Curatorial Magpie Syndrome

Are group exhibitions at risk of becoming shallow collections of nice-looking things?

On a recent visit to White Cube I was delighted, and to be honest overwhelmed, by the quality and quantity of work on display, yet there were a few pieces that stuck with me for all the wrong reasons. Frankly, there was just too much ‘stuff’.

In a previous post I spoke about my aversion to the practice of wrenching big ticket names into an already over-stuffed exhibition catalogue, in this case Tracey Emin and Raqib Shaw. In the case of this exhibition (Memory Palace) they largely contributed style over substance.

In the essay ‘What is an Exhibition?’ (Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating Issue #6) Elena Filipovic discusses the idea that exhibitions shouldn’t be orientated simply towards generating knowledge, but rather towards the possibility of disseminating deeply-entrenched beliefs and perceptions. Still, this doesn’t mean the exhibition can rest on its laurels once it’s established an interesting theme, it must also consider the rhetoric of “a work of art [as] a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world”.

I suppose you could argue, then, that the Shaw and Emin works I griped about previously are works in and of themselves and I have no business questioning their relevance within the exhibition as a whole. However, bundled in with Imi Knoebel’s sickly sweet ‘Ort-Rosa’ and Cerith Wyn Evans’s neon amorphisms, the rooms felt a bit like an over-indulgent pic’n’mix. Much like how a magpie collects shiny things to adorn its nest, perhaps in this case the curators possessed the same impulse of indiscriminate hoarding.

Cerith Wyn Evans 'Neon Forms (after Noh X)' reflected in Robert Irwin, 'Black Painting' | White Cube Bermondsey

Wyn Evans’s work has been described as fostering ‘dazzling and intense sensory environments’, so would perhaps emit more gravitas in a darkened, grotto-esque space than in the sterile White Cube format. Similarly, Knoebel’s fiercely Minimalist and self-referential work would have performed better if allowed a bit of breathing space - perhaps placing it slap bang in the middle of the gallery’s entrance hall would have afforded the piece the curiosity it deserves.

In a culture of information overload and vociferous image-sharing the last thing we need is another situation in which there’s just too much going on. Perhaps I have a terrible attention span, but personally, when presented by a large volume of work in one room, my attention gets thinly spread amongst them all as a result. It’s the phenomenon of focussing on more, whilst paradoxically taking in less. Individual works are at risk of becoming objects we glance at, rather than visual mementos we luxuriously ruminate over, and grant a permanent spot in our memory.


Filipovic, E., What is an Exhibition?, Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, 6