Group Dynamics: A Reflection on Curating

by Tausif Noor and Ginny Duncan

In February 2019, we opened the doors of AUTOMAT to the first show that either of us had ever curated. Weak Link was a group show of four University of Pennsylvania second year MFA students: Fields Harrington, Ahmed Hasan, Danielle Kovalski-Monsonego, and Fred Schmidt-Arenales. It featured video work, sculpture, and installation, and was developed through the Incubation Series at Penn. While the nature of the Incubation Series’ group exhibition format meant that these four artists were to some extent pre-selected, we worked to craft a show that would expand upon each artist’s themes and bring all four artists together within a common framework. We settled on a concept, which also became our title, that encompassed the issues at stake — the weak link.

Weak Link, installation view. All photos by Jeff Katzin

The exhibition’s title points to the ways that each artist addressed the idea of relationships, both in the sense of familial connections and with regard to genealogy of systems and ideas. Schmidt-Arenales’s film Critique of Inheritance (2018) examines genealogy in a literal sense, while his video Fortress Europa (2019) zooms out to a wider look at the tenuous relationships that bind together racial identity—in this case, the recent rise of the far-right movement in Austria. Harrington’s series of DIY videos depict the artist following the instructions of household DIY projects and, in turn, abstracting the processual nature of the scientific method, which undergirds constructed systems such as race. The sculpture Horizon Study (Anti-Gravity CD) (2018), is the precipitate of one of these experiments, preserved as an artifact under plexiglas. Hasan’s installation and sculpture, They Said (2018) and First Eye Drop (2018), each offer a poignant look at the integrity of familial bonds, how they are molded by distance and proximity, and made manifest through inherited objects. In her ceramic sculpture and series of photographs, Kovalski-Monsonego applies equal measures of deconstructionism and indexed nostalgia to consider the strength of connection — both material and emotional.

As curators, we worried that the premise of the weak link — which we take to be a site of potential for revealing structural conditions that are hidden in plain sight — might imply the lack of a unifying curatorial vision and a generalized weakness in the concept of our exhibition itself. However, we were interested in how the weak link generates new understandings of the group exhibition format. Within any group exhibition connections are readily drawn, yet, some links are stronger than others. They may be more obvious, or easily argued, while others are subtle and take time to become clear to the viewer. An artist’s work may stand out against the general theme; it may seem not to fit. Within our own exhibition we hoped to bring the question of connection, in all its forms, to the surface.

Fields Harrington, (B.S.E.) Black Snake Experiment, 2018

We felt that the group format allowed a way for the viewer, as they moved through the space and reflected on each work with reference to the weak link, to reflect on their own biases and thought-process in making connections. How reliant are viewers on what the exhibition tells them, and how much trust should they surrender to what they are “supposed” to think? If the group exhibition can expand the understanding of individual practices within the exhibition, how might we reflect on this format to put forth the idea that a collective gathering of artists generates multiple connections and understandings?

Our artists approached their work with nuance, highlighting connection as a problem to contend with rather than a set of givens. As curators, we wanted to do the same. In Fortress Europa (2019), Fred Schmidt-Arenales, for instance, poses the idea of whiteness as an issue when considering the far-right Identitarian movement in Austria, where racial identity and its contingent history is mobilized to incite violence against migrant populations. Connection is therefore multivariate in its potentialities: while it can unite groups, it can simultaneously be instrumentalized in the service of division.

Though each of the works in the exhibition considers connection in varying forms, the artists’ practices differ in their use of materials and in subject matter. In organizing the exhibition, we wanted to draw formal connections between different works by each artist, placing the blond plywood pedestals that hold Harrington’s sculptural pieces and his video works near each other, for instance, and to situate each of the artists’ works within the space. Kovalski-Monsonego’s sculpture and photographs, both composed of metal support structures, occupy a swath of the rightmost wall space, and Ahmed Hasan’s installations, composed of found objects, draw visitors to the gallery’s opposite end, functioning similarly to a shrine. While each work is distinctive in material composition, it is possible to draw connections by considering how each of the works attempts to distill what it means to be together, as families, as groups, and as people. What these works share most obviously is a nature of circumstance: four artists developing their practices within the constraints of a degree program.

Danielle Kovalski-Monsonego, Mark No. 1Mark No. 2Mark No. 7, from I miss you, 2016

As curators, we were also working within constraints with regard to the predetermined group of artists participating in the show, as well as our own limited level of expertise. Weak Link gave us the opportunity to reflect from our own position as nascent curators. We wanted to lean into limitations of our own curatorial vision, while also challenging ourselves to create a confident curatorial voice. How could the group exhibition reflect potential and promise rather than a definitive statement? How could an exhibition demonstrate the learning process—from artists, from our curatorial peers, and our mentors—in a way that mobilized this purported “weakness” to a state that was generative?

In the end, grappling with these questions led us to Weak Link, a show that expresses the layers of thinking and decision-making that went into questioning, critiquing and embracing the often strong, and sometimes tenuous connections that are inherent in the group exhibition. The connections we explored went far beyond our ideas for a curatorial narrative. The process of curating and installing the exhibition was a deeply collaborative one, and we aspire in future shows to keep this sense of collectivity and mutual understanding a part of our practices. The help we received and the lessons gleaned from our peers, our mentors, our colleagues, and most importantly, the artists themselves, were immeasurably important to the formation and execution of the show, and to these people, and many more, we owe our understanding of and dedication to the issues of connection.

Tausif Noor and Ginny Duncan

February 26, 2019

Ginny Duncan is an MA student in the History of Art department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focus is in American art from the first half of the 20th century. She is currently the Women Artists Project intern in the Office of the Curator at the Penn Art Collection. Previously, she worked as a Production Associate in the Digital Media department at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was also a curatorial intern at the Whitney for the exhibition Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. She received her BA in Art History from Vassar College, and wrote her senior honors thesis on Thomas Hart Benton and his America Today mural. 

Tausif Noor is the Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Fellow at ICA. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, where he studied art history, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he received his MA in Art and Politics. From 2014-15, he was a Fulbright Scholar in India, where he worked with organizations such as the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art and assisted at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Noor previously held internships at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the UK-based not-for-profit agency Culture+Conflict. He is a contributing editor at Momus, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming catalogues for the India Habitat Centre, the CUE Foundation, and in publications such as Art Asia PacificFriezeArtReviewAsia and, among others.