New Modes of Curating and Mediating Craft

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 2/ 2014: Curating Crafts & Design

‘The leading questions [in many discussions on contemporary art] have been how ideas are manifested spatially, negotiated contextually and mediated publicly.’[i]

On Friday, 6 June 2014, the Visual Arts department at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) opened the graduation show for its Master Degree students. At KHiO, the concept of ‘visual arts’ differs from ‘fine art’ in terms of approaches to material. While fine art is said to start from a concept, to disregard disciplinary boundaries and employ any material that suits the concept, visual arts are described as material-based art practices. The starting point for this latter type of work is thus the artist’s engagement with a material, be it textile, metal, ceramics or a printing template. In terms of the artistic approaches and discourses the students are engaged with, the fine art graduation show that opened a few weeks earlier doesn’t differ all that much from the visual art show. But while the fine art show is held in the established gallery space called Kunstnernes Hus and looks more or less like a normal group show that you could encounter in any gallery, the visual arts students are showing what curator Marianne Zamecznik has called ‘avatars’ of their real graduation shows which they presented earlier this spring.

You can read what Zamecznik means by ‘avatar’ in the introductory text to the exhibitions catalogue, but it is also translated and published in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine. Here I will make due with giving a brief explanation of the process leading up to this graduate exhibition. At the beginning of the 2013/14 school year, Zamecznik asked the students to picture what their most apt graduation show would look like: what would serve their project the most in terms of display? She then asked them to realize that show. The students made their individual projects during the course of the school year and had the option of either just creating a model for how to exhibit and mediate it, or to actually follow through and present the work to the public. They did not need to do a white cube exhibition. One student presented a battle rap at the avant-garde jazz bar Blå, another collaborated with a church, asking the priest to discuss her works in a sermon. A third chose to curate two shows – one in her vacated apartment, the other in a designer shop. And so on.

What is on display in the graduation show that opened Friday, 6 June, is thus not the original projects, but a sort of retelling of the projects. These retellings or representations are what Zamecznik has called ‘avatars’.

«through the concept of the avatar, the exhibition addresses complex questions about representation, display and the taxonomy of contemporary craft»

The word avatar is perhaps best known from the Hollywood movie Avatar (2009). In it, a human soldier goes to another planet and assumes the shape of an alien being as a means to infiltrate that species. Although the word has lately been used to refer to a virtual world – meaning a virtual representation of a real person – this stands in contrast to the word’s more originary meaning. In Sanskrit, an avatāra is a manifestation of a Hindu deity who has descended to earth, becoming incarnate in either human or animal form.

The exhibition seems to correspond to both meanings: as a concept that comes to life or is materialized (parallel to the deity becoming earthly), and as a reality that becomes conceptual/ virtual through its representation. Any way you choose to look at it, through the concept of the avatar, the exhibition addresses complex questions about representation, display and the taxonomy of contemporary craft.

To tell a story

Seeing and reading about this exhibition have stimulated my thoughts on curating. What is it that makes a good show? Why are some shows dazzling, even if they contain mediocre works, and some shows so boring, even if they contain great works? How can an art work be presented in a way that does justice to it at the same time as offering a new, or at least a memorable, experience of the work?

During a visit to London and Collect – The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects – in May this year, I took the time to see some other exhibitions as well. I went with colleagues to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain and The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014. Afterwards we strolled up to the Serpentine Galleries to see Martino Gambers’ exhibition Design Is a State of Mind.

I didn’t really have great expectations for the William Kent-exhibition. I supposed it might be a boring show about the works of the leading architect and designer of early Georgian Britain; I probably assumed it would be a pedagogical and schematic presentation. Indeed it was, to a certain degree. But it was not all boring in its display! It wasn’t a dazzling show, it didn’t leave me breathless, it wasn’t seductive, but it was ‘crafted well’, and it told a story in an enjoyable, educative and yet poetic way.  

The fashion-exhibition, however, was a big disappointment; a lot of great dresses, some amusing suits, but really not much glamour in the way they were displayed. People were queuing up and following a strict route to see dresses that where worn in quite ordinary ways by mannequins. What a drag! Or maybe it was a clever curatorial approach that I just didn’t get. Maybe the curator thought ‘let’s remove anything that’s remotely fun about fashion and just show the dresses. That will blow the public’s mind!’

«The fashion-exhibition was a big disappointment; a lot of great dresses, some amusing suits, but really not much glamour in the way they were displayed»

Well it didn’t blow my mind. I just got restless. Since a major part of the fashion industry is the ongoing spectacle of parties, models, pop and film stars and glossy glamorous pictures in magazines, an exhibition about fashion could easily be entertaining and at the same time an engaging story about a period in time, a sensibility and how fashion has shaped our lives and identities. It could be a clever critique of contemporary society and still be fun to visit. This show was somehow impersonal in a bureaucratic way, but it also seemed to be a kind of statement from the industry itself: ‘We had success, now were struggling, please help us.’ What I would have loved to see was a strong curatorial ‘author’ with a significant, exciting and different story to tell.

Sensibility for display

I went to the Serptentine Galleries with no prior knowledge of what or who was on display. Perhaps this ignorance made the show curated by Martino Gamber seem all the more breathtaking. It works on so many levels, and there is a fruitful interplay between the details and the show as a whole.  

What Gamber did, as he told Wallpaper[ii], was simply to show ‘interesting things collected by interesting people on interesting shelves’. He selected many different shelves, often one-offs, from designers such as Franco Albini, Ettore Sottsass, Ponti, Andrea Branzi, Michele De Lucchi and Vico Magistretti, Charlotte Perriand, Alvar Aalto for Artek, Vitsoe and Ercol. He also included some of his own shelves and a few from Ikea. On the shelves he put collections of objects borrowed from ‘friends, friends of friends, tutors and students’ – people who Gamber knew were ‘inveterate hoarders of inspirational objects’.[iii] His efforts result is an amazing aesthetic experience of each collection of objects. The exhibition shows a designer’s sensibility for display, and this is something that is often lacking in exhibitions of fine art and crafts. Gamber causes the exhibition itself to become a work of art – or maybe we should say craft, since it is ‘crafted’ so well. It’s personal. It has a kind of narrative structure the audience can walk through – from shelf to shelf, from collection to collection. The shelves are interesting in themselves, but they’re only really fulfilled by the items stored there, and then the juxtaposition of the shelves with other shelves offers continuously new ways of moving about the exhibition.

«What I would have loved to see was a strong curatorial ‘author’ with a significant, exciting and different story to tell»

Team efforts

As my examples indicate, curating is not a fixed practice or occupation, but one that is fluid and dependent on the exhibition framework. What kind of exhibition is it – a group show or a solo show? Does it have commissioned works, old works, or both? In what kind of institution is the exhibition mounted? Is it a museum, a non-profit gallery or a public art project? And what is the purpose of the show?

Curating is obviously a selection process entailing the inclusion and exclusion of objects. The ideal may be for a curator to be autonomous, choosing freely from all the objects and art works in the world, but it goes without saying that he or she must also take into consideration the producer and commissioner of the show, whether they be an art institution or some other person or organization. Finally, the curator must take the audience into consideration – for whom is the show made?

For large-scale exhibitions like the Yokohama Triennial, the Moscow Biennale or Documenta, there is often a team of curators who collaborate in developing a common concept. Alternatively, they may work individually yet under the aegis of the group. For the exhibition Beyond G(l)aze, which recently opened on 24 May at Suzhou Jinji Lake Art Museum in China, the four curators worked as a team. (Beyond G(l)aze is produced by Norwegian Crafts and features works by contemporary Norwegian and Chinese ceramic artists. Later in the year it will travel to KODE in Bergen where it will re-open on 23 January 2015.)

This exhibition offers interesting perspectives on the curator’s role, a theme which its four curators – Feng Boyi and Wang Dong from China, and Heidi Bjørgan and Bjørn Inge Follevaag from Norway – discuss in the text Dialogue Beyond G(l)aze, published both in the exhibition catalogue and here in Norwegian Crafts Magazine.

It is our hope that these articles on curating can spark a discussion on how crafts and design exhibitions come to life – from idea to display – and that the perspectives presented here can inspire curators as they shape exhibitions, in particular when considering display.

[i] Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy (2013). What About Collecting?, in Jens Hoffmann (ed.) Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, Milan: Mousse Publishing, p. 58.


[iii] Ibid.