Traditionally, art trades in paintings and sculptures—in materials. But since the 1960s, a glut of multimedia installations, found objects and textual manipulations have inaugurated a shift towards a more conceptual paradigm, and the message has eclipsed any single medium. This new-found focus on ideas has threatened to unsettle the familiar ritual of museum-going: what justification can we manufacture for schlepping to see works of art that are just fodder for essays we might as well read at home? And what role emerges for curators, who were once the shepherds of objects?
First Light: a Decade of Collecting at the ICA, a reflexive exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (ICA), examines the curatorial implications of the conceptual turn. The show, organised principally by Eva Respini, the museum’s chief curator, with Jessica Hong, is a new kind of retrospective, concerned not with an artist, but with an institution.
A meditation on the museum’s first ten years of collecting in its waterfront location, First Light is organised into a series of rotating chapters unified by three permanent components: The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, Soft Power (which looks at fibre-based work) and Paul Chan’s 1st Light (2005), the show’s namesake and key work.
The very premise of the exhibition—that a museum’s history is a worthy subject of reflection—seems to confirm that we no longer turn to curators for the works they assemble but rather for the catalogues they commission and the contexts into which they assimilate an otherwise disparate body of ideas. According to the catalogue, First Light is a sort of chronicle, “comprised of individual chapters that together tell a story”. This insistence on narrative coherence is what differentiates the exhibition from the ICA’s permanent collection; it is not the works themselves that are primary, but how they are framed and defined.
Art as bad philosophy
In traditional, figurative work, art tends to speak for itself, representing scenes that we can easily unravel. Religious art may come laden with coded and obsolete iconography, but its basic import is readily accessible. But if a work’s meaning is not intrinsic to its materials, but rather emerges along with its elucidation, then curators are called upon to participate in the creative endeavour themselves—to complete the work of art they once were supposed to passively identify. Curators are no longer tasked merely with choosing valuable works: they are tasked also with taking the further step of assigning or constructing value via explication.
The meaning behind a work such as Untitled (2009) by Josh Faught, a patchwork of textures is reminiscent of an alien blanket, is by no means obvious to the average audience. The ICA curator Dan Byers writes in the catalogue that in it, “all the gendered, sexual, and cultural connotations of crocheting, sequins, and hemp hang together”. This is an insight that we need a narrator to discern, but there is a major negative consequence of this conceptual paradigm: it often reimagines art as bad philosophy. Forays into theory, with their predictable political commitments, can come at the expense of visual rigour.
Cady Noland, Objectification Process, 1989. Metal, plastic, and fabric, 31 1/8 × 40 1/2 × 17 3/4 in. (79.1 × 102.9 × 45.1 cm). Promised gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography. © 2016 Cady Noland
Examples abound in First Light. Take Cady Noland’s sculpture Objectification Process (1989), of a bagged American flag, rolled up and placed into an orthopaedic walker. The sculpture’s claims—its condemnation of nationalism, its irreverent denigration of a symbol too often valorised—are familiar. These are ideas worth visualising, but only if visualisation animates a dry discourse. By now, works such as Objectification Process are yet another rehearsal of the same tired discussion, justifiable only if our aim in visiting First Light is to participate in an intellectual debate whose locus is far outside the confines of the museum.
For all its self-reflectivity, First Light fails to consider such pernicious consequences of the conceptual turn. Happily, however, the works in the show often outstrip such failures; some of them, such as Paul Chan’s 1st Light, are irreducibly visual, in defiant resistance of the curatorial mania for conceptualisation.
Chan’s work is especially redeeming. It is circumscribed by a rectangle of light projected onto the floor, within which the silhouette of a streetscape is rendered in delicate shadow. As boxcars, vans and bicycles become unmoored, dreamily floating upwards and out of the frame, flailing human forms rain down from above. It is disorientating to see cars and people transmuted into phenomena that are neither static nor discrete, but rather inextricable from their fluid integration into the scene. 1st Light is not an object in the traditional sense, but it is not reducible to description or its analysis either. It rejects the equation of art with commentary.
Fetishisation of information
The curators’ interpretation of this work, of course, is determinedly political. “Using diverse media—film, animation, design, and performance—Chan often grapples directly with political issues,” according to the catalogue. Nowhere is there mention any mention of 1st Light’s spectral, distinctive aesthetics.
The exhibition equivocates as to its ultimate commitments, wavering between the aching fragility of 1st Light and the lazy radicalism of Objectification Process. Of course, curators are only as good as the art they draw on, and few works satisfy a difficult dual imperative: to warrant in-person engagement while remaining relevant to an increasingly dematerialised experience. First Light may present few solutions, but it is a thought-provoking survey of the state of the union. At times, it is even a forceful reminder that art, in its most intractably visual iterations, is an affront to the relentless fetishisation of information.
• Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard University
• First Light: a Decade of Collecting at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, until 16 January