Terry Smith’s credentials when it comes to thinking anything that comes after the modifier ‘contemporary’ are second to none. With a number of articles in heavy-hitting, establishment journals, and a suite of books that he has either authored or edited, Smith has, of late, staked good claim to being the foremost surveyor of our contemporaneity, at least as it appears within the territories, occupied and otherwise, of visual art.
When Smith turns his mind to ‘thinking contemporary curating’, then, as he has in this inaugural volume for Independent Curators International’s new series, Perspectives in Curating, interested parties – foremost curators – but really anyone with a curiosity about contemporaneity itself, or in Smith’s take on it, would do well to pay attention. After all, ‘curating’, whatever this might be, however it might be thought, is a staple practice of what we might as well call the ‘cultural logic’ of contemporaneity. The past thirty years have seen increasing emphasis and pressure placed on the practice and language of curating, and the past ten have pushed this practice and language to the point of oblivion. So Smith’s asking ‘What is contemporary curatorial thought?’ belies more than just a desire to survey the state of curating today (which, it should be said, Smith does masterfully); it is an attempt on Smith’s part to theorize ‘contemporaneity’ itself.
The problem is, as much as he might like to be, Smith is not emerging as the thinker who will do for ‘contemporaneity’ what Frederic Jameson did for ‘postmodernism’ (or ‘modernism’ for that matter). It’s not enough for Smith to peg his favoured concept as the ‘the multiple and various ways of being in time today, contemporaneously’, however quasi-Heideggarian this may sound.
Smith is better as an historian of contemporary art – that is, to say it again, as a ‘surveyor’. In that role, he has gamely named three major ‘currents’ in the art of the recent past: ‘remodernist, retro-sensationalist, and spectacularist’ (aka Anglo-American or auction-house contemporary) art is one, the art of ‘transnational transitionality’ (aka post-colonial biennial art) is another, and the rise of a ‘small-scale, interactive, DIY art’ (basically everything else) is the last. Take them or leave them, these are useful ways of apprehending the expanding, unruly garden of contemporary artistic practice. And because this is a book on curtaing, each of these currents gets its patron curator: Kirk Vernadoe, Okwui Enwezor, and Nicolas Bourriaud (though Smith never addresses how ‘relational aesthetics’, a favorite of both currents one and two, lines-up with the DIY phenomenon that comprises current three). Smith’s ultimate point here is to note that what these curators (and the many others he mentions) do comes ‘before’ what critics and historians (like him) do. Curators present art, and give that presentation some kind of ‘shape’ through which the art can come to be understood, and then judged, categorized, and periodized by others.
Yet all of the ways that Smith understands the practice of art and curating, let alone of writing history and criticism, either confuse the period of ‘contemporaneity’ with its temporality or disregard it altogether. It’s as if one can ‘think [the] contemporary’ or ‘think curating’ but can’t think the two together. For example, when Smith offers this nicely reduced way of describing what curating should do, which is ‘to find the figure that is inherent in that which is to be exhibited, a configuration that will shape the flow of movement through the exhibition, a pathway that will carry the spectator’s experience, until we reach the reconfiguration – the exhibitionary act – that, in doing these things, opens art to be seen,’ what makes this act of curating particularly, or even definitively, ‘contemporary’? And when Smith distills his curatorial prescriptions into the following slogans: ‘Exhibit art’s work. Renounce reticence. Curate reflexively. Build research capacity. Articulate curatorial thinking. Archive the achievements. Reinvent exhibition formats. Turn the exhibitionary complex. Proliferate alternative exhibitionary venues. Activate infrastructure. Embrace spectatorship. Curate contemporaneity in art and society – past, present, and to come – critically,’ he begs the very question of contemporaneity (as period? as temporality?) that is meant to ground his slogans, indeed his book, deep within the stakes of curatorial thought itself.
Published in ArtReview, January/February 2013