in often temporary sites—an abandoned bank, a renovated bus garage—would ask themselves: Is it art, or not? By playing on the edge of those boundaries, we found that people who hated museums or were suspicious of contemporary art engaged the work much more directly. Working this way enabled us to build an audience for contemporary art without announcing it as such. I deeply love museums, but, like you, I’ve often felt they can be deadening. People go in and mull around in a fog. The whole impetus behind the Contemporary was to create a more dynamic experience—not just to show contemporary art but to show interconnections between past and present, between art and the world outside the studio and the museum, based on an understanding that our relationships to objects are very complex, and include our bodies, our desires, our particular pathology as human beings.

So a lot of our exhibitions were very visceral. For “Mining the Museum,” we manipulated the language of the museum. We had visitors who were so moved they ended up weeping. I remember this one young black woman who got about two-thirds of the way through the show and fell to pieces, and this little blue-haired docent from the Historical Society ran over to comfort her. People had different sets of experiences around these objects, yet this kind of sharing went on.

I think exhibitions have the ability to bring to the surface things we deny, things that we really don’t want to confront. But curators themselves have to be willing to confront their own fears and to put the history of their institutions on the line. They also have to understand that objects can be intellectual and emotional provocateurs.

RR: That sounds like your definition of “curator.”

LC: I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term. It comes from the Latin word curate, which means to be a shepherd over the souls of others. I would like to think of myself more as a producer or facilitator, more a medium through which ideas can come. And as a team leader in some cases. At the Contemporary, where we worked with artists and communities, the ideas for an exhibition would emerge through a series of dialogues, and this made a given project very context-specific.

RR: Another root for curating is “to care for,” which I think makes sense if you consider it in an expanded sense. To take care of a work of art is to provide a good home for it, which means a place where its meaning can thrive. It’s a type of caretaking that poses problematic questions, especially in the case of acquisitions. A few years ago, I saw an acquisitions show at MoCA in LA that included pieces by Mike Kelley featuring the blankets, feeding supplies, and toys that had belonged to a couple of dead pets. I’d included these works in a gallery show I curated and thought they were extraordinarily powerful. But at MoCA, they seemed emotionally dead. The work actually fared better in a gallery setting because it needed to play off the commercial setting, at the point of sale. In a museum the question of its value had seemingly already been decided and the tensions it could generate were severely muted. It ended up functioning not as a work of art, but as an example of a Mike Kelley.

LC: Essentially, museums have a hoarding instinct, and a lot of curating is about hoarding. There was a moment when that was useful, but what a lot of contemporary artists are doing right now is so context-specific that the danger of the works’ dying, as you put it, is far greater. So a shift needs to take place around the issue of acquisitions. When a work is offered, curators need to ask: Is having this here going to drain it of the life it needs?

RR: To me, one of the most interesting curatorial strategies of the ’90s has to do with anonymity. At Chicago’s Anonymous Museum, for example, the works were exhibited without labels or identifying texts. It profoundly affected the way people looked at the art.

LC: I think there’s some good work in this area. Genre-bending artists are also playing with the codes of the nonmuseum world, using newspapers, TV, radio, and functional objects to create work that exists in a purgatorial neither/nor state. In some ways that neither/nor state is really the state of play.

In terms of exhibitions, isn’t the best type of curating the kind that allows for objects to somehow have a giant question mark over their heads? Which is to say that the curator admits, “I don’t know what space this object inhabits.” I think the best new kinds of exhibition-making raise more questions than they answer.

RR: You seem to keep tabs on artists from all over. Do you find that to be an effective curator today you have to be a frequent flier?

LC: There’s so much being done, and also the criteria of what constitutes art have so broken down, that you have to disperse yourself, as with a perfume atomizer, and see what adheres. I travel a great deal, but I think a curator today has to be peripatetic in terms of sensibility as well.

RR: What about the old “act locally, think globally” model? Is it still as valid to explore one place in depth as to rush all over the world? I often think of Henry Miller’s statement that the best-read person he knew had only read three books.

LC: And Faulkner said he didn’t need to go anywhere because it was all in his own backyard. But I think it’s important for curators not to fall prey to this hackneyed discussion around regionalism. These days artists are moving around as much as curators. It’s a cliché, but the world (especially the art world) has gotten smaller, and I think the role of the curator is to try to create a dialogue between artists in the place where you work and with their peers elsewhere. So you ultimately position them all as global.

RR: How do you go about making choices when you’re organizing an exhibition?

LC: When I came to the Serpentine, I brought a list of artists whom I wanted to work with. What I learned was that what’s “good” or meaningful in Baltimore, New York, or Beijing can be meaningless in another place. It doesn’t even register. It’s all about context. So in the year I’ve been on the Serpentine team I’ve been undergoing a radical transition.

One reason I left the US was that I wanted to see what would happen if I put myself in a foreign place, as much as one shapes what hap pens in that place? I’m interested not just in what it means to work in London, but also what it means to program for and with the diverse audience that visits the Serpentine. The Serpentine’s proximity to the South Kensington Gardens complex—the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal Albert Hall—is critical to its identity. This is the model of a collection of cultural institutions that has been copied around the world, and I think about how the way the Serpentine positions visual culture can create a productive frisson or counterpoint with these powerful entities and within the model itself. How, for example, can a dialogue that does not discriminate between our areas of specialization generate a new model that communicates to the general public a postenlightenment view of knowledge, a model that is rhizomic and nonhierarchical? I am interested not only in how to make exhibitions of contemporary art but in how to be a contemporary institution, which means to bring to collection policies, education, and exhibitions self-questioning perspectives that demand we use objects across institutions, disciplines, cultures, and time.

The Serpentine’s scale is intimate, so curating here is like writing short stories. You have to be succinct. But you begin to recognize that there are shows that feel like Serpentine shows. And at a certain point, it doesn’t feel contrived, it feels natural, like breathing or being in love.

RR: Is it still possible, then, for a curator to organize shows which identify critical issues of our time and examine how they show up in art?

LC: Yes, but with the understanding that those issues may be overturned tomorrow. Being a curator means somehow jumping from the bank of a river into the flow, and seeing what that body of water feels like at that point for just a quick second, because that’s all you can hope for.

But in the end I’m perhaps more interested in human nature than in being an art historian. The ideas I have flow out of a desire to see art as connected as possible to all kinds of human experience, particularly the kinds we don’t like to talk about. This is going to show what a dear old-fashioned thing I am (as the, British would say), but I do believe exhibitions can be catalytic, that they really can provide windows onto thoughts and feelings that we don’t even know we have.

Ralph Rugoff is a writer based in London.