MA Curating shows pose an unsettling question: are we here to encounter a set of artworks or rather to assess under what conceptual make-up were they thrown together? Like a mirror held to the face of our art system, the MA Curating show makes us wonder about the increasingly dominant –and sometimes slightly terrifying– position that curators have in the current artistic status quo, competing directly with the agency and attention traditionally reserved to artists.
‘Shadowboxing’ is this year’s Royal College of Art MA Curating Contemporary Art final show, which, along with Bard College in New York, is the most reputed and historical curatorial course, and whose graduates have traditionally landed influential posts in the international art landscape. The exhibition’s catalyst is Giorgio Agamben’s “What is an apparatus?”, a text that chews on Michel Foucault’s elaborations on the mechanisms of institutional power and how they are incorporated almost seamlessly into individual subjectivities – hence the fighting with one’s shadow referred to in the show’s title. The group of thirteen students invited artists Mariana Castillo Deball, Sean Dockerey, Marysia Lewandowska and Wendoling Van Oldenborgh to respond in a threefold strategy: by presenting works in an exhibition, by contributing to a set of five publications and by taking part in a programme of events.
The results are quite varied, which is precisely what makes the show interesting. Lewandowska’s three-room project ‘Subject to Change’, in keeping with her institutional critique-research based practice, is centred on various RCA-related controversies. The closing of its highly experimental Environmental Media department in 1986 is a particularly intriguing one, as is the screening of some of the works that were produced during its existence. In the lower galleries, the artist has relocated the furniture of the Senior Common Room, whose access is reserved to the teaching staff, and decorated it with works from the RCA art collection, equally restricted from the student corpus.
Sean Dockery has created a full operating radio studio where meetings and talks will be recorded and preserved in a time capsule, to be opened in the FM wave-less digital future. Wendolin Van Oldenborgh presents two slideshow installations, whose topics are the relationship of women and labour in the agitated 70’s Brazil and the squatting movement in Rotterdam. Mariana Castillo Deball, also showing two previous video-works, has created ‘The Wall and the Books’, a beautiful site-specific piece that reproduces/materialises a short story by Jorge Luis Borges by ‘stealing’ words from 987 books (one book for each word of the story) from the RCA’s library, visible across the installation. While Castillo Deball is probably the one that has more loosely responded to the curators’ brief, her work possesses a poetic quality that sets her apart from the other more socially engaged works in the show.
Shadowboxing is, overall, a carefully thought out and installed exhibition with an earnest curatorial approach to Agamben’s text . So earnest, in fact, that a sense of ingenuity somehow transpires: given the ‘apparatus’ the RCA is in itself and the institutional appeal it bestows on its curatorial students, one is left in need of a little bit of irony, a little ‘shadowboxing’ with the RCA and the by now established curatorial ‘critical agenda’.
A slightly different version of this review was published on this is tomorrow