Exhibitions as Arguments: Thinking through Contemporary Curation


It was a pleasure to welcome back David Elliott, an esteemed writer, curator, and alumni of The Courtauld, as the Research Forum Visiting Curator. A specialist in Soviet and Russian avant-garde art and modern and contemporary Asian Art, David Elliott has held numerous distinguished appointments throughout his career, most recently serving as the Artistic Director of the 4th Moscow International Bienniale of Young Artists, the Chairman of Triangle Arts Network/Gasworks in London, the Chairman of MOMENTUM in Berlin, and as a Visiting Professor of Curatorship at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. In his lecture, ‘Exhibitions as Arguments: Frameworks for Thinking through Contemporary Art’,  Elliott expounded on the nature of his curatorial practice throughout four exhibitions between 1998 and the present. Citing Hans Hess’s Pictures as Arguments as an integral framework throughout his ventures of curatorial envisioning, David Elliott suggested that exhibitions themselves subsume a rhetorical function as arguments. Elliott maintained that the notion of the artist as a consciousness-raiser and the multiplying discourses of contemporaneity serve to co-articulate the necessity of reexamining aesthetic standards in contemporary art, which exhibitions visualize in their staging of arguments.

In Exhibitions as Arguments, Elliott led the audience along for an international journey throughout his curatorial projects in Stockholm, Tokyo, Sydney, and Kiev, demonstrating the propositional potential of contemporary exhibitions. Without explicitly positing a singular set of values for aesthetic-ethical curatorship, Elliott’s in-depth descriptions of the curatorial ideas and processes behind his four exhibitions made manifest many fundamental tenets of his aesthetic arguments. I found his reflections on his role as the Artistic Director of the 17th Bienniale of Sydney (2008-2010) to be the most compelling example of curating an exhibition to materialize an argument of contemporary aesthetics. The bienniale, which spanned across seven venues throughout Sydney, thematized the indigenous and colonial histories of Australia to ‘take the present very seriously,’ as David Elliott maintained. Drawing inspiration from the maxim ‘all art is folk art,’ the bienniale’s geographically diverse program included works of contemporary art alongside artworks of folk origin. The seven exhibitions questioned both this long-standing division between ‘contemporary’ and ‘folk,’ as well their moments of exchange, such as in colonialism and artistic primitivism. Alongside striking works of ‘indigenous’ art from Australia and an impressive international repertoire of works by artists such as Paul McCarthy, Cai Guo-Qiang, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rodney Graham, Louise Bourgeois, Steve McQueen, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Isaac Julien, Elliott chose to exhibit Jeremy Bentham’s Design for a Panopticon Prison, 1791. Elliott’s explicit reference to Bentham (and Foucault by extension) thus poignantly calls into question both the colonial and penal histories of Australia, as well as the dynamics of power that foreground the production and hegemonic discursivity of art and its history. By critically elucidating these relations of control, Elliott’s exhibit poetically challenged unconscious and conscious points of difference and otherness in contemporary art, arguing for an opening of aesthetics beyond hierarchies of media and master narratives of Eurocentric geopolitics.

Throughout Elliot’s presentation and our virtual visit to his recent international projects, the notion of the exhibition as a form of argumentation became recapitulated as a legion of exciting discursive and aesthetic possibility. Thematizing the exhibition’s function as a mode of transmission between artistic production and broader reception, David Elliot’s presentation conveyed the necessity of examining both the specific and the global in contemporary curation. By formulating exhibitions to function as aesthetic, sociopolitical, and cultural arguments, David Elliott advocated that critical curation draws upon the rich plurality of art and history to reify the potential of confronting and problematizing hegemonic, teleological narratives of value and culture.

Conservation practice as a field of ethical, material and historical investigation

buildingConservation practice has long been kept away from the eyes of the public with museums seeking to draw attention to the aesthetic qualities of objects, which are often presented as seemingly untouched by time. The debate ‘How are Conservation Decisions Reached? The Dialogue between Curator and Conservator’ organised by students of the MA Programme Curating the Art Museum at The Courtauld in collaboration with the Research Forum, formed an attempt to scrutinise the interdisciplinary nature of conservation practices, as well as the collaboration between curator and conservator within an institutional setting. The discussion featured Dean Sully, lecturer in conservation at UCL, Rica Jones, former conservator in Tate’s Conservation Department, and Titika Malkogeorgou, an Associate a thet UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage & Material Studies, who has also been a Visiting Researcher at the V&A. All the speakers attempted to chart the intersections between curatorial and conservation practices, as well as discuss the modes of involving the public in conservation processes.

The event began with each speaker presenting their background and experience within conservation, and was followed by a discussion, first amongst the speakers and then the audience. Dean Sully mapped the traditional assumptions of conservation practice, based on the belief in preserving the physical object’s integrity through scientific enquiry. He also drew attention to the shift that has occurred in conservation practices over the past decade, which positioned the discipline between material and heritage studies. Conservation became therefore divorced from pure material inquiry and its potential to influence collective memory, as well as its ethical charges, have been increasingly scrutinised. This poses a number of challenges to the discipline has to encompass scientific analysis, art history and cultural studies.

While Sully focused on the importance of reaching out towards communities during conservation processes, Rica Jones discussed the relationship between curator and conservator. Speaking from her experience within the conservation department at Tate Britain, Jones noted the shift which occurred in that instituion’s approach towards conservation. While once loans and new acquisitions were given priority or the existing collection, now a more balanced system has been introduced. This system largely relies on the TMS database which lists all works within the museum collection together with a date for the conservation of individual works. This allows curators to plan forthcoming exhibitions and displays more efficiently, while conservators have sufficient time to examine and restore objects. With the rotation of displays every six months, works can be regularly examined. Jones noted that although such innovations as the TMS database have enhanced relationships between curators and conservators, it nevertheless remains essential conservators to inform the curators about changes that have occurred during the conservation process; conversely, it is the responsibility of curators to provide art historical information of importance to the conservation process.

However, it is also important to keep in mind future conservators. Titika Malkogeorgou noted that often conservators working within the same department at a later date will reach different decisions about how to restore objects. Choosing as a case study an eighteenth-century dress which has been in the V&A collections since the 1960s, Malkogeorgou noted that the object has been restored a number of times and each time a different conservation approach was proposed.

In the discussion which followed, the main difference of opinions were in relation to the role of the public in making conservation decisions. While Dean Sully argued for the inclusion of the public in conservation practices so that communities could develop relationships with cultural artefacts, Rica Jones noted that conservation forms a highly specialised field and while the public should be informed about ongoing decisions, transmitting all the specialist information remains difficult. However, the recent display of Joshua Reynolds’s painting The Age of Innocence at the Tate Britain, which was restored by Jones, presented the object alongside a detailed documentation of the conservation processes. The painting, inaccessible to the public for the past decades due to its poor condition, was therefore presented as both an aesthetic and historical object, marking a significant shift in display practices.

The debate focused on a number of issues related to conservation practices which had previously been discussed in public. Without doubt, the event would have benefited from the inclusion of a curator amongst the speakers in order to make the discussion about the relationship between curator and conservator more balanced. However, through bringing together curating students and professional conservators, the debate marked a significant step in the collaboration of both groups within the The Courtauld Institute. A model for such collaboration was the 2010 exhibition Cézanne’s Card Players at The Courtauld Gallery. The catalogue included an essay by conservators from the Courtauld Conservation Department, amply demonstrating how conservation is essential for art historical research and writing and also curatorial practices.