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.
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
During Usain Bolt’s post-race interview after dominating the 200 meter final of the 2011 Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, he talked about the former American champion Michael Johnson, who was similarly pre-eminent as a 200 and 400 meter runner in the 90s. In his hurried Jamaican English, Bolt reminded viewers that Johnson retired while he was at the top of the sport; a legend, he said, and that was how Bolt wanted to be remembered as well. Each one defined men’s running in their eras. Johnson was the game back then as Bolt is today.
Even during the pre-race introductions, as I watched Bolt prance and mug elaborately as if getting ready for a night out, then step and crouch seriously to his mark, I thought about how his and Johnson’s running styles differed and how the shape of their forms delivered them to the limits of our understanding of what the body is capable of.
Their names say it all.
Usain Bolt, an audacious, electric amalgam of syllables conjured through a violent spark of imagination. The first name is liquid, the U played like the Ooh of surprise, sain like insane, Bolt of lighting bolt. He runs like his name, smooth as molasses stretching from a spoon with an easy speed that can only be described as genius. Genius like the level of intellect. From the gun, each step rockets him forward ever faster until he reaches full speed. From there he swallows distances in lengthy strides. His feet seem to barely make contact with the track’s surface, floating above and discrediting laws of nature.
In slow motion during the 200, NBC showed his eyes glancing to his right as he came out of the turn, checking for Walter Dix, the American runner who came in 2nd. With Dix well behind, Bolt poured on the mechanics of his stride and his face broke out in expressions of innocent wonderment, joy and swagger. A 6’5 runner with a long gate, he down-shifted and accelerated into a smooth gallop that propelled him past the finish into the Jamaican flag. A swarm of cameras descended on him as he jigged and broke into his lightning bolt pose, left arm stretched diagonally, index pointing to the heavens. His right arm folded, index aligned with his left arm as if he’s drawing back a bow and arrow, aiming it at the moon.
Michael Johnson, a common, practical name, unfussy and unadorned. It’s always Michael Johnson, not Mike. You would never forget it, though you would also never remember it. Uncelebratory and utterly American. He had short legs that worked like pistons, up and down in rapid choppy succession, pounding his shoes into the track so hard the track bounced them back up with greater velocity. His speed was built on pure work. It was blue-collar speed. Johnson’s arms pumped with the same rhythm as his legs, fast and furious. His mouth was the exhaust pipe, eyes straight-ahead unemotional like headlights; his head turned into a pure instrument for breathing. His body was a machine for the production of blinding pace though nothing in its movements suggested forward rush. He won gold in both the 200 and 400 meters in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, setting the 200 meter record that stood until Bolt broke it in the 2009 Berlin World Championships in 19.19 seconds.
Bolt’s running looks like the sound of a whizzing bullet, chasing the wind and never stirring the air, laughing all the way. Johnson shoved air aside like a freight train going downhill, the business of running pressed on his face. Running is pure sport; how fast can you get from here to there with your feet? When Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson run, their churning strides convert their sport into art.