Artists come first. This is what we say when we—curators and institutions of contemporary art—are asked to describe our approach to curatorial work. We always say that we support artists, that we are there with them and for them.
But do our actions match our words? Are we and the institutions that we represent equipped for this task, no matter what? Are we ready to follow artists’ intentions even when they break, change, edit, and sometimes overturn the longstanding canons and parameters within which we work?
In this regard, curators are extremely responsible. We often hide behind the idea that we work for institutions and have to stand for them, but the reality is that our responsibilities are shifting, and our focus is becoming more and more to obsessively control, supervise, and direct the process of exhibiting artworks. Additionally, it seems that we are often interested in being remembered as having been the ones to mark an artist’s career, whether this means “launching,” “discovering,” “supporting,” or “re-discovering” the artist. Ten months of working with Nairy Baghramian has up-ended these ideas for me.
Baghramian is the kind of artist that you can only trust and support. She is fully confident in her ideas, and the reality is that she is, for the most part, right. She takes on the responsibilities and risks associated with works and the decisions surrounding them; she doesn’t shy away from this. If one decides to invite Baghramian to do a show, one should be ready to let go and fully invest in and support her vision, which in most cases comprises a very sophisticated and thoughtful institutional critique.
The Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K) and the Walker Art Center invited Baghramian to do a show that would give us a chance to mark a moment in her career and production—a way to do justice to everything that Baghramian had done in recent years and view it in its totality. This would have been a perfect occasion to show some of her great works such as Retainer, Class Reunion, and French Curve, to name a few, and to read them all together in a critical look at more than two decades of her career.
This was too easy, too simple, and not engaging enough for Baghramian—if not too soon in her career. She rejected the retrospective view, instead proposing an exhibition of new works that would reflect upon and alter her works made between 1999 and 2016. In doing so, Baghramian engages with the format of the retrospective in a novel way, using the past 20 years of her oeuvre as a site to be continually mined for exploration and idea generation. Both institutions converged on what Baghramian defined as a process of “surveying the survey.”
S.M.A.K Senior Curator Martin Germann, who was involved in the project since its very beginning, says: “The show uses the work as the theme (which is explicitly emphasized in the title of the show), the life as a project (a notion often employed by late 1990s’ management doctrines), and all this in the institutionally structured format of a survey—a format that Baghramian by no means evades, as some reviews of the exhibition claimed. Instead, her project perfectly fulfilled the desire to look back, in an ingenious and much more labor-intensive manner.”
This process brought to the exhibition entirely new works built on 18 sets of works from Baghramian’s oeuvre to date. In each new piece, Baghramian alludes to existing work and associated elements, from discarded ideas to working material.
The Moorings series, for example, presents enlarged versions of the metal hooks used to secure boats at their docks. The concept of the piece, as in many of Baghramian’s works, is to give visibility to hidden and overlooked objects. Rather than performing their intended function, the oversized support itself becomes the art. This series has also been presented several times with the objects painted yellow. In Déformation Professionnelle, Baghramian decided to present a new version, which looks like rough aluminum, as if the surfaces have been peeled off down to the bone.
The work Walker plays with the boundary between indoor and outdoor spaces. The title refers both to a walking aid for mobility and a male escort. Since 2008, the artist has presented this figure under different guises—sometimes as an intellectual, sometimes as a dandy. The work has appeared in the surrounding elements of exhibitions, including the cover of the catalogue, or an outdoor flag advertising the exhibition at the building’s main entrance. At the Walker, it is presented as T-shirts to be worn voluntarily by gallery assistants. Often the first point of contact and source of information for visitors, gallery assistants are crucial to the functioning of the museum within the context of its many publics. As with many of the artist’s other works, Walker calls attention to the often hidden systems of support that underlie institutions. Of course, here, the title takes on an additional meaning, as it is also the name of the institution—perhaps a sly suggestion that this male model serve as the new face of the Walker.
Flat Spine is an enormous sculptural installation that takes up almost the entire axis of Gallery 5 and bleeds into Gallery 6. The work’s starting point is in a previous sculpture, French Curve, which takes its name from a traditional drawing tool. Approximately 55 feet long, French Curve is composed of numerous handmade segments of cast aluminum. The scooped-out hollow spine, approximately knee height, is, for the artist, analogous to the marrow of a bone. This intimate underside has a hand-sculpted, shiny finish while the outside of the sculpture is cast-aluminum matte.
Playing with the dialectic positive-negative, French Curve “generated” Flat Spine. Rather than being aligned in a vertical and straight manner, the backbone of Flat Spine is splayed out, curved, and arranged on the floor. Rigid wood supports reminiscent of a back brace run alongside the spine-shaped form, suggesting these bones are being repositioned. The association with prostheses and other bodily apparatuses points to questions of visible and invisible forms of power and support.
In 2008, Baghramian presented Class Reunion, an ambitious multi-piece sculpture comprising a variety of abstract forms. Made from a range of materials varying in size, shape, and texture, each individual piece is unique, yet reliant on others. The pieces are combined like a cast of characters to create an oddly theatrical scene. They take on human characteristics, accentuated by their proximity and placement, and such qualities are suggested in their titles—The Slacker, The Dandy, and Please, After You—as well as in their pose and structure. As a collection of posed characters, Class Reunion forms an uncanny tableau that opens up the potential for the viewer’s experience to move from a consideration of physicality to an examination of social mores. The specific objects in Baghramian’s piece become subjects, creating a human experience in which discrete variations evoke a multiplicity of personalities and social identities. The word “class” in the title can signify formal categorizations as well as social and economic structures. While the coming together of forms is familiar, resembling social encounters and playing with our desire to classify things, Baghramian seems to suggest the specification of types, division into groupings, and ideas of personality or identity are as fabricated as the individual sculptures we see.
Baghramian’s response to Class Reunion in this exhibition is Stay Downers—a series composed of different “characters,” each titled with a school-like-nickname—Grubby Urchin, Dripper, Wall Flower, Nerd, Malingerer, Fidgety Philip, Shilly-Shally, Backrower, Babbler Bounder, Truant, Ugly Duckling, Class Clown. In this case, the title refers to students in a class who are left behind, held back to repeat a year in school and perhaps excluded from class reunions. In the spirit of this exhibition, in which previously rejected ideas and other working materials are incorporated, the series brings renewed attention to questions of volume, mass, and gravity as well as color and composition. The soft, rounded forms convey an air of lightness, yet the heavy weight they bear and the almost carnivalesque balancing act they perform connote an awkwardness to their existence—perhaps a hint as to why they were asked to “stay down.”
In the first presentation of the exhibition at the S.M.A.K., this dynamic found its direct equivalent in space. Peeper (2016), based on Stretcher (2009), cut across the central gallery of the museum, sectioning it off from viewers as a panorama of potential emptiness, around which all the other works were grouped to form a course without an obvious beginning or end.
In the interim between the two iterations of the project, in two very different spaces, and in the spirit of critically and playfully reimagining the presentation, Baghramian continued to rethink the structure and sequence of both the works and the show as a whole. At the Walker she has taken to the spiral formation of the galleries, with stairwells leading from one to the other. Therefore, some of the works are re-arranged in shape (Headgear), others are separated within the exhibition space, physically “bleeding” from one room to next (Flat Spine and Stay Downers), others are completely displaced from the galleries to the museum’s public and interstitial spaces (Mooring and Privileged Points – Fellows), and finally some have taken on different forms and directions according with institutional limitations, like Walker moving from a flag to a T-Shirt worn by gallery assistants.
Viewing the exhibitions at the Walker and S.M.A.K as variations on a theme, and the exhibition in its entirety as a prologue and epilogue, points to the artist’s impulse that a work of art not appear static or fixed, but rather experienced as an endless reservoir of ideas that can be arranged and rearranged at will. Each work carries a trace of something that has preceded and something that will follow in a constant back-and-forth of forms, materials, shape, content, and sites, generating anew a continuous renegotiation that evolves in real time and space. There are no other possibilities to an institution other than accepting this manifestation. Either you take it, or you just leave it.