A visit to MIRRORCITY makes Ann Jones reflect on the way curatorial decisions affect the way we see art.
I like art, regular readers will probably have sussed that by now. I don’t like all art, obviously, that would be weird and deeply uncritical, but I’m fundamentally well predisposed towards it so I’ll often find something to like even when I have reservations about a work or how it sits in an exhibition. I suppose it’s never just about the art but every now and then, especially when struggling to figure out quite what’s bugging me about an exhibition, I realise quite how important the role of the curator has become.
When I first heard about MIRRORCITY at the Hayward Gallery (until last week, but if you wanted to see it you probably did and I doubt this post would persuade you if you were wavering), I was quite excited about it. The exhibition website describes it as exploring ‘the effect the digital revolution has had on our experiences’. So far, so good. I like art and I’m interested in the digital – here I am on the internet, after all – put the two together and I’m there.
Paying a bit more attention to the publicity though, the show is described in slightly different terms as MIRRORCITY: London artists on fiction and reality which immediately has me asking two questions. Firstly, where’s the digital gone from that? That’s not to say that ‘fiction and reality’ isn’t interesting to me, it is – indeed that phrase would neatly describe one of my favourite exhibitions of last year: Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction at, of all places, the Science Museum (long since finished or I’d be suggesting that if you possibly could you should stop reading this and just go) – but in terms of the digital it’s perhaps the way in which the two become fused together almost to the point where they cease to be useful concepts that’s more interesting.
Secondly, and I think in the end it’s this that really doesn’t work for me, why London? By its very nature the digital realm is global; why not use that? Why not explore the global dialogues that become not only possible but commonplace in the digital age? I can see that arbitrarily localising it might be interesting and I guess I could also see a case for using London as the world in microcosm but nonetheless it bugged me from the start and, despite lots of great work, the exhibition never really won me round.
Thinking about it, both while I was in the gallery and in the days that followed, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was that was bothering me. I rather love the Hayward Gallery as a space and, more often than not, like the exhibitions I see there and MIRRORCITY included work both by some of my favourite artists (Susan Hiller, for instance, and Lindsay Seers) and by others whose work I’d like to know better (despite liking what I’ve seen, I keep missing things by Laure Prouvost). There were quite a lot of works here I’d have happily have gone out of my way to see and have given a lot of time to if I’d encountered them in, say, a solo show or perhaps a small group show in a commercial gallery or artist-run space but put them all together, throw in a few more that I’m not crazy about and, it seems, you lose me.
In part, perhaps, it’s about expectation. Thinking back, though I already knew a fair bit about her work, what really got me excited about Susan Hiller’s work was seeing Witness without knowing anything about it in advance at the insistence of a friend who’d just seen it and been completely bowled over by it. I’m pretty sure I first saw work by Lindsay Seers at an open studios which I’d visited to see a friend’s work and her new live/work space. Though very different situations, the surprise encounter with amazing work may have contributed to the intensity of my response. But it can’t be just that.
My overwhelming feeling after seeing MIRRORCITY was that it was less than the sum of its parts and that set me thinking about the degree to which the success of an exhibition – particularly in the case of large, thematic group shows like this – comes down to the curatorial decisions rather than the quality of the art and that while it’d be hard to make a great exhibition from bad art it must be all too easy to make a mediocre show from good art.
Trying to make sense of MIRRORCITY, I go back to the publicity material. The leaflet sets the scene:
‘MIRRORCITY shows recent work and new commissions by key emerging and established artists working in London today, who seek to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living and working in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age.
‘Building on a history in which artists have been at the forefront of investigating the effect of broad social, political and technological changes on human experiences, this exhibition asks: ‘what is our current experience of reality?’
‘In addition, the engagement, innovation and complexity of the works selected for MIRRORCITY directly or indirectly reflect the multi-faceted character of London itself.’
So that’s cleared that up then. Given that the work in the show ranges from drawing, painting and sculpture to sound, moving image and performance taking in collage, text and photography en route, this is certainly not an exhibition of digital works. Nor does all the work address the digital age in any significant way. In a way, perhaps that’s the point. The closest the exhibition comes to making sense is as an ever changing assault on the senses; is the lack of curatorial clarity a deliberate strategy to confuse?
The artists are all London-based, but so what? It doesn’t, to me at least, seem particularly relevant either to the work or to the dialogue between works created by their arrangement in the space. The exhibition might ask ‘what is our current experience of reality?’ but I’m not convinced it’s come anywhere close to finding an answer. We already know that the digital age is a confusing one and that short attention spans are the order of the day. By offering up a new reality with every work the task of asking any meaningful questions and expecting answers becomes an impossible one. Apart from the concrete brutalism of the building, one of the things I like most about the Hayward Gallery is the way the spaces on the lower floors flow into one another so that some works can be seen for a second time from the ramp and staircases. But here each work seems trapped in its own space; the exhibition, like the voices in Susan Hiller’s Witness (some of which feature in her piece here), is a myriad of single narratives rather than a conversation.
An unexpected high point for me was a series of drawings by Emma McNally enclosed in a space within a space and seeming to make sense of some indefinable space; here fiction, reality, order and chaos seem to coexist happily. Effectively mapping fictional spaces these works do, in a quiet, contemplative way, what the exhibition as a whole seems to be setting out to achieve; here, at least, the notion of a multi-faceted space feels relevant. And right at the end of the exhibition, in John Stezaker’s collages disparate realities come together to make exquisitely mismatched sense. In a way though, though clearly some of the best work in the exhibition, here Stezaker’s work serves as a reminder that it takes time and a great deal of thought to make sense of the things.
So, apart from back out in the cold on the Southbank, where does that leave us? I guess the issue I’ve been pondering recently, and have come back to with more focus since seeing MIRRORCITY, is the role of the curator in making exhibitions and where the balance of creativity lies between artist and curator.
The role of the curator as a creative practitioner is relatively new, driven perhaps by the proliferation of art fairs and biennials that have come to characterise the art world in the last couple of decades and by the establishment of courses in curating contemporary art. Curators are no longer focussed on making historical sense of art but in contextualising contemporary practice as it is made; with each exhibition the context of a particular artist’s work might seem to shift, not according to the artist’s own thinking but as a result of a kind of curatorial quicksand.
In a way, of course, there’s a lot that’s exciting about curation as a creative practice in its own right for artists as well as for curators and audiences. Seeing familiar work in a new context can let us look at it with fresh eyes, seeing different connections and allowing new meanings to emerge. For an artist, once the work is out there in the gallery space, it’s on its own to be interpreted by those who see it in whatever way they choose. Context can help – be it the location, space, labelling, catalogue essays, other works in the show or whatever – and in no small measure that context comes not from the artist but from the curator. In a sense then, exhibitions are creative partnerships – a term that alarms me somewhat and makes me think of funding applications rather than making art – in which the balance of power is unlikely to favour the artist. Clearly I’m biased, but I can’t see that as a good thing.