Laying bare a visual logic is a crucial task of a curator - an interview with Samuel Saelemakers

By Maria Martens Serrano - Thursday, November 12, 2015
Laying bare a visual logic is a crucial task of a curator - an interview with Samuel Saelemakers

Samuel Saelemakers, Curator for Witte de With, is well aware of the careful balance that is required of curatorship - a balance between charging creativity and its controlled manifestation.

Laying bare a visual logic is a crucial task of a curator - an interview with Samuel Saelemakers

Spacious, light, centric; Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, located on the lively Witte de With street, boasts the ideal qualities for exhibiting. It is even a greater challenge, in terms of curatorship, to work within such a promising locale, as it provides an even greater number of possibilities.

Samuel Saelemakers, Curator for Witte de With, is well aware of the careful balance that is required of curatorship - a balance between charging creativity and its controlled manifestation. There is no set formula for curatorial decisions. Nonetheless, a skilled curator will immerse him or herself within the points of convergence, in the intersections between art-artist-space-audience and his own personal desires.

Samuel’s background in Philosophy is subtly present, acting as the lining for his curatorial approach, in which no thought or decision goes unturned. In this interview, Samuel shares some of experiences and the knowledge accrued from these, including his opinions on the need for an exhibition to lay bare a visual logic - one that speaks for itself, without having to rely on methods too direct to spell out its meaning, word for word.

Artdependence Magazine: This year’s Art Rotterdam, which took place in February, saw the first edition of Intersections - a fair within the fair, whose aim was to expose younger and emerging artists. As co-curator of Intersections, can you tell us what you found particularly interesting about working with emerging artists? What do you find notable about artists who are in the beginning stages of their careers?

Samuel Saelemakers: Together with Carolyn Drake, we invited some nonprofit or more so-called hybrid art spaces, which cannot be classified as commercial galleries. These spaces indeed tend to work with younger artists, but it is not a rule. We had one participant, Emergent, who showed work by Royden Rabinowitch, a noted sculptor born in 1943. So, for Intersections we invited more alternative spaces to show what they do best: presentations without compromises. Rather than inviting specific artists, we invited spaces whose way of working we appreciated. The choice of artists was theirs. It’s a different kind of curating of course, putting together this kind of off-fair, where it’s more about showing support for specific kinds of institutional practices than for individual artistic practices.

AD: You were also involved in this year’s Art Basel, taking part in the Art Basel Salon Talks. During a group discussion you mentioned that the concept of the ‘solo show as group show’ is similar to the theme of ‘the artist as curator’. Can you elaborate on this point, sharing with us your opinion on the collaborative aspects of artistic production, and how these may be integrated within an exhibition?

SS: The theme of the panel talk was this paradoxical statement of the solo show as group show. There are two levels to discuss this subject on. The first is a level of particular case studies; the other is more abstract. The two cases relevant to the topic are the exhibitions The Temptation of AA Bronson (2014) and Bit Rot by Douglas Coupland (2015), both Witte de With commissions. These exhibitions aimed at sharing individual artists’ universes, rather than merely exhibiting the works they make. And, in both cases, constructing this universe meant including (works by) other artists. So, in these cases, the solo artist takes some curatorial decisions, even though it is often not explicated this way. It also does not mean that the show ends up being (co-)curated by the artist, but rather it becomes clear that, in the case of solo exhibitions, the artist in question needs to make some preliminary curatorial decisions, mainly to chose how much of their, what I call, “inner group show” or “mental picture gallery” they let out. It’s a filtering process, which in the case of a thematic group exhibition lies with the curator, but in the case of a solo show becomes at least a shared process between artist and curator. This is a highly individual and specific process, which is different in every case. Some artists and curators enjoy it, some less so.

One specific example that comes to mind here is that of the yearlong project, In Light Of 25 Years, which I’m steering at Witte de With. On the occasion of our 25th anniversary, nine artists and one curator have been asked to create a new work departing from the institution’s history and archive. So, in a way, each new work presented at Witte de With has a correlate in the archive - i.e. each participant has a fellow artist which prompted their new work. Now, a returning question throughout the project has been: do you want to refer to this specific artist/work/exhibition from the past to frame your new solo presentation? The answers are of course mixed, and this is where the integration of collaborative or shared processes preceding solo exhibition becomes the real question. As always, there is no formula for this integration or inclusion, and I believe the artist always knows what to include and what not to show. As a curator it is essential to also rely on the intelligence of artists.

AD: We can also talk about the theme of the artist as collector, something that is explored in Witte de Wit’s current exhibition: Bit Rot, which presents the work of artist and novelist Douglas Coupland. The exhibition statement posits that Coupland has for many years been “intuitively collecting art works, images and objects, creating a collection perhaps only fully legible to himself.” How did the curatorial process for this show go about ‘translating’ Coupland’s collection?

SS: I strongly relate to the notion of translation, yet I feel that in the case of Coupland’s exhibition it doesn’t really apply. Translation was a key concept in the exhibition that Heman Chong and I curated in 2014, called The Part In The Story Where A Part Becomes A Part Of Something Else. This was a large scale group exhibition that investigated how one thing can turn into something else, and how a similar story or concept can be made manifest through different artworks and practices. In a way, this to me was a very “curated” exhibition, as Heman and I together decided which works we presented and how. In the case of Bit Rot, following conversations between our director Defne Ayas, Douglas Coupland and myself, the idea of combining Coupland’s own work with works from his collection came very early on. Coupland is a visual thinker, as is clear in his writing as well. And, like with AA Bronson and many other projects at Witte de With in the past few years, we aim to not only show the finished products of an artist’s labor, but also all of what goes into that labor. We want to show both sides of the medal. And, since these two sides are so intertwined already, I don’t think any translation is needed. I would rather speak of the need to arrange, order, or filter the two bodies of work. This process of arranging is one that brings me great pleasure, and it is a true curatorial privilege to get to work with the “inner group show” of an artist, as often these references and preferences are carefully screened off. What Coupland and I did was to simply look at what he had made and what he had collected and try to make sense of it all, drawing connections in both directions.

Laying bare a visual logic is something I think is a crucial task of a curator, along with showing how this logic is an autonomous one which often needs little to no additional mediation. Today this is often not an easy thing to do, as people seem to be under the impression that contemporary art is not be looked at but to be understood or solved like a problem. Rather than explaining a most often nonexistent problem, Bit Rot shows how visual thinking works, and how visual culture informs art and vice versa.  

AD: Speaking of legibility, and also referring to Coupland’s emphasis on literature as an artistic medium, the question arises as to whether the inclusion of text carries the risk of relegating visual elements to the position of illustration. What would you say to this?

SS: This connects to some of the things I was saying before. Mediation should not be the ruler of curatorial endeavors. Yes, legibility is important, but I believe that legibility does not boil down to a sort of explanation. In the case of the exhibition guide for Bit Rot, I decided to use fragments of both fiction and nonfiction (written by Coupland for the exhibition’s accompanying publication) to frame each room, rather than explaining individual works. With Coupland we have the luxury of working with an artist who is also verbally gifted, so why would I write some boring “explanation” of a sculpture or painting when the artist himself has written a far more enticing text that deals with the same topics as the works, but does so in another register. So rather than illustrating texts with artworks or vice versa, it’s about laying bare parallel tracks of thinking and creating.

AD: What has been your greatest curatorial challenge to date, and what are your plans for the future?

SS: I think one big challenge has been: how to deal with the eternal issue of taste. How to curate beyond your own taste? How to overcome one’s own idées fixes regarding taste, in order to join an artist on unexpected paths? How to be a good curator to artists and art works you never saw yourself dealing with?

The next project I’ll be working on is a solo exhibition by artist Charlemagne Palestine. Lead curator to this exhibition is Luca Lo Pinto of the Kunsthalle Wien, with whom Witte de With co-commissioned the exhibition. It will be a sort of overview of the diverse registers Palestine has worked within throughout his career, ranging from video performances and sound pieces to elaborate sculptural environments with stuffed animals.


Maria Martens Serrano is a Dutch-Salvadoran writer. She studied under a liberal arts program at University College Utrecht, going on to graduate with an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Exploring a broad range of interests, Maria previously worked with a news website and a human rights NGO, before becoming involved with several art fairs in the Netherlands. She now writes on topics of arts and culture. In early 2015 Maria joined the team of Artdependence Magazine as editor and contributor.

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