How to show a work from 1994 in present times, site-specificity, and becoming a curator because no one else would curate works from your community.
Echoing a question I often ask curators in regard to their conversations with artists and how they approach curating site-specific installations, this talk is a case study for this theme. It also follows last week Talk Report, in which we looked into space and volumes from the point of view of curating architecture exhibitions.
Lack of exhibition guidelines. This conversation begins with a great premise for what interests us as curators. Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), Lisa Dorin, recounts being approached by curator Maria Esther Fernandez for a loan of a landmark work by artist and curator Amalia Mesa-Bains, in preparation for her retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum, for the spring of 2023. Dorin had been admiring the work of Mesa-Bains since a long time. And she was actually undergoing a research through the holdings of WCMA for the exhibition Sweaty Concepts (on view until December 19, 2021), but hadn’t found any guidelines within the collection to understand how to exhibit the work “in relation to their original context in the ’90s, and now”. In particular, she wanted to exhibit a seminal installation by Mesa-Bains, “The Library of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz”, which had been created for WCMA in 1994, during a residency the Chicana artist undertook there. On the occasion of the loan request by Fernandez, Durin asked to talk to Mesa-Bains about her work and how to exhibit it, and here they are sharing the result of their conversations.
Creating relationships with historical figures. Mesa-Baisn recalls her residency at WCMA in 1993/94, and admits that spatiality wasn’t her bigger strength then, as she shares an anecdote from when she sent sketches for her installation “Venus Envy Chapter Two. The harem and Other Enclosures” and the staff of the museum let her know that she had probably mistaken the size of the exhibition space. Mesa-Baisn refers to this work as a 3D interpretation of stages of her life, where the harem embodies the idea of women together, which was inspired from a visit to the harems in Istanbul. In any case, her installation sketches featured proportions that were much too small. This body of work also includes her imagined interpretation of the library of great 17th century scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, as an homage to her work and life. “Sor Juana” as she’s referred to along this conversation was a Mexican criolla poet, writer, musicologist, and philosopher who became a nun and a master literary figure of the Spanish Golden Age. Some of Mesa-Baisn’s work embody an imaginary relationship to Sor Juana through installations, altars, portraits, as so many forms of homage, where she “inhabits the life of that individual as a means of acquiring some of their sensibility and skills”, says the artist.
Blending past and present via political thought. But as an artist who clearly also thinks as a curator, Mesa-Baisn had incorporated elements of reality from the ‘90s when she created that installtion. Inclusing references to the AIDS crisis for example by looking at it through the lens of Sor Juana. But she also created reading spaces and added stills from protest videos made by students on the campuses where she exhibited, “I factored them in as surrogate Sor Juana”. 1993 and 1994 was a kind of insurrection years on campuses, recalls Mesa-Baisn, throughout Cornell, UCLA, and even WCMA. If the roles between artist and curator within the same person could be dissected, I would say that it’s thanks to her curatorial hat that Mesa-Bains blended history and archive-inspired objects with objects that belonged to the time of the exhibition making. Thus, she kept alive a particular thought (here, Sor Juana’s) relevant through time.
What it means to take care of someone’s legacy? Nina Pelaez asks both Durin and Mesa-Baisn what it means to care of the legacy of someone else. Mesa-Baisn did so for Sor Juana, but also her grandmother, her family, and for women broadly. As a first generation of Chicanas artists, her treatment of cultural artistic history is a way “of giving ourselves a sense of origin. So my legacy making really was a survival technique. I think it’s very hard for people to recognize now what it would be like to grow up in the United States in the ’40s and ’50s, when the term dirty Mexican was so in vogue and people could say it whenever they wanted”, she emphasises. Her early days of curating consisted of developing tools for a community of women artists, including educational tools, writing, supporting ethnic studies departments in universities, and curating—because they “had to, as no one else would”. For Durin, the positioning is as the caretaker of a collection who tries to be loyal to the vision of the artists she exhibits.
Talk to the artist. As a curator who inherited a collection with objects that came via different channels and at different times, she stresses the importance to talk to the artist whenever they are available and work directly with them to do justice to the work. She mentions that they could potentially just show the works without relying on specific instructions but that it wouldn’t feel right. She mentions that some of her questions when talking to Mesa-Baisn were to make sure to know what the artist believed should absolutely be there. Through this conversation we also realise that it gave the opportunity to Mesa-Baisn to reflect on her own practice while looking back at it. It is a reminder that an open communication benefits not only the curators’ audiences, but allows artists to engage in further discussions about their practices.
Site-specificity means allowing the in situ experience to change the work. Pelaez also asks them about site-specificity and temporal specificity, and what does it mean to take an installation made at a specific time and place, and to think about it in the contemporary moment. Since those terms (including curating, if we think about it) are quite recent, Mesa-Bains says that she had to figure out what they really meant for her along the way. Thus for her it means that many of the pieces are made on-site, implying that she would go somewhere ahead of time, to look at the space and to look for stories that would help her make the work. It also makes her privy to museum’s inner workings—more than say, if she was only sending paintings or sculptures to be hanged—and she shares some “gossip”. She also mentions that if she hadn’t been there in advance, official channels wouldn’t have been as resultful compared to interactions on-site that allowed her to find certain objects from the collections and specific books from the libraries, which she needed for her installations. “Site specific is a very loaded term to me because it really means that a certain aspect of every installation is transformed by the process of being on that site” says Mesa-Baisn, and adds later “it’s unpredictable sometimes, it’s corrupted sometimes, it doesn’t turn out the way you want because things change once you get there”.
The talk also covers thoughts about the history of feminism, as lived by Mesa-Baisn, and what it meant for her over the years, and collecting as a feminist practice, and as she points out, that’s “remembering things that were dismembered”. Anecdotically, she has one regret. In 1994, she kept expanding her project at WCMA, eventually running out of budget for a potential brochure or catalogue. This is of course a warning for all curators, but I can’t help but think that if there had been a catalogue, the need for Durin to be in touch with Mesa-Baisn would have been less acute, and we would have missed witnessing this heartfelt and instructive conversation.
A talk with artist, curator, author, and educator Amalia Mesa-Bains and Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs of the Williams College Museum of Art, Lisa Dorin, moderated by Nina Pelaez, Curator of Programs and Interpretation at the Williams College Museum of Art.
Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs Lisa Dorin joins artist, activist, and scholar Amalia Mesa-Bains in a conversation about “The Library of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.” This site-specific installation—which Mesa-Bains created for WCMA in 1994—re-imagines the library room of the 17th century Mexican poet, composer, and philosopher. As the museum prepares to restage part of the installation for the upcoming exhibition Sweaty Concepts, this conversation revisits the artwork’s past and present, exploring questions of contemporary curatorial practice, site-specificity, and collections.
Williams College Museum of Art, August 29, 2021. Full conversation here.