Some insights on planning the Fifth Israeli Ceramics Biennale
Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, December 2008-May 2009
First published in 1280, a Material Culture Magazine in Israel
Published by the Ceramic Artists Association of Israel
No. 19, Summer of 2009
The work of a curator is based on contact and connections with many people. The first, immediate circle is populated by the artists, and the second by all those who support the realization of an exhibition and provide the administrative foundation for its existence: cultural institution directors and architects, designers, editors and translators, photographers, graphic designers, PR experts, the technical staff and so on. All work on an exhibition, and specifically the work of the curator who stands at the top of this pyramid, is about managing a team of professionals who realize the initial vision, gradually nurturing the conceptual seed of the exhibition in a many-step process that often takes a year or more, until it sprouts and evolves and comes into being in the exhibition space, to be unveiled before the public in the moving opening ceremony.
Curatorship is based on an initial concept. This can be suggested by external factors approaching the museum with an initiative, as it was in the case of the Israeli Ceramics Biennale, where the Ceramics Artists Association of Israel collaborated with the Eretz Israel Museum. It can also come from the curator himself, in which case he approaches galleries or other institutions in the hopes of putting together an attractive exhibition.
The work of a curator is a continuous cycle of collecting and sorting through materials. The collection gradually takes shape, changing with each exposure to a certain artist or piece, and finally culminates in the grand opening ceremony. But even then, the work does not end. It continues at varying levels of intensity during the exhibition, when the audience already walks from exhibit to exhibit, each viewer creating their own exhibition, reading what they see in accordance with their own prior knowledge, information accumulated and messages revealed before their eyes. The viewers reinterpret what they see, and their views usually differ from what the curator and designer had in mind. The interpretations and permutations of the exhibitions are an endless process, and the curator’s main responsibility is to propose a foundation, a starting point for rational, academic, and – equally important – emotional thought, on which each viewer can then build their own exhibition.
So we see that the process of curatorship is, itself, in flux. It, too is not set in stone. The open minded curator reads the exhibition anew every time, finding signs and symbols he had not seen when he had viewed the pieces in the artist’s studio or in a portfolio presentation.
The curator’s work combines many different disciplines and work methods, and herein lies the challenge and also the danger. Much like the artist, the curator has a long series of paradigms and assumptions he wants to illustrate for the public, but sometimes these assumptions clash with reality, forcing the curator to adapt as he goes along. One curatorship approach encourages the curator to be an initiator, to dictate a certain agenda. This was the approach used in the previous Biennales. There is, however, another approach, in which the curator does not dictate the direction the art or research should take. Instead, he goes out into the field (in this case, the Israeli ceramics field) and closely observes what ceramics artists do when nobody tells them what to do. For the Fifth Biennale, I did just that.
Like all the concrete domains of curators and artists, the world of art and creative work exists in an environment with limited resources: a limited budget, limited time, limited space. Yet the Israeli art field is flourishing despite these limitations. Hundreds of ceramics artists, amateurs and professionals alike, consistently produce new work, and the open, public call for artists allows them to submit applications with no prerequisites or constraints.
Naturally, the limitations of the exhibition space cannot allow everyone to present their work and gain exposure. This is where the curator comes in. His job is to sort through the sea of options and find the ones he believes will best represent the idea he wishes to express. In the screening process, the different expressions are compared, revealing the artist’s defining events, processes, trends and styles.
The sorting and comparison allow the curator to identify differences, small touches and single qualities, alongside cumulative qualities. In these moments, the curator is required to remember who he is working for, who his target audience is (the ceramics field or the general public), and who the potential or hoped-for viewers are; on top of that, he must keep the big picture and global concept he wishes to convey in mind at all times. At this point, when the curator has to choose and define the number of works that can be displayed in a certain space, the challenge of elimination begins, and the conceptual essences of the planned exhibition are refined.
This is the most challenging phase in the curator’s work. Now, he can no longer hide behind statements or slogans; he must face the concrete reality of the exhibition space, the scheduled opening day, the need to prepare a catalogue for print – all in a scope that the average viewer can absorb in the limited time of no more than 30 or 45 minutes. Afterwards, the curator’s concentration ability wanes, threatening to impact the whole project. At that moment, the curator needs to forget the little stories behind each artist or each piece, ignore the fascinating life story that gave birth to the ceramics work and examine it only in the immediate context – this exhibition in this space.
The ceramics artist often works in a similar fashion, and focuses only on the specific essence of the object, sculpture or utensil. In his work, he does not aim to please to curator, the gallery owner or the museum official, nor even the art critic. Every artist creates from a totally personal need, selfish as that might be, a powerful urge of self expression. The artist does not account for the thoughts of others, and that is a good thing, for had he done so, his work would not have been his, and only his. Thus, the curator or critic, too, cannot, beyond natural empathy, address any external factor but the quality of the work before him. This is the curator’s creation. It represents him and his perspective of the field.
The overarching goal of the curator, the hosting museum, the Ceramics Artists Association and the field as a whole, is to put together a good exhibition. The decision to reduce the number of artists presenting in this biennale to a mere 57 was made to prevent the confusion and lack of focus caused by the visitor seeing too much. When an exhibition has a large number of artists and exhibits, everyone suffers: the artists, the curator, the museum, and an entire scene of good artists, whose work is presented badly or disappears entirely, becoming impossible to isolate from the surrounding noise. Large numbers are best suited to a bazaar atmosphere. In a bazaar, endless utensils, sculptures and designs are put on display with the end-goal of selling them. A museum is not a trade institution. It is supposed to represent phenomena, striving for quality.
A ceramics biennale is not the result of a democratic process, and neither, in fact, is art. It is a presentation of artistic qualities; not even of specific artists’ qualities. A group exhibition is the exhibition of the works of a group, as warranted by the name. The singular artist becomes part of a larger ensemble of art and artists. A group exhibition presents a selection, a constellation that reveals new qualities, different or even entirely other than the ones exhibited by the solo artist. This ensemble is what makes the story. It also allows a viewer to come to general conclusions concerning the field of ceramics art, conclusions that cannot be reached in a series of solo exhibitions held in different galleries, for they require one to tour the breadth and length of the country, visiting the galleries, museums and workshops.
In the internet age, more and more curators review portfolios on the computer, sent to them on CDs, hosted on websites or attached to email messages. The upside of this is that it shortens the screening process and gives the curator an end-to-end view of the entire spectrum of the art available in the field. The downside is that this system neutralizes the most important component of plastic art – the unmediated experience of the object’s natural shape, its color, the touch of the hand of the artist that made it. To me, there are, as yet, no better means than direct touch and sight. The physical touch of the curve of a vase, the feeling of surprise as one lifts the porcelain, light as a feather; the smoothness of the shiny glaze.
Thus, after the initial digital screening, I went out into the Israeli ceramics field and visited dozens of studios. The sight of an artist’s house or workshop is an integral part of his or her work, for only when one sees the work environment can one understand why the things were made the way they were made. The size of the oven, the proximity to nature or to the noise of the city street – all are vital to understanding the piece.
And sometimes, there are surprises. Some artists understand the importance of presentation and put a lot of effort into its preparation, but a direct encounter with their work in the studio proves that not all that glitters is gold. Some sculptures or utensils have their qualities revealed through photography but look less impressive in the field. Of course, the opposite can also be true.
This essay has reviewed only a few of the many aspects of curatorship worthy of examination and study. Understanding curatorship is vital for all plastic artists, because curatorship consideration provide the foundation through which a work of art can obtain wider recognition. The curator is an editor and a mediator, but also the creator of the exhibition.