PRINT May 2005


Mark Godfrey on the artist as curator

In the book that accompanies “An Aside,” the “exhibition without an idea” that Tacita Dean has curated as part of the Hayward Gallery’s National Touring Exhibitions program, Dean tells a story that explains both the formation of her curatorial strategy and her first choice of a work. Two years ago, watching Lothar Baumgarten’s There I Like It Better Than in Westphalia, El Dorado, 1968–76, she was taken by the way Baumgarten had photographed the slides and recorded the sounds over a considerable period of time without knowing what the final form of the work would be. Dean adopted this model for her show, proceeding with her curatorial choices without a finished selection in mind. The slide piece would be the first work in the exhibition, and as for the next, well, Baumgarten led her to it. He told her that the slides were taken in the forest near Düsseldorf, where one day he came upon a dog whose owner turned out to be Gerhard Richter. Baumgarten and Dean noticed an affinity between some of his photographs and Richter’s paintings of the time, so Dean tried to track the paintings down as the next work for her show. None could be located, but a different Richter work was later found, and this in turn set Dean on another trail. So, in a manner partly indebted to André Breton’s notion of “objective chance” and partly resulting from her own circumstances and sensibilities, Dean embarked on “an experimental journey where one work would guide me to the next.” Seventy-five works by seventeen artists were collected; the oldest artist, Kurt Schwitters, was born in 1887, the youngest, Thomas Scheibitz, in 1968. The newest work in the show, Thomas Schütte’s Hund, 2005, was being fired in a kiln days before the opening, while Paul Nash’s seventy-five-year-old photographs of dead trees had been filed away in the Tate archives for decades.

In the space of the exhibition, though, the narrative of Dean’s journey remained undisclosed. Works were not placed in the order in which they were selected nor did text panels explain Dean’s choices and groupings. Instead, viewers were left to make their own connections, or perhaps to fail to make them. Just as the key aspect for Dean was the process of curating (rather than the finished result), for visitors it was also the process of viewing that counted, and they were free to navigate the show as they wanted without feeling obliged to trace Dean’s own route. A pair of painted stones by Schwitters was placed on a plinth in the middle of one gallery. Behind them hung Nash’s painting of a dead tree and a giant tennis ball looming against the cliffs of Dover, as well as a suite of photographs and collages made by Eileen Agar on the Brittany coast in 1936 and a pair of Raymond Hains décollage works from 1952 and 1963. Between the Hains and the Nash but very low to the ground was another pair of objects, two clay heads by Marisa Merz covered with chary dust, facial features indicated by spare and haunting indentations. This constellation was animated by the geographical and biographical stories Dean supplies in the catalogue: Nash’s painting shows the English Channel from one side, Agar’s photographs from the other; Nash was Agar’s lover at the time and the person who introduced her to the concept of the found object. But even if you did not know this, such pairings helped to draw out the complexity of the works on view. From Schwitters’s painting on stones we moved to Nash’s paintings of cliffs, from Agar’s photographs of anthropomorphic rocks to Merz’s abandoned and half-described heads to the similarly scratchy gray surfaces of the Hainses back to Schwitters’s carefully selected, delicately colored pebbles. You wove the material and conceptual strands of the heterogeneous objects before you until a work like Schütte’s Hund stopped you in your tracks, sending thought whirling off in new directions. Wearing a German army helmet and with its front paws coming together in prayer to form labial folds, the dog might even stand as a model for the exhibition—its parts flowing seamlessly into each other yet forming quite unpredictable juxtapositions.

Any group show that makes art work like this deserves praise. The closest thing to it that I can recall was Bob Nickas’s “From the Observatory” at Paula Cooper in New York in 2002, where you had to unlearn what you thought you knew about each artist because unexpected, enlightening comparisons tweaked unforeseen qualities from each object. Just so, Dean released each work’s idiosyncrasies and connected each to others, never reducing her choices to bullet points in a curatorial argument. Institutionally affiliated curators might be inspired by but also envious of Dean’s tack, for though they might like to curate in this way, they have to answer to directors and education departments and marketing managers who seek big ideas, buzzwords, and selling points. All this means that institutions rarely sanction shows with such juxtapositions—which seem as utterly necessary, motivated by something in each of the works, as they are subjective. It also explains why more and more curators are inviting artists to put together exhibitions. Artists have the license they crave: Intuition, after all, is in their job description.

What made Dean’s show singular, however, is that it departed from many of the models of the “artist-curated exhibition” established over the past few years. I’m thinking here neither of the activities of Fred Wilson, Renee Green, and Mark Dion, who tend to work with historical objects outside of art museums, nor of the activities of artists like Jeremy Deller, who organize events as curators might, but rather of projects where the artist is more straightforwardly the curator of artworks. Think through these models: First, you have the show of work by friends and perhaps students of the artist-curator, all of whom develop their own concerns—Gabriel Orozco’s magnificent “The Everyday Altered” at the 2003 Venice Biennale, for instance. Second, there’s the artist who brings together works to explore an idea or thematic central to his or her own practice, such as Susan Hiller’s 1999 “Dream Machines.” This was in the same Hayward series as Dean’s show and included works exploring dreamy, drugged, and hypnotic states from Henri Michaux’s 1950s “Mescaline Drawings” to Rodney Graham’s Halcion Sleep, 1994. And third, there’s the artist who selects works from a specific institutional collection, establishing new connections that might have been impossible given the institution’s departmentalization. Examples include “Give and Take,” a 2001 show in which Hans Haacke reordered works from the V&A at the Serpentine, or MOMA’S famous series in which artists from Chuck Close to Mona Hatoum were invited to curate exhibitions from the collection. What distinguishes Dean’s enterprise from these models is its comparative elasticity—she was not limited by personal connection or theme or the parameters of a given collection.

But, of course, there was a parameter to Dean’s choices: her own sensibility. The works in “An Aside” all had in common the simple fact that Dean was drawn to them. That said, could the exhibition be read as a display of Dean’s interests, a kind of composite self-portrait made up of the work of other artists? It is easy to sense how Dean’s fascinations and explorations led her to particular choices. She has often investigated the evocative, mnemonic, and deceptive capacities of sound. Similarly, Baumgarten reworked recordings of the Rhine until they resembled the squawks and buzzes of the Amazonian rain forest (or at least a Westerner’s fantasy of that sound). Like Fischli and Weiss, she has been fascinated by the atmospheric effect of the “green ray”—she shot a film, they made an assemblage of a turntable, torch, and plastic cup, creating a delicate light show. In a trio of recent films (Mario Merz, 2002; Boots, 2003; and The Uncles, 2004), Dean has revisited the genre of portraiture only to explore its incapacity to render a stable representation of the subject: This concern surely led her to Merz’s half-formed, already-decayed heads or Richter’s small study on paper for a bust of Isa Genzken, where successive pencil marks describe the profile and scratch it out at once. The whole form of “An Aside,” meanwhile, might call to mind Girl Stowaway, 1994, an installation including film, objects, and images Dean accumulated through intention and coincidence.

“An Aside” included two films by artists who conventionally would be grouped with Dean. In NŌ, 2003, Sharon Lockhardt, like Dean, is concerned with landscape and slowed time; Rheinmetall/Victoria 8, of the same year, shows that Rodney Graham shares Dean’s attraction to obsolete objects and flea-market finds. However, when prompted to think about these works in the context of “An Aside,” you had to ask again why Dean was drawn to them. Was it simply because of shared concerns and because these artists, like her, use analog film? Or might an artist be drawn to a work because something about it is distant from her own practice? What really emerged when you watched these films was the gulf between them and Dean’s own. Graham and Lockhardt plan exactly where to place their cameras, how lighting will work, when to start and end the film. Dean could never have made works quite like these—her films, by contrast, are animated by uncontrollable events and even by accidents. If Dean’s interests and medium match Graham’s and Lockhardt’s, through this exhibition you could sense that her actual way of making work seems closer to that of a totally unexpected artist like Scheibitz, whose 2000 painting Heaven renders all the hesitancy and purpose that went into its making. Scrutinizing the surface, you can sense the changes that were made along the way, and visible pencil marks over paint suggest that further alterations were planned, if eventually abandoned. In her book, Dean articulates her curatorial process by writing that “nothing is more frightening than not knowing where you’re going, but then again nothing can be more satisfying than finding you’ve arrived somewhere without any clear idea of the route.” This statement could equally describe how Scheibitz makes paintings and how Dean makes films.

Certainly Dean’s purpose in curating “An Aside” wasn’t to prompt comparisons between her own work and Scheibitz’s, but it was nonetheless with this thought in mind that I sensed what is so important about an artist-curated show like this one. Though an artist might be drawn to another’s work because of influence or shared concerns, he or she can be attracted to it not because of a common theme, medium, or even appearance but because of a shared approach to making. By this I don’t mean technical process but how an artwork gets made, how intuition, planning, or accident come into play no matter what the material is. The sharing of sensibilities becomes visible most powerfully in the context of artist-curated shows. Who would have thought that in some respects Scheibitz is far closer to Dean than Graham is? Certainly not most art historians and curators—who normally group artists because of chronology, nationality, resemblance, medium, or theme. Some, meanwhile, privilege certain media, assuming that a painter could simply not be as interesting now as an artist using 16 mm film. This show indicated that lines of connection might be drawn between artists that defy such categories—lines that speak to the very heart of artmaking. I am not here advocating that historians or curators should attempt to mimic Dean’s process in their work, which would only parody and demean it. Nevertheless it is fruitful—and perhaps even necessary—to take up the show’s invitation to rethink the links between artists and works, to shake off the often-deadening effects of traditional categorizations in the name of alternative futures.

Mark Godfrey is a lecturer at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.