Museums make sense of things that have happened. We ask and attempt to answer: In what past do these objects belong? What do these objects tell us about that past? Museums like the one I work at believe they’re useful for offering profound lessons about history with things that are still with us.
Elections allow societies to imagine new beginnings. Just eight years after the American political system delivered an early-arriving multicultural future, it has returned us to a time of dangerous contradiction and nonsense. How should museums then make sense of this fatalistic trajectory for the future? Or should we even try?
Curating in a museum can be a beautiful process. It is simultaneously grinding and hurried, hermetic and collaborative. Through this highly schizophrenic practice, we can propose how what has been done is part of a logical continuum of culture and history. But we can’t go along making the same arguments with the same language. And we can’t wait for our present to recede far enough in the past before we make sense of it.
Museums need to start treating the future as if it was the past, not the other way around.
Charles de Gaulle Airport
Off the train and up the escalator quickly. We stopped and huddled together to take stock. My dad pulled a tattered handle out of his pocket, slowly like someone discovering a severed ear while reaching for his keys. Earlier he had ripped it off a pick-pocketers sack as the thief was trying to escape the train with my dad’s wallet. Two of them surrounded him when he first got on. They grabbed his suitcase in what looked like an attempt to be helpful, then reached into his front pocket and jacked it when my dad struggled for his luggage. They got it all wrong; my mom and dad are survivors. His wallet mattered to them, not just because of what was inside, but because of what it represents – identity, access, value – all proudly earned. I was not surprised to see them fight for it and get it back. We were happy to be leaving Paris.
A Canal Near Belleville
I’m assuming there’s no French word for hipster because Paris may have been the birth place of authentic White cool. Me and a friend plopped down on shaded canal-side real estate on Quai de Jemmapes with a couple of small beers to consider what the end of a Sunday in this city means. The beautiful youth with their secrets, whispered just loud enough. A little remote-controlled sailboat, tossing and flailing in the breeze, lazily dipped in and out of our consciousness and we were suddenly irked by it. We imagined being buddies with American diplomats. Let’s dial them up and get the nearest missile-equipped drone to pass through and take care of this little sailboat situation with the full, overwhelming force of the U.S. military.
The gardens, the palace. We’re now used to waiting in line and this one, on a postcard perfect Saturday, was epic and disorganized but somehow functional. We were moving at a pace that only tourists could tolerate. My niece and nephew, who at seven and nine years old respectively, are much better at being patient than I imagine me and my sister were at their age. They have their obsessions and these occupy their imaginations, becoming realities as much as the waiting gilded rooms and manicured lawns. For my nephew it’s all about a baseball video game and how his team dominates. He recites his players’ gaudy statistics all day in a giddy monologue, asking questions he doesn’t need answers for. He’s a competitor. My niece is a writer. She was born with an intense patience. I see her watching a scene unfold and studying its minor details, seeing humor, tragedy and meaning in those details. She prodded me to read a trilogy she wrote. Sentences were crafted with discipline and economy. I was impressed by her vocabulary. The stories were surreal, dark and frenetic like the deepest dreams. Reading them made me want to write again.
I’m easing back into this blog thing with an easy assignment: list the most memorable exhibitions I’ve ever seen. I spend so much time looking at shows in galleries, museums, and alternative spaces, but there’s nothing concrete I take away from it since I rarely buy exhibition catalogs. And there’s no immediate processing of what I’ve seen since I don’t write art reviews. But having seen plenty of shows in the last few years, I want to remember what exhibitions shaped how I view art and how I understand the possibilities of exhibition-making. My only rules were to exclude projects I worked on and permanent exhibitions. I didn’t fact check any of these, just went with pure memory, so there may be title and year inaccuracies.
In no particular order:
Robert Smithson, curated by Eugenie Tsai, Whitney Museum, 2000
Welcome at a gallery in Chelsea, 2006 (an exhibition of emerging artists from Iran)
Little Boy, curated by Takashi Murakami, Japan Society, 2007
Art and China’s Revolution, Asia Society, 2010
Black Romantic, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2004
The Whole World is Rotten, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2003
The Downtown Show, Grey Art Gallery, NYU, 2006
Seth Price, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2003
Nick Cave, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2008
Hip Hop show (can’t remember title), curated by Franklin Sirmans and Lydia Yee, Bronx Museum, 2002
Arte No Es Vida, El Museo del Barrio, 2010
The DL, curated by Edwin Ramoran, Longwood Art Gallery, 2002
Xaviera Simmons, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, 2005
Paul Chan, Greene Naftali, 2005
Nikki S. Lee, Jack Tilton, 2000
Patty Chang, Jack Tilton, 2001
Person in the Crowd, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007
George Bellows, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012
Luc Tuyman, David Zwirner Gallery, 2000
Freestyle, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2003
Yuh Shioh Wong, Southfirst, 2007
Narcissister, Envoy Enterprises, 2013
4-channel video installation by an artist whose name I can’t remember, Participant, Inc., 2005
Rafael Ferrer, El Museo del Barrio, 2009
Kalup Linzy, Taxter & Spengeman, 2007
Willem de Kooning, MoMA, 2005
Theresa Margolles, Y Gallery, 2007
Slavs and Tatars, Newman Popiashvilli Gallery, 2006
Sterling Ruby, Metro Pictures, 2008
Claire Fontaine, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2003
Korean video artist with installation next to Panorama, Queens Museum, 2010
Felix Gonzalez Torres and Robert Gober, Andrea Rosen, 2005
Zhang Huan, Asia Society, 2006
Martin Kippenberger, Can’t Remember Where (maybe David Zwirner), 2003
The last show at Orchard, 2007
Alec Soth’s Mississippi River series, a gallery in New Orleans, 2008
We were back in the East Village where the night started. In Maharlika, the stylish Philippino restaurant, numbly recounting how it all went down. Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Dogg World from 1994 spilled threats in that sluggish, Long Beach way. Dangerous and casual. It felt like a California decision to drive 3 hours (“If we can do it in two and a half hours or less, let’s go,” Joe suggested) to a casino in Connecticut – it felt circa 1994 too. Eric B. and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique was next. I wondered aloud if they had a DJ, wanting to send some approving eye contact his or her way. “It’s Pandora,” Nancy informed me. Shit is almost too easy nowadays I thought, taking a swig of my San Miguel in silent tribute to a harder time.
I was just joking around the day before. It was the end of the workday and concentration was elusive…But wait. I’ve told this story ten times and still haven’t found the hook. In each re-telling, I started obsessing over petty details because the symmetry was so uncanny. But it bogged down the story’s pacing and killed its comedic effect.
For instance, I like thinking about how Sandrine decided to skip a screening of 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (the 1979 documentary about Bronx street gangs) in order to ride up to Mohegan Sun with us, but we all wound up in a gas station in the Bronx hours later anyway trying to change a flat tire. The gas station was tucked in an industrial zone just off the highway that seemed to be untouched by aggressive ‘quality of life’ policies and re-zoning that have transformed many dilapidated neighborhoods in the last two decades. She got to see the ‘for real’ side of the Bronx depicted in that film after all. A lot happened that night, but the story is really that nothing happened. A net zero effect. It took everything we had to go nowhere. Had we in fact been gambling all along?