April 7, 2006
The Construction of Posthumous Identity: Curatorial Practice, Pt. 3
The disturbing news that deceased artists Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Gordon Matta-Clark will represent the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale and the 2006 São Paulo Bienal, respectively, has introduced a distinct possibility that a new “curatorial practice” has been formulated to construct posthumous identities for contemporary artists. To lay a foundation for this discussion, we must first agree that there are, as David Joselit wrote in his Notes on Surface, “two models of identity: one in which subjectivity is immanent to the body, and one in which the architecture of selfhood is imposed from without”(pg. 301). We should further acknowledge that the former model is a modernist construct, having to do with the focus on “self” which reached climactic peaks in the early 20th Century, while the latter model appears to be an assertion of postmodernism, coming from such divergent multiple “fields of knowledge” as psychoanalysis (Lacan), semiotics (Derrida) and post-colonial theory (Said).
I propose a speculation in which Joselit’s essay, which states that postmodern art results in a “visuality in which identity manifests itself as a culturally conditioned play of stereotype,” (pg. 293) further supports my theory that the “deflation” of self in the postmodern era has metastasized into a morbid curatorial construction of posthumous identities.
Understanding that deceased artists have reached the terminus of their artistic output and have no real interaction with their continued posthumous identities is granted. The present topical issue is the apparent curatorial tactic of having Gonzalez-Torres (deceased) represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, an over-determined and institutionalized international context. The decision to include Matta-Clark among the grouping of artists for the São Paulo Bienal is perhaps forgivable, since it does include living artists, but the fact that there is only one dead artist representing the U.S. in the Venice Biennale points suspiciously to the prevailing conditions surrounding this curatorial choice. Nancy Spector was appointed as the U.S. Commissioner for the Venice Biennale and will organize the exhibition, which will include “a new work, made from a drawing by Mr. Gonzalez-Torres but unrealized in his lifetime.” The fact that she also works for the Guggenheim Museum, which mounted a “major” Gonzalez-Torres exhibition in 1995 while he was alive, may be only coincidence, but should we not consider, since there are literally thousands of other worthy artists living and working in this country that could have been selected instead, that there may be a covert curatorial agenda afoot in her selection?
From the U.S. Department of State website (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/64112.htm):
At the request of the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for the Arts convened the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions on March 20. The Committee reviewed proposals received from U.S. curators in response to an open competition for the 2007 Venice Biennale, announced by ECA in early December 2005. FACIE advises ECA on proposals received for official U.S. participation in major international exhibitions. At the meeting, FACIE, which is composed of curators, museum directors, artists and other experts in American contemporary art, also reviewed proposals for the 2006 Dakar Biennale and the 2006 Sao Paulo Bienal.
In addition to the Venice Biennale exhibition, ECA will support a group exhibition at the 2006 Dakar Biennale, organized by Amy Horschak of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, including works by Louis Cameron, Kori Newkirk, William Pope. L, and Senam Okudzeto, and a group exhibition at the 2006 São Paulo Bienal, organized by the curators of the Bienal, including works by Mark Bradford, Dan Graham, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Without further research into the names and occupations of the “curators of the [São Paulo] Bienal” I hesitate to pursue the “institutional connection” further here, but it is notable that Ms. Horschak is from MOMA. One would have to take the lead provided by Hans Haacke to pursue these insidiously labyrinthine threads further. But it is sufficiently distressing to wonder if one’s artistic identity may be constructed still from outside sources and institutional power structures, even after death.
I will close with a quote from Felix Gonzalez-Torres, from an interview he gave to Robert Storr in 1995:
For example, here is something the State Department sent to me in 1989, asking me to submit work to the Art and Embassy Program. It has this wonderful quote from George Bernard Shaw, which says, "Besides torture, art is the most persuasive weapon." And I said I didn't know that the State Department had given up on torture - they're probably not giving up on torture - but they're using both. Anyway, look at this letter, because in case you missed the point they reproduce a Franz Kline which explains very well what they want in this program. It's a very interesting letter, because it's so transparent.