Treasures! exhibitionism! showmanship!
Cover Story, December 2018
A clutch of shows in Vienna (where Latitudes was recently a guest of Art Week) and Amsterdam (which just held its Art Weekend) offer a distinctive take on curatorial liberty and creative exhibition display.
Seen here in a beguiling exhibition view, Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures was conceived by filmmaker Wes Anderson (the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) among other delights) and his partner, the costumier and illustrator Juman Malouf for the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Its idiosyncratic selection of more than four hundred objects is drawn from all fourteen of the museum’s historical collections and spans some five thousand years. Flummoxing conventional curatorial rationales (and why else would the venerable Kunsthistorisches Museum have invited the duo if not to overstep orthodoxy?) one display revolves around the colour green and includes malachites from the minerals collection juxtaposed with portraits, an emerald dress, 2nd–3rd-century Roman glassware and Qing Dynasty Chinese porcelain. Elsewhere one could wonder at the embalmed shrew casket of the exhibition’s title, paintings of singular facial hair, or a sequence of 17th–18th century Italian busts arranged by size from diminutive to almost life-size and back again. Another section highlights special cases and storage made for particular objects (rather than the items themselves) including a box for precisely one hundred ostrich feathers.
Over at mumok, the display scenario of 55 Dates. Highlights from the mumok Collection (until February 3, 2019) is conceived by artist Hans Schabus. (In 2009–10, Hans was one of the participating artists in the Latitudes-curated Portscapes.) Using a type of readymade metal fencing commonly used to delimit outdoor worksites, he has devised an ingeniously irreverent system for presenting works—including those by Paul Klee, Giacomo Balla, Pablo Picasso, and Cosima von Bonin—which suggests that art history is always under construction, and urges that the boundaries between storage and gallery become less distinct. Also at mumok until February 3, Photo/Politics/Austria visualises Austrian social history by highlighting photographic images, often from the press, that witness key events from the last 100 years. An elegant exhibition architecture of staggered walls, floating vitrines, and false ceilings, in a palette of yellow, brown, and blue, was designed by the artist Markus Schinwald.
Meanwhile at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Stedelijk Base is a collection display that will remain in place until 2022. It is the first time in the history of the museum that art and design have been integrated in such a thoroughgoing way. Conceived by AMO/Rem Koolhaas with Campus alumnus and Cookies co-founder Federico Martelli, it deploys a schema of thin metal partitions to create tightly-hung ‘islands’ of works-and-walls and sections which flow into each other.
In these refreshing examples it is significant that it is a filmmaker-designer, artists, and an architectural collaboration—in other words, agents external to the institution and who are apparently non-specialised in curating—who are given the licence to be bold with the dramaturgy of an exhibition and the staging of history. Academic plausibility or educational prudence understandably often trump cheekiness, surprise, or incongruity, as allowable museum strategies. For better or for worse, in-house museum staff are often deemed to be constrained, their roles defined by the ballast of professional reputation rather than by disruption, or chutzpah. Yet aside from the obvious pull of celebrity in the case of Anderson, and beyond myopic artist-as-curator debates, what is really to stop museums themselves from indulging in exhibitions that are more, well, exhibitionist, and shows with more showmanship?