Past practices future challenges: Exhibition-making in South Australia
Much has been said recently regarding new approaches to exhibition-making. Organic evolution and development within the field, combined with multiple, significant external pressures have driven fundamental shifts in the ways exhibition-making is approached and strategised. The turn away from the primacy of chronology and a singular, linear narrative, together with an awareness of the roles and responsibilities of mediation, has been discussed and debated on various platforms for well over half-a-century. The emphatic escalation of discourse surrounding exhibitionary practices since the late 1980s, and its expanding confidence throughout the 1990s and beyond, continues to aid the growth and empower the progression of exhibition-making as a practice. In parallel with the transformation of exhibition-making, curatorial discourse has also seen growth and progression.
We have witnessed an increase in the production of curatorial anthologies with emphasis placed on the individual exhibition-maker as author, together with the rise of the ‘celebrity curator’. The development of a substantial new historiography of exhibition-making has also paralleled a recent vogue for exhibition reconstructions. Passage through the 1990s reveals further, predictable correlation between practice and discourse through key shifts. The site of the exhibition becomes employed as a setting for programmed discussions, events, and performances instead of a space primarily for artworks, through a new, cooperative, and process-orientated approach to exhibition-making termed the ‘paracuratorial’. Correspondingly, rhetoric at this time is increasingly focussed on outlining the merits of collaborative approaches to exhibition-making as the new requirement for the practice. The capacity of the exhibition to a more relational and inclusive model, and its faculty for collective cultural action is accompanied by the acknowledged failure of the singly authored exhibition within the field’s documents. The adoption of pedagogical models by the practices of exhibition-making in the 2000s is widely designated the ‘educational turn’ by attendant commentary, together with other newly termed approaches including the social and locational turn. Reflexive curating and slow curating are also outlined as fresh, liberating approaches to exhibition-making.
Within this loud arena of change and innovation it seems appropriate to ask to what degree have we fulfilled our stated aims? What must be done? Have we realised the objectives for exhibition-making set out within our field’s discourse?
In May of this year, Adelaide artist-run off space Sister permanently closed. During its operation, the organisation functioned as an ‘experimental educational environment’, presenting important and innovative exhibitions and events across two years. A case study of the artist-run initiative reveals scattered entanglements with approaches to exhibition-making advocated throughout the field’s discourse. It remains a positive demonstration of the ability of an organisation with limited resources to engage with emergent practices beyond its local context. It is interesting to trace the presentations of two specific projects in outlining this engagement; Mladen Stilinović Study Centre: Work and Who speaks for a community? These projects go some way to providing an indication of the progress of exhibition-making as a practice within the South Australian context.
Between May and June last year a Study Centre was installed in Gallery 1 at Sister. This was the third iteration of a larger, four-part project initiated by artist Julia Bavyka with reference to the late conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović. The exhibition Mladen Stilinović Study Centre: On Work functioned as a collaborative laboratory for dialogue, dedicated to reflection, enquiry, collective input, rest, and sharing. Taking its form from its function, the exhibition manifested as a process-oriented community space without adherence to conventional gallery hangs. Through recurring ‘active afternoons’ visitors were encouraged to participate in shared discussions stimulated by key prompts involving work by Mladen Stilinović, texts, readings, and quotes. Led by multiple contributors tasked with guiding the discussion, these sessions effectively constituted the (art)work. Created and sustained through participatory actions, rather than a presentation of art objects, the exhibition’s approach privileged an inclusive and relational methodology, responsive to recent shifts in exhibition-making more broadly.
Who speaks for a community? curated by Bella Hone-Saunders and presented at Sister in December 2017, similarly engaged with disruptive approaches to exhibition-making. Utilising the exhibition format as a platform for enquiry, the project aimed to open an accessible and inclusive discussion centred on the notion of ‘community’. Key questions including the exhibition’s title, were situated at the forefront, giving shape to an otherwise supple subject. Centring on representation, visibility, inclusion, and self-determination within the art museum, these questions engaged in broader discussions taking place within the field. Importantly, the project resisted any attempt to achieve an authoritative or definitive position on the notion of community or in response to the questions posed. In this way, the project confidently repurposed the exhibition toward collective cultural action, away from its traditional classifying and determining functions. This redirection of the medium enables a correction of past positions and indicates a productive way forward.
These projects highlight the collaborative possibilities of the exhibition format and its ability to be ideologically and materially recast as a process of enquiry, as opposed to an expression of expertise. It enables an indication of the ways the practice is expanding beyond traditional frameworks, aligning with the ambitious objectives described by the discipline’s surrounding discourse. However, it also speaks to a reliance on independent curators, supportive spaces, and receptive artists. The closure of Sister limits continuing progress and raises questions around the future of experimental and progressive exhibition-making within the local context. Can innovation within the practice be sustained while the sites it occupies close? What are the key challenges faced by organisations supportive of experimental approaches to exhibition-making?
Recent State policy and budgetary actions within the sector have done little to assist organisations or individuals in developing and delivering projects. Sustained cuts to funding and the dismantling of Arts SA has seen increased pessimism towards the future of South Australian arts and culture. Project grants, relied upon by organisations and individuals to support exhibitionary-practices and their parallel discourse have witnessed significant procedural change through the insertion of the Premier’s final approval into the peer assessment structure. The pressures associated with reduced fiscal support are most sensitively felt by those with limited capacity to engage philanthropic or private benefaction. Those who most rely on public funding – individuals and off spaces – are also those who we most rely on for experimental exhibition-making. These actions result in a reduced diversity of cultural experiences through increased challenges to individuals and organisations; and provides experimental and innovative exhibition-making in South Australia with an unknown future.
This article was originally written for Fine print magazine.
Thanks must be extended to Joanna, Rayleen, and Gillian for providing me the opportunity to further develop this line of research. Likewise, I am thankful to artist Julia Bavyka and curator Bella Hone-Saunders for generously providing their time and information.