An occasional space available to someone in the artworld who wants to say
Staying Alive under Water: Two Recent Curatorial Activities
by Andrew Lamprecht
A few months ago I was at a party in Johannesburg when a former student sidled up to me and said hello. I did not recognise her at first but it turned out that she had been in the same graduating class at Michaelis (where I teach) that saw the likes of Ed Young, Cameron Platter, Zen Marie, Dan Halter, and Varenka Pashke all complete their undergraduate degrees at the same time. She asked after some of her former classmates but then a decidedly sour note entered her conversation. 'Yes, Andrew Lamprecht,' she portentously proclaimed, 'you are the curator who only puts your friends on your shows.' Now to be fair I must say the rest of our interaction was fairly pleasant, although a chill did seem to descend on the marquee (near the bar) where we were standing, but I was quite taken aback by this particular observation.
I do not think I usually consciously choose to include my friends in curatorial projects I am involved in, although many artists have become my friends through us working together on projects on which, for whatever reason, I have the title 'curator'. I would think this is a good thing on the whole.
I have been invited to reflect on the two most recent such events and to give some context to the curatorial acts: the curation. And there lies the rub. For such a reflection on my part smacks of the pretentiousness I have tried to convey in this piece.
It is an ancient pretentiousness that for some strange reason so frequently accompanies the writings of curators about their curatorial activities. It is only when other people write about what curators do that it seems less nauseating.
Take for example, the first time the word is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary as being used in the sense it is being used in this piece. The great diarist John Evelyn wrote in his Diary on 19 July 1661: 'In which [diving-bell] our curator continued half an hour under water.' Now it's with that sort of fanfare that I think any vocation should be introduced into the language. No doubt 'under water' is also the place that many readers of this article would like to permanently consign the race of curators but as our seventeenth-century antecedent just cited illustrates, we have our ways of overcoming such difficulties.
It was in the spirit if staying alive under water that I embarked on curating two shows in one week. The first, 'printtttt' at the Association for Visual Arts was a very last-minute thing put together to fill a gap that had been caused by a late cancellation in the programme. I had wanted to do a printmaking show for some time and given that the space available was small and the time to get the show together even smaller, I thought that a small show of mainly pre-existing works, focussing on some new and innovative techniques would be the ticket. I was extremely busy with another, far more complex and logistically demanding project on at almost the same time but I foolishly did not see this new show as being a very burdensome thing and I accepted the invitation with elation.
Thus, I have no one to blame but blame itself for what followed. Apparently it is a cardinal rule that curators should never take the blame for their own actions. Following, I guess, the dictum of H.M. The Queen, 'do not apologise; do not explain; do not complain'.
The far more complex project was one of the products of a practical course on curatorship that I, along with my colleagues Pippa Skotnes and Fritha Langerman, was teaching. My section of the course would be dedicated to putting on a large-scale show that would involve curating work (sculptures, prints, video and live performances) produced and developed by Waddy Jones, who has a reputation for being 'the illest MC in South Africa'. I am assured by the artist that in the underground lingo of the hip kids this is a compliment.
The event was structured to take place over six hours and involved many, many separate elements all happening together and frequently in different places. There was to be an exhibition of felt soft-toy animals and other creatures made by hand by Watkin Tudor Jones (to use his name as it now appears on all official correspondence) as well as a few other elements in the Michaelis School Gallery. This would begin at around 7 p.m. and the usual wine would be forsaken in favour of tea and cakes (the latter decorated with images of Waddy's toys). My suspicion that his toys would be a hit was due less to the fact that I had already shown them at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunsfees than my memories of respectable middle-aged married couples fighting � almost physically coming to blows � in their competitive attempts to purchase similar work by the artist at Bell-Roberts Contemporary when he first exhibited his sculptural work.
After the opening there was a film show of some movies that Waddy had made. This was also in the gallery, now accompanied by popcorn in little bags decorated with one of the animal designs. I must point out here that aside from the contribution by the artist himself, all the work and most of the ideas that got this thing to happen can be ascribed to the students who took the course. For me, it was great seeing diffident students suddenly becoming very forthright and self-assured as they realised that in an exhibition of the kind we were curating their actions in one aspect of the show became vital to everything else happening.
This was followed by a musical concert, featuring numerous participants who played music, performed innovative sound pieces and sang songs in a style that I believe can be accurately but imperfectly described as electro-rap. Essentially what Waddy presented was the usual kick-ass show he is well-known and well-loved for. His friend, Andrew, did much of the arranging of the concert, the printing of the flyers and other things that had to be done and were not done by the insanely-workaholic Watkin Tudor Jones and the students (whom I frequently reminded would get actual marks on the basis of what they did as part of the curatorial process).
Now the close reader (and given the way this piece is dragging on I suspect it is but one reader) may have noticed that I didn't seem to do very much in this whole process.
Those who were there will know that I barked instructions to saucer-eyed but fiendishly hard-working students; panicked (for no apparent reason) at regular intervals; made sure I was available for interviews from the Press on the night and generally stood around looking self-important but with a mildly distressed-but-I'm-coping look that I had perfected during my first brush with curatorship.
To reveal something of my method and intentions: it is having the freedom to be able to do very little (as all curators have always done, I have been told) by means of the cunning arrangement of the task list that separates the good curator from the bad.
Which brings me back to 'printtttt'. I am clearly a very, very, bad curator by the afore-mentioned scale of measurement. For that show, my task-list overflowed.
Please note, I am not complaining. Not even about the artist who made me go out by myself and on foot one slightly uncomfortable Sunday morning (the day before the opening of the show in fact) and buy a frame which he described as 'you know, the sort of gold-covered Victorian ornate frame, not too large and not too small; kinda like you's expect the picture to be framed. I'm sure you can just get it at Clicks, dammit.' Alas, as I discovered during my painful three hour frame-shopping expedition, neither Clicks nor any other shop known to me seems to sell the type of frame I was presume was being alluded to. In the end I bought another wooden frame, sanded it with by own curatorial hands and painted the damn thing gold to a cheesy, but not unVictorian finish.
Nor am I complaining about the artist who arrived on the hanging day, about an hour and a half after I had access to the space - and while there were four or five other artists already there, more than one of whom were sighing and glancing at watches while I attempted to work out a feasible installation strategy with Monica Mosarwa, the assistant curator - looked with horror and disgust at his as yet unhung print and queried: 'What is this? One of those leave the prints on the ground and don't hang them up exhibitions?'
But even though I am not complaining, I am worried that it sounds as if I am, so I think I will stop here. I must note that some artists were able to deliver work, beautifully framed or mounted, usually with a little note or slip of paper with the title, edition size and price pasted onto the back with archivally sound pH-neutral glue.
One artist was foolish enough to give me curatorial autonomy to actually select a work from a full series of proofs, mount it as I saw fit and present the work according to my own whims.
I really am not complaining about the fact that I had to do a bit of graft for the show. And I have not even started with what happened the next day, after I had been shopping for hours for non-existant frames and I needed to do a few finishing touches�. No, I am not complaining because it was quite within my curatorial powers (and they grow weaker and weaker by the day) to select a bunch of artists who would not have fed me shit I had to eat.
I could have made sure that I only dealt with those highly experienced participants, like many of those I fortuitously had the pleasure and honour to include on 'printtttt', who would know the form, and realise when they were stepping over bounds. I could have curated a show of work where all the participants would project an air of 'I'm ever so pleased to be on this show' as opposed to a teenage-regression 'fuck you, I'm doing you a big favour even to be talking to you and don't expect me at the opening' vibe.
The couple of artists who seriously irritated me during the curation of the show were, as far as I am concerned, worth every moment of frustration. If I have a theory of curation; or better yet, an ethic, it would be this: there is no shame in a curator putting in a few hours of overtime for a show. Nothing is lost in one's process by virtue of the fact that one hangs something oneself rather than hiring a fine art graduate to knock a nail in the wall. It is fine to leave a couple of messages on the phone to make sure that everything is as the artist wants it and that the artist can truly feel ownership of the work as it is presented in the show one curates. One need not even be mortified by the excessive use of 'one' when referring to oneself in these situations. All of the above, and much more, is part of the job.
The seasoned professionals, some of whom may have seen their work on major international platforms and are represented in every major collection in the country, provide a stability that tempers my own comparative lack of experience in this thing called 'curating'.
I guess that's why I did not take one of the participant's advice and try and paint a large and vitally black frame white so as to match all the others. Nor did I worry when the artist showing in the unrelated exhibition below seemed a trifle unhappy with some of my decisions. Possibly she felt that a dominant, large-scale, complex and colour-saturated work by Malcolm Payne, vital in giving structure and context to the whole of 'printtttt' would 'clash' with one of her works in another space. 'He's not going to hang that there I hope' I was encouraged to overhear at one point. (Even an artist in uncurated show needs to think curatorially.)
Though I am a very, very, bad curator, I have already learnt that a curator who loses her temper is a fool; or one that supplants his own sense of confidence and authority by means of destabalising an artist whom he has invited onto a show, whether the act of destabilisation is justified or not, has denigrated their own work.
The reason why I work with a group of artists who appear to some trainspotters of the artworld to be the same every time, is because I like to work with artists I like. I remember Sunil Gupta saying something like: 'Curating is the worst job in the world; why on earth would one ever want to work with someone who isn't absolutely pleasant?'
I remember Kendell Geers speaking of the curator whom he had arranged to have sexually tortured as part of his work. I took a mental note when he observed that the act of torturing him emanated from the curator's insistence that 'he would do anything - anything for his artists'. Nice one, Kendell: and let me put this on record right here and now: in any show I ever curate whatever I do, I do for me and me alone; I do nothing for 'my' artists.
'My artists' do not exist any more than the friends my former student imagined me to have. I like working with artists who have a sense of humour, do not take themselves excessively seriously, who are prepared to take a risk not for themselves or their potential career advancement or even, heaven forfend, me, but because sometimes its just fun to take a risk.
Zwelethu Mthethwa asked me what my curatorial framework was in choosing the artists I chose for 'printtttt'. I answered him by telling the truth. I had to get the thing together in a record time. I had an idea to use unusual prints and I asked a whole lot of people, mostly known personally to me, and asked them all a huge favour.
Despite rumours (I personally think that they are spread chiefly by me) that I am a deep insider in the incestuous and degenerate world of Contemporary South African Art, not even my super-powers could rouse the newspapers to get a review printed. Apparently Melvyn Minnaar was on holiday at the time. Nor could my brazen attempts to wheedle out a favour from Art South Africa editor Sean O'Toole. There would not be a review of 'printtttt' I was informed by Mr O'Toole as he had sent a reviewer to assess the show and it was reported back to him that the show did not warrant a review in his journal. I find this curious. (And please do not misunderstand me, I would never question Sean's methodology of remote assessment, I am just naturally curious.)
On the evening before installation one of the (younger) participating artists drunkenly stumbled into my home to inform me that I was a 'very, very, bad curator' for all sorts of reasons that I have no doubt were and still are very valid. He also let me know that he would never be part of any show I curated, including 'printtttt'. Just to make sure, I phoned him the next day to ask him if he had changed his mind. He said he'd come to the gallery later and have a look around and make his decision then. Happily he changed his mind and I am glad of it. His participation was and is valued by me. On the opening night he even offered the opinion that it was a 'good show' which, judging by the criteria of the quality of the work on display (and I know there can be no other criteria at play) was an accurate assessment. I am happy to report that that seemed to be the general feeling of everyone who conveyed any opinion to me - save for Art South Africa's anonymous assessor � but I have found that opinions of any sort are quite rare in my town and even more rarely shared with the people whom they concern.
I guess that's why I will keep on curating shows that include my friends' work. Even when they may be wrong, they will be forthright. Even when we bitch at each other, we usually do it in front of, rather than behind, each others' backs. And while we usually don't take ourselves overly seriously; I hope my tale shows that we take our work very, very, seriously. As I have noted, when it comes to friends, I don't have too many, but I do seem to have enough to get a small show together. Now all I need is a mentor�.
'A delusion that fills me with happiness is worth a truth that casts me to the ground.' Wieland, Idris und Zenide.
Andrew Lamprecht, inter alia masquerades as an independent curator. By day he teaches at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, an institution that in no way should be associated with the above ramble, which is projected purely from his own private capacity. However, he wishes to state quite categorically that no student should ever, ever, use this piece of writing as a model for scholarly or academic discourse.