New York

“Exhibitions of an Exhibition”

Casey Kaplan

When Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist began organizing exhibitions in the early ’90s, his clear point of reference was the ’60s and ’70s, in terms of both content and his own persona, which drew on Harald Szeemann’s transformation of the curator into an auteur. Whatever one thought of shows like Obrist’s “Do it”—which self-consciously revived Fluxus-era instruction-based projects—he never hid his historical debts. By contrast, Obrist’s less rigorous followers—and they are many—thrive on the knowledge that current curatorial practice is a voracious and permissive beast and allows for greatly exaggerated claims to innovation and criticality. Jens Hoffmann, a Berlin-based Obrist protégé who started mounting exhibitions in the late ’90s, may be the most ambitious among them.

As summer group shows go, Hoffmann’s “Exhibitions of an Exhibition” was not terrible. On view were works by Meschac Gaba, Simryn Gill, collaborators Joseph Grigely and Amy Vogel, Roni Horn, Brian Jungen, Marepe, and Rosemarie Trockel—a varied assembly balanced between old hands and up-and-comers. But the curator’s traditional prerogative of choosing artists no longer seems to be enough of a challenge; cunning maneuvering must now accompany it. Hoffmann asked four other young curators to each write a short text (to be available at the gallery) explaining the makeup of his exhibition, thus supposedly offering not one but four “different” curated shows. Declaring that he wanted to avoid the average curator’s drive to “resolve” the relationships among the objects, Hoffmann passed along the responsibility to his guests and received the credit as über-curator (on this point, visit his other summer project, The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist, at e-flux.com). Hoffmann’s structure superficially resembles the team-curating principle seen in Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 and Francesco Bonami’s 2003 Venice Biennale, except here all the artists were picked by Hoffmann, who then delegated the task of explaining his motives. One thing was clear: Hoffmann would never give up the power of appointment.

Instead of acting as curators, Hoffmann’s quartet actually functioned more like visitors recording their impressions in a guest book or as rapid-response, on- the-spot critics (a format common to alternative spaces). One of the invitees, Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy of the Americas Society in New York, captured the emptiness at the core of Hoffmann’s practice. Her curatorial statement consisted of excerpts from Portuguese writer José Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, in which the inhabitants of a city lose their vision and find themselves in chaos. It was easy to read her contribution as a dig at Hoffmann’s emphasis on curatorial gamesmanship at the expense of the artworks.

Of the works themselves, perhaps the most telling was Gaba’s Game of Democracy, 2000, a series of six wood tables in the center of the gallery with puzzles in the form of national flags built into their surfaces. An alternate title in this context might have been Game of Curating. Rather than operate as a critique of the artwork-as-illustration model of curating, Hoffmann’s meta-exhibition only reinforced it. Such projects exist almost exclusively in the barren space of the press release; one hardly even needs to see the show, since in the end a gimmick has been made to carry all the weight.

Gregory Williams