A Sure and Sparing Touch: Curating the Tate

In a collection as large as the Tate Modern’s, exhibitions are opportunities. Every work and artist deserves a unique curatorial strategy, but the specific creative opportunity that lies in the vast collection is the potential for themed exhibitions. Tate is taking full advantage of this potential by treating smaller rooms within their larger themed spaces (such as the ‘Energy and Process’ section) as temporary exhibitions. Hans Ulrich Obrist, current director of international projects at Serpentine Galleries, explains that opportunistic exhibition spaces are sites through which historical and cultural meaning is constructed (maintained and deconstructed) for artworks and artistic processes. [1]

The works in their collection are constantly negotiating their places in the ‘history’ of contemporary art. The monochromatic Grey by Gerhard Richter, appearing in the Minimalism room, a roughly sewn political quilt by Tracey Emin hung in the Homeworkers room, and the empty beaded cocoon by Chen Zhen that was previously part of the space called Objects for Healing all call into question the effects of categorization. Themes can create a discourse about previously undervalued aspects of a work or practice, but how do theme exhibitions avoid subordinating the works to the overall concept? A sure and sparing curatorial touch can avoid negating rebellious programs (such as the feminist subversion of materials in the case of Emin), abusing the viewer’s pathos or dislodging a work from its place in Art History. The Minimalism, Homeworkers and Objects for Mending rooms each exhibit works from the Tate Modern’s collection, and reveal the sparing touch of the curator as rooted in the display of fact. 

Minimalism

The rectangle Grey (1974) by Gerhard Richter is an entirely grey canvas, described by the wall text as representing ‘nothingness’. The surface texture is not smooth. Looking closer little ridges of paint reveal the artistic process. The stippled texture is not normally achieved with a brush; for anyone who has painted a wall it is clear that the artist used a roller to apply the paint. The complete monochromatic effect of the surface implies another element of Richter’s process. He most likely mixed the paint before applying it. Mixing colours on the canvas, as he has been known to do can leave the surface in a patchwork of unblended colours as seen in his abstract squeegee paintings. The size of the canvas is large, begging that you also interact with it from a distance. After watching Richter’s painting from a distance, something strange happens – eyes sense differing shades of grey, darker towards the edges and lighter towards the center. 

During a long relationship with this painting, a viewer might find him or herself next to a photographer recalibrating the white balance on their camera – as happens every so often with large monochromatic surfaces. Even an object that is meant to represent nothing has a purpose to somebody. The photographer’s action also poetically reflects Richter’s practice of painting from reproduced photographs. His photo paintings are grey scale and blurry. He unfocuses them intentionally to give a sense of symbolically uniform importance and even convey emotional gravity. If Grey were a photo painting, Richter might have blurred an image to the point of complete uniformity, resembling the photographic effect of motion combined with a long shutter speed. The more motion, the more blurred the result. With no symbol to gauge the speed of motion, it is imaginable that Grey is symbolic for more than the minimal nothing, and the uniformity of symbolism might indicate why it appears in the Minimalism gallery.

“Even an object that is meant to represent nothing has a purpose to somebody.”

The Minimalism room consists of square and rectangular objects in two and three-dimensions, drawing attention to Grey’s common shape and dimension. Works of this particular ‘ism’ are characterized by a focus on their physical qualities rather than on narrative symbolism indicating the work’s connection to the artist’s life. With nothing but a work’s objecthood to relate to, the viewer enters into a relationship with the object itself, a relationship defined by autonomy: the work’s ability to arise in the viewer emotions or interpretations through the medium only, not through evidence of the artist’s hand. It is the lack of personal iconography that is emphasized in the Minimalism room. The colour grey as the only clue for interpretation is not one with much personal or historical value, explaining its placement amongst autonomous works. Paradoxically, the wall text for Grey, states that the colour grey represents something because to think about nothing is to think about something after all. This grey painting represents both a physical presence for nothingness and the almost ironic act of thinking about nothing.

Many of the other works in the Minimalism room are evidence of the Minimalist movement such as the sculptures of Donald Judd. Richter’s practice is not rooted in this autonomous movement. His practice is deeply influenced by emotional interpretations of substantial historic and political photographic documentation such as figures from WWII and the Baader Meinhof group of the 1970’s. Of the two paintings he produced in 1988 from a photograph of the terrorist Ulrike Meinhof hanged in her cell, one is blurred to near-abstraction expressing the emotional difficulty Richter experienced while painting his subject. If his painting techniques are an expression of emotion, might his work Grey be better served in a room themed Expressionism – another specific movement to which it is more historically connected? Expressionism was a painting movement in Germany in the early 20th century. Expressionist painters sought to portray emotions and moods through their painting techniques rather than tangible reality. In a room called Expressionism, Richter’s technique would be the wall panel’s subject, and his German roots in figurative painting after WWII would be brought to attention. If an institution curates an artwork by theme of artistic movement, the movement should not limit the viewer’s access to the artist and their oeuvre. In the case of an artwork curated outside its historical movement, the curator should draw attention to the effects the context has upon the work. What better theme than the materially self-referential movement minimalism to explore the medium of curating curatorially.

Objects for Mending

Chen Zhen’s Cocon du vide (Empty Cocoon) in the Objects for Mending room is a sculpture consisting of a metal cage in a bulbous, kidney shape formed around the seat of a found, Chinese, wooden chair. It is part of a larger series by the same name, produced between the dates of 1999 and 2000. On the metal bars of the cage-like structure are wooden Chinese abacus beads and Buddhist rosary beads. The wall text states that the work and its individual materials reflect Zhen’s concept of Transexperience defined by him as “the complex life experience of leaving one’s native place and going from one place to another in one’s life.” [2] The materials and cocoon form reflect the self-healing process that Zhen prescribed as he suffered from haemolytic anaemia (a chronic illness in which red blood cells deplete before their natural cycle finishes) that he involved in his artistic career as a positive creative force. Cocon du vide, produced in the last year of Zhen’s career, is both about his experience of leaving the East for the West and his desire to fuse Chinese medicine with a more spiritual, healing experience.

“Their artistic practices are only a means of therapy.”

The sculpture is a work that contains symbols of Chen Zhen’s experience with illness such as the Chinese abacus beads representing his desire to study medicine, and the Buddhist rosary beads representing his devoted involvement in Buddhist spirituality. Additionally, with the knowledge that his illness is blood related, the beads can be interpreted as red and white blood cells. As a viewer circles Cocon du vide, the bead-covered bars of the cocoon structure cross each other, and a feeling similar to mild seasickness might be experienced.

Both Chen Zhen, and José Leonilson (who was diagnosed with HIV), suffered from chronic illness, and each Zhen’s sculpture and Leonilson’s textile work are a part of their experiences with their respective illnesses. However, illness and its presence in their everyday life is not given form or personified in their works. Their artistic practices are only a means of therapy. Without the wall text or theme title Objects for Mending, a visitor would be unaware of the role these works played in the artists’ well being. Moreover, both these works have gravity in the artists’ oeuvres as they were produced in the last years of their lives. The theme based on the artists’ illnesses produces an uncomfortable pathos for the visitor who is keen on reading the wall texts. 

Homeworkers

Hate and Power Can be a Terrible Thing (2004) is a wall-hung quilt about Tracey Emin’s loathing of the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. An old, pink blanket with a similarly faded bubblegum pink fabric extension forms the background on which Emin appliqued her aggressive text. The words ‘Permission to fire, Enzine’ accompanied by the British ensign flag, and the end text, ‘In 1982, A year so many conscripts did not got home – Because you, you killed them all,’ refer to Thatcher’s involvement in the Falklands War. Across the haggard flag are individual flowers cut from a floral printed fabric, roughly sewn to vaguely form a cross. 

The wall text for Hate and Power includes two patches of writing (in consistently poor grammatical form) in Emin’s handwriting. One patch directly addresses the specific political issue of the Falklands War, ‘you, supposed mother – A mother who Reiked [sic] of Power CRAZY Hate and Fear, of all the terrible things that you did, in the name of political conquest.’ The other patch, describing the horrific outcome of the conquest, reads ‘800 men and boys/their bodies floating/ like flotsam and/ jetsam on the surf/ ice cold black/ water, an eary [sic] grave,/ of which you invented.’ Many of Emin’s earlier works include appliquéd swatches of handwritten text such as Hotel International (1993) – but in her more recent work her handwriting appears in drawings, etched into bronze sculpture and rendered in neon. The personal and biographical touch this provides, combined with craft and textile formats, reflect the feminist tenet of the ‘personal as political’. The political protest poorly embroidered by Emin subverts the classically feminine activity of sewing to criticize the notorious reign of Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister. The work therefore questions the ways in which women are actively political.

Along with two other subversive textile works, Hate and Power Can be a Terrible Thing was hung in the Homeworkers gallery until recently. It has now been replaced by a series of embroidered panels by Geta Brǎtescu. Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers (1977) and Annette Messager’s The Pikes (1992-3) that still occupy the gallery are also political messages. Harrison’s work includes pages of adverts directed at women and text expressing the frustrations of the everyday life of working women. Messager’s sculpture leaning against the wall and references the Reign of Terror in France on pikes which display a variety of objects and images from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. 

The Tate does not show the works in the context of feminist art. The phrase ‘personal as political’ is not directly addressed in the Homeworkers wall text, nor does it mention feminism (though the word feminine is used frequently). However, the title of the space, Homeworkers – titled after Harrison’s work – not only brings awareness to the materials common in these works but also references a particular position for women. The title may seem unappealing, but for this very reason it is effective. The unease felt by the visitor faced with three female artists, working with textiles and categorized as ‘homeworkers’, helps foreground the artists’ political unrest and allows each of the works’ politically subversive material to speak for itself. Faced with the need to address the feminist art – or political works by female artists – in their vast collection, the Tate allows each political message to exist loudly. As such this gallery space can only receive criticism for not being large enough.   

Each of these works in Minimalism, Objects for Mending and Homeworkers show that while a sure and sparing curatorial touch based in fact often avoids subverting artworks to curatorial themes, some facts are inappropriate. The theme based on illness for instance was based on the fact that both Chen Zhen and Leonilson produced their works in the last years of their lives cut short by a terminal illness. It is interesting to consider the creative outcome of illness, but to make it the focal point of artworks that have more spiritual or political depth than the context of their creation, is limiting and discomforting for the viewer. In the Minimalism gallery the precise and ‘factual’ qualities of Minimalist works are well documented, but Grey is not Minimalist – it is misplaced. It is suggested in the wall text that the subject of Richter’s painting is ‘nothingness’ and thus it belongs with other autonomous artworks, but his paintings are so integrated with his biography that a minimal and autonomous perspective severs much of the intrigue of his practice. More successful is the Tate’s approach to the Feminist movement. Factually, the three works in the space are connected through the gender of the artists and the materials they use. And the sparing touch on the political topics addressed in the gallery’s wall panel – with no specific political theme to connect them and a short description of each artist’s agenda – allows each artist’s work the space it deserves to relay the artists’ messages to the viewer. Ultimately the success of a curatorial theme may be measured by each work’s ability to transcend the theme with its own message while contributing to the historic and cultural signification of other works. 

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1. Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating (Ringier & Les Presses du Reel, 2011)

2. David Rosenburg and Xu Min, Chen Zhen: Invocation of Washing Fire (Gli Ori: Siena, 2003)

3. Tracey Emin Studio, Biography (2015) http://www.traceyeminstudio.com/biography/

A Bachelors of Art History from Queens University in Canada, focused intensely on Renaissance and Baroque painting, has led Alice Pelot to her true passion for working with and representing living artists.  Alice is a recent Graduate of Sotheby’s Institute of Art with a Masters of Contemporary Art and is currently focused on writing about emerging artists and practices. Alice’s personal research and writing allows her to meet people with creatively progressive perspectives, the most exciting of which she considers to be about the Internet.