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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Another Way of Looking at Seventeen Ways of Looking

Back in the day (way back in the day), I learned an important lesson from a college professor. It's one I haven't forgotten, but it's one that hasn't been learned by everyone in MoMA's curatorial department.

In my junior year of college, I came down to the last couple weeks of class without having found a suitable term paper topic for a course in seventeenth-century British poetry. In a last ditch effort to find inspiration, I started skimming through the course's textbook, looking at work by poets we hadn't been assigned to read for the course. As I did so, I started to notice something. Many of them had written about death. Hmmm, I thought, that would make an interesting paper topic: representations of death in seventeenth-century poetry.

So I wrote my essay and was surprised when I got an unacceptable grade. The mark came with an explanation. You can't select a topic with a scope that large and expect to do it justice by dipping into a little bit of this and a little bit of that, the professor noted. If you define a project's scope to be so ambitious, you need to deliver by doing much more extensive reading and research. The support offered for the thesis, she taught me, had to match in scale the ambition that was stated for the project.

It was a timely lesson for me to learn, and it's one that has served me well through the years.

A show on exhibition now at MoMA suffers from the same problem as my undergraduate essay. Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking has taken a good deal of heat since it went up. Tyler Green justifiably eviscerated the show on MAN and in The New York Observer for its lack of political content. But the problems with the show are more fundamental than this. It's missing so much more than just political content.

The problem is highlighted by the explanatory text written to contextualize the show. The website spins the show one way, the gallery brochure another, and the gallery wall text yet a third. It's actually a paragraph from the wall text that I think explains the curator's intentions for the show most clearly:
This exhibition addresses the application of the unexamined rubric "Islamic" to contemporary artists and emphasizes individuality rather than a collective identity. Without Boundary approaches the subject from a variety of perspectives. It looks for links as well as ruptures with the classic traditions of Islamic art, such as calligraphy, miniature painting, and carpet design. In addition, the exhibition tunes in to what the artists themselves have to say about identify and spirituality. In the complex expressions that draw inspiration from different traditions and defy simplistic categorizations, these artists belie the mentality of division and the binary oppositions of present-day politics.
If you can get beyond the jargon ("unexamined rubric," "collective identity," "ruptures," "binary oppositions") to parse what's actually said in this statement, you see some big claims for the show. This is an ambitious curatorial project--a very ambitious project. This is the kind of project, actually, that needs the treatment that only the Centre Pompidou seems to give to thematic shows today. It's a curatorial project that needs to be supported by the inclusion of about 400 works by around fifty artists from over a dozen countries.

But the MoMA show doesn't do this. Instead, the exhibition fills a small gallery space on the third floor and the video gallery on the second floor with a limited selection of works by seventeen artists. Some pieces contain calligraphy. Others make use of carpets and miniature painting. But nowhere do we get an exploration of these formal concerns or a dialogue between a number of artists using them in different ways to different ends as they address contemporary issues.

The show, as a result, comes off as a jumble of work by artists who have nothing in common other than the fact that they hail from countries where many people practice the Islamic faith.

But even that connecting thread isn't absolute. A piece by Mike Kelley and another by Bill Viola have been included. Kelley riffs on carpet design. Viola reflects "spirituality without necessarily rooting it in a specific faith," according to the exhibition brochure. Why this work in this show? I have no idea. I wonder if Kelley and Viola were included as afterthoughts in response to comments or pressure from some administrator. (Here's why I wonder: Click here to view the webpage for the show. Look at the URL that appears in your browser's address box, and you'll see that at some point very close to its opening this show was being called Fifteen Ways of Looking instead of Seventeen Ways of Looking.)

All in all, it's a problematic show, and not just because it lacks political content. It's a problematic show because MoMA has allowed its curator to make a fundamental mistake--to define a hugely ambitious project and then attempt to realize it by mounting a small-scale exhibition.

By significantly limiting the scope of what the show attempted to do (say, by focusing on how a select group of artists is using traditional Islamic calligraphy and carpet design to explore issues in contemporary society), MoMA could have fielded a much more focused and engaging show. The fact that no one in MoMA's curatorial department called a time-out as this show was being prepared makes me wonder if there are organizational issues there that will have negative impacts far beyond the failures of this particular exhibition.

Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, at the Museum of Modern Art through May 22, 2006

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