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Not I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE), a recent exhibition at LACMA, was in thrall to its ideas. Though ventriloquism was its central theme, curator José Luis Blondet’s vision went well beyond puppetry. Ten sections, each defined by that which it was not (“Not Double,” “Not Treachery,” etc.), gathered over 200 works—originating from all corners of the globe, and spanning three and a half millennia—under a breathless array of concepts associated with voice, sound, and objecthood. Among this motley assemblage, we might have marveled at the correspondence between the two- to three-thousand-year-old open-mouthed Colombian or Ecuadorian Gritón Figure Jar and five of Josefina Guilisasti’s similarly yawning bronzes, Resilientes/Resilients (2017). We may have savored the resonance between a late 15th-century Afghan bowl (inscribed in Persian with “My ear discerned a voice reverberating from the bowl”) and Robert Morris’ self-reflexive Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), a wooden cube outfitted with audio of the sawing and hammering of its creation. I guffawed over a bubble-themed section that gave reason for Chardin’s Soap Bubbles (after 1739) to be in the same room as Goya’s etching, Sopla (Blow) (1799), which commemorates a powerful fart.
As much bemusement-by-association as Not I brought, the exhibition also played a high-stakes game. It experimented with the “thematic cores” that LACMA’s curators have been charged, increasingly, with fleshing out since at least 2013. These “cores” constitute the brief for reorganizing the permanent collection in time for the 2024 unveiling of Peter Zumthor’s new buildings,1 but their definitions have long been vague. Recently, Zoë Kahr, LACMA’s deputy director for curatorial and planning, alluded to some brainstorming around galleries, ranging from “single focus, single-artist presentations to looking at a single medium, to looking at a theme, to looking at a place across time or time across a place.”2
Not I was one of the two exhibitions LACMA has thus far offered that reveal a glimpse into these proposed strategies of “looking.” The museum’s 2018–2019 exhibit, To Rome and Back: Individualism and Authority in Art, 1500–1800, took a first crack at a thematic curation of the permanent collection by way of a newly united department of European and American art.3 Compared to Rome, Not I gathered a much more ambitious set of objects from a cosmic swath of time and space, which meant that the question of the colonial gaze was all the more present. And, the question of what an encyclopedic museum is—what it collects, how it serves its publics—felt all the more charged.
Not I responded to the scrutiny by attempting to foreground its cleverness, sometimes with real success. During my second visit, another visitor chuckled at Gordon Matta-Clark’s photographic mural Pipes (1971), which led to three display cases containing pipes from across space and time, punctuated by Eleanor Antin’s photograph This is not 100 BOOTS (2002). All of these works were grouped together because of their relationships—literal and metaphorical, oblique and loose—to Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (Ceçi n’est pas une pipe) (1929). Like a voice-throwing trickster, Magritte’s puzzle about visual representation—a cornerstone of LACMA’s collection—didn’t make an appearance. Instead, it hovered over the show, less as an object and more as an echo.
But that’s the thing. Not I’s objects were brought together to propel a thematic conceit that derived a rather self-regarding amount of pleasure from the intellectual connections it made. Here were 3,500 years’ worth of objects from dozens of cultures, all invited to speak to one another. But enthusiasm for ventriloquism’s associations obscured the complexity of the objects themselves. Hung in a section called “Not Johns,” Jasper Johns’ lithograph Ventriloquist II (1986) depicts a number of artworks in his collection, including George Ohr ceramics; a Barnett Newman lithograph; a lavish edition of Moby-Dick. It seems Johns’ prodigious interest in representing Americana was here cause for presenting Glenn Ligon’s Rückenfigur (2009), a neon work that spells “America” in reversed all-caps lettering. Perhaps the fact that Johns’ last name is slang for toilet became reason enough to present Robert Gober’s Single Basin Sink (1985) in this section. But by this logic, each of these objects became a prop to the Johns picture and so many of the curator’s free associations. For all of the exhibition’s good intentions about cross-cultural display, a more troubling conceit emerged: that putting words in the mouth of an object is more important than a rigorous historical understanding of the object itself. Ventriloquism indeed.
This became especially worrying in the section “Not Duck, Not Hare” whose organizing device was the rabbit-duck illusion. What exactly does an 1892 German humor magazine illustration—which has since morphed into a psychological investigation of perception and a philosophical object lesson—have to do with ventriloquism, embodiment, or disembodied voices?4 I’m not sure. The gallery mixed a total of 33 works related to perception— many depicted either rabbits or ducks, such as European painted still lifes featuring just-hunted hares, Nayland Blake’s Bottom Bunny (1994), and Ed Ruscha’s lithograph Rabbit (1986). But this overstuffing subordinates non-Western works to a white, Western game of telephone. Consider Ryūryūkyo Shinsai’s Woman Making Rabbit Shadow for Small Boy (1807). The curator, Blondet, argued in the gallery guide that “it only took 189 years and a good dose of chance and luck for the distant gesture of a Japanese woman to produce the shadow of a rabbit on the surface of a Ruscha print.”5 Such “chance and luck” are, in fact, the dynamics of a historically colonial art market that conspired to bring these items into the same collection. And explaining Shinsai’s print as a consequence of Ruscha’s is not only ahistorical—it creates a reprehensible relation whereby Shinsai’s print has meaning only because it looks like something made by a contemporary white American male artist whose work is regularly auctioned off for eight figures. (It’s difficult not to believe that Ruscha’s lithograph serves as the exhibition’s favorite paradigm when it graces the cover of its publication.) What may at first have been fun bunny-spotting is, in fact, cultural appropriation.
This is not a call for curators to reject playfulness. Rather, it’s an invitation to take the histories of objects seriously, and press those histories to creative ends. Due attention to history is especially vital at encyclopedic museums like LACMA, where curators steward objects acquired through death, plunder, munificence, and so many other events in between. They are also responsible for drawing out the wonder that an object evokes—not just because it’s well crafted, but because it has lived through histories that have helped it endure. That task isn’t easy. The historicization of an object is a fine triangulation between (1) the historical circumstances in which an object was made; (2) the itineraries of the object between the time of its making and the moment of its display; and (3) the contemporary circumstances under which a curator puts that object on display, including the constellation of other objects—each with their own histories. This creates a rhizomatic set of possibilities. As squirrely as history may be, museum curators serve as sensitive filaments, attentive to the moments when so many pasts resonate with the concerns of the present.
The associative, thematic curatorial mode isn’t necessarily the issue—it has worked in other contexts. It’s the logic of the biennial, where, from Seoul to São Paulo to Istanbul, curators choose to gather works of contemporary art under conceptual umbrellas. The annual rotation of curators for these exhibits are subject to the pressures of the art market and the tectonics of global politics. Meanwhile, the colonialist origins of the museum collection linger, but mostly from afar. (For curators at encyclopedic museums, those origins form the matrix out of which they must continuously wrestle.) What’s more, thematic organization has had the most success in museums with stricter chronologies, and, thus, works of art that have a mutual set of creative questions. Under those circumstances, curators are also usually careful to ground their themes in the objects on display. For instance, the Tate Modern’s Material Worlds in 2016 was divided into subthemes like “Texture and Photography,” “Assemblage,” “Expanded Painting,” and “Between Man and Matter” (itself based on the 1970 Tokyo Biennial).6 The point was to recruit objects from the museum’s permanent collection to examine how artists have stretched, pressed, refuted, and indulged the materials with which they work. Each object extended the theme; the theme did not overwhelm the objects.
Some may argue that we now live in a canon-less world, where everybody’s Instagram feed looks different and no one narrative can tie together our disparate experiences. By that logic, it might make sense to connect LACMA’s collection to a wider audience through a curatorial mode that, like a Google image search, presents things that resemble one another, totally divorced of context. One could even double down and say that this is a less pretentious way of exhibiting art because it doesn’t require the viewer to bring an art historical background to its objects. Such arguments not only obviate the need for curators (I shudder to think of the exhibition generated solely by an Alphabet algorithm), they presume that because most of us are on the internet all the time we’ll want our museums to replicate that experience. But as this year has shown, we go to museums to hold space for different kinds of texture, different feelings of community—and these can only emerge in a place, supported by the work of many people, that centers objects with how they came to be placed in front of us.
So how to generate a theme that speaks to something shared between a museum’s objects and a large audience like LACMA’s? We are living under the weight of numerous collective difficulties. The traumas of 2020 and 2021—deadly waves of a global pandemic, constant re-capitulations of the racist hierarchies on which this country was built, assaults on democracy—continue to haunt us. Perhaps these unwished-for experiences might provide interpretive opportunities. What if, for instance, today’s curatorial inquiries started from what it means to rebuild and remake? Could objects from a collection as wide and as deep as LACMA’s animate how makers across time and space have recovered from loss, isolation, and abrupt disorientation? How have notions of justice and repair made their way into art made across cultures? Could the histories embedded in LACMA’s objects help us grapple with the very idea of a shared world?
Not I’s missed opportunities ultimately make an important, if inadvertent, case for historical explanation. We go to places like LACMA not only to be dazzled by extraordinary objects and the wonder of their making—we go to look with greater sensitivity. We go because of a curiosity and a spirit of discovery. We go to learn why we’re surprised by such objects, to better understand how things from the deep past could possibly speak to our jolted present. We need the pasts that these objects can reveal— the ones that shaped them—to ultimately help shape us.
Otherwise, we get an exhibit where a curatorial voice overwhelms the objects on display. Where a visitor talks distractedly into their iPhone, happy in the belief that throwing voices this way and that is enough; all the while ignoring so many marvels because context just doesn’t matter.
Melissa Lo is a feminist historian of early modern science, medicine, and visual culture. She writes about the politics of art, cultures of images, and histories of contentious knowledge. Based in Los Angeles, she serves on the board of the Feminist Center of Creative Work.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 25.