Old trends for modern times: curating an exhibition in your kitchen

In these quieter lockdown times, it's worth looking at exhibitions set within a domestic environment for inspiration.

Questions on where an exhibition should take place have always existed within curatorial initiatives. How can curators support artistic engagements in places that were not traditionally considered to be valid exhibition spaces? Where and how does artistic engagement within the context of the exhibition start? How do context-specific projects and artworks become meaningful outside the signifying context of the exhibition?

From the 1970s onwards, apartments began to be transformed into spaces fit for exhibition-making. This helped expand cultural spaces, creating a visible opposition to the customary atmosphere of a museum.

In 1974, Swiss-born and world-famous Harald Szeemann hosted an exhibition titled “Grandfather – A Pioneer Like Us” in his apartment in Bern. This was, perhaps, his smallest, strangest, and most personal project. Szeemann devoted this exhibition to his grandfather, who had died three years earlier. He created this set-up in two rooms and the hallway of his three-bedroom flat, where the exhibition was semi-publicly accessible. Harald created an environment consisting of furnishings, objects, and mementos from his grandparents’ estate, and the objects were staged in a way that would evoke his grandfather’s presence: “The idea was to impress the visitors with an atmosphere, so that, in a sense, they were waiting for grandfather.” 

Etienne Szeemann was a Hungarian hairdresser whose meandering years took him from the Balkans to Paris and London and, finally, to Bern, where he settled permanently.  At the end of his life, Etienne reflected back on his creations in the field of “hair art”. The exhibition was arranged in accordance with the various stages of his life. 

“Grandfather – A Pioneer Like Us” (1974) by Harald Szeeman

In the same year in Moscow, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, the founders of Sots Art, debuted the famous series in an apartment (this later gave birth to the Sots Art movement). Komar and Melamid are credited with coining the term “Sots Art”. 

Sots Art capitalized on the imagery of Socialist mass culture, much like the Western pop art movement that drew upon the kitschy elements of Western mass culture.

Komar and Melamid, Double self-portrait,1984

In the Autumn of 1982, the APTART exhibition took place in Nikita Alekseev’s apartment. He was an artist and former member of Collective Actions. The exhibition showcased works by young artist collectives new to the scene as well as works by established Moscow-based Conceptual artists. Visitors included both friends as well as members of the public, and Alekseev granted access to the apartment “gallery” during times he was at home. For the two-week run, works hung on every possible surface, filling up each room and creating a cacophonous environment where viewers could interact with the artworks as well as with each other. 

APTART was an attempt to break free from the conventions that had set in among the artists of the Moscow Conceptualist circle throughout the 1970s. It also served as an insight and gave a glimpse of the colourful new style of art that would come to be known as the New-Wave in the 1980s.

APTART exhibition

In 1986, Jan Hoet, Belgium curator and Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, hosted a show called Chambres d’Amis (Rooms of Friends) in a very intimate, non-institutional environment. He commissioned 58 artists to create works for the same number of private apartments and houses around Ghent. The tension between the public display of art and its private setting came to be the theme of the exhibition. The concept confronted artists with a space that was already shaped by the tastes of the homeowners, the architectural style of the house, the street, the square, the patio or the garden. These spaces were brimming with character prior to the artists’ arrival, making it a particularly challenging project for the artists indeed. 

Chambres d’Amis, installation by Daniel Buren, Ghent, 1986

Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s first show was staged in the kitchen of his student flat in St Gallen. 1991’s “World Soup” (The Kitchen Show) served as a forecast to the 300 plus shows that Obrist went on to curate. Aged 23, Obrist treated the exhibition space in a matter-of-fact manner: he didn’t have access to a space in a gallery or a museum, but he did have a kitchen that he never used (except for storing books and papers). Later, Obrist famously said: “The non-utility of my kitchen could be transformed into its utility for art. To do a show there would mix art and life, naturally. The idea took shape very quickly”.

Richard Wentworth, “World Soup” (The Kitchen Show)

Fischli & Weiss, “World Soup” (The Kitchen Show)
Fischli and Weiss installed a sort of everyday altar, using oversized, commercially packaged food from a restaurant supply store. Everything was huget: a five-kilogram bag of noodles, five litres of ketchup, canned vegetables, massive bottles of sauces and condiments.

Clearly, the inspiration to stage exhibitions within a domestic setting has been on the minds of artists and curators for decades. Indeed, even in the last couple of years, members of our very own .ART  team paid a few visits to apartment exhibitions. 

Perhaps you, too, can use this quieter lockdown time to let your work speak out – curating an exhibition in your kitchen might be one way to do so. And, don’t forget that “online viewing rooms” are simply websites. Set up yours with a .ART domain name and identify your presence in the digital art community.

Above: Apartment exhibition, Kotelnicheskaya embankment building. Photos by Oleg Borodin.


Daria Kravchuk
Daria Kravchuk
is a curator and art manager with an MA in Museology from Amsterdam University. Her international projects are focused on the intersection of contemporary art, architecture, urban planning and anthropology. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.