There’s an old joke: "If a man speaks in a forest and there’s no woman to hear him, will he still be wrong?" It came to mind when listening to an opening speech at a recent exhibition, Creator Curator/Curator Creator, at Jo’burg’s Absa Gallery. In this case it could be: "If an artist creates a work in a forest and there is no one to see it, curate it, critique it, is it still art?"
The speaker was art historian and curator Warren Siebrits.
The premise behind the exhibition, curated by Lucia Boer, was to explore the relationship between the curator and the artist, and how they work together to enhance the meaning and experience of viewing and understanding a work.
Boer selected pieces by 22 current artists with whom she had a curatorial relationship or whose work she admires and collects. The result was a disconnected assortment of, in many cases, commendable work by artists at varying stages of their careers.
Of course, that the exhibition didn’t hang together in a precise way might be the point. Instead of an obvious thread running through the pieces, they needed to be viewed as one might a series of artworks in a collector’s home. It’s a far more intimate exploration of Boer’s curiosity around the role of curators, their love for the artworks and their responsibility in bringing an artwork to its accurate fruition.
Boer claims it is a relationship built on trust that evolves over years of working together in the same industry.
The word curate comes from the Latin curare and means to "take care". It was originally assigned to the caretakers of the Roman bathhouses, but much later became associated with those people responsible for safeguarding the heritage of culture and art.
Says Siebrits: "The curator plays an important role, at least equal to that of the artist in documenting and recording. [He/she] adds credibility to the artist’s work and becomes a champion narrator."
Essentially, curators are specialist viewers who are well versed in art history and current affairs, as well as in the social and political climate in which they wish to exhibit certain pieces. Their role is to have insight (often beyond the artist’s) into how a particular piece of work fits into the bigger picture and how it might be received.
By selecting and deciding how to exhibit various artworks, objects and ideas together, the curator can challenge and, at times, provoke the viewer into a new way of seeing.
Of course, the notion of the relationship between the artist and the institution as necessarily co-existent is not a new one. French artist Marcel Duchamp launched his manifesto, The Creative Act, in 1957 and famously declared: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone."
Duchamp, known as the "father of conceptual art", played a pivotal role in upending the way in which we view creativity. This was done notably through his series of "readymades". These were everyday objects — a drying rack, bicycle wheel or urinal — that, when chosen by an artist and placed out of context in an art gallery, changed the way we looked at them.
Duchamp was also responsible for shifting exhibition spaces from dull, sensible viewing parlours into dynamic interactive spaces. He did this initially in 1937 when he was invited to curate the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris. The gallery, where viewers were traditionally expected to keep a polite distance from the artworks, was transformed, with the elegant interior turned into a darkened grotto by 1 200 suspended coal sacks and blackened walls. The exhibition was set against a recurring soundtrack of insane-asylum cries and German marching music.
The lights were switched off and viewers were given torches, effectively forcing them to move in close to see the art.
What this all means for modern curators is that, by making choices around how to display particular artworks, they become the mediators, effectively forcing the viewer to "see" in a different way and, hopefully, develop insight.
The curator, says Siebrits, is responsible for bringing an artwork to its fruition through the "evolution of consciousness".
"We [take] the consciousness of what the artist does and carry it forward [shape it and give it context]." Without this consciousness, Siebrits claims, artists stand a very real chance of falling into obscurity.
But with it they stand a far greater chance of success.
According to Siebrits, the prominent artist William Kentridge says three things are key to success: you need people to write about you, people to curate your work and people to sell your work at exhibitions.
Which brings us to the earning potential of an artist: by representing artists, curators communicate the value of their work to collectors, sponsors, the public and the media and, essentially, place themselves as buffers between the creators and the consumers of art.
By way of example, Siebrits talks about Gerhard Marx and how, in his early career, the artist sold a piece to the Graskop Hotel for about R1 500. Shortly thereafter Siebrits, then a gallery owner, was selling similar pieces for about R10 000. The relatively small pieces by Marx at the Curator/Creator exhibition were going for R50 000.
Of the thousands and thousands of people who create art, "less than 10% will actually accrue higher prices than they sold for in their heyday. That’s the nature of investment art: ‘Who is going to make it?’"