Thoughts on the Exhibition as a Ritual

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 4/ 2014: Exhibition as Medium

If every society has its rituals, the exhibition – and this is the root of its success – is the ritual of “productivist society” (Felix Guattari), a society that defines itself in terms of objects and that derives its identity and wealth from the production of material goods.1)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the crafting of exhibitions, so much so that next year I’m editing a book on the subject. Documents on Contemporary Crafts, no. 3: Crafting exhibitions 2) will feature contributions from central curators within the design, crafts and art field. It’s scheduled to be published in March 2015 and is a collaboration between Norwegian Crafts and Arnoldsche Art Publishers.

This issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine follows up questions raised in issue no. 2/ 2014: ‘Curating Crafts & Design’ by focusing on exhibition design and exhibition concepts. The exhibition (per se) is a recurring theme for me – one I believe it is urgent to discuss. No. 2 and this current issue of NCM therefore serve as part of an ongoing discussion on exhibition-making. Its aim is to contribute informed perspectives on the subject.

The exhibition is a modern ritual, says Dorothea Von Hantelmann in The Book of Books – one of three catalogues for the large-scale exhibition dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany (curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev). In many ways, dOCUMETA (13) made obvious what people in the crafts world were starting to suspect, namely, that materiality, skilled labour and objects in and of themselves were returning to the value system of contemporary art. These things were never really gone of course; they were merely forgotten. But a shift in focus – from conceptual and time-based art practices towards material-based art practices, tacit knowledge transferred to the object by the hand of the artist, and the celebration of the art object (although some of them may not have been considered art until they entered the exhibition) – seems to coincide with a renewed interest in modern values (as opposed to post-modern ones) and an almost omnipresent interest in craft.

«Crafts exhibitions in general seem to suffer from the idea that there is (and should be) no curation»

Nicolas Bourriaud, the French critic, curator and theorist I often return to when trying to analyze and shed light on tendencies within the realm of craft, suggests naming our contemporary culture ‘altermodern’ 3) – a modernity without the essentialism of modernity and without the multiculturalism of post-modernity (which Bourriaud thinks just reinstates essentialism through ethnicity)4). ‘Alter’ he derives from ‘alternative’, and he reconnects with what he sees as aspects in modernism that post-modernism was disconnected from, particularly ‘history as a coherent scenario’5). Furthermore, he takes recent history, especially globalization and the network culture of the internet world, into consideration and asserts that altermodernity is not merely a Western phenomenon, but a global modernism. Other thinkers suggest renaming the renewed interest in modernity ‘metamodernism’, ‘remodernism’, ‘super-modernism’ or ‘pseudo-modernism’. However you name or describe the ‘new’ modernity, it seems to be associated with contemporary society’s re-evaluation of autonomy, authenticity, material and handmade qualities (both in a pragmatic and in a romantic sense), and objects as such. In contemporary art we can see emerging artists working more with textiles, ceramics, and traditional art media such as painting and sculpture.

The pendulum seems to shift from ‘the spectacle’ (a term coined in 1967 by French Marxist Guy Debord to describe the consumer and media culture in post-war Europe and the US)6) to a more sober ‘reality’ (although reality is such a big word after being assumed ‘dead’ by postmodernist thinkers). French thinker Jean Baudrillard has described the post-war era as the orgy of modernity, pointing to the liberation of sexuality, politics and art that was spawned in the 1960s. He asks: ‘What do we do after the orgy?’ And he answers: ‘There is always the hope of a new seduction’.7)

«an exhibition isn’t only the sum of its artworks, but also the relationships created between them, the dramaturgy around them, and the discourse that frames them»

Elene Filipovic

These few inchoate thoughts on modernity and modernism are put forth here to shed light on the development of the exhibition as a ritual. I see a parallel between the development of the relationship between art and exhibitionary practice and the development of modernist discourse. It seems like exhibition-making in the last hundred years has gone from being an invisible trade of the museum curator administrating a collection or temporary exhibition, through being an creative act of the jet-setting freelance curator who redefines the exhibition formats in large-scale exhibitions, to being more of the profession of a caretaker or convener of art and artists.8) I’m tempted to say that the focus has gone from object to context to a more entwined relationship between the work (as object/ physical manifestation) and a given context. This is an over-simplification of course, but it illustrates issues of balance that have been explored throughout the last century, particularly between artworks and exhibitions, and between artists and curators.

This autumn, the need for a larger discussion on the contextual framework for exhibitions of craft objects became obvious with the exhibition Craft 2014, an annual, juried exhibition administrated by the Norwegian Association of Art and Crafts. The exhibition gained distinction through fostering a debate on the relationship between exhibition design and artworks. The exhibition room (walls and floor) was covered in tagging made by local graffiti artists. Most critics argued that the works has to fight with the exhibition design for viewers’ attention; they missed the experience of good artworks due to the tagging’s brutal expression.

Crafts exhibitions in general seem to suffer from the idea that there is (and should be) no curation, or that there is a particular way of curating and displaying that is almost neutral. Objects are displayed as singular phenomena with little or no relation to the other objects. Only to a minor degree is the exhibition discussed as an ‘object’ in its own right. Nor is there much discussion about what the exhibition per se is, or what it does.

With the exhibition design of Craft 2014, this discussion became urgent. The exhibition received far more media attention than it would normally have received, and most critics concluded that the good works in it suffered from being situated in a bad environment. In this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine, therefore, we probe this discussion with the feature article ‘Craft in Context: Inheritance and Environment’ written by Cecilie Tyri Holt, the editor of Kunsthåndverk, the Norwegian journal for crafts and design.

Holt follows the framework for discussion from issue 2/ 2014, ‘Curating Crafts & Design’, by reflecting on two craft exhibitions mounted earlier this year: Martino Gamper’s Design is a State of Mind at Serpentine (London), and the degree show for students earning a ‘Master of Visual Art’ at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) curated by Marianne Zamecznic. Both of these highly unusual exhibitions challenged the notion of exhibition-making within the crafts and design field (even though Gamper’s exhibition was situated in a venue for contemporary art). With these exhibitions in mind, Holt asks whether the field of crafts needs its own specialized curators; she broaches the question of whether making art exhibitions and craft exhibitions are highly different trades.

«materiality, skilled labour and objects in and of themselves were returning to the value system of contemporary art»

In addition to this article, I’ve interviewed the artist Tulla Elieson, who initiated an exhibition that uses a Norwegian factory for industrial porcelain as its springboard. Elieson invited 16 ceramic artists to join her in working in the factory and to use its equipment. The result is the exhibition Transformer, which treats the factory as a material, a theme and a framework. Also worth noting is that the show is on display in a former factory that is now used for art exhibitions. With Elieson, I discuss the curatorial framework for the exhibition and reflect on some of its implications.

The last article is written by Japanese jewellery artist Makiko Akiyama. She discusses Domain of the Material, an exhibition on international jewellery held at Create Space Tokyo featuring Nordic and Asian artists. Akiyama reflects on some of the artists and what they contribute to the exhibition, giving an example from a kind of venue that differs from the museum or the kunsthalle in that it is a commercial gallery.

According to Elene Filipovic, ‘an exhibition isn’t only the sum of its artworks, but also the relationships created between them, the dramaturgy around them, and the discourse that frames them.’9)

I hope these articles will contribute to that discourse and stimulate discussions surrounding craft exhibitions, how they are administrated, curated and designed.


1) Dorothea Von Hantelmann: Notes on the Exhibition in Documenta (13) – the Book of Books, catalog 1/3, p. 548-550, Hatje Cantz, 2012.

2) André Gali (ed.): Documents on Contemporary Crafts no 3: Crafting Exhibitions, Norwegian Crafts and Arnoldsche Art Publishers, forthcoming 2015. The book will include texts by Glenn Adamson (Museum of Arts and Design, New York), Maria Lind (Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm), Anne Britt Ylvisåker (KODE – Art Museums of Bergen) and Marianne Zamecznik (freelance curator and exhibition designer, Berlin).

3) Nicolas Bourriaud: The Radicant, New York: Lukas and Sternberg, New York, 2009

4) André Gali: A Synthetic Man in Altermodern Times, interview with Nicolas Bourriaud, Kunstforum 4/ 2012.

5) Nicolas Bourriaud interviewed by Tom Morton, Frieze issue 120 : visited on 10 December 2014

6) Guy Debord: La Sociétè du Spectacle, 1967, Paris: Buchet/Chastel

7) Sylvere Lotringer (ed.): Jean Baudrillard: The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays. New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT Press, 2005: p. 98-110.

8) When Bergen Assembly, a contemporary art triennial in Norway, announced the curators for the first edition in 2013, they named them not curators, but conveners. As the website states: ‘The conveners will establish an assembly with a research-based methodology, with art as a basis and with art as a result.’ http://en.2013.bergenassembly.... visited 08 December 2014

9) Elena Filipovic: What is an Exhibition? in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating (ed. Jens Hoffmann), p. 75, Mousse Publishing, Fiorucci Art Trust, 2013.