On Curating the Exhibition
Installation is currently underway for the 2022 Bermuda Biennial A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future. The exhibition, which celebrates the best of Bermuda’s contemporary art, opens to the public on June 11.
Putting together the finishing touches to the exhibition provides the opportunity to reflect on the jurying process, which took place in March when Claire Gilman, Chief Curator at the Drawing Centre, New York, and Alexandria Smith, Head of Painting at the Royal College of Art, London, visited the island for three days to select the artworks.
We were, unfortunately, amid a spike in Covid-19 cases at the time and so they were not able to hold a talk at the gallery. Instead, the jurors connected with all the Biennial applicants via Zoom, together with Richard Georges, poet laureate for the British Virgin Islands and the juror for the poetry component of the 2022 Bermuda Biennial, and Peter Lapsley, BNG’s Executive Director.
As we look forward to unveiling the 2022 Bermuda Biennial, we look back at the talk, in which the jurors discussed their approach to curating the exhibition and their advice for emerging artists.
On Curating the 2022 Biennial
Peter Lapsley: The process of jurying the Biennial is an intense process, which takes place over 3 days. While it’s a condensed process, we work to support the jurying as it goes through and provide information as it is required. It is quite a process, but it is one that I stand by and which I think produces a good exhibition. Now that we have the form of the exhibition, how are you feeling about it? What are your thoughts about the Biennial having been though the process now?
Claire Gilman: When we are looking at the work, we are not necessarily looking at it from the perspective of does this work? Does this fit the theme? The theme is influencing what has been submitted in a sense. As we look at it, we are thinking about certain commonalities that we’re seeing amongst the work.
We are trying to put together a cohesive show, but we are also evaluating the work on its own terms. That’s the balance we are trying to strike. Looking at each work independently. What the work is setting out to accomplish. Also, thinking about what the whole is.
It’s a back and forth. It’s not this strict thing of ‘oh it’s the theme’. We can bend. The theme is a loose one and we also come to understand how we’re interpreting that theme as we look at the work and as we see what is being submitted.
Alexandria Smith: It definitely is an intense process, but it really forces you to home in on and then extract those threads and the work that you feel is the strongest. The time doesn’t allow for you to dilly dally at all, we really have to get to it and take your time and make sure that we are giving each artist, each submission adequate time – to meditate and look at the work and not rush through it, because that was definitely not happening – we were very thorough in that regard.
I do feel like the theme did help us to focus on the work itself instead of trying to focus on building a theme through submissions that covered all bases. So, I do appreciate the theme, I think that sometimes yes, it would be nice to have a biennial where you just submit work but in some ways most work can fit that theme. I think the theme is general enough where it could fit.
Overall, I feel great about the work we selected and the way we laid out the exhibition. I think the themes that emerged were already present and are sort of trending anyway in many ways because of the shared trauma that we’ve all experienced over the last couple of years.
Peter Lapsley: I would agree. One of the things for those who are new to the process from the visual arts standpoint, and from the poetry standpoint as well, is that these are blind submissions. I spend a lot of time stripping all of the information off these works as best I can.
We do a projected review of all the works first, without knowing anything about them. So the jurors are just looking at the art. They we do another three or four run throughs, and more information is brought in as those numbers come down.
The poetry side of things is something that is new to us but the theme was something that we felt could translate to the written word as well. Richard, how was the process for you?
Richard Georges: It was invigorating. It was very exciting. It was intense for me too because I had to fit it within a week or so of really close attention to almost 100 poems I think it was that had been submitted.
The benefit of a theme is that you know everyone had the same framework from where to begin. From there, it is really up to the artist or poet tp determine the direction that they choose to take it in. Then the juror has the unenviable task of deciding which of these endeavours was more successful in their eyes.
For me, there were quite a few poems where it was clear to me that it was not just a poet who collected five poems, there was a concert between the pieces, you could see that they belonged together which was very important. This is also very challenging in poetry because often when you have a collection of work that is close, the inclination is to say well ‘I don’t need too many poems that are hitting the same notes, or the same registers’ but if you have a collection of poems that are speaking to each other and taking slightly different angles on a similar contact or theme then it works.
I was very pleased that there was quite a bit of what I would call mature work, where the poet really had some comfort with the line and comfort with what they were doing, regardless of whether it was free verse or it had some kind of structured form. By and large it was a healthy body of work that was submitted for consideration and I could see that many poets had really sat down and generated work from the same sort of starting point and you could see the commonalities, the thematic mirroring that was taking place. You could see how this could be a body of work that is presented or anthologised through the Biennial.
On Advice for Emerging Artists and Writers
Claire Gilman: I think it is very important not to just make work, but to go out and see work as an artist and it’s important not just to write but to read, as a writer. A lot of focus, particularly on writing, is ‘go to writing class, go to writing school’, but sometimes the best teacher is looking at other things and reading other things. I think it’s really important for artists here, everywhere, to get out there and see other work as much as possible. I know that that can be a challenge because Bermuda is an island nation, so there’s a kind of separation built in, but I would encourage applying to residencies as much as possible and just taking any opportunity that comes along to go and spend some time elsewhere.
We are living in a very different world than a number of years ago, so we are also able to see work digitally online and while that certainly is not the same thing as seeing it in person, it is definitely a very valuable resource. I really encourage artists to spend a lot of time in the studio, but also to get out of the studio and just take a look at what else is out there because I think it’s really important to understand how your work fits into, or is in dialogue with, other trends and concerns that seem to be out there, that seem to be vital and that seem to be engaging artists around the world.
I think that it’s important to understand how your work is part of a larger dialogue. I think that’s one of the main ways that artists can move their work forward. If you’re just in your studio all the time, you’re going to enter a very hermetic world and maybe what you think you’re doing is not going to translate to other people, so I think it’s really important also to invite people into your studio and get feedback, understand if what you think you’re trying to get across is being gotten across, if other people in looking at the work are seeing what it that you hope they’re seeing.
Alexandria Smith: I have an unconventional path of being the age I am and having done all this without gallery representation up until this point. I did that through residencies. I did it that through building community. I did have my MFA program as a starting point, and that was where I started building those relationships, with artists that are more successful, more well-known than me now. I think following through and being in New York City of course helps.
Honestly its perseverance. I tell this to my students too, you have to keep making work. But you also cannot keep making work and remain naïve or unaware of what’s happening elsewhere in the contemporary art world. And there are a lot of ways to do that without having the resources – privilege plays a role in having certain resources, allows you to visit, physically visit, and see these places. In some ways Covid assisted us a bit with expanding our access and making the visual arts and artist talks and things of that nature more accessible to everyone, which I think was probably the only plus side of all this.
Showing your work and residencies, that’s really what helped my practice. When I was broke and poor and fresh out of grad school no one knew or cared who I was, I was building community. I stalked a lot of artists CVs, artists that I admired. I would look at where they went to residences or what grants they had. It would take me down this deep dive of internet research and looking at institutions’ Biennials. There are Biennials all over the world and that’s one way of learning about what contemporary artists are being shown right now. Then major galleries and looking at who is enrolled in MFA programs.
Just looking at looking at who your favourite artists are looking at, because there’s always a long line throughout history of people looking at people that are looking at other people and looking at other artists. I think that’s really key. Research is an integral component, and also understanding your work in relation to other artists. But not historically, contemporarily.
Not necessarily making work to try and fit anywhere, I don’t believe in that, but remaining true to yourself and trusting your intuition. Doing that amidst that research and that knowledge of contemporary art is critical. That and persevering, and not taking things personally, continuing to keep going and keep pushing and keep making.
Richard Georges: There was much in what was said that I definitely relate to personally in my journey. There’s a word that Alexandria just used, like “naivete” …I’ll put it this way and if it’s blunt, I apologiz,e but only a little bit. It is very hard to be a poet who doesn’t read poetry, so you know if you want to write poetry seriously then you have to be a student of poetry.
When I was writing my three collections that I published, all I read was poetry, it was all I focused on. All my friends were other Caribbean poets and we really built community that way. I think for me, I was in a bit of the classic writer’s isolation sort of thing – the lonely craft sort of stereotype you know – and it is when I was able to exercise some measure of privilege and invest in myself and go to writers’ workshops, attend festivals…I went down to Bocas many years ago when I didn’t know anybody and because I went to Bocas I started befriending people.
You never know the kinds of relationships, or the kinds of people you run into and the community that you build. I mean, I’ve gotten opportunities because someone said ‘oh you should talk to Richard’ and I’ve gotten opportunities like that which have built me up. And what was cool about that is that you start a big community with writers who are at the same level, same stage as you – who are just starting out. One of my good friends in writing, and a former MOCO editor, is Ayanna Lloyd. She’s putting out her first novel…well it just came out – and you know, she got a massive deal with public publishers in the US, UK and Canada, all at the same time. I remember when she was in the workshops next to me, you know what I mean? So that community thing is really a powerful, powerful part of it – but also, more importantly than the community, I think before the community, comes the study – being a student.
What assisted me in building communities was because we spoke the same language. We were familiar with the Caribbean canon. We had read the modernists and the imagists and the romantics and had strong opinions them because we had studied them. It’s very difficult to dismiss any class, genre, era of poetry without having understood why you don’t like it or why it doesn’t work for you. Then you can have really enriching conversations with other people in the practice.I think for me, that is essential.
If you’re writing and you want to have a collection of poems, you need to have your TBR stack of poetry collections – have so many you just can’t get to. So now that I’m writing fiction, I don’t have any poetry books, because I’m working on fiction. I have tons of novels that I’m struggling to make through all of them, because I must be informed by not just what is in the canon, but also what is happening now in the spaces in which I am writing. I need to know what sorts of schools, what sorts of styles, what sorts of techniques I like and what I’m not afraid to fail at, and try to then stretch and push what I’m able to create and produce. That just makes me better at the end of the day. You have to have that openness and that willingness to submit to the craft.
The last thing I would say, is definitely invest in yourself to the point in which you can. If you can’t save up thousands of dollars to go to the UK to go into a course or if you can’t go to the Indiana Writer’s workshop, or something like that, that makes perfect sense, I understand that. But invest in yourself – there are many online courses that are available, you can do workshops – I teach 10 week courses at the poetry school, that might be a little pricey, but there’s stuff at The Porch and Catapult…there are all sorts of little areas where you can find really good contemporary writers who are teaching for what is proportionately of pittance. So, invest in yourself and don’t see anything like that as money wasted, that’s money that you’re paying into your future practice.
The last thing that writers struggle with is carving out time. You can’t work unless you treat it like work. You can’t sit down hoping for lightening to strike, you have to create the conditions and carve out the regular time to put into your work to see the growth and development that you want to see.
The 2022 Bermuda Biennial opens to the public on June 11. For information click here.