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BEST SHOW: CATHERINE INCE ON ARCADES PROJECT: CONTEMPORARY ART AND WALTER BENJAMIN AT THE JEWISH MUSEUM, NEW YORK, 2017

Workshop for Potential Design

Photo: Alice Masters

WFPD: What is the exhibition we will be talking about, and when and where did it take place?

Catherine Ince: The exhibition we’re going to talk about today is the Arcades Project: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin, which was shown this summer at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Since Jens Hoffmann became curator there, he’s instigated quite an interesting program that spans 20th century and contemporary practice. He’s introduced architecture as well as thematic shows like the Arcades Project exhibition and so I follow it quite closely. I’m interested in him as a curator and the figures that he presents in the museum.

WFPD: Were you familiar with the original work by Walter Benjamin?

CI: I haven’t read it cover to cover, but I’ve dipped in and out as you would expect with something so fragmentary. I’m very interested in that moment of modernity and the transition towards the city, and the effects of industrialization and the rise of consumer culture. So that’s why I’ve been always

very interested in thinkers like Benjamin who were trying to understand it.

WFPD: Could you describe the exhibition, for example how it looks when you walk into the show?

CI: The Jewish museum galleries are in an Upper East Side villa, a generously scaled domestic building. It’s not a kind of white cube gallery space but quite an ornate environment. The first section of the exhibition introduces Walter Benjamin, the texts and the arcades that he focused on in Paris. Large scale graphics of Parisian maps were overlaid with archival images of arcades and some biographical and historical information; this space also introduced the Convolutes, the thematic sections that make up the Arcades Project, which were listed on the wall. What also interested me about this exhibition and why I selected it to talk about is that it’s designed by Prem Krishnamurthy who is the director of Project Projects, a graphic design studio in New York that I know well. They’re quite experimental and do really interesting typographic treatments. Jens had collaborated with poet Kenneth Goldsmith to make these poetic translations and assemblages of fragments of the Arcades Project and Benjamin’s own words and they give a definition of each of the Convolutes as well as the standard exhibition interpretation. So the Arcades Project is the setup at the beginning of the exhibition and then you move through each of the Convolutes, which has one artwork each as an illustration or representation of that concept alongside the almost concrete poetry-esque work by Kenneth Goldsmith, set by Prem and his colleagues. They look almost like Wyndham Lewis crossed with 1960s concrete poetry. Very playful, expressive and engaging companions to your boring exhibition labels. Not that they’re boring but you know, trying to express something quite complex with the standard fifty words. So it’s a nice tight constellation of interpretations, the poetic complements an exploration of whichever word was being dealt with. For example idleness or photography, mechanical reproduction and then the work of art itself.

WFPD: Can you tell us a little bit about the works of art that was selected for each of the Convolutes?

CI: There were quite a range of artists across all sorts of different media, from the 20th century to today. So you have paintings and photography by really well-known figures like Walker Evans or Lee Friedlander and Cindy Sherman, alongside younger artists like Walead Beshty who is interested in the medium of photography itself but also documenting spaces of consumer culture and particularly those types of spaces that are, you know, dilapidated and signifying a kind of… not the end of capitalism because we’re not quite there yet, but the effects of the year in which we live today. There were sculptural pieces by Cerith Wyn Evans and photographic stills from films by artists like Pierre Huyghe and sculptural works by Chris Burden. There were quite a lot of people in the show that I wasn’t familiar with, so it was really nice to discover practitioners and relatively recent works that spoke very much to the thematic of the exhibition but also made me feel like I wanted to go and find out more about their work as well.

WFPD: You mentioned the end of capitalism, and this idea of death of modernity and capitalism is something Benjamin touched on in the book. Do you think the choice of art works to go with each Convolutes reflected this?

CI: Yeah, not always. I think it wasn’t completely evenly successful in exploring those relationships and juxtapositions and I think that also in having had a chance to reflect on it in order to come and talk about it today, what was really interesting is that it was problematic. I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t have chosen the same artist to marry with the conceptual frame but more that it was just that particular work didn’t speak to me or it felt overly theoretical, or not visually engaging. But then I really enjoyed the un-evenness because I think that makes you think about what you are looking at, it makes you think about the process of exhibition making and it makes you think about the rationale of the curator’s selection. Sometimes when things aren’t completely polished you have a greater internal dialogue about what makes it successful or not, and I think that was one of the reasons why it stood out for me as a project. But also because it is quite an experimental thing to do and quite difficult to pull off successfully. I went in thinking this is either going to be impenetrable and terrible, or it’s going to be really great, and I would find things out and think about the territories that I’m interested in a new way. And I feel quite excited about the art work that makes you think about the world, which is kind of the point.

WFPD: Do you think the idea of the segmented and incomplete is a nod to the book which is also segmented and incomplete?

CI: The way the exhibition was structured was very much inviting you to be a flâneur in the way that, you know, the book does, and as a consequence of being in the city — looking, watching, observing and thinking. You didn’t enter and go through the Convolutes in order, A B C D E F G. They were college-like, so you will encounter Convolute Q and then B and so, and it wasn’t completely clear as to why it was structured in that way and sometimes these decisions are probably borne of the fact that certain art works had to be installed in a specific place or they together created sub-narratives. So the juxtaposition is very interesting and important but then sometimes you’re just dealing with practical constraints, and I liked the fact that it was a kind of jigsaw and it had the collage structure in the same way as the book. I’m sure that was very consciously done. It’s very referential to the starting point itself.

WFPD: What made this exhibition exceptional to the other exhibitions you’d been to, and I know you go to a lot of exhibitions?

CI: That’s a really good question and it’s quite hard to answer actually. I thought about talking about shows that I hadn’t seen and that I really would have liked to have seen but I think it’s really difficult to do that because you overlay so much of what you wanted it to be, or you interpret the documentation that exists around an exhibition in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it true, because the important thing is the the spatial experience and your engagement with whatever artefacts are on show, so I dispensed of the idea of coming up with my wish list of dream exhibitions I hadn’t seen. Then I was going to talk about a monographic exhibition about the work of Steve McQueen, the British filmmaker and a video artist because for me that was one of the most beautifully executed, absorbing and textural exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It had an incredible materiality and it was amazing that you went to the show and you really felt the media that he was using to make his films, either on film stock or video or manipulating still photography to make moving image. But then I thought that was a bit of a cop out to talk about one practitioner and especially because the exhibition was made at the Schaulager in Basel, which does not suffer from any financial constraints whatsoever. So of course it’s perfect in its execution. There are many exhibitions one could choose but I really admired what Jens Hoffmann was trying to do with this exhibition and I found it really productive as a practitioner to see a show like this and to think about, you know, how I practice.

I guess I’m pleased that people like him are out there trying to do something that’s a bit more interesting than a monographic exhibition, not that they’re not interesting, but he’s got this space to test ideas and he’s not afraid to do that. I just thought there was a complexity there and a wealth of points to talk about today.

WFPD: You mentioned how some institutions are more capable of doing a good job because of a particular financial situation they are in. Does the condition in which an exhibition is organized and mounted affect the way you perceive it?

CI: Yeah that’s an interesting one. I sometimes think I think too much about that sort of stuff actually, and because I know the institutional context of some places, I let that color my judgement or I go in with preconception about what it will be like. It’s always hard to try and squash that. But then it’s always satisfying when people do what you think they will do as well. It’s interesting the question of money too I think. It is all about perfect execution but with Steve McQueen’s work, the thing that you came away with at the Schaulager was that every inch of it had been considered not just because he’s such a consummate filmmaker. It’s not like “We’ve got a suite of 10 projectors and they’re all the same and we’re going to project them on the wall.” They became sculpture and they had three dimensional presence in the space. It’s because of things like a film being projected onto a freestanding surface but the light isn’t escaping over the corners of a wall. For me, things like that are really important and when you make your own shows and you get those little beams of light bouncing off the corner, some of us do look at that and get really upset even though the audience probably isn’t looking at such things. But there is something to be said about having a really strong concept and knowing how to to articulate that and bring it to life, and that thoughtfulness as to how you communicate what it is that you are trying to communicate if you are not assembling autonomous works of art.

Pete Collard: Steve McQueen is known for his total control of how his work is presented, and he never allows his work to be shown in settings other than the ones he is completely happy with. And I know exactly what you mean when you said when you go to a show you are looking more at the presentation of it than the content. When you went to the Jewish Museum were you able to lose that sense of separation between the presentation and the content?

CI: I think the scenography and the play between the work and the poem and the general information you need to anchor yourself if you’re not a visitor familiar with Walter Benjamin or all these artists was important. And I think the typographical play the Project Projects conceived of was also the fundamental in giving character and weight to the poet’s work. His poems were lyrical and fragmented and the texts were set straight, offset or in an arc, and so on — completely different for each one — so they were kind of individual concrete poems. The balance felt important, like there was a sort of equivalency there. I think the whole constellation of work, text and interpretations of the Convolutes was really well done actually.

PC: In terms of context, do you think the show being at the Jewish Museum in New York somewhat guided your experience, as opposed to if the show was in another place?

CI: I think it would have been. I think I particularly like the that type of Upper West Side or Upper East Side property turned into a gallery situation because I like the sortof decorative edge and the presence of an interior design that’s not always deemed to be appropriate for the presentation of contemporary practice. I don’t think the white cube galleries are successful for certain types of work. But the context for me now with the Jewish Museum is that I just know there’s going to be some interesting shows and I want to go there and whether they are successful or not doesn’t matter because I want to see them. So I think it’s not necessarily the context of being an institution about Jewish culture that influences me. It’s more that the current directorship of that place is producing very interesting exhibitions and curatorial experimentation and presentation of work from different periods of time and different practitioners. The complementary exhibition at the time was of a female painter from a very wealthy New York family whose work I was not familiar with at all. It’s not the sort of work that I would seek out but I came across it and I spent some time with it and I enjoyed it. That’s also a benefit of seeking out institutions that you don’t necessarily always go to. Although I do think if you transplant the Walter Benjamin show in another city it would still stand, it would make perfect sense in an urban context.

WFPD: Was it difficult to choose one exhibition to call your best exhibition experience?

CI: Trying to identify one’s favorite exhibition is a really difficult. It’s like trying to identify one’s favorite film or music. It’s hard because exhibitions, like those other creative disciplines and outputs, they mean different things to you at different periods in time. They take on different meaning and resonance, things come in and out of your consciousness depending on what you are thinking about and what you are trying to do. So I wouldn’t necessarily define this as my favourite exhibition of all time, but it was something that really stimulated me that I found really interesting and productive in experiencing recently.

Catherine Ince is the Senior Curator at Victor and Albert Museum in London.

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