It can be said that the writer and the curator figure are similar creatures; that it is their function – honour, blessing, horror, curse? – to take the incessant proliferation of their chosen medium, language or material culture, and with it to communicate something – a notion or a feeling.
Maurice Blanchot has written that, in writing, the writer gives up saying ‘I’: that they and what will become the work are, for a while, a solitude; literal singularity. May we say this with the exhibition maker? Not always and ever, perhaps – the maker goes home, maybe to a family, or alone, and does not necessarily think about their pots and pictures (though they may be consumed by it). Either way, the relationship of the maker to the exhibition whilst in the varied stages of the actual act of making, is one of symbiosis – the exhibition allows the exhibition maker to exist, and the exhibition maker brings the exhibition into being.*
It is also true that there is an effacement of self at play in the act of curation. When one speaks of the Death of the Author, ‘the one who writes is not the one who is’, one still associates the name of a personage, ho once possessed the attribute of writing the work. In the museum exhibition, this is not so. Individual objects may or may not have their makers named, but curators rarely are. In this effacement, thee is more than a forgetting to name: the exhibition is a book with all the words etymologised, written by ‘A. Non’. The curator figure, in placing items together in a particular way, tells stories of others, but also indirectly of themselves. But their-self is something which we cannot grasp, which is ineffable, caught fleetingly, sideways, out of the corner of the eye. Indirectly perceived by the audience, unlike the author the curator is only ever almost there: only ever a host, they themselves, with their lives and lobes and tragedies, are interchangeable, replaceable, may never have been, have been many, or have been once, long ago. Moreso than the writer, the curator is always, and only ever, imaginary, even to themselves.
The curator speaks a unique language during every moment, for such as we all have skin-cell minds, the curator learns, changes, goes back, forwards, and at right angles during the process of design and placement. Even they, during the very act of arrangement itself, only partake in a partial expression of the thing who’s thingness they are seeking to frame. Caught halfway between maker, thing, and audience, the curator’s own language is subsumed: they become, instead, the etheric medium in which the objects sit. Their language effaced, their being, instead, becomes the firmament for constellations of things.
And to whom do they address themselves in this being? Though many say, for metrics and statistics, they would address themselves pragmatically to a specific set of individuals, in truth their work is addressed to everyone – or, rather, a paragon. Which is to say, it is addressed to no-one, because there is no single human, or being, who ever has, does or will, speak the same languages the curator speaks when they are creating and when they, in the opening tours of the show, become, through their designing hand, the firmament of meaning (even if their physical selves remain ensconced in a distant office). The act of the curator is not an act of self- affirmation, but an expression of one segment of the vastness of time: and in that vastness they, and the visitor, are nothing.
There is discussion of the speaking power of objects, and it is still debated. But perhaps the answer is born of relationality – that objects, like humans, speak only in being and in the conversations, verbal and non-verbal, that they may have with the surrounding milieu. In the exhibition, if that conversation does not occur for any particular object, they fall back into the being of the whole exhibition: a single passive part in the polyphonic litany of stuff, which is all being individually, but in the end singing one tune.
The curator is a ghost of this singing – they are also, perhaps, an echo of the fuller requiem from which the kyrie came. Things jabber in being – they present themselves incessantly. They cannot stop bar being destroyed – and even then, if they have existed, they speak in their absence. It is the curator who cleaves and peels parts of them away, who takes segments and rearranges them into an expressible whole. For the plenitude of things, what Blanchot might term an ‘uninterrupted affirmation’, the jabbering of culture, is a depth so deep that, without mediation, it may as well be empty. Given this, perhaps it is more accurate to call the curator not a ghost or an echo, but a shadow: an antumbra.
The curator has maybe been made to seem powerless here: caught in the marshy Wash which is the time of exhibition things. But they are not. Blanchot wrote that there is always a part of the writer whom is able to intervene in the writing, who is able to ‘say no…restore the future’. Strangely, for the museum, this is perhaps the part of the curator who writes, because in labels, panels, texts, they do think of time, of audiences – of people coming to see and yet to come, of the then and of the then further ahead…
Even in writing, in pragmatic acts of arrangement, then, the curator imagines and is imaginary. They, like their objects, become oneric – part of the languages of Morpheus.
‘The dream-child moving through a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird of beast –
And half believe it true.’
*This can be said of any producing activity or job – writers, artists, those typically designated ‘creatives’, are not unique.