Qwaypurlake was the most recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset curated by Simon Morrisey. It started from elements of Somerset’s history and local myths to imagine an alternative reality (or a possible future) for the area. In the foreboding and uncomfortable scenario, humans have been marginalised by a nature in which water is sentient much like the ocean that covers the alien planet in Lem’s fiction, Solaris.
The exhibition brought together very different types of works, from documentary photography to abstract sculpture, but all of them performed very particular roles in the exhibition with regards to fabricating Qwaypurlake as an entity. Indeed, as curator Simon Morrisey explains in the following conversation, the exhibition was, in many ways, a collaborative exercise in extrapolation and reframing: ideas are drawn out of artists’ works and discussed with other artists; information and data woven between art pieces to change the way in which we would expect them to be interpreted; insights are taken from history or speculative fiction and imposed over works to achieve the same end; and eventually, artworks are installed together to create a composite tableau.
Interestingly, the project has been built as a narrative plot with the total collaboration of curators and artists as equal participants both in the research and in the production of artworks. Nevertheless, Qwaypurlake also raised the problematic issue of what curators are allowed to do with regards to hierarchies of interpretation of art objects. Indeed, with this peculiar curatorial exercise, Simon Morrisey is challenging the boundaries between curation as a practice and a profession, as to say between the role of the curator as mediator of meanings defined for art by artists and a separate creative endeavor.
Can curators use the object of art to stimulate an exchange between the piece itself and the many ways that it can be framed in the world of ideas? And, if so, how far are they allowed to go?
Carolina Lio: Simon, how did you come across the idea of such an experimental exhibition?
Simon Morrisey: When we moved to Somerset from London, seven years ago, it was quite surreal1. Here you can drive for long distances without crossing other cars or seeing nothing but fields. So I became interested in making exhibitions beyond the gallery and in inviting artists to respond to different types of space in a kind of biennial model. I put artists around propositional ideas commissioning new works scattered in a ‘place’ rather than in a ‘gallery’.
Qwaypurlake arose as a progression of this approach with the earliest motivation of my interest in science-fiction. I have had for years the dream of a big fictional exhibition, and the original idea was to have it scattered on the whole Somerset landscape. A kind of overlap between fiction and reality. But then, around one year ago, Hauser & Wirth commissioned me for a curated exhibition and Qwaypurlake became an opportunity to explore the project in this very peculiar and ambitious space.
C.L.: However, it seems to me that your approach has not really changed. You have invited artists to respond both to your idea and to the space.
S.M.: The majority of the works were existing, actually. But Michael Dean’s works, Alex Baker’s, Sebastian Jefford’s and some others’ have been commissioned expressly for the exhibition. I invited key artists that I like or whose work I can immediately relate to this idea. So, normally, all selected artists have a natural connection with the topic. Moreover, the people who did artworks for the exhibition are people with whom I have a close relationship. I have worked with them before, they know my practice and understand my vision.
C.L.: This exhibition is then a representation of a vision of yours and it should be definitely be seen as a whole and not experienced piece by piece. Can we thus say that you are working accordingly to the model of curator-as-author?
S.M.: I am interested in how we allocate the definition of curatorial creativity, what is the exact way we are supposed to work, what are the limits in the creative collaboration between artist and curator. The artist produces a body of creative ideas which I, as a curator, can link to other ideas. I think we should start playing with these connections assuming different shapes. In a quite straightforward way I act as an author of a short story or a book rather than a theoretical model of curator.
C.L.: So, how do you place your authority and authorship? In today’s curating this is a debated issue, since curators are often accused of misusing artworks or of going too far with their exertion of ‘power’. Many times ethical reflections about our role lead to us locking ourselves up in a bureaucratic task. But I don’t think that working ethically means to cut off everything is creative.
S.M.: Something strange is happening among curators. They set up rules, procedures, laws that can’t be broken, things to rely on, and therefore curating remains rigidly fixed. There is this idea among some curators that the artists set the means and don’t want their work being reinterpreted. Instead, in my experience, artists are really open. Actually, what is often very strict is the professionalisation of curating, which stepped us back to the incredibly antiquated idea of custodians of objects. But who are we actually responsible to? Our responsibility is not only towards the artworks, but especially we have responsibility to an audience that should be empowered to freely move around works, to like or dislike, to think about the pieces in a different way, to give different meanings.
If we move into a parallel cultural world – poetry – T. S. Eliot really famously said: “What is the Waste Land about? It’s about whatever you think it’s about”. He really formalised the idea that the artist creates an artwork and an artwork isn’t strictly defining any idea, it’s just an artwork that exists in the world. Then the audience digests that artwork and during the digesting process certain set concepts remain within the work but they have different forms for any receiver. Because each brain experiences different ideas, different politics, different ethics, different social feelings through the reading of the same work.
Ultimately, I think that there are two kinds of bad behaviour recurring in recent curating. The first is the bureaucratic turn that happened to a generation of trained curators who feel illegitimate to have creative ideas and, on the other side, which is equally negative, there is a curatorial class curating for a curatorial class and forgetting about the general audience.
The eighth chapter of Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating2 it’s exactly dedicated to responsibilities. Peter Eleey writes about the ethical choices implied in curatorial work, like how should an artwork be shown, particular stipulations regarding artworks care and display, and other issues around the use and abuse of the sovereign power of those who possess a work of art on the work of art itself. Indeed, in Eleey’s opinion, “art has been aggressively recontextualised by curators in group exhibitions, some of which sublimate the art to various authorial agendas”. Basically, he advises us to proceed with caution in our authorship which should not massively exceed our caring tasks.
At the same time, I find two weak points in Eleey’s text. Firstly, he talks about curating as a job engaged only with already existing pieces that just need to be displayed and preserved respecting artists’ will. Therefore, he doesn’t consider the role of the curator as an active part in the production of art and contents. Secondly, he focused just on very practical duties, overlooking the production of critical thought and, therefore, all the new considerations about the curatorial as a potential nexus for discussion, critique and debate.
This seems to be the current evolution of the figure of the curator, actually a restless profession that, since 1920s, has had a gradual change from the role of the curator-as-carer of collections and artworks, to the curator-as-author in late 1960s with a proactive and political part in the production and mediation of art (Harald Szeemann, Germano Celant, Pontus Hulten and Lucy Lippard, among others). Other figures are the curator as critical component of the institution of art (institutional critique) which from the mid-1980s onward was represented by Hal Foster and Andrea Fraser, among others; the curator-as-mediator; the curator as meta-artist.3 And, lastly, the curatorial as “an active catalyst”, a way of “linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, and discourses in physical space”.5
This latest figure, born from the 1990’s emergence of the age of curatorial studies that investigate the relationships between objects, people, places, ideas and so on, turned the displays of artworks in project-based and research-based exhibitions aimed to the production of a discourse.
In my view, it is the degree of self-awareness in the authorial end of the curatorial work that determines whether there is or not a misuse of the art pieces. Misuse it’s not all what is has not set up by the artist itself, nor identifying new connections between previously unconnected items. Indeed, to produce a discourse, be it political, conceptual, critical or fictional as in the case of Qwaypurlake, curators actually must experiment new ways beyond the bureaucratic tasks and create new scenarios from pre-existing elements to develop something unexplored, and possibly unforeseeable before then.
Carolina Lio (b. 1984) holds a degree in Semiotics from the University of Bologna, course directed by Umberto Eco, and is now student fellow in the Curating Contemporary Art Programme of the Royal College of Art, London.
She curated exhibitions at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice; Hong Kong Arts Centre; Oslo Fotokunstskole; Italian Institute of Culture in Los Angeles and Barcelona, among others. Her curatorial projects have received grants and supports from institutions like European Cultural Foundation of Amsterdam, and Soros Foundation in New York.
In 2015 she was curator in residence at MACBA, Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona.
- Simon Morrissey and his partner Tabitha Clayson moved to Somerset in 2007. They founded Foreground, a visual arts commissioning organisation based in Frome that realises temporary and permanently sited contemporary art projects in the South West.
- Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating edited by Jens Hoffmann and published by Mousse in collaboration with the Fiorucci Art Trust, emerged from a desire to trace the coordinates of contemporary curatorial practice. Through the contributions of ten curators, the ten essays in the project examine ten fundamental themes in curating. The eighth chapter, written by Peter Eleey approaches the question: What about responsibility?
- A good resume of the history of curating is in The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) by Paul O’Neill (2012).
- Maria Lind’s article The Curatorial appeared in in Artforum International, No 48.2 (October 2009).
Hoffmann, J., (2013) Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating. Mousse Publishing, Milan.
Lind, M., (2009) ‘The Curatorial’, Artforum International, No 48.2, p103.
O’Neill, P., (2012) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s). MIT Press, Cambridge MA.