curating outside the canon

It’s frightfully arrogant for me to analyse someone’s thoughts by interpreting a few words in a conversation, but I’m going to do it anyway. Sarah asked in the comments from the post below what i’d taken away from that conversation at Mona, and I think it’s this: The disgruntled visitor had been promised an art gallery, and she’d been given this perplexing, bewildering, confronting experience that didn’t have any of the usual ‘handles’ that one can grab to make a space safe. Of course, it wasn’t that the space was inaccessible to elderly people or people with disabilities; it was that the space was inaccessible to her.

Mark Fraser, Mona’s art director, on the gallery:

It is intellectually challenging. We are not following the standard museological pattern that is prevalent in the world – although that isn’t necessarily the challenge. The challenge is that we are not working with a standard white cube model gallery.

We are not pretending any form of objectivity. We are highly subjective in what we are doing. We are not didactic either – we are not saying we are teaching anything. We are dealing more with experience than what museums normally deal with. At times we can be quite dramatic, we emphasize the theatricality of space and emotion. It’s a far more personal space that we are creating and a space that our visitors can engage with on a more personal level.

I think it would be impossible to go to Mona and not be moved, unless perhaps you’re David Marr. It’s a unique space – carved into the ground, by the river. Most people arrive by ferry, and from the river the peninsula looks more like an island. It has vast, sandstone walls, and meanders through endless corridors and deviating paths. The art is weird, fantastic, discombobulating and overwhelming.

It’s hard to shake the feeling, as a visitor, of being part of a giant simulation activity. Scott wrote a bit about this. The normal rules of gallery viewing can’t apply – which is perhaps what breaks the critics’ heads. For example, it’s impossible to avoid the 150 plaster casts of vaginas. They line almost an entire wall of the gallery, and sit at eye level. Are you meant to look at each of them in turn, or is that too obvious? How does one inform your fellow art-gazer that you’re looking at them purely from an aesthetic wonder at the diversity of human form, rather than some pornographic titillation – a self-deprecating laugh, perhaps, which too easily turns into a nervous giggle… Perhaps the artwork shows, as Scott suggests, that there are a thousand different normal’s. If that’s the case, it opens up the possibility that whatever response we have to it is normal too.

[This time I laughed out loud at the Madonna wall, and teared up again while watching the rawness of Marina Abramovic’s videos… and just wanted to curl up in the darkness of the Morgue…]

I watched Artscape’s story about the gallery again on Friday when I got home. I was amused by the professional art critics interviewed on the program, who were in turn bemused by the gallery. They were quite obviously trying hard not to be impressed: ‘It doesn’t present a coherent story,’ said one critic. We can safely assume that David Walsh intended just the opposite. Another said that the true test would be the public’s response, and as the camera panned to the public, they were looking way more relaxed and delighted than what the critics were. The gallery’s meant to confuse, perplex, bewilder, and it seems to do that best to art experts. It’s designed to be dis-integrating and incoherent. There are no signs about where to enter, or which important art work lies where. You have to work hard to be there. If you try to make sense of it, it simply becomes more inaccessible. Just like life perhaps.

It feels a bit disingenuous to draw parallels between this and what alt worship does in the church, but i keep tripping over them. For the art critic, whose noble intention is to hold the purity of art [because, no doubt, art has a unique way of intriguing, delighting and transforming them], Mona is a question mark to all the rules that have made that job possible. Putting this amount of art into the hands of someone who’s a bit mad [who dared to get wealthy from gambling, as every story about him seems to emphasise], who then transfers the power of making sense of it all to the viewer, is ridiculously risky. People may well go away with a distorted meaning. They might go away with a different story to that which the artist intended. They might get it wrong.

It’s all too familiar…

And yet, it’s impossible to walk around Mona without responding in some way. It would be my ultimate dream to create a space that moves people in the complicated, multiple ways that this one does. Mona legitimates the ordinary person’s response to the extraordinary. It validates everyone who has left a gallery wanting to lose themselves in the art, but unable to shake the anxiety that goes with wondering whether you’ve got it right. It says ‘this is your space’ in a way that should make every formal art gallery jealous. And it takes the meaning making away from those who have clasped the power for too long.

From Paul O’Neill’s interview with Okwui Enwezor in Curating Subjects:

PO’N: In an interview with Carol Becker for Art Journal in 2002, you said that you wanted to “make distinctions between curating within the canon and curating within culture.” What are these distinctions and how were they explored in your projects ?
OE: I have always tried to work outside of the canon and to do it within culture. This is not to say that the canon is bad but the canon already has a highly circumscribed notion of what artistic practice could be. I think this is already embedded within a very large historical determination that is in many ways very much set. It is un-giving. I am really interested in curating within culture, even when I am drawing from the canon in order to unsettle the kind of methodological issues that have become so situated in one place.
To curate within culture is to take a space of culture in the present as an open place of working and that means that you have a greater mobility in terms of bringing in procedures of making art that may not yet have a place in the broader context of contemporary art.

I’m so interested in finding the kinds of spaces where it becomes possible for transformation to occur. What drew me first to the quote above is that it echoes just a little of what we’re trying to do when we curate spaces in the basement or prison – to curate within culture, not within canon; to let go of the canon when it no longer helps us discover the art. I think Mona does the same [though obviously with literally a million times more than the budget, knowledge and expertise that we have!]. There’ll be people that hate it, and find it alienating – which is why it’s an alternative, not the mainstream – and there’ll be people who find a home in this that they never once imagined might exist.

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