New Modes of Curating and Presenting Craft - An introduction to the craft of exhibition making

Article  /  Debates   Making   Curating
Published: 26.05.2015
New Modes of Curating and Presenting Craft - An introduction to the craft of exhibition making.
André Gali
Edited by:
Norwegian Crafts
Edited at:

© By the author. Read Copyright.

This text is an excerpt from Crafting Exhibitions, the third volume in the series Documents on Contemporary Crafts. The series is published by Norwegian Crafts, and offers critical reflection on contemporary crafts, seeking to stimulate critical discourse within the field of crafts.
Excerpt from the book Crafting Exhibitions
André Gali, 2015
Norwegian Crafts

‘The leading questions [in many discussions on contemporary art] have been how ideas are manifested spatially, negotiated contextually and mediated publicly.’(1)

Curatorial discourse has been an increasingly important aspect of contemporary art for more than 50 years. In the 1960s the German term Ausstellungsmacher and the French faiseur d’expositions were introduced into the critical language surrounding the institution of art. According to Paul O’Neill, these terms served to emphasize the emerging role of the freelance curator as a maker of large-scale, independent group exhibitions outside the museum structure. (2) With this, it seems like a new mode of thinking about exhibitions emerged, and that the curator took on a new role as an ‘author’ of exhibitions. Renowned curators from the early days of curatorial discourse were Harald Szeemann, Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén and Seth Siegelaub. With these independent exhibition makers, each with his own particular curatorial signature, the ‘exhibition form’ was reflected on and ‘treated as a medium in and of itself’. (3)

Szeemann’s exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information) at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, can serve as an example of this new role for the curator. The exhibition is famous within the field of curatorial discourse, so much so that it was reconstructed in Fondazione Prada at Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice, in 2013. (4) Here a great number of artworks were grouped together to serve a narrative that Szeemann had conceptualized, making the works appear as sharing artistic interests and concerns and thus belonging to an art historical tendency. In the case of When Attitudes Become Form, rather than just selecting existing works, the artists were asked to make works especially for the exhibition, sometimes creating them in the actual exhibition space (this curatorial structure was also used in several other exhibitions at the time).

When talking about exhibitions, it is urgent to understand what an exhibition is. The word ‘exhibition’ has roots in legal terminology – the display of evidence in a court of law. The evidence can consist of documents or some sort of physical object, for instance a weapon, used to try to prove that a defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime of which he or she is accused. The exhibited evidence is provided for the jury to inspect and evaluate, and it can either strengthen or weaken the defendant’s defence. Turning to art exhibitions; the exhibited works serve as evidence of an overall narrative. An important aspect, in my opinion, is the jury who evaluate the objects, and in the context of an art exhibition, the jury could consist of art critics and/or the public. The exhibition can be perceived as the medium through which works of art become meaningful. And it has to do with presenting them to the public.

Before the curator emerged as an independent agent introducing an individual narrative, the narrative in an exhibition (of whatever sort) was presented as an authoritative truth. This is still the case in many museums today. The emergence of the freelance curator or ‘curator as free agent’ thus implies that there are no absolute truths about art, or the world, and that there can only be suggestions. We could also say that new truths are produced through curating. As Mary Anne Staniszewski puts it, ‘selecting what is included and excluded is one way in which culture is produced’. (5) The exhibition is thus a medium that constantly produces new cultural narratives.

At any rate, the exhibition is not a neutral medium, as Elena Filipovic points out. She describes how the exhibition has served different ideological positions, as ‘a machine for the manufacture of meaning, a theatre of bourgeois culture, a site for disciplining of citizen-subjects, or a mise-en-scène of unquestioned values (linear time, teleological history, master narratives)’. (6) Many of today’s curatorial strategies question the idea of a master narrative, thus presenting the exhibition medium as a discursive statement in an ongoing history of exhibitions.

The question of whether or not the exhibition is a neutral medium came to the fore last autumn in connection with Craft 2014, an annual, juried exhibition administrated by the Norwegian Association for Art and Crafts. The exhibition was held at KODE – Art Museums of Bergen, and gained distinction through fostering a debate on the relationship between exhibition design and artworks. The exhibition room was covered in tagging made by local graffiti artists. This was the idea of the exhibition designer, since the annual show is not curated. Most critics despised Craft 2014, arguing that the works had to fight with the exhibition design for viewers’ attention; they missed the experience of good artworks due to the tagging’s brutal expression.

Installation view, Crafts 2014 at KODE – Art Museums in Bergen. In front: Therese Hoen: I’ve read that too much traveling is a waste of time, 2013/14, in middle from left to right: Ingjerd Mandt: Terrin I & II, 2014, Sofia Koryfilis: Bare bøy, 2014, Magrete Loe Elde: Tøy I, II & III, 2014, in back from left to right: Hanne Øverland: Under-Inni, 2014, Kirsten Opem: Uten tittel, 2013, Gitte Magnus: Biedermeier- og polkagriser, 2014. Exhibition design: Morten & Jonas. Photo: André Gali

Øystein Hauge, art critic in the leading local newspaper, Bergens Tidende, wrote in his review that ‘This frame is in danger of making everything we see seem stupid’. (7) Art critic Sigrun Hodne, writing for the national weekly Morgenbladet, followed Hauge in his antipathy towards the exhibition design, underscoring that most of the works were great, had they not been forced to do battle with such a terrible visual environment. In her review ‘Craft in Battle’, she wrote: ‘I will go as far as to say that the exhibition design is mocking the artist’. (8)

As sort of a closure to the controversy, art critic Erlend Hammer wrote in his review ‘Design Boost’ in Kunsthåndverk 4/ 2014, that it is impossible to overlook the fact that ‘the exhibition is characterized by what can be called a confrontational, interventional curatorial model. (9)

Hammer, like many others, read the exhibition design as the choice of a curator. It was not, but that fact may not have made much difference since many artists, critics and curators seem to expect, and anticipate, that craft exhibitions should put the works in the centre of attention and downplay the surroundings. This seems to be a general way of perceiving crafts exhibitions; craft objects should either be presented in the (supposedly neutral) white cube, or, following the logic of the decorative art museum, in glass vitrines and on plinths. These two dominant modes of curating and presenting crafts are rarely challenged by spectacular exhibitions or signature-curators. In my opinion, the exhibition of craft suffers from the idea that there is (and should be) no curation, or that there is a particular way of curating and displaying that is almost neutral. Objects are displayed as singular phenomena with little or no relation to other objects. Only to a minor degree is the exhibition discussed as an ‘object’ in its own right. Nor is there much discussion about the exhibition as medium, how it communicates or what it does.

As Elene Filipovic puts it, ‘an exhibition isn’t only the sum of its artworks, but also the relationships created between them, the dramaturgy around them, and the discourse that frames them’. (10)

Exhibition as medium
If Craft 2014 was defined by its opposition between objects and exhibition design, Martino Gamper’s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, Design Is a State of Mind, was defined by its holistic quality. It worked on many levels, and there was fruitful interplay between the details and the show as a whole.

What Gamper did, as he told Wallpaper, (11) was simply to show ‘interesting things collected by interesting people on interesting shelves’. He selected many different shelves, many of them one-offs, from designers such as Franco Albini, Ettore Sottsass, Ponti, Andrea Branzi, Michele De Lucchi and Vico Magistretti, Charlotte Perriand, Alvar Aalto for Artek, Vitsoe and Ercol. He also included some of his own shelves and a few from Ikea. On the shelves he put collections of objects borrowed from ‘friends, friends of friends, tutors and students’ – people who Gamper knew were ‘inveterate hoarders of inspirational objects’. (12)

Martino Gamper, installation view, design is a state of mind. Left to right: Ignazio Gardella: Bookcase 1970, Wood, black lacquered metal. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Objects courtesy of Mats Theselius. Andrea Branzi: Wall bookshelf 2011, Toulipiè, crystal. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Objects courtesy of Daniel Eatock. Osvaldo Borsani: L 60 1946, Metal, teak. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Objects courtesy of Rupert Blanchard. Michele De Lucchi: Montefeltro 2008, Oak frame, walnut elements, linseed oil. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Photograph: © 2014 Hugo Glendinning

Martino Gamper, installation view, design is a state of mind. Left to right: Gaetano Pesce: Nobody’s Shelves Short Body 2002, Coloured polyurethane resin. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Martino Gamper: L'Arco della Pace 2009, Coloured veneer, poplar plywood. Courtesy of Martino Gamper. Co-produced by Museion, Bolzano, Italy and Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, Italy. Giò Ponti: Altamira 1950-1953, Oak. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Claudio Salocchi: Bookcase 1960, Metal, lacquered wood. Courtesy of Nilufar Gallery. Photograph: © 2014 Hugo Glendinning

His efforts resulted is an amazing aesthetic experience of each collection of objects. The exhibition showed a designer’s sensibility for display, and this is something that is often lacking in exhibitions of fine art and crafts. Gamper caused the exhibition itself to become a work of art – or maybe we should say craft, since it was ‘crafted’ so well. It was personal. It had a kind of narrative structure the audience could walk through – from shelf to shelf, from collection to collection. The shelves were interesting in themselves as aesthetically designed objects, and also with regard to the concept of colleting, but they were only really fulfilled by the items placed upon them. The way the shelves were organized in relation to each other offered multiple ways of moving about the exhibition.

Context is everything
A display need not have static surroundings or be the end product of a curatorial process. It can also involve various modes of interaction with the public. This point was proven by the exhibition BACK. Everything Must Go! at Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg last year. The exhibition was created specifically for the museum by fashion designer Ann-Sofie Back, in connection with her winning the prestigious Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize. Normally the winners of this prize show a retrospective presentation of their works, but Back seized the opportunity to make the ‘shop of her dream’ (13) – a conceptual store with a range of products specially made for the exhibition and closely linked to several of the clothing collections she had designed over the years. These products, which were for sale during the exhibition, where displayed in a kind of variety store setting using aesthetics and colours usually associated with cheapness.

Anne Sofie Back: BACK! Everything Must Go! Photo: Carl Oliver Ander, Röhsska museet

Characteristic for Back’s exhibition display was the use of posters with catch phrases like ‘Everything must go’ and ’Only 99 kr’, etc. The products, from soap and condoms to sunglasses and thongs, were exhibited alongside examples of key garments from some of Back’s collections. The whole store was framed by a see-through metal grid structure that differentiated Back’s exhibition space from the rest of the museum.

The store’s cheap look, which was reinforced by the display and promotion of products as bargains, stood in contrast to the fashion logic linked with brand names (in this case Back), and with the cultural logic that treats the museum as a space for high culture. Conceptually then, Back’s exhibition challenged two notions of display: the fashion display we expect to see in luxury stores and on the cat walk, and the type of display we expect to see in museums. Through juxtaposing sign systems, this exhibition undermined conventions of display and emphasized how the framing of a product – as soap, fashion or a work of art – is significant for the cultural and economic value of that product.

Thinking about how to present art to the public
A somewhat unusual exhibition that has challenged the notion of exhibition making and put the exhibition medium in the spotlight was the 2014 show for students earning a ‘Master of Visual Art’ degree at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO). The title for this exhibition was a sentence borrowed from Michel Foucault’s book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Foucault refers to a text by Jorge Luis Borges that challenges the notion of taxonomy. (As I understand it, it was meant as an analogy for discussions within the craft field, on how to define what one is doing):
[A] ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.(14)

At the beginning of the 2013/14 school year, freelance curator Marianne Zamecznik – hired by KHiO to curate the graduation show for Master students in what was then known as the Visual Arts department (15)  – asked the students to imagine what their most apt graduation show would look like: what would serve their project best in terms of display? She then asked them to realize that show. Each student made his or her individual project during the course of the school year and had the option of either creating a model for how to exhibit it and facilitate the public’s experience of it, or to follow through and present the actual work to the public. The students did not need to do a white cube exhibition, and several chose particular venues for presenting their projects. One student presented a battle rap at the avant-garde jazz bar Blå, another collaborated with a church, asking the priest to discuss her works in a sermon. A third chose to curate two shows – one in her vacated apartment, the other in a designer shop. And so on.

In this way, the students were forced to think no only about creating their work, but about display, presentation, venue and how to enable the public to experience it. This approach activated the idea that a work of art first becomes so when it is exhibited or presented to an audience.

Exhibition as avatar
When the students’ degree show finally opened in KHiO’s own gallery space in June 2014, what was on display was not the original projects, but a sort of retelling of the projects they had created during the school year. These retellings or representations Zamecznik called ‘avatars’.

The word avatar is perhaps best known from the Hollywood movie Avatar (2009). In it, a human soldier goes to another planet and assumes the shape of an alien being as a means to infiltrate that species. Although the word has lately been used to refer to a virtual world – meaning a virtual representation of a real person – this stands in contrast to the word’s more originary meaning. In Sanskrit, an avatāra is a manifestation of a Hindu deity who has descended to earth, becoming incarnate in either human or animal form.

The exhibition seemed to correspond to both meanings: as a concept that comes to life or is materialized (parallel to the deity becoming earthly), and as a reality that becomes conceptual / virtual through its representation. Regardless of how one chooses to interpret the concept of the avatar, the exhibition addressed complex questions about representation, display and the taxonomy of contemporary craft.

Installation view, from the graduation show for Master Degree students at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) 2014, curated by Marianne Zamecznik. Signe Arnborg Løvaas’ graduate works. Photo: André Gali


Crafting Exhibitions is the third volume in the series Documents on Contemporary Crafts. The series is published by Norwegian Crafts, and offers critical reflection on contemporary crafts, seeking to stimulate critical discourse within the field of crafts.
Crafting Exhibitions is published in collaboration with Arnoldsche Art Publishers.

In this book we are introduced to some of the processes that go into making an exhibition, from developing concepts to the physical realization. The four curators contributing to this book is Glenn Adamson, Maria Lind, Marianne Zamecznik and Anne-Britt Ylvisåker. They offer very different approaches to the craft of exhibition making, showing some of the possibilities and challenges of working with the medium of the exhibition.

[1] Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy: What About Collecting?, in Jens Hoffmann (ed.) Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2013, p. 58.
[2] Paul O’Neill: The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture, London: MIT Press, 2012, p. 14.
[3] Ibid, p. 16.
[4] (visited 13 February 2015)
[5] Paul O’Neill: The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture, London: MIT Press, 2012, p. 40.
[6] Elena Filipovic: What is an Exhibition? in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating (ed. Jens Hoffmann), Milan: Mousse Publishing, Fiorucci Art Trust, 2013, p. 74-75.
[7] Øystein Hauge: Kunsthåndverkets uutholdelige letthet, Bergens Tidende 19 October 2014.
[8] Sigrun Hodne: Kunsthåndverk i kamp, Morgenbladet 17 October 2014.
[9] Erlend Hammer: Designløftet, Kunsthåndverk 4/ 2014.
[10] Elena Filipovic: What is an Exhibition? in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating (ed. Jens Hoffmann), Milan: Mousse Publishing, Fiorucci Art Trust, 2013, p. 75.
[11] (visited 13 January 2015)
[12] Ibid.
[13] (last visited 11 February 2015)
[14] Michel Foucault: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London: Routledge, 1970, p. xv.
[15] The department changed its name to ‘Art and Craft’ in autumn 2014.