From Studio to Exhibition
Bruce Altshuler remarks that during Harald Szeemann’s notable exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969) the curator turned the galleries of the Kunsthalle Bern into a studio.1It is notable that in Germano’s Celant’s ‘reassembly’ of the exhibition for the Prada Foundation this dynamic is inverted. This may indicate to the viewer a kind of radical conservatism at work, but it should perhaps be seen as a deep and complex exercise in stasis as a curatorial method. As such, it is in counterpoint with the work discussed here; counter-installation or uninstallation. The curator need not always to be a conservator, perhaps. Much is written about Szeemann’s ‘authorial’ exhibitions, which, together with other seminal curators, such as Willem Sandberg, Pontus Hulten and Lucy Lippard were instrumental in changing the face of exhibition-making.2Installation in writing, or Writing Installation, finds one of its (plural) founding definitions in Lippard’s Six Years. Despite the book’s subtitular ‘dematerialization of the art object’, it is curious to see in retrospective the very vocal nature of the materials she discusses, and how these materials were subject to such an enthused early form of what we now call installation. I think, most immediately and forcefully, of her account of an exhibition that took place at Wyndham College in Vermont in 1968. Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre and Robert Barry were invited to produce work, but with only a very limited budget they assembled large, outdoor ‘translations’ of their forms and methods; using bales of hay, nylon cord and other such materials. But this exhibition was, in a sense, a kaleidoscopic replica of another exhibition held at Bradford College, Massachusetts a couple of months previously. This exhibition (‘organized’ by Douglas Huebler. We might now use the word ‘curated’) was of work by the same artists, but made using their ‘normal’ materials; painting and zinc plates and so on. Lippard’s account describes these acts of installation and translation, but her text also installs the quick exchange between the participants and their practices, and installs this work in a fertile historical record. In regards to the ambit of reference in historical writing it almost does so in the manner of Carl Andre replacing his habitual tiles with bales of hay, and a gallery floor with the surface complexity of a field.
But little comment is made of the gallery as studio, a place where the artist, rather than the curator, dwells;3But if the curator need not be conservator, then it should be said that he need not dwell in a conservatory. However, behind the word (in its French sense, where classical music is preserved and practiced, or in its English sense as gallery in which delicate plants might grow) there is, secretly, the guarding of a space for practice. of course we now know that this place, as every other locus of creative activity, is far from the simple space of singular, individual expression of other times. It would not be enough to blame this loss of homeliness or innocent purpose on a rapacious market; but rather, we might consider that the space-invasion brought about by the rise of Installation art made a significant contribution to how we see the studio today.4In the studio the artist might rehearse their work, or might build it for reassembly. Artists had begun using locations such as shops, warehouses, as well as external locations to display their work, but it is not until the 1960s that they generally considered the gallery as an extension of the studio, as a place where work was not only displayed, but also produced.
When I consider similarities between the different spaces I have run with my partner(s), I always return to the idea of the studio. In fact, our first gallery, Unit 7, made a clear point that all the work was to be made on site over a fixed period of 10 days, and then exhibited there to the public. The resulting installations by artists such as Lucia Nogueira, Phyllida Barlow and many others made use of the unbroken, elegant space, without offering any readings of its history of former use.5To not think of its past inhabitants, to perform an act of site-domesticity. Instead, the works were made, as if in the space of their own studio, albeit a larger version. What strikes me today, was the trust we placed in all the artists, a feeling that was returned as we began working together. This collaborative relationship, borne out of shared beliefs and trust, has I believe, endured over the years.
As one space closes, another opens. Every change in location introduces new relationships and extends the discourse, but some continue, perhaps because something remains to be said or made. It was for this reason that we worked repeatedly with several artists, remaking and extending our friendships. Phyllida made 3 installations with us and participated in another 3 exhibitions. While other artists welcomed and required our physical labour and other input, she always insisted we hand each space over to her and her team of fabricators6To fabricate and to manufacture, manu factum, to build by hand. which included students, as well as occasional members of her family. During the build it became her studio, and she would return the space, complete with work, for the exhibition.
Oswaldo Macia’s exhibition Memory Skip (1995), presented an altogether different challenge. The Colombian artist showed a full-sized bright yellow metal skip, brimful with a green pungent, viscous liquid. The smell of pine pervaded the space, and clung to visitors’ clothes for several days. They would look at the giant metal skip, then turn towards the small double doors to the gallery and experience a double-take, perhaps wondering how something so large had gotten there. In fact, the skip had been cut apart and carried into the gallery basement; then its pieces were bolted together again and sealed.7Un-building then re-building by hand as the means of moving an object, replacing itself with its newly subdivided parts. The most beautiful work I have ever seen, which moved me only when I saw it in material form (I knew and liked its conceptual structure before, but was not moved by it) is Charles Ray’s Hinoki. The waterproofing was done several times, the water bailed out repeatedly. Each time, great pools of liquid would form on the floor. There was no telling where the leak was. Eventually, we called on the help of David Wilkinson and Peter Kidd, the former – a philosophy graduate and film expert, who drove some of the tanks in Spielberg’s Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan – the latter, a ceramicist who ended up in special effects for television. They were a fount of practical information, as well as providing an occasional shoulder to lean on. We followed their advice, and eventually the leak was reduced, stopping completely on the last day of the exhibition.
There are moments in every exhibition that stand out. At times, it might be an in depth discussion on the work with the artist, or a moment of contemplation once the work is done. At other times, it can be something quite unremarkable, unrelated to the actual exhibition, far from its official history.