A Romanticist as Curator

Introduction: I spent the better part of this summer—and the final months of my time as graduate curatorial fellow at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art—conceiving, planning, and executing my first art exhibition, Ecological Looking: Sustainability & the End(s) of the Earth. In this post, to open my blogging for the 2014-15 academic year, I detail how in curating the show I sought to mobilize the skills and expertise with which I’ve been endowed as a romanticist, generally, and aspiring William Blake studies scholar, more specifically. In doing so, I hope less to merely chronicle my own experience than to open up other possibilities of engagement for graduate students training in the field. I mean this especially with an eye toward curatorial work, an aspect of the academic and museum profession I believe a number of graduate students in the caucus might have a great deal to contribute (and which, of course, the NGSC alumnus Kirstyn Leuner already has).

Beginnings: While I’d describe my time at the Block largely as idyllic, the start was challenging. At the end of last summer, pipes at the museum burst. This led to a situation where, until renovations to the museum could be completed, the Block’s collection had to remain offsite. The implication for me was that I had no access to the objects until June and July. Consequently, and to a certain degree determined by the conditions that defined my start at the Block, I set out to proceed conceptually. Only after conceiving the project was I able to think more practically about the way objects used in the show would speak to each other in the gallery space.

Conception: Preliminarily, I knew I was interested in the museum as an space in which to do political work. I knew one area of politics I wanted to explore—and is motivated by my training as a romanticist—was environmental. And, last, I knew a curatorial basis and skill set I could bring to the project as a Blakean could be based on my fascination with image/text relations. The works of art I wanted to feature for the show, I quickly realized, would be those showing different forms of environmental exploitation and degradation. The texts with which I wanted to pair those objects would be by ecologically engaged authors, and might be presented in ways that could be graphically interesting.

Exhibition Cornerstone: At the start of designing the exhibition, I fixed my sights pretty quickly on an extraordinary object the museum had acquired in an artist’s gift some five year’s prior— David Em’s 1979 computer work Transjovian Pipeline .

David Em, Transjovian Pipeline, 1979. Dye destruction print (chibachrome) of computer monitor display, 29.88 x 39.88 in. (75.90 x 101.57 cm.), Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Gift of Michele and David Em
David Em, Transjovian Pipeline, 1979. Dye destruction print (chibachrome) of computer monitor display, 29.88 x 39.88 in. (75.90 x 101.57 cm.), Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Gift of Michele and David Em

I arrived at the artwork while thinking a great deal about the Keystone XL Pipeline. After studying Em’s work, I realized that if conditions in the present are defined by potentially disastrous resource mining and logistics like the extraction and subsequent transportation of materials like the oil tar sands from the Canadian frontier to the American Gulf Coast (thousands of miles away), then the same logic of production defining those conditions—when extrapolated into the future—lead to the logistics of trans-planetary mineral exploration and exploitation captured in Em’s work. In this respect, I thought it especially significant Em produced the work while an artist-in-residence at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the wake of the Voyager Mars space exploration mission. With the work taking on the formal characteristics of an American flag, I began to see the image as occupying an extraordinary mode of artistic critique. Implicitly, Transjovian Pipeline engages with American productive forces that define earth-based environmental degradation in the present. It does so through an overt picturing of the potential space-based logistics that might come in the future.

Planning and Execution: When pressed at a museum curatorial department meeting for a pitch, I suggested something to the effect of the above. I then brought up Blake’s Job engravings as a means of showing how I wished to curate both text and image for the show. Upon being asked about the objects that would form the core of the exhibition, I brought up the Em—but, of course, was pushed further to consider what other sorts of objects might appear. Very soon after, our curatorial director—a specialist in African art—urged me to think more globally about the ramifications of the exhibition, and to consider researching another collection held at Northwestern—the Hersovits Library of African Studies. Soon thereafter, I located a photo album in the Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960 I ended up requesting that contains documentary images of diamond mining in South Africa. Moreover, and excitingly, I found quickly that the Block Museum has a strong collection of artworks by Works Progress Administration artists, many of which depict, in visually striking ways, processes like coal mining—as in the case of a David Burke woodcut included in the show (link to object also held by Metropolitan Museum of Art) .

I spent the better part of the rest of June reading texts that engaged with the issues of the show, becoming particularly influenced by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York’s collaboratively written book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. A key passage of the text became the exhibition’s epigram. Thereafter, I used the majority of July to consider works in the museum’s collection to which I finally had first-hand access, and started mocking the works of art up in the gallery’s floor plan. Accordingly, it became clear that the texts that could play off the objects would be oriented around coal, oil refinement, the notion of the anthropocene as conceptualized by Paul Crutzen, and rainforest depletion.

Ultimately, I decided to use two ecologically-oriented Blake quotes to frame the Em piece as a centerpiece of the exhibition, devoting the entire back wall of the space to Transjovian Pipeline and lines from the “Introduction” and “Earth’s Answer” from Songs of Experience.

Photograph of installation in progress.
Photograph of installation in progress.

Reception: The show opened last Friday, September 19th, alongside a major retrospective of the Kenyan-born and Brooklyn-based contemporary artist Wangetchi Mutu, whose work has likewise inspired my curatorial practice given the artist’s own critical investments in environmental critique. Perhaps one of the most edifying experiences I’ve had in grad school came when I was walking through the gallery with a couple of friends, and saw a group of museum visitors talking while looking at David Em’s work alongside the Blake texts in orbit. It was then I recognized how cool it could be to use skills largely garnered as a result of research and writing to bring art objects together in a gallery space and create conversation.

Conclusions: In the end, a key takeaway of the project for me was of the potential value of the work we do as historically-oriented scholars when transposed into a different mode of intellectual practice. In creating exhibitions of objects—either works of visual art in my case, or books and manuscripts in others—we become able to reach and speak with different constituencies in dynamic ways not possible otherwise. As scholars rooted in a historical period that saw shifts as socially intense and as continuingly vital as any other, we bring a different and often insightful frame of thought through which varying kinds of materials can be made to express critical ideas in new ways. These are profound opportunities to engage concepts with objects and, if conscientiously grounded, to think more globally.

[Acknowledgments: I am grateful to the staff at the Block Museum—and especially my curatorial adviser Corinne Granof, museum director Lisa Corrin, curatorial department head Kathleen Bickford Berzock, , and the entire museum exhibition team, including Dan Silverstein and Liz Wolfe—for all of their help in making this experimental exhibition possible. I am also thankful to David Em for allowing me to pair his work with Blake’s words, and to use Transjovian Pipeline in materials promoting the exhibition]