artnet Asks: Jens Hoffmann
Globe-trotting curator Jens Hoffmann has just released a collection of the 50 shows that he believes shaped today’s exhibition-making practices. Out now in the UK and coming to the US next April, Show Time is a hefty volume sketching a history of curating with a clear penchant for the experimental. The deputy director and head of exhibitions at New York’s Jewish Museum since 2012, Hoffman himself has been part and parcel of this history, having curated more than 50 shows in half as many years, and biennials from Berlin to Istanbul. He caught up with artnet news before leaving on a trip to Brazil.
Could you tell me about a moment that set you on your way to becoming a curator?
I studied theater in Berlin and Amsterdam and was interested in what is called “post-dramatic theater,” theater that is not necessarily based on a dramatic text. As a result, I looked at a lot of historical and contemporary theater that challenged text-based traditions. Often these new forms included visual artists, choreographers, composers and most of it had a direct lineage going back to the avant-garde movements of the early 20th-century and their cross-disciplinary visions. While studying theater I worked in museums such as the Portikus in Frankfurt and the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, and I began to be more and more involved in visual art. In 1997, I was asked to organize the theater program for Documenta 10, and while working with Catherine David I realized that what she was doing as a curator was not unlike what I was imagining doing as a director—having a vision and a concept and working collaboratively with others to stage that.
Why did you feel that a compendium of the 50 most influential contemporary art exhibitions was needed?
The book is a summary of radical ideas in the sphere of exhibition-making that have occurred in the last 25 years. These 25 years have been crucial for the development of curatorial practice and I wanted to highlight those shows that really pushed the envelope. Many of them are perhaps not well known to a wider audience but need to be considered if one wants to understand a full picture of exhibition-making over the last decade and a half. The book includes many exhibitions of a very particular generation of curators, many of which have been in constant dialogue with each other over the last 25 years. It is about an era that I think came to an end in the last three to four years. It was the start of a global understanding of art, it was the start of the biennial boom (the ultimate exhibition format for the globalized age), it was the start of art fairs and the overall expansion of the art world.
How do you envisage the relationship between art history and the history of exhibitions?
They are two different fields, especially when you consider the fact that many exhibitions we see are not exhibitions of art but of objects related to cultural history or other areas—architecture, design, and many others. My interest is not limited to exhibitions of art but those of course have a relationship to art history. I think looking at the history of art through the history of art exhibitions tells us something about the works on display that is different from looking at them individually or within the overall oeuvre of a specific artist. It contextualizes the artwork in a different way, which can be very useful for its appreciation and interpretation.
What have you learned from putting this publication together? Did anything surprise you?
I would not say that it was a surprise but perhaps more of realization. Most of the exhibitions deal with our global realities but only a few have actually taken place outside a Western context. Exhibition-making is still very closely connected to the idea of the museum which is, after all, a Western concept. We have exhibitions from outside the Western context in the book but most of them were done by Western curators or curators who were educated in the West.
How much has your own practice as a curator well-versed in experimental exhibition-making influenced your selection?
The exhibitions I talk about in the book are all exhibitions that have shaped my thinking about curating and exhibition-making in one way or another. It is an homage to curators who have had a big effect on my own work—Okwui Enwezor, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Mary Jane Jacob, Adriano Pedrosa, Hou Hanru, Maria Lind and so many others. We would not be where we are with exhibition-making if not for these curators in the book.
In your view, what makes a successful exhibition?
The easiest answer would be “great works of art” but that is perhaps too naive. A strong vision and conviction is key. There needs to be a relationship to the location of the exhibition, a successful visitor experience that is educational and perhaps also entertaining but definitely thought-provoking, an awareness of how to display artworks in accessible ways and strong knowledge about how to mediate a show. Exhibitions are not an easy thing to put together if one wants to be rigorous and wants to push the envelope. It is not about selecting a few works and placing them in an empty space. Curating is not only about selecting but also about framing and contextualizing it all while not alienating the visitors too much by using jargon or being overly elitist about it.
The book is dedicated to Harald Szeemann. How do you explain the enduring fascination and cult status that he has come to occupy?
Szeemann has been a cult for as long as I can remember. It has been a while since it was acknowledged that he was the one who paved the way for many more creative and independently minded curators to follow in his footsteps. I was lucky enough to know Szeemann and to be in frequent conversation with him. We in fact planned to organize an exhibition at the ICA for 2006, but he died the year before. Last year I curated a sequel to his legendary “When Attitudes Become Form.”
Tell us something that no one knows about you.
I am a math genius. I was offered a scholarship to study mathematics at MIT after high school but decided that I wanted to be with art.
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