At the start of this year, the National Gallery of Victoria ‘restaged’ its inaugural exhibition as The Field Revisited. After fifty years, ‘restaged’ became the official institutional framing in an attempt to uphold the NGV’s ideology of curatorial objectivity. As an institution that rarely attaches a single author to an exhibition the implicit powers of selection in transposing an exhibition from one historically moment to another were glossed over. In an attempt at exactitude, the curatorial ambition was undermined by a lack of transparency. For all its attempt to expose new audiences to a canonical exhibition it did not go far enough to critically engage in the complications of re-instatement.
Historical discourses are not wilfully and objectively mobilised in contemporary contexts. They are citations: sets of languages that, since their first use, have gained political, social, and cultural momentum. They are constructs and phenomena that have found refute, rebuttal, and reinterpretation with the complex and layered multiplicity of art today.
It is the term ‘recurating’ that better implicates such criticality. And so maybe The Field Revisited doesn’t deserve the privilege of a term that summarises it shortcomings. Clearly, with educational intent, The Field Revisited was an exercise in looking backwards, in re-displaying a historic moment. But how does this exhibition get away with not acknowledging the conditions of its contemporary display?
This was a task that smaller institutions took up in adequate responsiveness, creating a satellite of critical engagement. Charles Nodrum Gallery somewhat rectified a stark gender imbalance in Abstraction 17: A Field of Interest, c. 1968, an exhibition that took a broader approach to include woman and lesser known abstraction artists of the period. In Abstraction TwentyEighteen – a series of exhibitions programmed across the Justin Art House Museum, Stephen McLaughlan Gallery, Deakin University, Langford120 and Five Walls – emerging contemporary artists sat alongside artists from the original Field exhibition. Rex Butler responded with a critical review, a panel discussion was propagated by Memo Review at Westspace, and at bookcoffeeprintworkshop the publisher and designer discussed the exhibitions catalogue in Making and Remaking (Together): On Books and Exhibitions.
Whilst these satellite programs asked questions of The Field Revisited that the NGV didn’t, it is interesting to reframe its ambition and speak broadly on the outcomes of institutional semantics.
The attempt to expand curatorial agency beyond the terms of ‘restaging’ is symptomatic of a broader tendency in contemporary art. It is a return to appropriation (devoid of passé connotations) with greater ambition to critique the uneven distributions of power that govern the production, selection, and display of contemporary art. It is a tendency that champions precedents, values substantiation and recognises the now conventional cycles of reuse enabled by the Internet. Contemporary art and curatorial discourses, whilst distinct, have converged in the recognition that originality no longer relies on the newness of ideas but the newness of its context.
Appropriation’s literal meaning has become so complicated in contemporary practices of cultural exploitation that it no longer maintains its linguistic clarity. The persistence of twentieth century aesthetic projects to collage and recontextualise artistic, historical, and political material has morphed into the everyday ripping and downloading that defines digital communication. The decision to ‘re-’ (terms such as reuse, repurpose, restage, reify, recurate, reconstruct, repeat, re-present, represent, that are proposed by Martha Buskirk, Amelia Jones and Caroline A. Jones in their 2013 Artforum essay ‘The Year of the Re-’) has become so innate through the immediacy and accessibility of our digital image culture that it confuses the actual operations of personal agency. As Claire Bishop declared in her (much scrutinised) essay, ‘Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media’, “faced with the infinite resources of the Internet, selection has emerged as a key operation: we build new files from existing components, rather than creating from scratch.” And so, curatorial practices are not immune to an increasingly favoured, almost omnipresent, lean toward critical re-engagement with artistic and curatorial histories. In an uptake of such reuse, curatorial ambition should move beyond the mere reinstatement to interrogate persistent power structures that privilege certain voices over others. Unlike the NGV’s The Field Revisited, when historical curatorial projects are delivered with necessary contemporary criticality they can provoke just as much thought, if not more, as any new exhibition.