No Place Like Home, and the interpretative and creative limits of curating

The exhibition of works of art abides by criteria that, more often than not, are more subjective than objective. There are criteria, there are standards, but, at most, the curator or commissioner is the one who establishes them, based on their critical review of those works, on the room where the exhibition takes place and on a curatorial train of thought.

Making a decision about the places where those objects will stand is therefore an inglorious endeavour, subjected to the multiple perceptive readings of each individual. Not to mention the issue of selection – which becomes even more important when the number and reputation of institutions and collections involved are bigger… This way, the curator’s work is, many times, the one of a manager who deals with financing, projects, multiple resources, works, and, of course, expectations that go way beyond, most of the times, their own strengths and ambitions.

Making and organizing an exhibition are not easy tasks. The critic, an external and uninterested part in these subject matters that are not in front of their eyes, forgets it and downsizes one show to two – not much more than that – text columns and the star-rating system they find suitable.

No Place Like Home, at Museu Coleção Berardo, is an exhibition that incites a reflection about the curator’s task and the several fields of work encompassed by it, some more tangential than others, but all of them quite comprehensive. In this context, it’s an exhibition-lesson for being a model that exemplifies the possibilities, the failures, the limits, the ambiguities and the success of a good or poor curation (if this is relevant at all).

More than one hundred works of three distinct collections – the Berardo Collection, the Ellipse Collection and the Collection of the Israel Museum – are exhibited in what appears to be a scenic transposition of the movie Dogville, of Lars von Trier. Selected by the curator Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, the works introduce us to several areas of a house, in accordance with the concept, the materiality and the form. Lines drawn on the floor are enough to build space, to which white curtains are redundantly added. At the entrance of each division, lies the respective function or program. The works are there to confirm it. Simply. Literally. In the dining room (after all, this is a house of wealthy Jews, let’s not forget that) Spooning, of Subodh Gupta, and Supper, of Anthony Goicolea. Two spoons and a family dinner, plentiful, are there as ornamental elements added to an abstract architecture. At most, they give identity to the place, but always in the perspective of an inferior art of an exhibition concept.

The kitchen, with a corresponding inscription on the ground (because it was not obvious and the works chosen could be misleading) is equipped with Fridge, of Clive Barker, Stomach Anatomy Apron of George Maciunas; the storeroom has a Bottle-Rack of Marcel Duchamp; and, in the machine room, there’s an Untitled (Ironing Board) of Yayoi Kusama, and Brillo Boxes of Andy Warhol. These examples are enough to realize that it is difficult to see beyond the objectification to which these works were submitted.

If uncertainty persists, pay attention to the example of the Fountain, also of Duchamp. The Fountain is, in fact, a urinal whose urinary function was sagaciously and ironically elevated to the art plateau much due to the wise perspective of the artist. Purely Dadaist, Duchamp subverts things and puts on the museum’s plinth an object of everyday life. From the point of view of the History of Art, this is a remarkable and revolutionary achievement, which founded a schism with the so-called classical and figurative art of Beaux-Arts, and launched the conceptualism, prior to asserting itself as such. Therefore, this urinal, in No Place Like Home, goes back to its original and passive duty, waiting to get a golden, gushing rain, no longer of R. Mutt, but of a visitor. It leaves the plinth and goes to the wall. Bathroom is written on the floor… The tension that this instigates in an art historian – picture that – should be outrageous. However, perhaps it’s early to say, since it is necessary to consider the curator’s stance as subversive as well, is in tune with the Dada humour. In any case, the limit is evident: to what extent is this an act of transgression, and to what extent is this an act of short-sighted literality?

The exhibition’s conformation inside a house is something ungrateful right from the start. And what house is this? And who owns it? A sort of anthropology and sociology of the house does not appear to have been made. Alternatively, if this study was indeed prepared, then it is a house with extremely high standards. It’s not a people’s house. It’s not a home for all, or for the majority. It’s an elite house, for the elite.

Then, the number of works. The house is big. The divisions are many. But the sum of these works is immense. At first glance, it seems like a blatant demonstration of the cultural strength of these museums and foundations. But the choice, which seems to have been made to fill the spaces, neglects the imagery and informative saturation that the viewer can be subjected to. The rhythm is neglected, the scale and the constant activation of a body that crumbles down before tiredness are also neglected.

Let’s now see the exhibition from another point of view.

The issues raised by the curator are plenty, and they were developed even with relative exhaustion, borderline burnout. (Another curatorial issue.) The evolution of the social and economic role of women, feminism if we want to call it that; the readymade of Duchamp that manifests itself in several points of the exhibition and is not exclusively associated with him; The voyeurism and the Freudian vision of home; the psychology of home; and the poetics of space, of housing, of refuge, of home, according to Gaston Bachelard. In this context, the exhibition is quite complete and challenges the visitor to wonder about these issues. Even the catalogue (designed by IKEA – a curious and entertaining partnershipbut not free of extraneous associations) is an extensive source of information that supports the wandering and extends the understanding of works and spaces.

Furthermore, even with all these weaknesses and some more, this is a show (a word carefully picked) that deserves to be seen, since it gathers an impressive number of artists never before presented in Portugal, and a rare chance to have access to the works of one of the most wealthy international collections – The Israel Museum – and to another collection which, for legal or illegal reasons, has barely been present so far in Portugal – Holma/Ellipse.

The aforementioned Untiled (Ironing Board) of Yayoi Kusama is one of the most flippant feminist protests. White phalluses threatened by a scorching iron bar – the world upright virility, smoothed and planed by women’s discrete power. Takashi Murakami aligns east and west in Mr. DOB, in the euphoria of the exported and imported images in a global mediatic trade, and in the repression of fear conducted by the adorable. Arched Figure, of Louise Bourgeois, is a chilling contortion of a body subjugated to a sick, hysterical mind. John Chamberlain shows us the plasticity of mechanics, of the great modern production – the car – reduced to an amorphous pile of folds, creases and colours. And, of course, the iconic and bold the Fountain, by Duchamp.

In short, No Place Like Home has flaws, but that doesn’t mean it is not an important contribution in museographic and curatorial terms. Quite the opposite, this is an exhibition that should be understood as an important lesson on how to make exhibitions and on the role of the curator in the museum, and in designing temporary exhibitions.


(Umbigo is thankful to the press office of the Museu Coleção Berardo for the support and professionalism provided in obtaining information.)

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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