For ‘NYArts’ magazine
As the weather grows warmer and New Yorkers start longing for life outside the city, the attention of the art world begins shifting to Biennials, Triennials and other international group exhibitions outside of the U.S. This summer, the granddaddy of them all, ‘Documenta XI’ in Kassel, Germany, is rolling around again in its five-year cycle. Documania started early in New York, however, with the arrival in February of ‘The Short Century’ an exhibition of African art from the last fifty years, curated by ‘Documenta’ curator Okwui Enwezor. After traveling through several European venues, the exhibition arrived at PS1, stoking the fires of speculation about the content of ‘Documenta’.
New York based curator Lauri Firstenberg was a member of the curatorial team for ‘The Short Century’, and a curatorial assistant for ‘Documenta’, but she isn’t giving away any secrets. “I am excited to see what the artists’ projects are going to look like and how they manifest themselves after four or five years of discussion and labor,” she said. “I worked on ‘Documenta’ before a major staff was hired in Kassel and prior to the concrete infrastructure being set into place. Our research was broad, encompassing all aspects of the exhibition process, and the activity was centered in the New York office at that time.”
Although the hype for Documenta is building, and ‘The Short Century’ has finally arrived in New York, Firstenberg completed these projects almost a year ago. She is still in her late 20s, and had the golden opportunity to work with Enwezor right out of graduate school. According to Firstenberg, she was most impressed by “…what Okwui Enwezor refers to as ‘transparent process’ – that the discourse around the making of an exhibit is as acute as the exhibition proper. The extra-Documenta platforms perform a deterritorialization of the exhibition – distributing its influence over a wide field of venues and media.” What is perhaps most apparent in her current New York shows is the influence her of academic background. Firstenberg explains, “I see the creation of inter-discplinary programming and coordination with other institutions as ideal. What I bring with me, having been subject to collaborative teams of academics, curators, critics, architects, designers is an incredible mode of alliances as a critical model.” In 1998, Firstenberg finished her PhD coursework in Harvard’s art history department and moved to New York. Her short stint as assistant to former Whitney Museum curator Thelma Golden ended abruptly with Golden’s departure from the museum, but Enwezor’s offer to work together on ‘The Short Century’ came shortly after Golden’s boxes were packed. This led to Firstenberg’s involvement with Documenta. When the time came for the Documenta office to shift from New York to Kassel, Firstenberg decided to stay in New York. A few months later, she became the Curator at Artist’s Space where she has now mounted two well received shows.
Although it has only recently arrived in New York, ‘The Short Century’ first opened at the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich in February 2001 and is not intended as a precursor to this summer’s happenings in Germany. In fact, the project was originally conceived of as a book and is accompanied by a hefty catalogue chronicling 50 years of African film, theater, literature, music, art and architecture. Firstenberg explains that her academic background in photography structured her place on the curatorial team, saying “A lot of my responsibility stemmed from my own interest in the photo archives and dealing with the contemporary photography, but everything was done really collectively.” In light of her extensive archival research, her catalogue essay profiling the photographers Seydou Keita, Samuel Fosso, Santu Mofokeng and Zwelethu Mthethwa examines how photographic practice in Africa has impacted both colonial and post-colonial formation of identity.
Unlike many curators with an interest in African art, Firstenberg did not grow up in Africa, and in fact didn’t travel there until she made two graduate school research trips to Johannesburg. During her undergraduate years, she happened to spend a semester working at an African art gallery in L.A., and her interest grew from that point on. By the summer of ‘93, she turned down an internship at MOMA to spend the summer working at the Museum of African Art. When she went on to Harvard for her MA, Firstenberg took Nigerian artist Iké Udé’s photographic work as the subject of her thesis, which led to both a monograph and a touring exhibition that eventually appeared as part of a trio of African shows at Harvard University’s galleries last October.
In August, she arrived at Artists Space, the non-profit gallery for unaffiliated artists, with plans already in progress for her first exhibition, ‘Urban Pornography.’ Featuring the work of sixteen photographers, her inaugural show focused on architecture in urban, suburban, and rural spaces. From Alex Slade’s image of the decrepit skyscraper housing Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture to doreen morrissey’s minimal roadside rest-stops in the wide open space of the American West, the exhibition laid bare the built forms which might in everyday life be seen as unremarkable. Peter Zellner, Firstenberg’s architect fiancée worked with her on the project, and the two have plans to keep working on ‘Urban Pornography’ in the form of the book.
Firstenberg may have moved to a new institution and taken up her twin fascinations with photography and architecture, but she hasn’t abandoned her academic and curatorial background. In fact, the curator’s second show at Artists Space ‘Context and Conceptualism’ took a 1996 article by Okwui Enwezor on artist Kendell Geers as its starting point. Enwezor questions how an artist’s context (national origin) determines his or her entry into the discourse of the global art world. In response, Firstenberg presented a captivating installation of South African postage stamps by Siemon Allen, an intelligent video by Coco Fusco in which Spanish speakers from around the world discuss their exclusion from or inclusion in Catalan society and Melissa Gould’s installation relating her to grandfather’s deportation to Auschwitz.
For thirty years, the aim of Artists Space has been to exhibit work by “unaffiliated contemporary artists working in the visual arts.” With her international background, Firstenberg is taking this remit global. From late March to early May, she has invited architect Didier Faustino, who lives in Paris and Lisbon, and London artist John Timberlake to show work in the gallery’s project rooms. In terms of working with international artists, Firstenberg explains, “It is most interesting to work with artists whose work is critical, poses interesting questions, and will translate well to New York audiences. I think that the nature of my job is to look beyond Chelsea and try to travel as much as possible. As both an academic and curator, it’s about as much research as possible.”
New York artists don’t need to feel left out, however. In an independent curatorial project with Lombard Fried Fine Arts in Chelsea, Firstenberg is showing work by seven artists who live and work in New York. During the month of April, ‘Retrofit’ will showcase art that works in tandem with architecture, design and technology to ‘refit’ existing concepts and adapt them for new situations. Lombard Fried director Michael Lieberman explained the adaptability of the theme by saying that the gallery, curator and artists envisioned a show that “…created a dialogue between their work but didn’t impose too much of a heavy-handed curatorial vision or structure on their work. I think it makes sense to have a show that has… a theme and unifying idea but also lets the work breathe and stand up on its own.”
Lauri Firstenberg may have stepped out of the Documenta limelight, but she is by no means receding into the shadows. With her program of exhibitions at Artists Space, continuing independent shows, the ‘Urban Pornography’ book project, and the numerous articles she writes about the artists with whom she works, she is making the most of her location in New York and her role at Artists Space. In her commitment to research, Firstenberg regularly plows through the hundreds of slides sent in to her by emerging artists. In fact, it is from these slides that Firstenberg is charting new territory for herself by developing ‘Painting as Paradox’ a group show of painting scheduled for the winter at Artists Space. Firstenberg admits that the prospect of exhibiting painting, with her background in photography is daunting. But what could have been more daunting than working on the world’s biggest exhibition in Summer ’02?