Art Theorist Terry Smith on His New Tome, "Thinking Contemporary Curating"

Art Theorist Terry Smith on His New Tome, "Thinking Contemporary Curating"
Terry Smith
(John Williamson)

In October, Independent Curators International will publish Terry Smith’s Thinking Contemporary Curating, the first book in a new series about current curatorial perspectives. Smith and ICI are launching the book with a reading from it on September 18 at New York University. Orit Gat talked to him about what makes curators—and the way they think—so different from art historians and critics.

You define yourself as an art historian and as a critic. You mention specifically in the text that you curated very few exhibitions, so what is your stake in writing this book?

To give something back to curators. We all owe them a huge debt. When you’re an art historian, you tend to search museum installations and exhibitions for fresh art historical facts, for something that will help you interpret more deeply, or at least differently, a school of art or the work of an artist over a whole career. If you’re an art critic, you try to write about your response to the works in the exhibition, one by one or one compared to others, with a focus on the artist or a kind of art. But art critics, art historians, the general public, and even artists don’t pay sufficient attention to the curatorial thought behind exhibitions. They tend to assume that it is the same kind of thinking that they do. Thinking Contemporary Curating tries to distinguish what is distinctive about how curators think and what they do, yet also identify what they share with other artworld actors. A couple of recent changes have made this juggling act rather more complex. One is that curators, since Harald Szeemann, Walter Hopps, and others, have become more active, more public thinkers…and call themselves “exhibition makers.” They overtly engage viewers with their thinking about art, and particularly about how art relates to the world—which is something that art itself has done much more since the 1960s and 1970s. Also, curators have become more like artists in the ways they present an exhibition–it then becomes, in a sense, an artwork. At the same time, certain artists are making works of art that are more like exhibitions, and more and more are taking control of exhibiting their own art. Many of the mini-exhibitions that comprise dOCUMENTA (13), for example, were made by the artists. There is a very interesting convergence going on here.

So could we start talking about artists in terms of the curatorial thinking you describe? I’d take for example the practice of someone like Mark Dion whose thinking is about the practice of presentation.

That’s a good example: there’s a wonderful piece by him at dOCUMENTA (13), in the Ottoneum, the natural history museum. He has created a hexagonal chamber, beautifully finished in oak with inlaid signs representing each of the continents. Inside, bookshelves house the “wood library.” Begun in the late eighteenth century, it consists of  “books” for each known type of tree. These “books” are actually wooden boxes, with bark covers and spines, which contain replicas of the life cycle of a particular tree. The collection consisted mainly of European trees, so Dion adds six news books: one from each of the five missing continents, plus oak, in homage to Joseph Beuys’s famous project, the planting of 7,000 oak trees in Kassel between 1982 and 1987. Dion’s work is about encyclopedic memory and historical time. In its form, it’s a display within a museum, and also a mini-exhibition within a very large exhibition.

How would you describe curatorial thought as different from other forms of thinking about art, like that of artists?

We’ve got an enormous tradition of artists reflecting on their practice—and often doing so very systematically. If you look at the documents of the history of art, particularly before the twentieth century, and if you include the East and elsewhere outside Europe, they’re mostly statements by artists about the practice of making art and the history of doing so. What I propose in the book is that curators think in and through the making of exhibitions: they look at works of art in terms of their potential exhibition value, they visualize exhibitions beforehand, imagine pathways through them, change things during the installation, and learn from the finalized exhibition. Really, that’s a simple step, by analogy, from saying artists think through the process of making work. For me, artists do think specifically about the mediums or situations they work in, always learning from what the process is telling them about itself as they work through it. They, too, prefigure what it might be like to see this work when it is done, and imagine how it will stand up to other relevant works. Every artist I know pays careful attention to predecessors who have faced similar problems and to the contexts in which they did so. Artists do not necessarily envisage their works in exhibitions, although they may, but if so, it will be after having worked through mediums, situations, and contexts. Curators begin at this point: they are the first to really make artworks public.

In one of the book’s chapters you compare criticism, art historical, and curatorial thinking. I was wondering about the many shifts between them. There seems to be a constant interdisciplinary flirt between these different practices. You think about the distinct aspects of, say, curating a collection or curating an institution, but then the same people also curate biennials.

And the same people, perhaps ten years earlier, were curating a contemporary art space, or a few years before that, were creating one, or were in an artists’ collective, or something like that. That blurring exists. But as you can tell from the book, I’m really against blurring. I’m for articulating the friction between differences. That’s where things really move. That’s where many great exhibitions get a lot of their force. For example, I devote a whole chapter in the book to feminist exhibitions, and shows of work from Africa, Central Europe, and South America since the 1990s—all of which really are adding in forgotten or repressed histories, showing contemporaneous currents in past art, and asking about how they might be relevant today. That’s a deep and rich task that needs to continue. As well, you’ve got a whole trajectory that goes back to the 1970s moment where conceptual art took over the practice of criticism, theory, and curating for a while, and then institutional critique became a form of art practice. There’s a chapter in the book devoted to the interaction between artists as curators and curators as artists, which to me is a very interesting tension. It’s fair enough to try and discover the autonomous nature of curatorial thought, as Hans Ulrich Obrist strives to do in his interviews with curators, and by being interviewed himself, in the hope that that will somehow give us the history that we need. The paradox is that the very important, very contemporary sense that curatorial thinking should be open to whatever might be inspiring to it, actually stems from the interactions between artists and curators since the 1970s. This current is very strong and is still playing itself out.

Is that also the difference between curatorial thought and curatorial practice? The book doesn’t seem to mention the nuts and bolts of curating. You do, however, pick up on a number of current ideas about curating: the educational turn, the curatorial (as Maria Lind describes it, for example), the biennial crisis—what is the place of these in your annals of curatorial thought and practice?

My focus is on curatorial thought, on thinking within the practice of curating, not in substituting one for the other. In bringing up these ideas I also want to register a shift in the institutional setting for art, because don’t forget that under all of what we’re talking about is an actual historical shift, an expansion of the so-called exhibitionary complex. The idea of the curatorial, which is a fine idea, goes very much in parallel with the way art itself started expanding in the 1960s and ’70s to include theoretical work and so on and so forth. But the expansion of curating now has what I call “infrastructural activism” as its major driver. Whenever we think about curating it is hard to get beyond the model that anchors it in museums, and then adds on the paracuratorial. I’m sure Maria Lind would agree that things have moved beyond where they were in 2000 when she articulated that idea, to a point where a whole range of activism and connectivity and connecting and creating things is where it is at right now. Museums need this energy more than it needs museums. Of course, once those things become more articulated—in a certain way more institutionalized—there will be other options that will appear and keep expanding the practice. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that you’ve got all these amazing ideas out there, but surprisingly little articulation by curators of where they come from, how they connect, or what they might add up to.

So your book gives a certain historicizing stamp to these contemporary discourses. How useful do you think it will be in 15 years or so? You’re talking about a lot of hot topics.

This is the challenge of writing about contemporary art in general. It’s also, actually, the fun part. It’s very important to be open to these fragments of contemporary curatorial practice and thought. They haven’t come together yet, but they’re indicators of where people are going. It’s really wrong to dismiss them as half-thoughts. Contemporary life requires us to be sensitive not only to the Babel of the present, but also to that which flows through the present, shifting it and shaping it. Where did these forces come from, what baggage do they carry, what kinds of futures do they envisage–for whom, when, how, and why? In the book, I use the metaphor of being in the river of time, within which we discern various currents, some dominating, some in decline, yet we can also see that there are lots of other forces that are not yet strong enough to be currents, but they may well be soon. We don’t quite know which ones, but we know that we’re swimming in them, and between them, already.

A version of this interview will be published in the October issue of Modern Painters magazine.