On Unhelpful Curatorial Statements

I quite often find myself wishing that curatorial statements could be excised from the walls of art museums. Or that they could be less pretentious.

This feeling struck me palpably last week while I was visiting The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) for the first time during a trip to the East Coast.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was the huge, lofty room containing The Cartographer’s Conundrum, a multi-media installation by the New York-based artist Sanford Biggers.

The installation is jaw-droppingly beautiful and strange. Colorful church pews at one end of the room appear to be taking off from the ground, transported perhaps by an explosion of pipe organ pipes and other musical instruments that make up some sort of dais in front of them. The floor is covered in cracked mirrors cut into star shapes. The Autumn light floods the room, causing the transparent colors in the pews and window panes to glow and the stars to sparkle.

When I first explored the room, I felt like I was in a magical space. I found my own meaning in the colors, musical motifs and quasi-religious architecture. What spoiled the experience — and this happens all too often when I visit a modern art museum — was the description of the artwork on the wall. 

“…Sanford Biggers’ goal is to both study and expand the emerging genre of Afrofuturism, which engages science-fiction, cosmology and technology to create a new folklore of the African Diaspora while simultaneously illuminating the underrepresented career of master painter and muralist John Biggers…”

The text went on. And on. In a similar vein.

Suddenly the magic of Biggers’ installation evaporated and I was left with nothing but a crude, academic summary of the work that did nothing to enhance the experience for me. I wish I hadn’t read it at all.

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  1. says

    I read the statement. It’s by no means the worst academic bilge I’ve read. And I learned a couple things. I had never heard of Afro-futurism. The idea seemed hokey to me at first, but the document defines it in a way that makes it credible. I especially appreciate how the concept of Afro-futurism contextualizes the work of Sun Ra which has always baffled me. And it had never occurred to me that films like Matrix, Blade, and Chronicles of Riddick might have symbolic importance for some members of the black community. And after looking up the word syncretism, I found the phrase “cultural and creative syncretism” describes something I’ve thought a lot about, but for which I lacked a compact phrase to describe. I see the photo of the installation differently, and with more interest, after reading the statement — though that probably identifies me as a nerd. Now I know where Biggers is coming from, and it’s a place I didn’t even know existed: Afro-futurism. One can always choose to ignore a curatorial statement, but those interested can’t choose to read it if its not there.

  2. says

    While I sometimes feel like you do, I’d like to try to defend the writing on the wall. First, I think that many people come to museums of contemporary art with a good amount of fear and/or wariness. They know that they are expected to understand, but they’ve not be given the frame of reference to even have a meaningful interaction with the art. They are grasping for something, an explanation or a kernel of information on which to base an opinion. Or perhaps they do have an emotional or intellectual connection to the work – perhaps they just want to compare it to the curator’s view. Sometimes we search for words to match our visual or aural experiences. And I also believe that an individual or team spends a huge amount of time curating these exhibitions and deserves a space for his or her perspective to be seen. I think they deserve a bit of wall space – and it’s up to us to ignore or absorb. Some would say that supertitles at operas interfere with the pure experience of the music. And some would say, just don’t look up.