COVID-19 as the curator of the post pandemic world

Director, Museo de Arte Moderno, Victoria Noorthoorn, offers an insight into how her curatorial practices have evolved and continue to transform the boundaries of the museum space.

by Aastha D.Published on : May 13, 2021

I miss museums. I miss walking the halls of my favourite galleries, pausing by my favourite pieces of work and venturing into a new room to become familiar with. I miss museums. I miss excitedly opening the newsletters in my inbox that announce a cool new show, an installation, a performance, a curatorial marvel. I miss museums, old and new, especially old keeping up with the new. One might argue, the missing of museums is hardly a priority in these unprecedented times of devastation and crises, one calamity leading to another, mutating much like its viral origin. The argument wouldn’t be unfounded. However, art, culture and their intersections do have ways of beckoning the human spirit into healing by inhabiting the stories they tell. COVID-19 as a curator has prompted museums and cultural institutes across the globe to reimagine the intent, potential and boundaries of what constitutes a museum, what doesn’t, and how these margins can be expanded. Museum professionals and scholars have been ruminating on a new museological order for some time now, the urgency of this in the past year has bludgeoned these institutes to address crucial questions around the museum’s role in the community. With their physical gates shut, museums have opened digital portals to host webinars, virtual tours, debates, performances, education programs and continue to reimagine their role in a world that needs healing, delight and comfort.

The Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, India, conducts a series; The Director’s Cut, which offers a glimpse into how the institution of the museum is being reimagined and reinvented today and presents a unique opportunity to hear from reputed practitioners in museums around the world as they reflect on their institutional experiences, behind-the-scenes challenges, unique initiatives and more. The second session of MAP’s new series Director’s Cut featured the Director of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Argentina, Victoria Noorthoorn, in conversation with the director of MAP, Kamini Sawhney.

Facade of Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos | The Director’s Cut | STIRworld
Facade of Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Image: Guido Limardo

The event centred around Noorthoorn’s curatorial practice where she spoke of how her training, education and experience in the institutes of North America created spaces of unlearning and challenging the Eurocentric vision of looking at art and the artist. Especially at a time where we start to rethink what we have inherited in terms of inequalities, exacerbated by this global crises, complex conversations about the artistic force become essential. Speaking from her present context of Argentina, Noorthoorn insisted on the Global South continuing to assert identities and through them entangle and excavate historical perspectives, ways of knowing, exhibiting, and conversing. Interdisciplinarity has been intrinsic to the world of all artistic practices and to truly make space for an artistic community to flourish and expand its reach to a people should be the position of a curator. A kind of stepping back and listening, deviating from the structured need of building narrative and establishing authorship.

Nicanor Araoz, Solid sleep. Oct 30,2020 at Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires | The Director’s Cut | STIRworld
Nicanor Araoz, Solid sleep. Oct 30,2020 at Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires Image: Sol Navedo

To paraphrase Noorthoorn from the conversation:
My work changed as a result of understanding this complexity. You have to start from scratch and realise the most beautiful thing to have before an artist is humility—tell me your story from the beginning and let's navigate these waters together—and when you go with a tabula rasa, you realise how the art is so true and powerful. That experience is enormous. These moments are beautiful. As a director I hold this ethos, that we should listen as curators. Understand the true force of an artist. And then take up the challenge of speaking a universal language that brings these works to a larger public. Make art accessible, to experience and understand. Give the jargon a miss, and weave a truthful story that speaks to everyone.

Artists Ruben Santantonin and Marta Minujin enter the Neon Tunnel of La Menesunda | Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, 1965 | STIRworld
Artists Ruben Santantonin and Marta Minujin enter the Neon Tunnel of La Menesunda Image: Courtesy the Archive of Marta Minujín

La Menesunda Revisited

Over the past 60 years, the pioneering Argentinian artist Marta Minujín (b. 1943, Buenos Aires, Argentina) has developed happenings, performances, installations, and video works that have greatly influenced generations of contemporary artists in Latin America and beyond. In 1965, at the Center of Visual Arts of the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, Marta Minujín and Rubén Santantonín devised the now-legendary environment La Menesunda. The work led visitors on a journey through 11 distinct spaces, that replicated and dramatised the experience that is the city of Buenos Aires. The spaces included a tunnel of luminous neon signs, a bedroom with a couple, a hallway lined with illuminated TVs, a walk-in refrigerator, and a salon with makeup artists and masseuses offering their services. This interactive labyrinth sought to confound and provoke visitors, and begin to examine their positions in culture, mass media, and urban life.

Detail of the Neon Tunnel La Menesunda 2015 | Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires | STIRworld
Detail of the Neon Tunnel La Menesunda 2015 Image: Josefina Tommasi

In 2015, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires presented a reconstruction of La Menesunda, under the directorship of Noorthoorn and fuelled by Minujín’s astute memory, the exhibition was reproduced  by using the (limited) material, scale, and technology available in the 1960s. The exhibition then travelled to the New Museum in New York. Pop-up installations and exhibitions have a sharp way to bring a reckoning with attention economy and ocularcentric social media, and this exhibition from the 1960s did that well. The research behind recreating this exhibition was extensive and included examining old television footage, press clippings, testimonials, photographs, obscure archives and various critiques and reports.

On the museum’s transformatory role in the near future, (and present) to cope, create and engage, Noorthoorn said ( paraphrasing) —

We need to bring issues of urgency into the museum, one of the primary ones being healing. Healing from trauma and grief is not simply a biological hazard but also a sociological one, that has laid bare the existing fractures in our systems and societies. It is important to make the museum vibrant, stimulating and alive, at the same time sensitive and critical. In a way we are disfigured by our colonial construction. The Black Lives Matter Movement has brought a deep consciousness that says “there is a limit to everything” and revisiting histories from perspectives that see a need for reparation. It also made us look closely at how racism operates in our societies and also in us. We as museums have to tackle and embrace these glaring injustices and continue to reinvent our programs, widening our reach and scholarship.

Nicanor Araoz, Solid sleep, Oct 30, 2020 | Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires | STIRworld
Nicanor Araoz, Solid sleep, Oct 30, 2020 Image: Bruno Constancio, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires

Holistic conversations such as this, around curatorial practices and museology, must and will keep informing our culture. For times such as this; where politics, identities, authorship and ownership are under the critical and rigorous scrutiny of decolonisation, the onus on curators becomes enormous. Public discourse involves the stakeholders of culture; the digital medium creates new audiences and opportunities; while expertise finds new ways to process and present objects of culture; the plurality in these precarities is where the magic happens.

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