To curate is to take care of
at 7:17pm on 8th September 2011


I begin by deciding to think about curating at a certain distance from how contemporary art presents itself today, not only because I am an outsider to the field, having had no formal training and only several years of experience practicing it, but also because I presume this thinking as an exercise may benefit from the temporary suspension of the polemical discourses that have come to regulate and rigidify the relationship between artists and curators. I must quickly add, however, that this distance is always watched over by a proximity to art itself, so that the distance is not cleared of its vested interest.

The etymology of the word “curate” conveys care- the care of minors and lunatics, and the care of souls. Curating as caring, therefore, should not be evaluated on the scale of originality and creativity, which has been one of the most frequently cited, though highly contestable, criteria of evaluating works of art. Even when caring entails creativity (by that I mean flexibility of thinking in terms of an idea, issue, problem and its solution), it is not defined and fulfilled by it: caring does not complete its obligation by being creative. Curating must be evaluated in a different scale from that of art- the quality and nature of the care required and provided.

Caring presupposes an object or objects to be taken care of. One may be inclined to say that the curator-carer takes “exhibitions” or “shows” as her proper objects of care. I would like to propose otherwise. While the curator-carer declares the exhibition open and present with the statement “curated by,” the exhibition is something that has culminated over time and as an occasion upon and in terms of which the curator-carer announces her performative presence . This way of engaging with the exhibition is always already preceded by caring, a broader and more primary promise, even if it remains silent and invisible. This is the caring of the material and symbolic conditions that make the exhibition itself and the curator-carer’s presence as engagement possible. It is these conditions that offer themselves as objects of care for the curator-carer, not primarily the exhibition. The curator-carer therefore, must first and foremost take care of the works of art, for without them, the exhibition would not have been. The declaration of “curated by” may then be qualified as “curated by, for and after these works of art.” That is, the works of art always already have a life (duration, location, presence) that is in excess of the exhibition, a culturally and historically contingent way of displaying art . This life is indifferent to the exhibition, has lived before it and will continue to despite it.

When particular works of art are content with upholding an integrity relevant to the artist only, as personal expression and need to materialize that expression for himself/ herself , the carer is the artist herself. There will be no social role for the curator-carer. There are works of art, however, that seek a public life. This public life can be a place, fixated on a form, which could be archivable, or be part of an existing discourse or productive of a new one. At the moment the art acquires this life or seeks to do so, the opportunity of a different kind of care than the one that is relevant to the artists’ own worlds arises. To take care of the works is also to take care of their public life.

The care of the public life of art works, however, does not exclusively belong to the curator-carer, for public life in general is much more diverse than what she can delineate and master. By public life, I mean both the physical space and the conceptual space the works are situated in, refer and relate to. The public life of works of art always already intersects with the public lives of other things, processes, people, and events, as well as ideas, dreams, fears and hopes. Together, in their diversity and difference, they constitute the public. Ideally the public life of works of art should be the object of care for everyone participating in public life. Ideally, works of art demand the public concern themselves with and take an interest in the works. Ideally, works of art always already engages in or produces a certain relationship with the public they encounter. The public becomes the carer for the public life of the art- the art is its public life.

The quality and nature of this public in which works of art find themselves are embedded have come under much scrutiny in recent years. John Dewey says the intimacy between the works of art, their producers and whoever comes into contact with them is lost in the “impersonality of the world market.” As a result, an “esthetic ‘individualism’” emerges. He says, “In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, [artists] often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity. Consequently artistic products take on to a still greater degree the air of something independent and esoteric.” The circulation of exchange value is not only firmly and long established, but sped up. Pierre Bourdieu warns that the hard-won independence of the artistic field as a form of cultural production is being “subject to the verdicts of those who dominate mass media production, especially by way of the hold they exert over major channels of distribution,” which are in turn governed by “laws of profit” and “the rule of money and interest.” In Hong Kong, art practitioners find the public “not so caring” and “shrinking” , in face of which art asserts strongly the “private” and its right to display it as a demonstration of disapproval of the violation of art’s “privacy” . In face of an existing undesirable public life, art faces the risk of accelerated death.

What could caring become under these circumstances? In face of threat, one ducks or becomes defensive, building a fortress around what she wants to take care of in the name of “protecting” it. But the carer is not just a caretaker who guards entrances and exits, scanning for and barring undesirable elements that put Security under threat, by routinely closing the doors. The measure of “protection” in effect deprives the works of art the public life they seek, which originally is the proper area of care for the curator-carer. To take care of the public life of works of art requires giving time to that which is being cared for. Giving time requires slowing down; slowing down requires discipline. It is only in time that the significance (affective, intellectual, aesthetic) of the works of art for the public and vice versa would become free to reveal itself. The work of the carer is to make the works the significant other of the public and vice versa.

Artists may not like to themselves or their works to be taken care of, for, among other reasons, they have reasons to believe to be taken care of today means to be institutionalized. (Consider the prevalence of the institution of the hospital as the “proper” carer!) To refuse it, on the other hand, is to trash benevolence. (There are serious problems in authority disguising itself as benevolent, but I must not detour here.) These forms of institutionalized care have been historically identified with the material and symbolic power of white male supremacy. The discourses of competing authorship, territorial disputes, frontier breaking, and compulsory rationalistic approaches of curating are all masculinist discourses. To contest these terms of defining curating is to return care of the emotional to it. This is not to subsume the work of care back to the line of “femininity” in order to justify the unequal social division of labor between the male and female. My point is that if curating abides by caring, and this aspect of curating has not been part of the discourse because of its apparent “feminine” hence lesser character, it may benefit from being organized in imagination and practice in different ways. Institutionalization organizes art in certain ways, but organization does not necessitate institutionalization.

Caring requires not only the unilateral contribution of the carer, but also that of those being taken care of, who must learn to enjoy slightly stepping back, and live with a certain suspension of autonomy. This suspension is not submission to as the result of subjugation by an overpowering authority, for to regard the moment of caring as such is precisely to fix and strengthen that very authority. Rather, suspension of autonomy is an active surrendering to the Other. It is about having to say Yes in the most genuine way before being able to say No .

To take care of implies the hand in a gesture of embrace. I have learnt from one curator in Hong Kong that one must avoid serving red wine in exhibition openings because it could cause permanent stains on art works if spilled. I see this as an example of good practice of the hand. After all, to take care of is consisted in legwork, and lots of it - running around inspecting the exhibition site, making sure the light bulbs are working, the proof reading is done, the signage is clear, the artists are not hungry. The hand, according to Martin Heidegger, “does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes – and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries.” What is inscribed in the hand is precisely care, hence the common phrase “in good hands”. To subsume care of the hand under the ideology of manipulation is to reduce the meaning of care into instrumental thinking.

Caring also implies a particular way of attending as not applying a hierarchical and controlling eye, but, according to another curator, a comportment of “not being too close to artists.” I believe he doesn’t mean refusing friendship to maintain a kind of aloof disinterested objectivity - an impossible and unrealistic and undesirable goal. It could mean, though, in the context of that collaboration (in an exhibition or other forms of public life of the art), a kind of opening is always maintained by the carer, to assert the possibility of the works of art beyond how the artists like them to be approached or beyond their being mere extensions of the artists’ lives. This special attending is consisted in the ability to disidentify and defamiliarize with the works, despite liking and appreciating them so much.

Lastly, as if this is already not too much to ask for, the carer must regard herself as the primary conservationist of the art works. To conserve is not to accumulate without discrimination. It is however to be able to secure the art first, in order that the possibility of conservation driven by an empathy of the future is kept open. We have seen how little care has been applied to heritage conservation, that of the built environment and that open space it hews out. The same with the caring of art - not only are the works made objects of care and conservation, but also the possibilities they refer to, the open space they hew out. The carer doesn’t know all, but by being close to the works, he/she is in one of the best positions to safeguard the future possibilities of the works, to keep them open. Instead of the guardian of closed doors, he/she is the carer of the open path.

To take care of what is dearly cherished, one gets, understandably, extremely and excessively nervous. To take care of must make sure this endearing does not suffocate that which is under its care. This is a relation that requires not the two sides look into each others’ eyes, but towards the same direction. The carer therefore finds herself balancing between making oneself extremely small, even unnoticeable, but not so small as to losing one’s foothold, and making oneself very big, as big as with a stretch of arms, the expansive field of the specific defensible position is still in reach, but not so big as to end up encountering only oneself. It is holistic care, not compartmentalized duties, that curating entails.

Caring is not governed by the same kind of freedom as making art, hence will not acquire freedom as power by claiming or demanding it from art. The reverse is also true. But by acknowledging their own frames of reference, they empower themselves by keeping open, for themselves, an honest space, which will, in the long run, allow each other to be honest, too. No one is no one else’s victim. No one is no one else’s object of nostalgia.

I say without shame what I have outlined here is partly based on some dreamy ideal. I also propose without shame that without peregrinations in thinking, beginning again may not have been possible.

This article was published in 'Who Cares? 16 Essays on Curating in Asia', Para/Site Artspace, Studio Bibliotheque ad seed | projects: Hong Kong, 2010.

A longer version of this article was presented in the International Conference on “Globalization: Cultures, Institutions and Socioeconomics”, Chinese University of Hong Kong and University of Washington in St Louis, 2008.

An abridged version of this essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue of Talkover/Handover, 1a space: Hong Kong, 2007.