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Heavily curated biennales really bother me as an artist

Reading posts about Documenta and other heavily curated biennales, where the context and content is so strongly and readily defined by the curator, really bothers me as an artist. I feel like curators have overtaken artists when it comes to creating content and meaning, art pieces are reduced to illustrations. By putting pieces in such strong contexts and even commissioning autonomous artist to create site and content specific work, the autonomy of the pieces are lost. Artists start to act like applied artist, coming up with quick verbal solutions, conclusions, jokes and other one-liners. This is not what we autonomous artists should be doing and not what we are specifically good at. The strong verbal culture that is such a force in contemporary curating also starts to mess with the way the artist works and processes ideas. I notice this especially when I teach in art schools. Anyways just my opinion, but I don’t think this a good development and I think it’s time for a good discussion about this.

–Guido van der Werve

*Image of collapsed Ai Wei Wei sculpture at documenta 12 courtesy


According to Peter Osborne all art now is to be considered as neo-conceptual. There’s a lot of reason to agree on this proposition. It has lent the way to a re-arrangement of the relations between artist, curator and exhibition platform, and it has a lot of repercussions regarding authorship to the artistic object.

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Also worthy to note the 2003(!!!) e-flux project, curated with Jens Hoffman, “The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist,” still online here. The project features texts by Liam Gillick, Martha Rosler, Joseph Grigely, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and more.

I agree Guido - very often it feels when submitting proposals for competitions or whatever like you are working to a brief like a designer, or in the case of Biennale and the like, do they even need titles? Why not just have each Venice known by its number, e.g. ‘56th Venice Biennale, Curator: Okwui Enwezor’. I don’t think the ‘All the world’s futures’ stuff helps at all.

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“The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist” - the next Manifesta actually is… but to me it seems that the artist there is using his position to create an even more over-curated event / meaning his own big artistic project.

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Keren Cytter has a solo show right now at the MCA Chicago(a great show by the way) She has two text pieces that mimic in layout and typography a curatorial text, but are actually her art pieces. This pieces confuse and put in tension both the viewer and the curatorship. This great work gives us something to think about on what Guido is saying. Keren Cytter was a great discovery for me!


Can you qualify that statement or is it just a hunch?


I am not aiming to judge in advance, but this article is describing what I mean

… sets out to achieve this with the concept he presented,
“What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures.” It’s informed by his
own practice, in which he regularly engages with various professions,
having previously enlisted telemarketers to sell art at the Cologne Art
Fair, challenged Polish weightlifters to pick up civic monuments, and
worked with preachers, politicians and news anchors, to name just a few.
His plan for Manifesta is to give every participating artist a list
of the professions practiced in Zurich and ask each artist to pick one. A
practitioner of the chosen professions will serve as the artist’s host,
in a sense curating the artist’s experience of Zurich."…


Hey Guido, I’m a fan of your work and I think it’s interesting that you find the role of the ‘expanded’ curator to be not a good development along with the role of the artist as a limiting factor. I used the term expanded because it seems now for biennales and other cultural institutions (like Haus der Kulturen der Welt) there is always this cultural re-historicizing through a kind of fragmentation, wether it be works from artists placed along artifiacts from various time periods, or non-artists who make a kind of work related to their field (thinking of Carl Jung’s Red Book at the last Venice Biennale) that in the end forms some grand narrative in which the artist is already subsumed. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are phenomenal relationships that come out of these exhibitions, but something happens when the artist creates the work about something and the curator fits it into a theme. I don’t know much on the curatorial end of things and would be interested to find out more about the future of curating. Do they just hand it over to the artist? Or does this same type of cultural/historical show just keep happening until the end of time?

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I am a total supporter of artist autonomy in creation, but all the phenomena Guido is reflecting on here need to be viewed in the context of art history and history of artists.
Artist autonomy has never been and is never absolute. To suggest that it can be, is to ignore the economic and social parameters that artists need to negotiated daily explicitly or implicitly when making their work.
Biennales and curators are not entirely new creatures they are just contemporary iterations of art projects and their organisers and those, who commission/orchestrate them. The fact that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is merely an illustration to a Bible story, created and manipulated in terms of content (as we very well know) by those who commissioned it, has not detracted from the genius or the fact that history remembers Michelangelo far more than Pope Clement VII (yes I had to look that up!). Equally Rothko’s great masterpieces were “decorations” for a restaurant…

In a world where realisation of exhibitions, depends as much on ability to raise and attract funding and management ability as it does on artistic merit, curators have emerged as specialists in a field, which artists are often not especially interested in engaging with. The fact that this specialisation deals with large sums of money and those who control it, appears to have given curators leverage over artists. The truth is, history is written by art and artists and there are no curators without artists, while the reverse is definitely not the case. In ars longa vita brevis curators belong to the vita brevis and it is a humbling thought we should all bear in mind.


Hmmm yeah, that sounds a bit worrying. It makes it sound like he’s using the curatorial position to create a grand schema of his own artistic practice, which–why?

Artur Żmijewski’s 2012 Berlin Biennale wasn’t very well received but he did seem to embody the role of the curator in a way that didn’t just expand the resources of his artistic practice. Of course there were threads of similarity, but I feel like it’s possible for artists to curate biennials without being the star of the show, so to speak.

(This is @karenarchey on the Admin account, by the way.)

What exactly does neo-conceptual mean? Curious to hear more about that, especially if it helps structurally redefine existing curator/artist/art object relations.

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I think we’re talking about two issues here now: 1.) that curators control the conceptual conceit of an exhibition, which is oftentimes problematic when curators curate creatively, and run away with that power, and 2.) that curators control the pursestrings. I think the first is a pertinent topic for discussion and also often conflated with the second. In my experience as an “emerging” curator, I rarely get decent or even fair budgets for shows, and being the gopher between a gallery or museum development and artists is painful, especially because I respect that many artists want to set resource minimums for their involvement in exhibitions. I think problem solving these sort of issues between artists and institutions in one very important role of the curator that we can point at.


I agree, because as you mention, the curators are struggling too, as well as artists. Hell we’re all struggling, artists or not. So in my opinion, this “heavy curation” or “rise of the curator” (even the “everything is curated” symptom) signals a sort of precarity, a loss of authorship and ownership experienced by ALL individuals (artists and curators, teachers and construction workers, etc.); it’s an attempt to regain autonomy when a neoliberal capitalist economy has strippped us of all of our worth. I think it’s important to avoid a situation of artists pointing fingers at curators and vice versa–these two groups should be allies, and I would even further argue, they should ally with non-artists/other precarious laborers.

The institution bit is a little more tricky, but related I think. Institutions are in crisis because people are in crisis. Curators (people) have a unique role in the crisis, hopefully figuring out some sort of solution, resolution, or new direction/future.

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The Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India was artist initiated and remains artist curated to adress this issue, amongst other pressing matters, currently facing the Indian art scene. Artists curating artists is not without its own set of problematics, but the conversation is very different in nature. I would say from experience that artists are perhaps more sympathetic towards the autonomy of their fellow artists and are less likely to intellectually coerce or overpower in matters of creative output. To counter this it may be said that artists can foreground their subjectivity whilst the curator has to remain objective and historically accurate in their choices. It seems to be a growing debate and one which may continue for some time, especially in an era when many more artists are beginning to self organise and curate exhibitions of all sizes.

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Sometimes I question the relevancy of the curator in the future of art. It seems to me that is one of those skills that need to be urgently updated to not disappear.

Perhaps Curators should have to be voted into their office. Otherwise if they lack the respect of the artist they supposedly represent, then maybe it is nothing more than an unwelcome method to control art from saying what it might say on it own. It just seems like an unnecessary layer of authority given to them by who?

Couldn’t agree more. I’m a cartoonist/illustrator. I now go away from social media and create mini zines that I give hand to hand to whoever I meet.