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A new history of the exhibition as critical form


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At Hyperallergic, Frances Richard reviews the book Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form Since 1968 by James Voorhies, published earlier this year by MIT Press. In the book, Voorhies, a curator and art historian, surveys five decades of prominent exhibitions that sought to bend the established protocols of art institutions towards critical ends. As Richard observes, one key insight of Voorhies’s book is that institutions can be spaces for critical reflection only if their protocols are constantly reimagined, so that patterns of thinking and exhibiting do not ossify and grow complacent. Read an excerpt from the review below, of the full text here.

The second aspect of Voorhies’s study draws explicitly on Rancière’s ideas while surveying his influence on a generation of art- and exhibition-making. Voorhies does this by appraising the curatorial modality known as New Institutionalism. The name, he explains, “never caught on, [though] its activity is part of the general landscape of contemporary art today.” It emerged in the early 1990s, “signaling a renewed confidence in the effectiveness of institutions,” and has affected “economics, sociology, and even Christianity.” In art, it represents an outgrowth of institutional critique and relational aesthetics. But, “whereas institutional critique generally pitted the artist against the institution, on a temporary basis confined to exhibition parameters and catalogues, New Institutionalism absorbs this mode of inquiry as a continuous form of autocritique.” In practice, this involves now-familiar initiatives in which artists and critics are invited into an institution to advise, propose, and design alongside curators, with “research, periodic journals, radio programs, television stations, lectures, libraries, seminars, and workshops […] put on equal footing with what happens inside the gallery.”

Voorhies is a curator and art historian who has been Director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, and is now Dean of Fine Arts at the California College of the Arts (where I teach). He is also organizer of the Bureau for Open Culture, a hub for conversations and publications (among them the 2016 anthology, which Voorhies edited, What Ever Happened to New Institutionalism?). So he practices what he preaches — and he is exhorting New Institutionalism as well as historicizing it, emphasizing that “the critical attitude […] must perform a constant reworking before it sets into institution and becomes the subject of its original scrutiny, because capitalism lurches forward and critique must move along.”

Image: “Americana,” Group Material, 1985.