Essays

Publics, Histories, Value: The Changing Stakes of Exhibitions

Note from the Editors

Exhibitions are where artworks meet their publics. In the context of Asia, with the general absence of systematic public collections and few academic art history departments, exhibitions are more than just sites of display and interaction. Exhibitions—and the curatorial strategies shaping them, institutional demands driving them, and art writing accompanying them—have become the primary sites of art historical construction.

The last decade has seen a surge in the business of remembering past exhibitions. We have seen different modes of restaging exhibitions; greater variety and frequency of colloquia, symposia, and conferences addressing exhibition history; a growing body of literature from anthologies to periodicals; burgeoning efforts at unearthing archives around landmark exhibitions; and new academic departments and electives in this emergent field. This fascination for exhibition histories / exhibition studies can also be viewed as a young profession (exhibition making) trying to give shape to its intellectual form at a time when the formerly formidable edifice of art history is struggling to keep pace with, in Irit Rogoff’s memorable phrasing, the "undisciplined" field of contemporary art.1 

Seen against this backdrop, the fourth issue of Field Notes, "Publics, Histories, Value: The Changing Stakes of Exhibitions," is a modest contribution to a collective effort in the construction of this art history. It takes as its point of departure, Asia Art Archive’s 2013 symposium "Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia" and carries the exploration forward to an expanded set of geographies, models, and ideas.2 The symposium, this issue of Field Notes, the many digitisation and research projects that underpin both, and a growing network of art historians, curators, artists, and others informing our efforts, signal our commitment to the study of exhibitions as a pool of possibilities.

This issue, therefore, is part of a combined and distributed effort towards formulating a multivalent answer to the question of how we remember exhibitions, and, by extension, what knowledge is gained through this process. The contributions found here whisper these questions—to reconsider the knowledge around exhibition histories, and make visible the entrenched structures systematically at play. To make the latent "frictions" rise to the surface: to become visible.

Art x Commerce x Public

The exhibition is where artworks are seen and consumed. It is also where art’s aspiring virtues and the economics of circulation are entwined in a tense knot. Through the exhibition, artworks, which travel both as ideas and objects, produce and accrue value as objects of exchange. They do this in conversation with other artworks, and thus their currency is always relational, mediated by the curatorial function. What remains constant is the need for an audience and a community of publics for the exhibition to secure validity and fulfil its purpose. That such legitimising publics may some times be found far from home, particularly when the local infrastructure is lacking, creates additional complications for "audience-building."

With this need for public engagement in mind, museums and galleries are under increasing pressure to adapt programming to engage new cross-sections of society for the "democratisation" of the arts. This phenomenon looks different in Euro-American societies with long established museum cultures than it does in most of Asia—where existing museums were often colonial interventions, and where new museums and attending audiences are being developed together. Such development is running parallel to the rapid emergence of new business models that inject art into a mix of wider property and commercial projects. At the same time, these non-conventional sites of display and modes of collection upset our colonised imaginings of what art infrastructure should look like and how it should function.  

The prominence of private museums, state investment in cultural districts, and the spread of art fairs and biennials are part of this rapidly changing landscape in Asia. But it is the emergence of the art mall that straddles art and commerce, collapsing perceived divisions between art and commodity, spectacle and affect, economics and aesthetics, which strains hardest against the limits of our current conceptions. Assisted by popular media, government plans, and private agendas, art is rapidly becoming part of the collective imagination with social desires playing out on various fronts. It is a status symbol, a marketing tactic, a political intervention, and a form of tradition, and by merging the exhibition with the mall, art and commodity culture, art’s potential for mass consumption is clearly in play—this then begs the question: is this not a truly successful model of "art for all"?  

But what is found and what is lost when accommodating all? Each exhibition can be viewed as a proposition for an alternative reality, responding to the limits of what is possible. How does the development of these new investment models in art infrastructure, and the audiences they serve, affect the potential of exhibitions to intervene into existing structures of knowledge production, disrupt old art histories, and generate new ones? The present state of affairs is reflected in a general commitment to testing established narratives through sharing research, archives, re-enactments, studies, propositions, subversions, and contributions from diverse sites.

Gleaned from the contributions in this issue of Field Notes, one finds collective action towards a more lateral, even oblique, method of formulating histories that is distributed across places and people. By looking at the exhibition’s form and its discursive, spatial, social, and economic formations through the varied perspectives of art historians, curators, artists, researchers, and architects—both real and imagined—this issue hopes to emphasise alternative ways of seeing and approaching exhibitions, and their contribution to the writing of multiple histories of art today. While a cluster of "conventional" institutions, mostly Euro-American, still dominate the existing citadels of art history, we are beginning to see some early signs of shifts amongst centres of knowledge production. How quickly these shifts take hold and disrupt the stranglehold on the mechanisms controlling the circulation of this knowledge will be key to determining the extent to which the hopeful potential of exhibition studies can be realised.


1. Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nasar, eds., Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, Ithaca: Herbert  F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2012. Organised and published in association with Green Cardamom, London, p 108.

2. Details of "Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia," including video documentation of proceedings, can be found on http://www.aaa.org.hk/sitesofconstruction. A special issue of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, vol. 13, no. 2 (March/April 2014), was dedicated to the symposium and presents edited papers from the event.

Publics, Histories, Value: The Changing Stakes of Exhibitions

Editors Lucia Kim, Hammad Nasar, Chantal Wong
Editorial support Ingrid Chu, Claire Hsu
Editorial Coordinator Cheung Tsz Hin, J. Marion Modi
Copy Editors Lucia Kim, Phoebe Wong
With thanks to Rana Anani, Yasir Anwar, Ingrid Chu, Sophie Hu, The Armory Show
Designer Sam Wong
Publisher Asia Art Archive. ©All rights reserved.
Cover image courtesy Harbour City Estates Limited

"Sites of Construction" is financially supported by the Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. "Publics, Histories, Value: The Changing Stakes of Exhibitions" is part of Asia Art Archive’s "Sites of Construction" project.

The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region provides funding support to "Sites of Construction" only, but does not otherwise take part in it. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the materials/activities (or by members of the GRANTEE’s team) are those of the organiser’s of "Sites of Construction" only and do not reflect the views of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

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Topic
Essays
Date
Wed, 1 Apr 2015
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