Past Imperfect: Restaging Exhibitions and the Present Tense

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If I Ruled The World Chapter 2: COOPERATION IS A [...]

The Act of Re-Membering Art and Exhibits by Kerr Houston

So what can we make, exactly, of the recent wave of restaged, recreated, and reprised exhibitions of art?

The last few years have witnessed a number of such projects. In 2013, for example, Venice’s Prada Foundation hosted an ambitious reincarnation of Harald Szeemann’s seminal 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. A year later, the Tate Modern devoted a substantial part of a Malevich retrospective to a recreation of a 1915 group exhibition that featured works by the artist and contemporaries, and the Jewish Museum unveiled Other Primary Structures, an emphatically globalist re-reading of a 1966 show widely seen as a watershed moment in the history of Minimalism. And earlier this year, the Museo del Barrio opened The Illusive Eye, a revisiting of The Responsive Eye, a 1965 MoMA show.

2_Illusive_NYTThe Illusive Eye, at the Museo del Barrio

Clearly, some of these restagings are motivated primarily by a desire to render the past as concretely and accessibly as possible. When the Tate Modern staged, in 2014, a precise rehanging of Richard Hamilton’s 1951 exhibition Growth and Form, it allowed visitors the chance to effectively stroll into a historical space – and, as Catherine Spencer has noted, to thus investigate Hamilton’s thought processes more fully.

Admittedly, the impetus for such projects can sometimes seem motivated by sheer coincidence as much as by pressing historical relevance: curators (and marketing departments) evidently like the tidiness of anniversaries, as many of the recently reprised exhibitions gesture towards 50th or 100th anniversaries. More than a few, though, are evidently governed by a conviction that certain historical moments are in constant need of reconsideration. For example, LACMA’s 1991 room-for-room rehang of Entartete Kunst, the infamous 1937 Nazi dismissal of modern art, hardly required a tidy anniversary; censorship and state propaganda are surely timeless topics.

But the curatorial turn towards the past is driven by other factors, as well. Above all, perhaps, it points to the maturation of curatorial studies as a discipline with its own parameters and history. As Carlos Basualdo, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, recently pointed out to me, the 1990s saw an explosion in the number of academic programs in curatorial studies.

Those programs often emphasized, among other things, the history of curating, forging in the process a canonical account that is loosely built around a core of especially influential shows and curators (Alfred Barr, Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén…). Graduates of those programs often maintained their interest in the history of the discipline as they developed their own practices, and one result is the spate of recent restagings. Viewed from this perspective, restaged shows afford a chance to research, explore, and grapple with the history of a developing field.


Even as they foster an engagement with the history of curating, though, they also inevitably point to a heightened interest in the act of curating: as Kristen Hileman, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, puts it, they can be said to effectively validate the role of the curator. They do this in several ways. Certainly, they remind us of the accomplishments of past curators and suggest the impact that inventive and thoughtfully curated shows have effected. At the same time, however, restaged shows also allow present-day curators to revisit historical decisions and suggest alternative narratives: to insert themselves, that is, into the discipline’s emerging history. Restaged shows of this sort are a form of intervention; they iterate, we might say, instead of merely reiterating.

Such a tendency is especially visible in Other Primary Structures and The Illusive Eye. Both shows were based upon ambitious exhibitions that foregrounded significant tendencies in contemporary art – but that did so in a rather parochial manner. The subtitle of Primary Structures, after all, was Younger American and British Sculptors; its scope was forcefully delimited. And while The Responsive Eye was more geographically inclusive – it included works by artists from 15 countries – it was nevertheless still heavily American and European in its emphasis.

The recent restagings of these two shows aimed, by contrast, at a greater inclusiveness by accenting related work by artists from previously overlooked regions such as Latin America and Eastern Europe. The work of the Chilean Matilde Pérez and the Argentinian Antonio Asis at the Museo del Barrio now hung next to pieces by Frank Stella and Bridget Riley, embodying the extensive global connections that characterized the art world in the 1960s.

Such restaged shows, then, embody a complex attitude towards the present role of the curator. As Hileman puts it, restagings of earlier shows usually represent sincere attempts to celebrate the work of earlier curators – but they also willingly critique and implicitly correct the past, in a process that might fairly be called narcissistic. And, she adds, they may also beg “the question of whether it is possible to organize such history-defining shows today.”

In the absence of a grand new idea, that is curators may choose instead to return to the past – and to redefine it one their own terms. A Freudian might be tempted to read such a process as a symbolic patricide: as a generation’s rebellion against the deeds of their symbolic fathers. Or perhaps Harold Bloom’s notion of an anxiety of influence is even more apt: by altering canonical precedents, contemporary curators avoid paralysis and open a space in which they can act.

But Bloom, of course, argued that poets intentionally misread the work of their predecessors, and that’s not necessarily a fair charge in the case of restaged exhibitions. Rather, it seems more correct to say that they represent re-readings of the past: they are retellings, that is, that often reveal rather specific things about our present.

For instance, the heavy-handed emphasis upon globalization in Other Primary Structures and The Illusive Eye feels typical of an art world that has been characterized in recent decades by decentralization and a steady series of attempts to challenge stock Western narratives. Indeed, a passage in the exhibition catalogue of Other Primary Structures (“This exhibition has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to include others”) might be read as a distillation of recent academic theory, with its avowed interest in the recuperation of the Other.

4.Other_PrimaryInstallation view of Other Primary Structures

Or could we read this in an even more abstract sense? As Orit Gat has observed, the recent wave of restaged exhibitions can also be related to a general interest in the ways in which art is produced and shown: in the relations between labor and capital, that is, that characterize the art world.

The curatorial work of Helen Molesworth might offer a case in point here: in 2003, she curated Work Ethic, an engaging show devoted to examples of 1960s art that complicated notions of production and value, and last year she curated a show that centered upon Black Mountain College, and that included restaged dances by Merce Cunningham. Production and reproduction thus mingle provocatively in Molesworth’s work. And yet, as Hileman thoughtfully points out, in other contexts restagings of shows can feel as if they are motivated by the baser demands of the art market. Restaged shows, that is, can shine a light on overlooked artists, producing a fresh field of saleable pieces. And so our return to the past acts, again, as a comment on our present, and its insatiable desire for a steady stream of commodities.

Which leads us to a final observation. In a 2015 essay titled “After the White Cube,” Hal Foster alluded to a perceived tension that has now faced museums of modern and contemporary art for several decades: they can either devote themselves, it is argued, to experience or to interpretation, but not to both. Entertainment or historical research – but not a combination of the two. You might think, here, of the recent decision of the Art Institute of Chicago to create and rent, in conjunction with their show of paintings of bedrooms by Van Gogh, a room modeled upon his famous quarters in Arles.

Such a gesture clearly allied the museum with the entertainment and tourism industries: a point implicit in several of the posted reviews of the room, which tended toward the cliché (“I felt like I stepped into the painting”) and the experiential (“It was a magical opportunity that I will never forget”). Was this the museum embracing mere facile spectacle, then – fostering pleasure, without any accompanying interpretive work?

5_Van_GoghRecreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom, Chicago, 2016

Or is such a dichotomy perhaps a false one? That was ultimately Foster’s position. Museums, he contended, are part of a larger capitalist system that is frequently organized around spectacle, but that fact needn’t preclude a parallel commitment to serious contemplation. “That is,” he wrote, “they can be spaces where artworks reveal their ‘promiscuity’ with other moments of production and reception.

After all, the Art Institute also gave a pair of tickets to anyone who stayed in the recreated bedroom, nudging guests to leave their simulacrum and to engage with the real thing. And the real thing was of course, more than a hundred years old: no mere re-creation of the past, but an artifact produced in a very different era. Thus, concluded Foster, “a central role of the museum is to operate as a space-time machine in this way, to transport us to different periods and cultures – diverse ways of perceiving, thinking, depicting and being – so that we might test them in relation to our own and vice versa, and perhaps be transformed a little in the process.”

A space-time machine that transports us to different periods, and that allows us to test the views of the past in relation to our own: Foster wasn’t necessarily thinking when he wrote that about restaged shows or recreated bedrooms, but he could have been. For they too foreground the complexity of our relationship to the past, even as they also point to the mechanisms of production and reception that have characterized, and still characterize, the art world. A walk through the Tate’s recreation of Growth and Form or The Illusive Eye, or a trip to Chicago to see works by Van Gogh and sleep in a copy of his bed, can at once be experience and interpretation; it can both entertain and edify.

So are we transformed, as Foster thinks, after a visit? Perhaps – but so, too, surely, is the past. Those who cannot remember the past, George Santayana, famously claimed, are condemned to repeat it. And those who repeat the past, by restaging or reprising its exhibitions? We might conclude that they re-member it, in the most literal sense of the term, piecing it together again in a way that always illustrates at once the shape of history and the tendencies of our present.

Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.

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