Sunday, September 9, 2012

Creative Process Journal: Curation and Maria Luisa Frisa

The Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language 1994 edition gives the following definition for curator:

1. the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.
2. a manager; overseer; superintendent.
3. a guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent, especially with regard to his property (354)."

When I first read this definition, my eyes focussed on the "lunatic",  and skipped over the words "guardian of...". I laughed, because there are times when I feel like I must be a lunatic or at least crazy to have taken on the massive project/job of editing the Ryerson Fashion Resource Collection, while also completing my graduate studies.

I am the "person in charge" of the collection, but this does not convey the essence of what curation means from a contemporary perspective. Nor does it convey the specific challenges of curating fashion.

To explore what it means to curate a fashion exhibition, I turned to a Fashion Theory article written in 2008 by curator Maria Luisa Frisa (who I met briefly in Milan at Fashion Tales 2012). In The Curator's Risk, Maria Luisa Frisa explores the idea that "fashion curating is the exercise of a critical gaze, which recognizes the multiple traces, symptoms and fragments that are around us" and identifies risks "as implicit to the working method of the curator" (171). The article is written in a reflective tone, and Frisa considers curation in general to be about "design, layout, imagining, and constructing" (172). She suggests that fashion curation allows one to "offer new points of observation" while cautioning that  it is necessary to understand "your own insights and being willing enough to take a gamble on them" (172).

Photo of Maria Luisa Frisa
Frisa suggests that an interdisciplinary perpective enriches her process and draws on her background in art history, her work as Director of the Fashion Design program at IUAV University Venice and as curator of the Pitti Discovery Foundation in Florence. She says she is "fascinated by the way in which a single garment, or a fashion photograph or a feature in a magazine can immediately relate us to the major themes of human consciousness, to dreams, obsessions, and all the implications of culture and society (173)."

Although she does not define specific steps to the creative process of curation, she suggests that curation involves an element of pattern recognition, piecing together fragments and clues "that will enable you to confirm a hunch, an idea, and to imagine a story" (173). Her starting point is typically "an obsession", which can take the form of an "image, on the edging of a garment, or on a word that starts like a slogan" (174). She says that her development of an exhibition often borrows "techniques derived from art or film, such as the Dadaist idea of the accumulation of heterogenous materials, or the technique of massing incongruent parts of an assemblage; or the montage of fragments, which may then be articulated in a linear way or collapsed into a dense mass" (174).

In her analysis of the exhibition called Excess: Fashion and the Underground in the '80s, which she co-curated with Stefano Tonchi, she outlines her desire to "create a sort of phantasmoagoria, formed from the recounting of lives lived to the utmost, recalling the memories of sudden deaths and young icons", which was intended to create a mixture "of blinding light and utter darkness" (174). She describes the site of the exhibition, the Leopolda Station, as a "gloomy industrial cavern", which was "lined with a series of containers painted black" with each container serving as "a box, a casket, and a theaterette" which served to convey a specific story (175-176).

Maria Luisa Frisa admits that she has not yet developed "a complete theoretical discourse as a curator" (177). She concludes that she "attempts to observe the unfolding of the time as both past and present together. A dimension that is unconcerned with the chronology of history, but determined by the way that fashion bends and guides the forms of time (177)".

In reading this article, I find myself relating to her reflections on the curatorial process and how fashion and time unfold. I like the idea of a story within container that Frisa used for Excess. For me, the curatorial process is a creative engagement with objects, a process of exploration that seeks to create links or find patterns that come together to form a narrative. Love it or hate it, a strong exhibition conveys a story or a point of view and is in the end thought provoking and that is what I want to achieve.

Within the Ryerson Fashion Resource Collection, there are an array of beautiful dresses and garments that could offer up an aesthetically pleasing display, but what really interests me is the idea that an object like a dress has a biography embodying the stories of the women who wore these dresses. Conveying the sense of who these women were and how their garments ended up in the collection will be a challenge since the records are minimal. Can I imagine a story? How do I convey the element of memory and my affinity for the dark and gloomy?


Frisa, Maria Luisa. "The Curator's Risk". Fashion Theory, Volume 12, Issue 2, (2008): 171-180. Print.

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