Thursday, October 20, 2011

Artwork Removed from Major Art Award.

UPDATE ONE: I posted this to encourage debate about what roles, rights, engagement, empowerment (or lack thereof) there is or should be in the artist/curator relationship. Please feel free to contribute comments.

UPDATE TWO: Once an artist clears the selection process, they are asked to sign off on terms and conditions and submit an 'acceptance form' confirming their willingness to participate. If the reconfiguration of the work was curatorially-driven (that is, part of a 'big idea') then I would suggest the City include something akin to the following in that document:
'The curator may add to, change or remove any part of submitted artworks at any time, without notice and without liability.'
This contravenes NAVA's best practice guidelines* but if artists sign-off then the curator could theoretically be given free reign.

* 'The artists’/craft practitioners’ moral rights must be observed. Moral rights provisions in the Copyright Act give to the artist/craft practitioner the right to be known as the author of a work (attribution), not have the work falsely attributed and the right to have integrity of their art/craft work respected (not to be altered, tampered with or damaged in any way).' - SOURCE: 'Code of Practice for the Professional Australian Visual Arts, Craft and Design Sector'.

UPDATE THREE: There would seem to be an attitude that, when it comes to the artist/curator relationship, 'beggars can't be choosers'. It's arguable that this analogy is not only offensive to artists but also to beggars.

I recently decided to remove my artwork from one of the bigger Western Australia award shows prior to it's closing on the basis of how it had been treated by the curatorial team. This was not a light decision but one of principle, especially when you factor in the various conditions that surround this particular style of event.

Basically I supplied a simple diptych with clear instructions about spacing and the configuration of the two panels. The piece itself was small (approximately 140cm wide when installed) so it's modification supposedly had nothing to do with space issues. This especially considering other works in the same show were significantly larger.

The work itself included two separate images of singular light bulbs: One red (left panel) and one green (right panel). These bulbs (together with many others) had been recycled from a garden of a friend and have a - for want of a better word - patina. They were photographed in isolation on a black background.

Instead of a rather linear (and quiet) reading with the two panels sitting next to each other, the curator instead decided to split the panels, placing them on either side of an 'exit gate' of the award with approximately 2-3 metres between them. This reconfiguration of the work was done with no consultation whatsoever and I only saw the work like this whilst attending the opening.

The event itself is an annual $12,000+ acquisitive award held in a large open area inside a big shopping centre. This 2-3 metre gap included a multitude of distractions including branding elements from stores, people traffic and other visual noise.

Essentially to an uninformed viewer the curatorial positioning appeared as some form of tool of judgement over other works in the show. ie. Was visiting the show a good or bad experience? Were the works on show good or bad?

Further to this - and critically - the installation gave the impression that I had revisited some conceptual, installation-like approach in my practice rather than my current series of essentially 'straight' images. To some in the art's 'industry', this would even contravene ideas that I have discussed with them previously and for others (installation 'fans') any subsequent showings might prove disappointing.

Such awards are rare opportunities for myself (as other artists) to get our work in front of a notoriously apathetic hierarchy. This was completely new work previously only seen by a handful of people. As it was the audiences' first engagement with the series, they now have a perception that will not marry with the broader series itself.

To use context is well and good (ie. proximity of works to manipulate meaning) even should these works be combined with components (non-art objects, performance, 'noise', etc) that we might find 'odd'. Such things can be stimulating on a multitude of levels but actually physically interring with work is crossing a whole series of lines.

As an artist, I would expect some degree of consultation in any invasive processes and – most importantly – that the art object itself is treated respectfully and as it was 'designed' - for want of a better word.

With all this in mind, I expressed my concerns to a staff member during the opening and later that night formally requested via email that my work be removed completely.

This provoked a long telephone call with an arts administrator in which he presented the idea that the reconfiguration of the work was well within his curatorial 'rights' and that he thought that the 'work plays an important part in the holistic layout and without it the narrative of the exhibition is affected.' When challenging him with various scenarios (lying a sculpture on it's side or hanging an image upside down - again without consultation) he agreed that these were also viable ideas.

I then asked if he would mark a work (ie. paint an artist's sculpture) and he said that this would be damaging or changing the work so he wouldn't consider doing such a thing.

In a later email he stated:
'The ever-expanding role of the curator should be considered in terms of potential overlaps, complements, and conflicts with the role of the artist. As curators have become more actively involved in the production of meaning, their work has been increasingly read through the notions of "artistry" and "creativity".

The "curator/artist", on the other hand, emerges from and works within a different set of circumstances. As the role of the curator shifted towards further participation in the production of meaning, curatorial work could be seen as creative or artistic in ways that would have been difficult to conceive of in its more conventional, custodial position. This increased potential for creativity led to the rise of what could be described as the auteur curator. This model of curatorial function posits the curator as a visionary, and the exhibition as their medium.'

I posited that the perception of my practice has been distorted/damaged with his interference into the work itself. I also said that this was not something that I can simply recover from with a reinstall or movement of the work. This especially so when you consider that the majority of the 'professional' audience was in attendance at the opening and was extremely unlikely to revisit the show.

Another analogy I drew in discussions with others (as well as the supervisor of said curator) related to an artist delivering a sculpture of a human figure in three parts with instructions of 'head on top of torso on top of legs'. The curator effectively did the equivalent of ignoring that and scattered the parts as they saw fit - all without consulting the artist in any form.

I will leave the last word to a friend who wrote the following:
'I would challenge the curator to manipulate a work by a renowned artist without their knowledge and see what happens. I still think he should have discussed it with the artist, particularly if there was a clear intention and directions for the display of the work. Any change nullifies the intent of the artist as unimportant, that the artist has not thought about how he/she wants their work seen and experienced or if it fits into a long standing display criteria, an ongoing approach to image making and storytelling which is intrinsically linked to that artist. Sometimes how the work is displayed automatically makes the work recognisable as much as the work content itself.'


Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,
This year’s show is surprisingly dragged down by the luck of curatorial work.
I spoke to you at the opening and I was lucky to see your work (I like it very much). I admire your conviction to remove the work. It was butchered by the hanging. The exhibition employs a curator, but as I know the decision was not hers but the administrator’s. I have a work in this show and my work was also hanged without any regards to good practice or just a simple rule to hang the work straight. His explanation is also infuriating; I think he has not got a clue. Again I applaud your courage in making a stand in this situation and you have my support and sympathy.
Judy Rogers

mountjoy72 said...

Sounds like sour grapes to me.

zebra factory said...

I have been in the same award every year except one since 2003 with no expectation whatsoever of winning. As with most big awards, it was a platform to present new work to a difficult to access audience so to have it distorted - I freely admit - leaves a very sour taste in my mouth. The relationship been curator/artist shouldn't be unidirectional or exploitive so getting legal advice about the intellectual property aspects of the case this week.

tom guichard said...

it looks like the curator has been a little bit clumsy about certain things, but I have to admit there was something quite interesting between the 2 pictures and the exit thing.
reminiscence of a dadaist thought , almost a century after these revolutions that have touched the art wolrd?
boredom is often what turns us away from art. and art is what makes life more interesting than art.
Mate, what about re-integrating your work in the exhibition? It's a very beautiful work.

good show/bad show, i reckon it doesn't matter. Prizes suck, anyway.

Jane Heraghty said...


This may sound dismissive but sometimes you don't get want you want, life is unfair but it is nothing personal.
It seems that you are claiming that because the curator didnt hang your work to your instructions all the meaning of your work was damaged. I think that you are underestimating the audience and your own talent.
Legal action are you serious, be the bigger man, suck it up and accept that life sucks. Sing after me you cant always get what you want..

zebra factory said...

Getting legal advice as many have asked what the implications are for such things. Most see it as very black and white so in the interests of practice I wanted to get an opinion from someone who knows what's what. No interest in taking on the city/Alex over it as it's a waste of energy. Would rather spend the time and money on creating work than dealing with such things thus the (dismissive) removal of the work. I don't underestimate my audience, if anything the opposite. The professional crowd (gallerists, curators, artists, arts administrators, collectors, etc) at the opening are well versed in my practice and I have since been repeatedly asked - with odd glances - if my work is going in some new direction. Imagine their reaction when I explain the circumstances of the hang and tell them of the lack of consultation or any contact whatsoever prior to the reconfiguration of the work.

zebra factory said...

Hypothetical: is it 'ok' for artists to rearrange a curated exhibition once it's installed? Or is the curator omnipotent? Could artists intervene in the 'holistic'? Historically this has been done but subversively and typically with consequences.

Just as a sidenote and to give readers an indication of how backwards-looking the award install appears in my practice: together with two writers in 2001, we put on a show where the audience could rearrange the whole show. We installed 144 nails and had works/words on 200mm x 200mm panels. These had simple rings attached and people could move/remove work as they saw fit.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Showing artwork in a shopping centre and you are worried about placement of your work. WOW.......

zebra factory said...

Please re-read the post. The location has always been ridiculous to the extreme and 'only' looks good in these reports that councils thrive on. ie. x thousand people saw the show. If you'd read the post thoroughly you would realise that the issue is the physical 'changing' of a work and not 'where' the show itself is being held.

Art Vandelay said...

Wow, unfortunately this works two ways. The artist should definitely have a say in the way their work is displayed and they a right to remove the work if they are unhappy with it.
But if they do remove it just remember that this it is not a right to have your work displayed, it is a priveledge and to take your approach sounds a little bit like a spoiled child.
I say go ahead, go to court, that would be hilarious and probably the end of your 'career'.
Not only is it a bad reflection on artist attitudes in Western Australia but this kind of attitude will make any curators reading this think twice before they show your work.
It will make fellow artists think twice before exhibiting with you.
Ultimately it will make people who are considering buying your work wonder if you'll come around with a summons if they hang it'wrong'.

I guarantee you wouldn't be complaining like this if you'd won the award.

ps. they are pictures of lightbulbs! Maybe try not to get too 'first year art school' on us and go on about them as though they are ground breaking.

good luck for the future

zebra factory said...

I have to admit to not being so sure what you mean by 'artist attitudes'. To your mind, do artists not have any rights and are curators omnipotent? That would make for quite an abusive relationship I should think.

Can - in your opinion, curators do whatever they want not just 'with' a work but also 'to' a work? All without any consultation whatsoever.

As before… I have no interest in taking this to court (as mentioned already in another comment), I am however interested in what rights both parties have in such situations as it's an ongoing (and historical) debate across the visual arts.

It is - you are correct - a privilege to be in the award. This particular award has a pre-selection process (with a team of three) so to be in amongst the 40 odd from the multitudes who apply is an achievement in itself. To have been in the same award for so many years is also not something I under-estimate.

It is however a 'right' to have your work be treated professionally and according to 'industry' standards. I don't maintain that the curatorial team 'damaged' my work physically as ultimately this post is about how the curator 'changed' the work.

The most apt example is that of rearranging a three-part sculpture that has been supplied by an artist. All without any consultation whatsoever.

I don't maintain that my work is anything special, far from it, but I do work extremely hard on my practice with close to no hope of success. As such, I do admit to taking things quite personally, especially given the complete lack of contact by the curatorial team.

Anonymous said...

As mentioned by Judy Rodgers in the previous statement your work has been 'butchered' by being involved in this particular exhibition. Not by the actions of a curatorial team but by the fact the exhibition is in a SHOPPING CENTRE. What artist in their right mind allows there work to be displayed in a shopping centre and worst of all what is a curator supposed to do in a shopping centre...... buy milk?

A serious re-think has to be had on the contemporary art scene in Western Australia if shopping centres is all there is to display art. Shopping centres can hardly provide a subtle atmosphere for contemplation and thought provoking conversation.

Mind you the tone in which your blog is written is of a bitter artist unhappy at an outcome. The outcome being your own work not quite meeting your/the curators/ the viewers expectations. I would get back to the drawing board and stop entering competitions at shopping centres.

In regards to the physical changing of you work, do you at least have a photograph of reference to display!

In reference to Judy's commment of not hanging her work properly or without any regards. Simple, remove the work from the exhibition like Chris here. You might not get any further work in that area for acting like a pre-madonna but then just move to an area with actual art galleries. This is not a debate of artist vs curator or creator vs curator but simply art vs location.

zebra factory said...

As repeated a multitude of times, this issue is all about the 'changing' of a work and the easy example, for those who seem to struggle with the concept, is that of a three parted human sculpture (head/torso/legs) that is 'rearranged' without any consultation.

The award has always been problematic on a number of levels but is populated by artists who are either represented in some way by most of the commercial galleries in Perth or are active on other professional levels across the spectrum. It is also one of the few such awards that is not bound by medium constraints. With those two issues in mind, it's one of the shows that many aspire to, even given the problems of ambiance, extremely poor lighting, noise, etc.

I unfortunately didn't get an opportunity to photograph the work in situ but I would hope the description would more than suffice. I'm sure the city would have made documentation shots though.

cinecat said...

An unfortunate situation this is...

But I don't think you should take this so seriously...

If you remove all the antagonism from the's just a case of a re-hanging and a few crosswires.

An interesting debate has been sparked from this occurance so at least something creative has come out of it.

I think a solution could have been met there and then at the opening.
Your work would still be showing and less headache for everyone.

For small art scenes across Australia we all have to get along to strive for exposure.
Look on it as experience for both parties ans cheer up for petes sake

we'll all be dead soon anyway so who cares...

Craig Middleton

zebra factory said...

The problems with the hang were clearly spoken about during the opening and no offer of a re-hang was forthcoming due to 'space constraints'. If anything, the hang was defended with gusto when speaking with the curator over the following few days.

I think it is important that people stand up for their ideas (on either side of any 'transaction') as well as defend their work.

I have no hesitation in commending the curator for doing exactly that, irrelevant of whether it agrees with my ideals or not.

That said, as mentioned in one of the updates, if that should now be the curatorial position of the city then I would recommend they formalise the stance in the EOI process.

i.e 'The curator may add to, change or remove any part of submitted artworks at any time, without notice and without liability.'

That way, artists (including their professional representatives - galleries, etc) enter such events with a clear set of parameters and expectations.

Agreed it's a small scene with limited opportunities. We, as others, struggle to get exposure for our work so you can imagine the frustration when one of the few opportunities in 2011 goes pear-shaped.

Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,

More fuel to the fire. I have recently noticed that in the 2011 invitation art award catalogue they have only printed one lightbulb of your dyptych next to your detials!

It also doesn't mention that this particular work is a dyptych but instead it is part of a broader photographic series.

Joondalup Weekender said...