Gravitating Around New Practitioners is Fun, Refreshing, and Necessary
One of my earliest art memories was in the studio of a painter who was a family friend. I was around three years old, and I was let free to touch and examine everything. I especially remember the typical smell of paint, and the huge variety of brushes all around the place.
I became a curator by chance. As an art historian, and then as an art critic, I never really thought about curating. But a kind of obsession of mine about mountains started it all. When I was a student, in 1998, I visited the wonderful exhibition, Le Sentiment De la Montagne, at the Musée de Grenoble, of which the last part, dedicated to contemporary perspectives, left me yearning for more. Because I am a fan of skiing and hiking, from 2010, I started noticing an increasing number of works about mountains in the galleries and the art fairs. My desire to experiment a new practice in the art world grew, and I began to look for a place to organize an exhibition about mountains. I thought my first exhibition, Là-haut, at La Graineterie, in Houille, in 2016, would be a one off. But the pleasure of a brand-new relationship with the artists during the production process seduced me. I enjoyed balancing a budget, using a hammer, and above all, inhabiting a space.
I am a perfectionist! And even more so when it comes to the details of organizing an exhibition. I need time to think and write a statement before I feel ready to start a project. But the areas where I am really intuitive and spontaneous are when I choose artists for a show, during production, and during the hanging of the exhibition. During these moments, I just trust the big picture I have in mind for the project, and my relationship with the artists and the teams.
Themes that are important to me include collaborative practices, relationships to natural or urban landscape, memory, savagery and the Anthropocene period, and work conditions in the field of contemporary art.
I almost only work with young and emerging artists, certainly because this is highly stimulating. They make me validate or invalidate my hypotheses all the time, and I love it! This is also quite rewarding as they are mostly open to all kind of experiments, such as, say, creating a collective writing project for the show Éclats #1, Constellation provisoire, at Le Creux de l’enfer in Thiers, that was made with 12 young graduates from Lyon, Clermont and Bourges arts schools. Moreover, they often express quite freely what they think about what you brought to them, and also what they would have expected to be different. Their spontaneity is as fun as it is refreshing, moving, and necessary to me. I cannot imagine my job without gravitating around art schools or artists-run spaces.
I never curate without a lot of walking to clear my mind, especially during the conception phase. Also I always try to establish what is most peculiar about the exhibition space I have to deal with. But above all, I never curate without beers! Convivial moments with artists are the key to the whole thing. I am pretty sure that nearly all meaningful decisions are made around a table with any kind of refreshments, and indeed, relaxed discussions are the basis of my curating views.
I like live music (the French scene, electro pop, or opera), ballet, and modern dance. My taste spans from French singer Vincent Delerm and the Chemical Brothers, who all bring songs, pictures, and videos together, to the ballet Giselle, and the productions of contemporary dance choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. As in the visual arts, I appreciate mixed media, and above all, the way I feel when I am being part of a crowd of strangers who enjoy the same moment.
The last book that had an impact on me was “Dans la foule”, from French author Laurent Mauvignier. Published in 2006, it is set during the Heysel stadium tragedy (a stampede that resulted in a collapsed stadium) during the 1985 European Cup Final in Belgium.
The last show that made a big impression on me was, Futurologies, a solo show by French artist Félix Pinquier at the art center, La Gallerie, in Noisy-le-Sec (on view until December 12). I exhibited Félix 18 months ago, and I have been impressed by the evolution of his work: the introduction of color in his sculptures and installations, the sharpness of his shapes, and also by his deep study of scale and how he took the space of the exhibition into account.
I manage to keep sane by running twice a week and practicing floor barre.
I have good memories with German artist Milena Walter from a residency we did together. We were at Voyons Voir, in a vineyard and former sericulture estate, between Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. One time we were coming back from a party in her van, very late at night, and we missed our exit. We had to drive around for another hour! She was grateful that I stayed calm and even cheered her up. I was grateful to her for the wonderful evening we had with other artists and the tasty food. Another late night, we both had to unite against an intrusive bat. These small experiences together undeniably increased our trust for each other, in a fun and friendly way, and made collaborating towards our upcoming exhibition so much better.
I prefer group shows for sure! Don’t get me wrong, I like solo shows too, and I am even fantasizing about one or two for next year, but I prefer playing my game with several personalities and different propositions. I appreciate some surprises and I find especially satisfying to reaching a consensus when things are tricky!
My partner is a practitioner involved in a COVID-unit, so the situation did impact my personal life as I had to deal with fear and kids at home. During the lockdown, I could not read anything but the press. Except phone talks with artists and thinking a lot, I was unable to work or even write a single line. Regarding the last exhibition I curated, Éclats#1, Constellation provisoire, which opened at the end of February, I have been lucky because the art center director managed to extend it until the end of September, and even reschedule the day of our big event. But all my other projects have been canceled, and as all places postponed their programing, curating is nowadays a challenge. I mean, more than ever! I now have to rethink my way of designing a project: instead of working for specific places, I need to consider thematic options which could be adapted easily to different kind of frames. I guess it is stimulating, so far!
The best advice I ever received, came from a brilliant university professor (Éric de Chassey, now Director of the Institut National d’Histoire de l’art in Paris), who told me: “If you talk about concept or form only, you don’t say anything about a work of art”. Ever since, when I write about a work, I look with the same detailed attention to the meaning, the aesthetics, and the subjective dimensions of the work. I also look at the historical context and the work’s formal aspects, ultimatelly considering the relationship between all these elements for a comprehensive analysis.
And the worse advice was to always let the artists know when you pick them for a show that is dependent on an application process. It turns out to be such a stupid and almost rude idea to share your stress and potential disappointment with people you sometimes don’t know anything about.
I can share the recipe for the Pisco cocktail that I tried for the first time after the lockdown. It was a moment filled with a renewed sense of being social: Pisco alcohol, lime, sugar cane, and whipped egg whites.
The perfect future invention would be teleportation. I always dream of being in three different places at the same time.
If I were a collector I would collect like I curate: with clear guidelines except for some wonderful dissonant touches. Let’s say from Pollock to young students! And I would include manuscripts (statements, poetry…).
If I could change something about the art scene with a magical wand I would use it to give their rightful place to women artists in the history of art. Acknowledgement for the few who had the chance to make a mark, but also for all the others who were never considered. This is particularly important since this lack of recognition still gets female contemporary artists stuck today.
If my 10-year older self would come to visit me from the future, I would ask her if I am right to only wait for opportunities, even though I believe in them very strongly, but avoid being pushy. I would ask her if she’s still having fun with curating, and maybe one or two tricks to help me dare achieving some of my secret plans!
If I wasn’t curating I would be boring! Or get involved in active politics!
Aurélie Barnier is an art historian, art critic (member of AICA) and independent curator based in Paris.
PhD student in History of Contemporary Art and holder of a License in Philosophy, she is the author of various books and essays on art.
Her critical texts and exhibition projects devoted to young creation also explore relationships with history, memory, and space (architectural, public, natural, or mental) as well as collective experiments – such as Éclats # 1 , Constellation provisoire [Sparkles #1, Temporary constellation], an exhibition designed in 2020 with 12 young graduates from French art schools (Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon and Bourges) at a former factory called Le Creux de l’Enfer, now an art center in Thiers; Souffler n’est pas jouer [To blow is not to play] with Florence Lattraye, Marie-Camille Orlando and Floriane Pilon at the Galerie du Haut-Pavé in Paris, and Mémoire d’architecture [Architecture memory], gathering 12 artists in the former industrial building at 6b, an artist run-space in St Denis, in 2019; Quant- à-soi.e [Aloufness and also a pun with the word silk in French], out of a duet residency with the German artist Milena Walter, devoted to experimental research on the landscape and the archives of a sericulture estate, organized in 2018 by the Association Voyons voir I contemporary art and territory (Aix-en-Provence); De mémoire, Mémoire de l’archive / ébauche de demain [From memory, Memory of the archive / draft of tomorrow], bringing together works by Nicolas Aiello, Céline Cléron and Solène Doually, playing on the loop of time, as well as the archives of the Espace d’art contemporain Camille Lambert (Juvisy), for the 30th anniversary of the place in 2017; or Là-haut [Up there], a collective exhibition with 15 international artists devoted to the mountains in contemporary art and presented at the art center La Graineterie (Houilles) in 2016.
Aurélie Barnier is regularly involved in art schools’ workshops, symposiums, conferences or round table discussions within French and international institutions.