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'Running To and Fro: Terry Smith's Talking Contemporary Curating'

Art Monthly Australasia, April 2017

Sophie Knezic

Running To and Fro: Terry Smith’s Talking Contemporary Curating

In Paul O’Neill’s Curating Subjects (2011), the curator Annie Fletcher asks the author: ‘Do we really need another book about curating?’ (Her interlocutor answers in the affirmative.) There’s now a consensus that the last 20 years have seen an exponential growth in the prominence of curating, and the last eight have witnessed a particular flurry of publications emerge on the subject. Hot on the heels of O’Neill’s aforementioned text was his overarching account of the evolution of the field, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (2012). Hans-Ulrich Obrist has supplemented his stellar curatorial career with seemingly unstoppable tomes – A Brief History of Curating (2008), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask (2011) and Do It: The Compendium (2013) – each a wide-ranging chronicle of a lifetime of working with artists and exhibition makers. More recently, a how-to manual has emerged: The Curator’s Handbook (2015). Perhaps David Balzer is right when he claims in Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (2014) that, since the last decade of the twentieth century, we have been living in a ‘curationist moment’.


If so, what does Terry Smith’s latest addition contribute? Most conspicuously, it is his scholarly acumen. Trained as an art historian and part of the conceptual clique Art & Language in his early years, Smith has published prolifically on contemporary and Australian art. His in-depth knowledge of art history, however, is not foregrounded in Talking Contemporary Curating but tacitly provides the epistemological armature that frames his approach to the topic. The book comprises a series of interviews with 10 of the world’s current leading curators plus two eminent critics – the same names, it must be said, that crop up in antecedent volumes. Although the format of interviews transposed into a book has been used by curator–authors such as Obrist, Smith’s status as a non-curator sets him at a critical distance and allows him to broadly eschew the fall into professional reminiscence. Smith’s probing questions to his subjects reveal his own formulated thinking on the topic that was detailed in his prior text Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012), permitting true conversations to emerge.


Smith’s prefacing argument is that discourse is now central to curating; curators are increasingly engaged in dialogue with their field, each other and the general public. The notion of ‘running to and fro’ (from the Latin root of ‘discourse’) manifests in the structure of the interviews where the respective insights of interviewer and interviewee course and dovetail. Individually, each figure comes across as idiosyncratic; their personalities, critical intelligence and arenas of operation strikingly distinct. Collectively, the subjects reveal the vocation of curating to have developed in glaringly uneven ways in different parts of the globe, corresponding with the spectrum of cultural literacy and liberalism of political regimes and their varied ratification of museum institutions.


Two of the more pointed accounts in this regard are Puerto Rican curator Mari Carmen Ramírez’s discussion of the impositions of cultural stereotyping she has faced, especially in relation to identity politics and the homogeneous categorising of Latin America. Founding director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, Ramírez notes that the very notion of Latin American art is an ‘operative construct’ that is made to speak for more than 20 countries; a construct that she acknowledges curators such as herself are obliged to inhabit if fired to contest. Zdenka Badovinac’s description of the postwar conundrum of Slovenia – formerly one of the six republics that constituted the nation of Yugoslavia which dissolved in 1991 and now a peripheral Balkan state navigating its post-socialist condition – frames her experience of curating. Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana since 1993, Badovinac’s radical curatorial act has been to form counter-tellings to dominant narratives of twentieth-century art through structuring the museum as two overlapping historical records: one charting a linear history of modernism; the other providing scenarios of ruptures to this account – a curatorial model she terms ‘anti-hegemonic’.


Both critics Claire Bishop and Boris Groys unsurprisingly loom as fierce polemicists: Bishop, an admirer of Ramírez, argues against the meshing of curating with discourse, instead advocating for curating as method. The current emphasis on the contemporary in museums is a misplaced emphasis on ‘presentism’, whereas the truly contemporary, she argues, is an operation on history; the past animated through the purview of the present. Bishop is adamant that the curatorial process is fundamental to this, allowing history to be revealed in a way that implicates the present. An historian of Russian communist and avant-garde art known for his brilliant polemics on contemporary practice, Groys’s astute and contentious statements and combative sparring with Smith make for some of the liveliest parts of the volume.


Smith’s interview with Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, however, is the highlight. Enwezor’s commitment to a politics of viewing and a belief in the ways in which art can renew engagement with the world and reconfigure its deeply embedded global inequities, make for the most salubrious insights. His sustained analyses of the complexities of the postcolonial condition are indeed acknowledged by Smith as formative to his own critical reflections. For anyone keen to feel the pulse of vital curatorial thinking at work, Talking Contemporary Curating is required and robust reading.


Terry Smith, Talking Contemporary Curating, from the ‘Perspectives in Curating’ series, Independent Curators International, New York, 2015, 344 pages, US$19.95

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