The Loquacious Turn or the Importance of Being Secondary

At the time of writing this essay (March 2009), an exhibition entitled “Bangkok 226” had just come to a close at the newly created Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. My expectation was to see an exhibition of works in the visual arts that could tell the story of how Bangkok evolved over the past 200 years. In other words, I had expected those works to speak to me on their own terms and be brought together in this specific exhibition in such a way as to engage in a seamless narrative. What I saw confused me. The choice of artworks which had been borrowed from various museums and collections as well as those specifically commissioned for this exhibition could not, on the whole, be justified on the grounds of their aesthetic value. Walking through the exhibition I soon realized that the organizers had had in mind a documentary on the history of Bangkok. Large panels with detailed accounts of the city’s historical development and descriptions of the individual exhibits had been put up. In the spirit of a documentary, the word seemed to have been granted supremacy over visual expression. I was not sure whether this was intentional.

Subsequently (on 12 February 2009), I took part in a discussion that included the curators. They were frank enough to admit that they had been trying to achieve two goals at the same time, namely to organize an art exhibition that would be viable aesthetically and fulfill the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre’s objective to tell the history of Bangkok. Regarding the first objective, they had not been successful in borrowing works of great artistic value that would also be relevant to the theme of the exhibition. As for the second objective, they had been following the current practice of uninhibitedly explaining the various exhibits at great length.

It is the justification of the verbal “ally” of the visual arts that is of particular interest to me here. I do not think that the Thai curators simply resorted to an all too convenient means to carry the message to their public. They were following an international practice. Gone are the days, perhaps, when an art exhibition principally contained works that were named for numbered “compositions”. Artists today vie with each other in labeling their works with titles that capture the imagination of the public – the more philosophical, the more attractive it seems to make them. Neither do they hesitate to explain their own works by way of written texts. Curators further lend a helping hand in providing succinct explications and/or interpretations of the works. More often than not, an exhibition catalogue is no longer a profusely illustrated souvenir that a visitor can flip through at home but a learned treatise, sometimes even aesthetic tour de force that buttresses the main concept of the exhibition. Some curators are exceedingly cooperative and allow the artist(s) to make oracular pronouncements that sometimes sound more like sermons than manifestos.

All that I have described above is carried out through words, and if controversies erupt on account of the artworks themselves, the belligerent factions, too, fight out their differences in a war of words. There remain curators and critics who are deeply conscious of their “public” mission and ready to put a brake on glaring, self-serving excesses. The 2002 exhibition in Basel entitled “Claude Monet… up to digital Impressionism” serves as a captivating example where the curators did their job in a very responsible manner.

At that exhibition the works of the American painter Clyfford Still were also exhibited. While I was impressed with his work, what he said about himself and his art put me off: “…one stroke of paint… could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of subjugation” was one of his epoch-making statements. Another one is even more emphatic: “My work is not influenced by anybody.” The curator/critic responsible for presenting Clyfford Still’s works felt compelled to cut him down to size. In his article, “Painting the World or Painting the Self? On the Similarity between Claude Monet and Clyfford Still”, Michael Lüthy retorted clearly: “Still’s own image of the creatio ex nihilis does not bear close scrutiny”.1

He went on to document his judgment with a series of concrete evidence, closing with a theoretical exposition on the relationship between the self and the world in the arts.

The word here has its rightful function, although we must remain on the alert and not allow verbal exposition, which is after all a secondary discourse generated by the work of art in its primary status, to usurp the legitimate primacy of the arts.

  1. Claude Monet … up to digital Impressionism. Catalogue of the exhibition organized by the Foundation Beyeler. Munich, Berlin, London, New York: PRESTEL, 2002, p. 182. []

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