This is an interview done by Christine Lee to curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath which in its wrongness exposes the blurry boundaries between curators and artists, on one hand, and between the exhibition of art and interior design (or a theatrical staging of the space where the artistic fruition occurs). It does not come as a surprise that Bardaouil comes from theatre and both of them land in art history rather late and, sort of, in a rush in order to establish themselves as artists by proxy. My comments at the end of each answer.
TITLE: CURATING AS AN ART FORM -THE ART-REORIENTED INTERVIEW
Christine Lee: Bardaouil and Fellrath are known for their groundbreaking approach to curating exhibitions that re-examine the classification system in art through creative new ways of understanding and connecting artworks. They have curated exhibitions internationally, including “Tea with Nefertiti” (2013) and Mona Hatoum’s “Turbulence” (2014) at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar; “Songs of Loss and Songs of Love: Oum Kulthoum and Lee Nan-Young” (2014) at Gwangju Museum in Korea; Akram Zaatari at the Lebanese Pavilion (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale; and the comprehensive retrospective “Paul Guiragossian: The Human Condition” at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
You have very diverse cultural and academic backgrounds. Could you talk a bit about your respective backgrounds and what inspired you to become a curator?
Sam Bardaouil (SB): I was born in Lebanon during the civil war. For the first fifteen years of my life, I experienced the war on a daily basis. This experience obviously shapes who you are, and gives you a certain insistence on wanting to contribute to change or positivity in the world. I’ve always thought of the arts as a way to express oneself, a way to better understand the world and open up certain questions. I studied art history and theatre, and worked in theatre for a while as a director, writer and performer. I became more immersed in art history, art criticism and teaching art at university. My theatre background was very informative in helping me understand how to approach exhibition-making in a spatial kind of way.
I was teaching at several universities prior to teaching at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. Till and I met, and we discussed several ideas and projects and worked on a few exhibitions together in 2008 and 2009. We realised that there was something very interesting about our different backgrounds. We decided to start working independently and founded Art Reoriented in order to have the freedom to work without being affiliated or constrained by one institution.
My comment: So to begin with, Bardaouil asks us to understand that his vocation is not only a vocation but also a humanitarian act of peace. A bit grandiose, if you ask me but anyway, let’s carry on…
Till Fellrath (TF): I was born in Geneva, I went to school in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. My background is in Economics, and I taught economics in London and then in Singapore, and was in Singapore management. So, I have quite a teaching background. I was also a consultant at the time for nonprofit organisations and museums. Personally, art was always my passion, and I always loved going to museums and reading everything about it. In 2004, I took a gap year and went to Parson’s School of Arts. I then started working in the art field full-time, began making exhibitions, ran a museum in Chelsea, and then met Sam and decided to work with him on curating exhibitions.
Actually, coming to the point we are at right now, curating is not something that one can really study or should really study. I think curation is such a complex field that it’s very important to be able to draw from other disciplines. Whether it’s economics or politics, or you’ve travelled, you’ve lived and experienced things and have seen a lot of art, and so on. I think it’s a blurry kind of a profession that doesn’t really have a particular track to study it. I think there’s also curatorial talent, and there are so many things that you have to incorporate in order to understand the art and the artists. I think it’s quite good to come from different disciplines and merge them.
Art Reoriented was formed in 2009. Has your curatorial vision changed over the years?
TF: I’m hoping that every project that we do builds on the previous ones, so in a sense, the way of putting the exhibitions together every time gets more complex, more comprehensive and more informed because you don’t curate 100 shows a year. It takes so much time to do it. Every time you are going through an exercise of putting a large group show together, you really grow a lot. You give it your best. You give everything you have, all your ideas, everything that you’ve seen comes together. Inevitably, the more you do it, it becomes more comprehensive, and the arguments become more developed over time.
My comment: To live is to learn, I guess. Anyway, let’s carry on…
SB: I think more than how your vision changes or grows, it’s about how you become more articulate in making your vision easily communicable and accessible to the audience. It’s like any other art form in a sense. We believe that curation is an art form in storytelling. As you grow in your field and grow in your practice, your vocabulary expands, your terminology expands, and so does your ability to construct sentences. I’m using the metaphor of storytelling to work with narratives, to work with dialogue, to work with characters. If you think of artworks and artists as the tools through which you construct certain narratives, you develop the sensitivity of maintaining the integrity of the identity of those tools. Not by coercing the artists or artworks into narratives, since this takes away from what the individual intended through their works, but by building on that and developing a more complex narrative where both the individual and also the collective questions you are trying to raise or story you are trying to tell are clearly evident.
My comment: This is very important to understand their view of art and curating art because, as it seems, artists, according to them, are the single unities that are articulated in the form of a story by those story tellers called ‘curators’. Therefore, there is something syntactical in the way curating operates. In other words, the autonomous work of art does not make sense by itself without the connective eye of the curator. There is no artist without a curator? How did Velazquez and Manet manage then?
TF: We are independent curators, and we are lucky enough to be able to do projects all over the world. We are seeing roughly about 200 shows a year, whether Biennales, whether it’s large museum shows, so I think we are in a very unique and special position. We have a pretty good overview of what the scope of curatorial practice is, and what is out there – what we like and what we don’t like. So, I think we are developing more and more clearly what we advocate, and what we stand for. What Sam is saying is that the vision was always there but we feel more strongly about it – to really give artists a true platform for their own sake, to really go back to the basics, that an artist has a vision and has a mission and often gets contrived by political images, by cultural stereotypes, by art history classifications. Whether that’s over time, centuries, I think it’s important to look at the artist’s work, what that stands for, then go broader rather than go the other way around which is often the case.
My comment: This is extremely confusing because it is as if the curator’s job is to strip the artist off its specificity (or, in TF’s words, the ‘cultural stereotypes’) in order to make it more understanble or (worryingly) ‘universal’. Are we talking about making something that makes sense in a particular context, harmless or bland in order to make it easily understood for a wider (more conservative, less reflective and airport oriented) audience? What is the role of the curator then? It might be a far more conservative one than we thought, after all.
It sounds like there’s a lot of research involved in curating your exhibitions.
TF: Absolutely, there’s no way around that. I think curation is sort of becoming a fashion – and I really don’t understand the fascination for so many people to become curators – it’s really hard work and not particularly well paid. It’s also really complicated and no matter how good the show is, a tonne of people are going to be upset with you because you didn’t put this and that and whatever. It’s really quite tricky and it takes a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of seeing art, and that is simply not something you can get around. You really need to develop over years.
SB: I think it’s also very important because we tend to see it as two things. First, it’s important to do research because it offers you the context or the framework. So, whatever exhibition you are showing exists in temporal, regional, artistic, art historical, geographical, political, theoretical, philosophical contexts – and this is where the research comes in. The other thing about research is negative – I think when you are putting art in an exhibition, there are so many layers and so many positions, and what we don’t necessarily like to do is when you see a show, and there is only one layer. You go to see the show, and that’s it. I think the more research you do, the more layers you can create. There’s the first layer which is what you see at first sight, then, you discover more when you start looking at more juxtaposed works and reading some of the texts, and then you realise that there are so many layers with which you can appreciate it and understand what you are looking at. That is very important, and it takes a lot of time and work.
TF: To give you an example, there was a relatively small show we did at the Alexander Gray gallery in New York on the Korean Dansaekhwa movement – the artists that work in the monochrome style. There were 20 artworks on view. To understand these artists, you simply had to go to where the artists were working and talk to them and their families. We had friends who we worked with to access primary literature, and we went to a lot of these artists’ studios or estates. If you don’t see the works, and you don’t understand the struggle of the people, economically, politically, and the conditions in which they were working in at the time, you don’t understand the socio-economic context. And then if you don’t actually see those canvases and understand the sort of violence with which artists were treating the canvases and constructing these abstract works, you are simply missing the point of how they were done and why they were done. You just see it as some sort of American abstract expressionism or something when it really had nothing to do with that whatsoever. There isn’t the slightest bit of formalistic or other connection really. I think you end up misreading these from some sort of a perspective of some Asian zen, when it has nothing to do with it. It’s quite the opposite of that.
My comment: Is that so? So is the role of the curator to inform me in which conditions the work of art was done. It is as if the curator’s place is that of a registrar that documents the conditions of creation of a unique moment to make it truly understandable. The problem with that is that this also moves the source of artistic value to the curator as ‘invaluable’ informant. I personally think that a work of art should speak for itself and the information needed to understand it must comes from an awareness of art history but not of the specific particularities of the village where the artist lives. That is not art. That is National Geographic tourism.
Do you feel that your curatorial approach is very different from what is currently happening internationally?
TF: I would say, yes. I think we are probably a minority in terms of doing it so vigilantly. It’s hard to criticise other people, and it’s hard to summarise what people are doing globally since there are a lot of museums. But I do think that curating has become a fashion where people easily put up a few things and have extremely complicated concepts in there which don’t really come through in an exhibition or when they write about something. I think we are probably more cautious, and we take more time before we put something together.
The second thing that we like doing that we don’t often see is clarity. You really want to have a clear visual walk-through so you actually feel something, and it’s a beautiful show, and it’s clear, especially in larger exhibitions. Why you are where you are in the narrative so you don’t lose yourself in the show, so you always understand what’s going on. You are being taken on a journey, and you leave with a lot of questions, which is great. You feel somehow enriched when leaving the show rather than feeling like you were bombarded with objects.
My comment: Bardaouil talks about ‘being taken on a journey’ as the core of the experience of exhibition viewing. The problem with this is that the art show becomes an experience that is not far from the theme park or from sheer tourism. I wonder how those questions he is referring to work? Do they emerge from the space where the big ‘narrative’ he was talking about before does not match the specificities of each work of art in particular. If this is so, isn’t it possible that those big questions Bardaouil is pontificating about emerge from the impossibility to build a narrative with individual works of art (which constitute narratives in themselves)? In other words, there is no clarity here but a very muddy promise of clarity.
Could you describe how you arrive at this clarity? And what is the process behind creating this clarity?
SB: To follow from what Till was saying, obviously, there are many types of curators, many methodologies. For us, it’s about commitment in a sense. You commit to a certain way of doing things. You have a very clear position as to where you stand, what you’d like to show, how you’d like to show in exhibitions, parameters you’d like to work with. So, if we choose to work in a certain way, other curators choose to work in different ways and you know, they will stand for what their commitment is, and we will stand for what our commitment is.
What I think is very important for us in talking about this clarity, is in a sense, we know what we want to say. I think that most of the time, it’s not about saying something that’s close-ended. It’s not about making a final statement. If anything, we’d like to open up a series of questions. I think an exhibition is about questions, and the text is about articulating those questions in a more concrete way or proposing certain answers. There is a very different way in which we approach text and exhibitions. I think they both complement each other.
The clarity for us is first for us to know what is it that we are trying to say. What are the questions we’d like to ask through this particular project or exercise, be it exhibition or the text that it comes with? For this to happen, you have to do your research, we go back to this idea. There is something that we say all the time: if you can’t say it in two or three lines then you have nothing to say.
TF: We were both in academia for several years, and I think when you really don’t understand the abstract of a paper, then there probably is nothing in that paper. I think another thing that’s very important is that for many curators – and you hear it often in discussions – it’s often so much about the curators themselves, their own egos and maybe it’s about their artists. Often, the thing that’s missing is the audience.
At the end of the day, you make a show for the people who come to see it. I think that’s the key element that’s in our projects. We don’t know whether we are always successful but we really strive for people to come to a show and feel something, and to adapt them to a local context, and make sure that they can make an emotional and intellectual connection, of varying degrees, of course, in every show.
I think you can test this out when you go to shows. Can you follow this? Is there a structure? Do you take something away that’s a convoluted mess of objects thrown together? Is there a connection, or is there none? At the end of the day, it’s often forgotten – art is something quite magical, in a simple, guttural way. Great art can do something, and we don’t really know what that is, and I think there is another tendency, the viewers and curators are often almost afraid of that. You have to over-interpret, over-analyse, verbalise and explain everything, and sometimes you cannot and I think that’s something that would be great to embrace. Let’s push that magic, in a sense, and embrace it. Art can do wonders, instead of overkilling it.
My comment: I agree with this but, in a way, this undoes Bardaouil’s thesis of curating as applying a narrative. So what involves curating then? He has not even mention the visual as a problem yet. So far, art is about topics for these two.
There’s an interesting aspect of fiction and history in both your exhibitions, “Tea with Nefertiti” and “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”. How did you come up with the narrative themes of these exhibitions? And how do you select the artists for these exhibitions?
SB: These are very different types of shows, there are two different story approaches. I think with “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”, it was very important for us to find a way of entering into the local audience. We’ve been travelling in Asia for many years, visiting different places, and we were specifically in Seoul and Gwangju in South Korea. Gwangju Museum of Art asked us to do this exhibition there, and it was very important for us to find a way of connecting to the audience, and we also did not want to do the obvious or the expected, to talk about the uprising in Gwangju in 1980s.
Since the museum was interested in us doing a show of artists that are mostly from the Middle East and the Arab world, we were also equally conscious that we wanted to present the artworks in a framework that preserves the individuality of each artist and does not reduce them to just another way of the expected rhetorical politics vein, the Islam and calligraphy, the images we usually think of when we talk about the East. We spent a lot of time talking to people to find an interesting point that could be the starting point for the show.
We came across this amazing singer from South Korea, Lee Nan-Young (1916-1967). She had this beautiful, heartbreaking song from the 1930s called “The Tears of Mokpo”. Mokpo is very close to Gwangju and also in the south where the Japanese, during the colonial rule, use to take the men to work in plantations and camps in Japan, so the women would stand at the port and cry as they saw their men go away. Over the years, after the war, the song became very emblematic of this kind of identity or connection to home. This was a very strong thing for us. If we were to think of a figure or a song that is from the Arab world that can be the counterpoint of Lee Nan-Young, who would that be? Of course, for us, that is Oum Kulthoum (1904-1975), a very famous Egyptian singer who became emblematic of the whole period in the Arab world where there was a search for national identity. And she has a story similar to Lee Nan-Young. They both start from a very poor, humble background and they both became very famous.
In 1967, they were both in Paris and that was the starting point. What would have happened if the two had met? How would they have collaborated or worked on something together? It was about cultures meeting, artists meeting, and what happens because of that encounter. So the exhibition itself became a fulfilment to a promise that we proposed – Lee Nan-Young and Oum Kulthoum’s promise to each other, to meet and work together. But they had both died and couldn’t fulfil that promise. The artists coming from that world from Oum Kulthoum became a fulfilment to Lee Nan-Young.
All the works were related to the themes of two songs that we chose. “Tears of Mokpo” by Lee Nan-Young, and “Ruins” for Oum Kulthoum. Sound was very important for the exhibition, the music was very important. As you walked around, you could hear different pieces, and they all had a different sound quality, and it was a very poetic exhibition. The people connected, and they thought it really happened, and then realised that it was fiction.
My comment: This is preposterous and destroys the intentionality of the individual artists. Besides the story of the two singers is a kitsch oversimplification of more complex issues. We are still not even mentioning the visual as a problem and I am starting to believe that, as such, it is irrelevant for them.
The interview continues but repeats the same issues without giving much of a satisfactory conclusion. I must confess my concern for the place that curators think they have and how they think it can be constructed as source of meaning through ‘international’ interpretation and non challant (I would say…lack of) experience. Looking at the images of their ‘curations’, it seems that the intention is to articulate the rooms into thematised theatrical installations. The question is where the individual artists are left in this equation? J A T
IF YOU WANT TO SEE TRULY BAD CURATING, WATCH THIS VIDEO