The Curator, So to Speak, Chooses You

David Mollin

It seems to be important in an exhibition that the work 'looks' curated, that it is 'chosen'. Or else why would it be there? Without this, the curator is accused of indeterminacy and chaos. 'Chosen' is an elegant word in this context and it might be worth dwelling in its elegance for a while. 'Chosen' is for one reason or another. The reason, or idea behind the reason, expanding and contracting in its apparent breadth of field, but always its limits are roughly the same size in the same way the words 'vista' and 'coffin' are roughly the same size, give or take a letter. The idea behind the reason can be flat-roofed, light and shining, glimmering reflectively in lime green and yellow-white, or it can be dark red crimson with black underlay (small section of linoleum or perhaps parquet), or pale blue, even. White walls rising newly plastered on all sides or sheet glass dropping heavily and a croaking of old frogs amongst dead lettuce in the ruts running along the side. It is, quite frankly, a choice built with the finest of intentions and materials, whose choice it was to build it in the first place.

To choose the work is to choose the reason is to unavoidably 'choose' one's own alignment to the future. There is no idea without the objects that make it up, whether that is an idea that explicitly attempts to evoke a deflecting future, a future of 'what is best', or whether it is an idea that explicitly and stubbornly refers to itself – implicitly the idea is its objects, while its space is reflected upon an enamelled surface or the pupils of the eye of this tactile surface scheme of things. The objects are the surroundings and the objects are the ideas and visa-versa. The space is always the same size despite the dilation and contraction used by curators to focus their own visions. It all takes shape. Croak-croak the cricket cricks on this sticky stinking hot night. Such is an idea in its own 'chosen' inevitability, an insufferable humid claustrophobia that it is no wonder we think of elsewhere at the same time as defining our idea through such 'choices'. The claustrophobia comes from this inevitability, one choice leads to another, and before we know it, no matter how broad our vistas, the road's closed. That's fate. Only indeterminacy avoids this, and only the kind of indeterminacy that is on the level of one's central nervous system, the kind of indeterminacy that Matthew Arnold described as coming with age, to 'feel but half and feebly, what we feel'1 . Clearly, this cannot be the subject of its own curation, but is finally made known to us when pointed out by well-meaning folk.

The shape of objects, shaped by determinate choice and the idea that forms with them, seals the curator's fate. This hints at an interesting shift of power where choice is taken out of our hands as preordained. This shift is acknowledged in Duchamp's claim that the ready-made, 'so to speak, chooses you'2 . It is a state of affairs that leads to hindsight, and its role in curating. Fate is hindsight working in the present. Maybe curating hindsight is a way of pre-empting fate, or at least feeling complicit with it. Patricia Highsmith, initially criticised for writing stories where encounters and relationships (plots) were considered so implausible as to lack fictional credibility, was dealing with the curation of hindsight. Highsmith attempted to deal with the contingent and fateful nature of encounters. Such encounters bring the objects of their own story into sharp relief through hindsight, a hindsight only granted by ending the story and going back over it, even reading it again. What is Highsmith's hindsight is in fact our present. These objects and events are preordained by their very implausibility. If the encounter and subsequent events had been plausible, then the sense of hindsight would not be there in the end, imbuing the objects (ideas) with a terrifying and tangible sense of fate. Highsmith's interest in her novels of actual objects, material stuff, is, according to the National Swiss Library in Bern, who hold the archives of Highsmith's work, well known. They are the focus of inevitability. They are the obsession that form and seal their own fate. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), is positively teeming with things. The protagonist Bruno's green silk tie with hand-painted orange palm trees, monogrammed and recurring as a point of recognition. The Rolleiflex case with the new white scratch, the long cigarette and the pat of butter Bruno plunges it into. Even the boil in the exact centre of his forehead is in stark and queasy focus of inevitability and fate. These are 'sharp fragments' that penetrate, through this focus, the fuzzy, indistinct sense that precede the objects but takes shape in hindsight.

Her novels not only use objects in the present as significant in such hindsight but this interest in objects is underlined, or reflected, by her assigning her protagonists odd obsessions of collecting or breeding. In The Price of Salt* (1952), Carol's young lover, the stage designer Therese, sculpts cats heads and other figurines, as does Kimmei in The Blunderer (1954). In Strangers on a Train and Deep Water (1957) there are breeders of snails and bed bugs; traditional, if not lopsided, acts of object-making mingling with forms of curation. It is this lop-sided, off-kilter element that is implausibly taken further in Highsmith's novels and leads to a sense that the work is both preordained and the subject of being preordained (not necessarily useful in works of fiction where events need to be conventional to be plausible, as opposed to reality) – hindsight before we know it. The lawyer Walter Stackhouse, in The Blunderer, is interested in lopsided relationships, including those between certain murderers and their victims. He develops through this interest a sensitivity and intuition in criminal affairs, allowing him to deduce guilt of a husband in a woman's murder. When his own wife commits suicide (and in the novel, it is this coincidence that borders on the implausible) it is his own peculiar habit of saving newspaper clippings and articles on the subject of murder that make him out to be the murderer in the eyes of the brutal police detective. He descends into a spiral that, in hindsight, is of his own making, pinned to his own 'lopsided' and 'implausible' interests. Such implausibility is even more heightened in A Suspension of Mercy (1965), where the frustrated writer Sydney Bartleby is so unhappy with the relationship he has with his wife that he decides to enact the removal of her body after her imaginary murder. Early one morning he carries a rolled up carpet to the woods and buries it. This imaginary enactment backfires when his wife fails to return after a trip away. The subject is the process of one's own burial in the sense of fate accompanying a determinate but implausible form, imaginary or otherwise. The die is cast from the first page, as it is once one makes the first move towards 'choosing' things. And perhaps if one makes implausible choices under the circumstances, if one actually believes that one's choices are implausible, or rather, that the very idea that one is choosing is itself implausible, then one is left with one's 'chosen' objects at least with a striking sense of their own 'chosenness' removed from the dull context of the plausibility of the curator's own choice3 . One is left at the end of the day, given that choices have to be made, with lopsided relationships and strange enactments that are so implausible as to cast doubt on the whole enterprise and end up leaving one complicit in one's own fate in regard to the context of one's actions.

So where is the choice? Why would Duchamp believe that the ready-made, 'so to speak, chooses you'? And does that 'so to speak' not cast doubt on the fact anyway? Why, on the authority of the choice, would a work have a sense that the curator, so to speak, curates it if the curator himself is subject to the same sense of depressing preordination as that which is chosen, no matter what? Is it not that the curator is no more able to stand apart from his object of choice than the object itself is able to be intelligible outside its own preordained circumstances and contrivances – those of the field within which it happened, the plot we act within. The sense of an object having chosen the curator is only a sense of the preordained and self-referential world that distinguishes choice in the first place – a small world no matter what the concepts that inhabit it and the best will of those who attempt to escape via the curation of the bigger picture. This is the bigger picture we all are attracted to when we are left with shrinking vistas, or facing the fate of our own monogrammed ties, giving a strong sense of hindsight and pernickety, self-incriminating authority.

The plot I have in mind and within which I place my protagonists, protagonists themselves chosen by their implausible objects, is laid out by the Cecil A. Wright Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, Ernest J. Weinrib. In discussing the Law of Torts, Weinrib places our ability to define any object as being a matter of what he terms an immanent rationality. In relation to how we identify something within a specific field, and it is a short step, if not the same step, between 'identifying' and 'choosing' in relation to the act of curation - what you choose as a curator is identifying what you mean by curating and how this in turn relates to intelligibility (i.e. something identified as an act of 'curating' however 'broad' that idea is) - he states that

When we seek the intelligibility of something we want to know what that something is. The search for 'whatness' presupposes that something is a this and not a that, that it has, in other words a determinate content. That content is determinate because it sets the matter apart from other matters, and prevents it falling back into the chaos and indeterminacy that its identification as a something denies. (Ernest Weinrib, 'Legal Formalism: On the Imminent Rationality of the Law', in Yale Law Journal, 97/6, May 1988)

Even chaos and indeterminacy, it appears, are only useful if they are aspects of curation – part of the activity somehow, rather than understood as a medical condition, age (of the type troubling Arnold), or something taking place elsewhere – i.e. doing one's shopping and placing the items one by one in a bag, without any documentation other than a receipt and burying it along with your carpet. And, as we have seen via the example of Sydney Bartleby, even this can be observed by a frail neighbour and inevitably end up sealing one's fate. Weinrib's is an implausible plot, and his strange enactments could prove as incriminating as a collection of press clippings and newspaper articles, given the right circumstance. He produces his own circumstance within which a sense of fate permeates any 'choice' he makes - choices that, despite his best efforts and intentions, seem to lead nowhere beside themselves. The objects within this particular activity instil an equal queasiness as hindsight creeps in. In these circumstances it is not a matter, sadly, of avoiding one's fate by looking elsewhere, or by gaining insight from a vantage point extrinsic to the plot. This is the plot - and it thickens. It is thickening as you choose your next earth-sodden step. And within this thickening all manner of shapes and forms can be adopted, all manner of grand claims can be made and borrowed, but all will be stamped with the dull inevitability of the plot's own propriety imprint and where it is leading you. The sign of what one does as opposed to what one wishes to do. And one thing wished for is to have one's own choices in the shape of one's own idea of the future, particularly when one is in the business of apparent choice. In fact what one is left with is only lopsided and implausible relationships, collections and obsessions. A lopsidedness that defines the degree of one's own awareness of one's activity, and this activity is off-kilter. So the curator, so to speak, curates you through his own inevitable fateful interests. But within that 'so to speak' lies the doubt that is embodied in the object and the activity, doubting its own claim to the future. And it is this object, reminiscent, that has already curated the curator beforehand, so to speak. Or so it seems when the choices are made and receipts are kept.

In 1988, Patricia Highsmith built the house she died in, with the help of Zurich-based architect Tobias Ammann. 'Casa Highsmith', a modernist flat-roofed single storey 'M' shaped construction in the small village of Tegna in the Ticino, Switzerland, 'bore a curious resemblance', according to the Swiss National Library in Bern, 'to the "long, low and flat-roofed" and "shining white" and Y-shaped house she imagined thirty years earlier for the architect Guy Haines [the hapless and fateful victim] in Strangers on the Train (before a second floor was added by new owners after her death)'. She ended up curating herself in the shape of her own architecture; the fiction that, in hindsight, predicted her own house. Her final 'dream home' had all along been 'half felt and feebly' lodged within her own strange enactments designed to be so implausible as to contain the implicit sense of fate and inevitability within any choice.

The exhibition, 'Patricia Highsmith' is currently at the Swiss National Library in Bern, and runs from 10 March - 10 September 2006

© David Mollin 2006

Images with grateful acknowledgements to
Tobias Ammann, arch, SIA BSA/FAS
Autor des Hauses,
ai Mulini
CH - 6653 Verscio
Telefono 091 796 23 29
Fax 091 796 18 01


  1. 'Growing Old' Taken from Matthew Arnold, Selected Poetry. Carcanet Press, 1994

  2. When asked by Francis Roberts to explain how he chooses a ready-made, Duchamp replied 'It chooses you, so to speak'. Roberts, Francis. Interview with Marcel Duchamp. 'I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics.' In Art News 67, no. 8 (December 1968)

  3. Graham Greene noted that in Highsmith's stories 'Actions are sudden and impromptu and the motives so inexplicable that we simply have to accept them on trust' leading us to realise 'how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z'. Graham Greene, forward to Eleven, by Paricia Highsmith, pp. 8-9, Penguin Books, 1972.