Curators’ efforts to blur formal hierarchies tend to veil the power they themselves wield.

Marianne Heier, Construction Site, 2005. Video still.

One of the best things about contemporary art is that it offers scope for challenging existing structures and conventional ways of doing things. Such self-reflexivity often carries a remnant of the historical avant-garde’s playfulness and willingness to experiment with art’s given social framework. Consider, for example, the Norwegian artist-run gallery Tidens Krav (Contemporary Demands, 2011–2014), where the profits were ultimately distributed among all the artists who bought art from there, the size of each share being proportional to the sums of their purchases (The Newest Standard, 2013). Artist Marianne Heier’s many gift projects are another example of how artists have intervened in art’s economic base with the aim of shedding light on (and pushing back at) aspects of the social superstructure. Heier spent NOK 130,000 (EUR 11,000) of her own money refurbishing the break room for hosts at the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design in Oslo (Construction Site, 2005). The gift was a Trojan horse in the sense that it made visible the hierarchy within the institution and in Norway in general, where employees who carry out cognitive work are more highly valued than those who carry out practical tasks. Both projects very clearly suggest that it is possible to do things differently.

In recent years, Norwegian curators and the institutions they work for have sought to follow up the relational experiments carried out by artists during the previous decade, but with varying degrees of success. Unlike the artist-initiated projects mentioned above, such projects often lack real critical bite, as well as any clear effort to actually intervene in and render visible the relationships that shape the art field.

The group exhibition To Break Up With Forms, which until recently was on view at Nitja Centre for Contemporary Art in Lillestrøm – with works by Anna Ihle, Cassie Thornton, and Germain Ngoma – is a telling example of such attempts to flatten the hierarchy between artists and curators. The exhibition was about work, and the works of art are based on the artists’ own experiences. Ihle addressed expectations surrounding motherhood and the impact this has on art, presenting autobiographical photographs and oversized kitchen utensils. Ngoma covered a wall with perforated clippings from art magazines, a gesture that I read as a direct confrontation with the power of discourse in the art field. Thornton’s contribution was a deconstructed office landscape where the distinctions between art and work, and not least work and leisure, seem to have been erased.

Germain Ngoma, Accretion is accumulation of particles to form a big object by gravitation attracting more matter, 2023, detail. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.

Curator Martina Petrelli writes in an essay accompanying the exhibition that To Break Up With Forms has been a “process of collective development and support,” and that curatorial work involves “caring for the gaps and bridges in the supposed support structure, advocating for new curatorial practices and models of criticism to overlap.” As I understand her, she regards the curator as a builder of bridges between art institutions and individual artists, a role intended to facilitate the realisation of a joint critical project. However, no specific examples are provided to show how the curator’s function as a support for artists has been different here compared to what is otherwise the norm – in other words, what makes this relationship effective in a critical sense.

Petrelli’s essay is written in the first person. It helps to convey the impression that the curatorial work aims to get rid of the formal hierarchy between curator and artist by nurturing equality. Such softening of hierarchies through language is characteristic of neoliberal labour relations. Slavoj Zizek’s oft-repeated quip that the boss is still the boss even if he asks you how your weekend was is relevant here. In this case, the horizontal relationship-building is – as far as I can see – accompanied by nothing more than cosmetic adjustments to the exhibition’s form or statement. Gestures such as replacing the opening speeches with a free soup kitchen are symptomatic of this investment in softening the exhibition’s public profile. No clear commitment (on an institutional level) nor any effect on a deeper, structural level can be read from this exhibition.

It is true that there have been other more comprehensive attempts to scrutinise and criticise curatorial practices than To Break Up With Forms. But with the exception of Death to the Curator – an exhibition at Kunsthall Oslo in 2021 that highlighted various non-hierarchical and collectivist methods of exhibition production throughout the Nordics, and which few were able to see due to the pandemic – the models for collaboration advocated by these exhibitions are often not particularly clear. The catalogue for the Kunsthall Oslo exhibition argues that the professional curator is a neoliberal figure, roughly the opposite of Petrelli’s caregiver. This is based on the fact that the curator contributes to a global homogenisation of art and a centralisation of power.

Hal Foster puts forward a similar argument in the collection of essays What Comes After Farce (Verso, 2020). Foster contends that the undoubtedly most influential curator of our time, Hans Ulrich Obrist, is archetypal of a curator that is primarily a network builder. According to Foster, this type of curator became dominant in contemporary art in the 1990s at the expense of the classical academic curator who works on an idea over a long period of time. Obrist’s restless travel in search of the global new, accompanied by an almost constant flow of exhibitions and interview-based publications, Foster claims, corresponds to the politically non-committal aggregation carried out by social media. The content is constantly being replaced depending on what is fashionable and current.

Vandaler forening’s contribution to the exhibition Death to the Curator at Kunsthall Oslo in 2021, poster featuring art by Linda Bournane Engelberth.

If this is the role model par excellence for the curators of our time, it is perhaps not so surprising that Norwegian curators instead try to create formats where their relationships with the artists are longer-lasting and less replaceable. This sensitivity to relationships is probably also connected to the fact that the curator is less central in Norway than in other art scenes, thanks to strong traditions of artist-led organisations and juries – a legacy that limits curators’ opportunities for building a professional identity on big ideas about the present era illustrated with artworks. At the same time, many art institutions aim to show that they are concerned with diversity and wider representation, keeping in line with political guidelines that aim to make art relevant to more people. If we see the curator as a manager of the institution’s brand, the horizontal push goes hand-in-hand with the desire to soften a traditionally elitist image.

The opening exhibition of the new National Museum of Norway in 2022, I Call It Art, curated by Randi Godø and Geir Haraldseth, is probably the most high-profile example of a Norwegian exhibition where the curators used a horizontal exhibition model to soften an institution’s exclusionary image. Here, the curatorial work took centre stage in the sense that the exhibition’s theme was its own criteria for selection, including the fact that the artists featured were not part of the museum’s collection. At the same time, the exhibition deliberately set out to represent the rich diversity of the Norwegian art field – as far as this is even possible. The result was a sort of scaled-up mega-version of the annual National Art Exhibition, Høstutstillingen (The Autumn Exhibition). I Call It Art exemplifies how pushing the network-building curator’s work in a more politically engaged direction also caters to the institution’s need for symbolic diversity. The problem is that experiments like this hide the actual power wielded by curators and institutions.

My impression is that attempts to soften the curator’s gatekeeping role (I Call It Art) or demonstrate care (To Break Up With Forms) are at best mere surface dressing. In both cases, the curatorial work is presented as a political gesture similar to artists’ relational interventions in the previous decade. But no matter how hard curators try, it seems difficult, perhaps even impossible, to step out of their position of power. Instead, such ‘radical’ poses often end up obscuring – nicewashing – the power structures that continue to operate in the art field.

Goro Tronsmo, Museville, 2022. Video still. The work was created for the exhibition I Call It Art at the National Museum in Oslo.

Translated from Norwegian.