Neither are what they seem

Review of exhibition, Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art, Barbican Art Gallery, London
Broadsheet Vol . No . CACSA, 2008

Extended version published in 2009 by Be Magazine, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany

Some fifty years ago the contemporary art curator as we know them scarcely existed. There were individuals at work, who, on the surface looked quite a lot like our presentday curators, who thought about, proselytized for, and worked with artists. They may have been writers, curators, collectors, critics: Guggenheims, Greenbergs, Bretons, Szeemans, or DeMarcos. But despite surface similarities, they were profoundly different.

At the same time we have witnessed the rise of a global hegemonic art market and contemporary practices have become increasingly unanchored from the ontological or political debates that once motivated them, and are transformed into consumables on the shopping list of capital. Of course, to one degree or another this has always happened, with significant private collections of art being assembled over the last century, but the extent that the markets have grown and the agendas become hypothetical or unreal have accelerated in the period following the collapse of the Iron curtain. The concrete presence of an oppositional system (no matter how grim and oppressive) served to anchor the possibility of change, (no matter how tenuously) into the 'real'. Now social, political, spiritual or cultural revolution - in any combination - becomes increasingly hallucinatory.

At the same time this mythos of art as something critical or transformative becomes itself a thing that it is sold, The concerns are not necessarily important, they can, address the gastarbeiter, the ecology, exciting forms of the transgressive, the aesthetic, the homeless, the abject, the museum, as long as they seem critical and seeking change, not dissimilar to the way that the CIA supported the dissemination of Abstract Expressionism as though it represented an arguable essence of 'freedom'. The artwork becomes a signifier of debate, politics. criticism, oppositional practices are replaced with practices that claim the rhetoric of 'opposition', but which exist happily in the worlds of the art fair, the museum, and the academy. New works become new lines in the market place. Given that these are now unanchored, floating, there is a need for an art-work to be fast authoritised as 'meaningful' and 'contemporary' by the dominant cultural matrix, especially as many of the people whose money is driving the market know little about art themselves, so mechanisms and operations of authorization and mythmaking are constructed. One of the most significant of these has been through the thousands of new curators and curatorial courses around the world. Their expansion has tracked the expansion of the market, and has produced new structures to allow the faster processing of product (artists and art work) to deliver it, with a degree of risk removed, to the market-place. The approaches and outcomes tend to be formulaic as the structure is far more important than what is contained within. The normative narratives of the curating courses allows new product to be introduced, subsumed and articulated: for a canon to be defined where the edifices of contemporary curation are a necessary part of the construction of a foundation myth. This is made bleakly clear in the increasing number of curators who move without shame or hesitation from the construction of 'critical' 'oppositional' or 'transgressive' cultural events to become the paid advisors to extremely rich collectors on purchasing strategies to maximize the sexiness of their investment. An investment which in turn gives monetary weight to the opinions of the curator.

It's a fragile tentative delusional edifice and it is hardly surprising that other narratives and strategies are being explored to try and mess with this. Recently there has been a growth of strategies that seem to broadcast their artificiality, their lack of relationship to 'relevance' and the 'real'. In this refusal they have echoed the approaches and solutions of a certain number of artists reacting to similar conditions.

A recent posting on e-flux for a show at Magasin 3 Stockholm described how in 2008, art is crawling with 'witches, shamen and sacrificial rites' and that phrases 'narrative elements' and 'fictional worlds' are significant tendencies in contemporary art.

In 2000 I conceived the 2002 Sydney Biennale '(The World May Be) Fantastic' to represent work by artists who in one way or another dealt with narratives, fictions and meta-fictions, promiscuous hypothesis and subjective worlds. Instead of witches it featured flying saucers, visiting aliens, time-travellers and Richard Nixon. At the time this material was seen as rather marginal and eccentric, outside the concerns and discourses of Serious Critical Experimental Practice as understood in the commentaries of the art-world and of the academia. Certainly for all the talk of hybridity and the end of unitary narratives, its actualization in the form of a show rather than an essay was found by some to be without weight: some responses at the time - particularly those linked to the establishment academic avant-garde - found the artists, the work, and the exhibition, indulgent, irrelevant, and, worse of all, 'not political'.

There weren't many examples of large-scale institutional exhibitions that could be considered pataphysical precursors. 'Abracadabra' at the Tate Gallery in 1999 was described by curator Simon Wilson as identifying 'new spirit of "fantasy, humour, invention and provocation applied to the everyday world and everyday life". Susan Hiller's 1999 'Dream Machines', a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition - but one conceived and developed by an artist operating outside the institution - examined contemporary art in terms of altered states of consciousness and fugue, both as trigger, representation and outcome. Further from the institutional centre was the 1995 exhibition 'Pretext Heteronyms',, staged by the collective Rear Window in London, which took the example of Portuguese writer Ferdinand Pessoa as a starting point where artists were invited to create another artist - a heteronym - with their own individual concerns and history, and then exhibited the works created by this fiction.

Although exhibitions focusing on the fictional and alternative structurings of reality are now becoming more commonplace - White Cube recently had a show about contemporary artists and Edgar Allan Poe, the end of year exhibition by students on the Royal College of Art post-graduate curating course investigated ways that artists narrate and use subjective, unreliable, constructions of history and experience - it is still uncommon for contemporary art curators to let such approaches shape a project.

The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at the Barbican Center in London moved further forward in having a fantastic (literary) premise. It presented itself as an anthropological enterprise put together by Martian Curators who come from a culture that happily manages without the domain of art or aesthetics, for an extra-terrestrial audience. To this end it groups art-works in taxonomies that are informed by the ethnographic perspectives of Martian anthropological practice. This was, as the publication conceded, 'a conceit' in the old fashioned literary sense of an 'extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs an entire poem or poetic passage'.

In the introduction to the publication curators Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee talked of how the Martian Museum employs 'eccentric taxonomies' to create "unconventional groupings of objects and unusual juxtapositions". The work was arranged in the categories of Kinship and Descent, Magic and belief, Communication, and Ritual. Within these were sub-categories such as Ancestor Worship, Spells and Charms, Ceremonial Objects and Cultural Contact. Lurking behind this organisation we can detect the presence of Borges' Chinese Encyclopedia, which, Foucault claimed, 'shattered all the familiar landscapes of his thought'. In the (probably fictional) volume described by the writer, animals are categorized as: a) those that belong to the Emperor, b) embalmed ones, c) those that are trained. d) suckling pigs, e) mermaids, f) fabulous ones, g) stray dogs, h) those included in the present classification, i) etcetera..As you'd expect, given its quotation in the Foucault's Order of Things, this text has become a reference in museum studies courses and given rise to numerous 'playful' fiddlings and critiques of exhibition methodology.

In many ways the project was an academic exercise in a tired academic post modernist humour, which happened to have some brilliant artists in it. In other ways it managed to be genuinely destabalising

People have problems with dumb: they want the serious to look serious; the dumb to remain dumb and get quite upset about any confusion between the two.To cause confusion is to bring entire hierarchies into doubt. The writer for the Murdoch owned Sunday Times wrote of the Martian Museum "Although this jokiness results in some moments of decent artistic amusement, it leads, in the end, to an unacceptable betrayal of art's seriousness...The immense hubris of the curators keeps leading to crass cultural misjudgments. In their urge to smirk and wink, they make it impossible for the profundity of any work in the show to shine through. And he went on to describe it as "an outrageous display of curatorial arrogance". His response is a distaste of the consequences of making mischief of the categories of 'serious' curation and of the orderings of art. Rather like the teacher at school who correctly sees in a certain sort of 'only' joking a serious possibility of anarchy he can allow no leeway.

The energies of 'play' lie beyond the reach of legislation, they are protean, mischievous, mercurial, and make mockery of singular unitary readings, of authority. And here we can see that fictions, fakes and hypotheses might indeed be political, and that they might, just for a moment offer ways that curators and curatorial projects, rather than joining in the constructions of (empty) value might for a moment delay them, mess with them, by scoffing, parodying and devaluing the mechanisms. Much of the practice of the last century had the intention of ushering radical political or social change only to end up in the collections of fund managers bankers and face-lift financiers or in the University or Museum. In a hesitant, geeky self-referential, and yes, academic, way, a project like the Martian Museum momentarily suggests that there might be ways for curators to reclaim and reanimate some of the generosity and disruptive possibilities of oppositional practices outside the tired re-iterations of a curatorial hegemony and an establishment avant-garde.

© Richard Grayson 2009