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Brett M. Levine’s Curatorial Intervention: History and Current Practices

In this original, carefully researched book, Brett M. Levine argues that curatorial intervention is almost always taking place. He shows the exhibition space to be replete with unseen negotiations, creative opportunities, and imperceptible (but no less significant) misgivings. His persuasive argument is that an acknowledgement of curatorial intervention, and an interrogation of its dynamics is necessary, and due.

Exhibitions of contemporary art are often slick, and in polished spaces, apparently emptied of elements save for the artworks we have come to see. A painting hung here, a sculpture placed there – or perhaps a video work or found object accompanied by labels – and a wall text. Much writing, scholarly and otherwise, has been published on the somewhat invisible curatorial hand influencing the selection and arrangement of these spaces. Many historically and theoretically informed books have been written on the relationship between artist and curator. More rarely is a book published that engages with the curatorial role in such scholarly, concrete, lively detail, through interviews with artists, curators, and administrators, and with the copious literature on curating.

Brett M. Levine’s Curatorial Intervention: History and Current Practices sets out to analyse and articulate the many-sided nature of curatorial intervention. In Levine’s account, exhibitions and curatorial projects are not merely platforms presenting artworks to audiences for viewing, unfettered by curatorial (and political, and economic) interests. Rather, they are alive with dialogues, negotiations, new discoveries, and misgivings inherent to curatorial work, so often exorcised from the gallery space. These are dynamics that those who have worked on exhibitions will recognise, but which are rarely acknowledged to audiences.

Levine draws from two decades of practice as a curator and director in New Zealand, Australia and North America. He analyses the notion that when a viewer walks into a gallery they enter into an unmediated relationship with an artist or artwork. Levine does this by invoking the concept – proffered by reception theory – of the “closed and holistic” exchange between literary text and audience. In this framework, the text depends upon its reader to function. It follows, then, that artworks and exhibitions depend upon their audience to see and experience them. But it does not follow, as Levine argues, that reception theory is appropriate to, or can encompass, the exhibition context. This is because the binary (artist–audience) model of experiencing art is unable to capture the multitude of interests at play in any exhibition and institutional environment, most notably the interests of curators.

Levine posits a triangular model (artist–curator–audience), placing the curator in a prominent position in the production of culture. He does this not to elaborate on the curator’s power or celebrity, but to engage in a more nuanced discussion of the relationship between curator and artist, a relationship that can quickly become (for a variety of reasons, and with contrasting implications) an interventionist one.

Intervention is the framework by which Levine invokes a range of curatorial actions – projects both historical and contemporary, iconic as well as little known – flashpoints which have raised the “spectre of intervention.” These include the fraught negotiation between artist Christoph Büchel, curators, and administrators at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art which led to the cancellation of the exhibition and lengthy court proceedings. Also examined is the famous pushback by artists Robert Morris and Daniel Buren to Harald Szeemann’s curatorial conceit for Documenta 5, to which Szeemann responded with a piece of writing amounting to an “interventionist manifesto,” in Levine’s words. His account of this incident is perceptive, and carefully researched, and is expanded by others not from books already published on curating, but from the author’s interviews with artists and curators. This creates a more varied body of voices than those from whom we typically hear, and who are so often positioned in North American and European art world centres.

Those interviewed include the Māori artist Ross T. Smith whose subtly shaded works were once placed against a discordant, “decontextualised” wall colour, and Terry Urbahn, also from New Zealand, who recounts being overly prescribed by a particular exhibition theme, and curator. More positively, this also includes director Aaron Seeto’s reflections on commissioning, and on the impact directors have, by providing space or money to create newly ambitious work. This is a form of intervention in artistic practice in which institutions have a palpable interest, and which can also be profoundly beneficial for artists. Levine also includes reflexive instances of curatorial intervention, such as Megan Tamati-Quennell’s account of working in community-engaged settings, where curatorial agency and ideas are present and acknowledged, but grounded in a meticulous engagement with the works and the artist.

At times Levine’s book asks uncomfortable questions, recounting instances where artists’ preferences were over-ridden by curators, without dialogue, consultation, or explanation. Here it is valuable that Levine interviews artists beyond the big names, to reveal the acute curator–artist power imbalance for artists early in their careers. It is understandable, and telling, that one of the artists interviewed wished to remain anonymous. Through this compelling material, Levine leaves us with some important observations: that interventions led by the curator and driven by individual agency informed by dialogue with the artist can lead to positive outcomes for all. However, when interventions are led by trustees, or administrators, or by perceptions of what the public expects – or wants – outcomes are often negative, and problematic.

This takes us to the compelling sixth chapter of the book which discusses intervention bordering on, and crossing over, into censorship. Here Levine recounts his own experience alongside those of artists and curators, of having curatorial decisions censored. Levine’s discussion is balanced, exploring accounts of those in the position of censoring works as well as those in the position of having exhibitions censored. He also notes the necessity of taking such decisions when works are being shown across cultural and religious contexts. Again, dialogue – and, more indefinably, transparency – are the key recommendations for better practice.

Levine leaves us with several energising questions. How can we make curatorial intervention more transparent? What would this look like, in practice, in the gallery space? This prompts a question of whether audiences would (or should) be interested. How can we articulate the importance of curatorial intervention? What kinds of narratives and experiences might we form around it? This is an exciting challenge for curatorial practitioners. Levine also discusses “key responsibilities” of the twenty-first century, concerning power disparities around gender and race. How might perspectives revealed by the #metoo movement, and by decolonising and indigenising work, enrich our understanding of curatorial intervention itself? Levine has contributed a valuable work of scholarship, but also opened fascinating prospects for future practice. There is more than enough for us to get busy with.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64
Curatorial Intervention: History and Current Practices is published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021.

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