Well, call me an old sceptic - and yes, I have read the (largely positive) reviews and seen the show – but for me this juxtaposition is just a bridge too far. Don’t get me wrong, I adore both Bill Viola and Michelangelo for their respective and Herculean contributions to our shared western artistic heritage. But, as a spectator I feel not a little manipulated for: a) being obliged to go, for fear I would be missing out, and b) wanting to see just how daft curatorial permutations could get.
I am reminded at this point of Dr Thierry Morel’s rather extraordinary Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition a couple of years ago at SCVA 1, where one took consecutive and singular delight in the works of Bacon, Velázquez and Degas by turn. The viewer was then subjected to an excruciatingly awful centerpiece comparison of the ‘mastery’ of Bacon against Rembrandt and Velázquez, and despite the flourish of 4-star critical acclaim, everyone knew really that Bacon was, at least materially, not the silk purse in this equation.
Let me show you what I mean: how about Steve McQueen and Bernini? Banksy and Caravaggio? Tracey Emin and Goya? No really, I could go on. The RA’s Andrea Tarsia is a credible and smart curator with a great pedigree, RCA, Whitechapel etc., but there must be an elastic limit to the cognate distances that curators can credibly assert across time and practice.
The premise of staging curatorial collisions is, of course, not new; in my view, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is the undisputed master of orchestrating serious research in order to reveal new dialogues between artefacts as findings. Bakargiev’s heavy research base inversely delivers exhibitions with a curatorially light touch, allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions by invitation rather than provocation 2; how different then is our experience of Viola and Michelangelo? Within the wonderful confines of the RA, we are looking at the spectacle of their respective individual mastery, but actually, for me, they are chalk and cheese.
To excuse my philistinism, my gripe really relates more to my patent ability to (mis)understand the purpose of curators and exhibitions: I am probably most uncomfortable when I am asked implicitly to invest meaning into, what appears to be, a comparative study of incomparable works from incompatable eras. Here I have a genuine sense of peril that I might offer up a meaning(less) minestrone based on the combined unreliability of my patchy recollection of the gamut of art history, and a relentless desire to fill in the gaps.
A certain Marshall McLuhan had this ‘bang to rights’ when he observed that: Michelangelo’s David ‘stands in time like a snowman in the sun’, what we understand of Viola and Michelangelo separately and together in this show seem to be shifting sands. I think in this context, the brilliant Matthew Collings, when recently reviewing this show 3, also had one aspect of the RA-Viola-Michelangelo dynamic right when he alighted in passing on the word ‘stunt’, - though I think I am right in understanding that Collings used this word in relation to a feat of artistic virtuosity rather than relating to inhibited growth. This seems to me therefore to be heading towards stunt curation, you read it here first by the way.
This all leaves me with something of a predicament, I love the works on the whole, I enjoyed the experience, on the whole. But here ‘the whole’ feels less than the sum of its parts, and is it right that I, as a paying visitor to Viola/Michelangelo, found myself concentrating on the curatorial lens as much as, or maybe more than, the endeavors of the artists?
To be a curator these days is clearly en flique, just look at all the wannabees on social media, but at some point, one really does have to ask some hard questions the nature and increasing visibility of curatorial intervention. We are now a very long way from the Roman notion of the provincial concerns of the curator, and from the religious cura 4 who cared for the souls of the flock, but there is something in the Latin root here that reinforces to me the role of the curator as one who shows care for the work - and for the audience.
Maybe the curatorial job description has become corrupted over time by a mixture of Chinese whispers and the omnipresent metrics around footfall and audience engagement, call me old fashioned, but I guess I am a fan of transparent, or at least translucent, curation that privileges the work over the conceit of clever curatorial conceptualism.