Tate Liverpool celebrates its 30th birthday next year. And, as an organisation always keen to push the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable in the art world, it is handing over curatorial control for one pivotal exhibition.
Ken Simons is one of very few people at Tate allowed to touch the art. For the past 43 years, he has worked as an art handler, installing works in galleries and taking them down after exhibitions.
Next year, just before he retires, Simons will curate his own exhibition, Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen. While curators and art historians have academic knowledge of the pieces they choose for display, Simons has a different, yet just as in-depth, understanding of the artworks. Over the years (including the time he has been at Tate Liverpool since the gallery opened in 1988) he has worked directly with countless artists, collaborating with them on display options and using his technical knowledge to care for the pieces as they move through the building. It’s this proximity to art that gives him an alternative perspective.
In the packing room at Tate Liverpool, Simons explains how back in 1993 he had to remove some of the windows to get Antony Gormley’s lead-covered glider into the gallery. And he reveals that assembling Phillip King’s sculptures of wood and metal was a logistical challenge – the artwork came as a kit, rather than as one piece. As such, it has to be reassembled each time it’s displayed.
Simons has seen a lot of art. One of his favourite pieces in the upcoming exhibition is Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (originally exhibited in 1842). He explains how this relates to the theme he’s chosen for the exhibition: exploring the unseen.
“It’s about that experience of exploring something you can’t quite grasp, can’t quite see. That unknown space that might surround something or be unseen. It is through this hands-on interaction and curating this show that I learnt and understood much more about artists’ exploration of space.”
The pieces he’s selected for display have a mysterious quality about them, inviting us to look again, to peer into the spaces in and around art works, to explore not only what we can see but what we cannot.
Artists represented include some big names from art history and there are no limitations on what Simons has been allowed to choose from the collection. Modern giants like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Rachel Whiteread, Howard Hodgkin and Richard Long feature alongside René Magritte, Piet Mondrian, Paul Nash and, of course, Turner.
Simons’ voice will be present in the exhibition. He is involved in writing the labels and a number of digital elements to the interpretation may also be included.
Since 1988, some 15 million people have passed through the doors of Tate Liverpool to view the works installed by Simons. Northern Soul spoke with artistic director Francesco Manacorda about the decision to mark Tate’s 30th anniversary in the city with an exhibition by one of its art handling staff.
“It’s a different way of telling a history or a story. It says that a museum, and its mission, is not just delivered by its curators, but by a large number of people who work behind the scenes. These people have a knowledge and understanding of art that is valuable. Bringing it to the public, especially in Liverpool, encourages visitors to understand that knowledge and that love of art can be developed as a journey.
“It’s not necessarily that one needs to know all the art history or do a course. You can develop a relationship with the objects that’s very personal. And that’s what I’m hoping we will demonstrate with Ken’s voice coming out.”
For some years now, museums and galleries have been experimenting with co-curation – inviting people who aren’t curators to join in the curatorial process.
“Historically, Liverpool has always been into this kind of experimentation,” says Manacorda. “We asked the community collective to write up the audio guide for Tracey Emin’s bed. The public ask questions that aren’t the normal art-historical questions, but are questions like, ‘why is this art?’. I like the idea of allowing the tone voice to be more familiar with the people who experience the pieces, and encourages people to formulate their own judgements.”
Manacorda is proud of Tate’s record in Liverpool and the sense of “having embedded into this city, and into the North West, the ownership of this collection. Not just the ownership in legal terms, but in terms of emotional ownership of art.”
Tate Liverpool’s outstanding visitor numbers are testament to this statement. In a typical year, they are between 600,000 and 650,000.
“I think that’s the great achievement of this institution being in Liverpool,” says Manacorda. “Having built a bridge between the arts, the artists and the public. And that bridge is very solid.”
He is also keen to carry on involving more members of the public in being a part of Tate.
“Maria Balshaw, our new director, has talked about the idea of being culturally adventurous but also absolutely accessible to everyone. And combining these two elements successfully is a big challenge, but that’s the great adventure and the core of the mission of this institution.”
Viewing a display curated by a person humanises the art on view, allowing visitors a personalised avenue into the pieces, the exhibition and the institution. Ken’s Show will help to continue building bridges between Tate and audiences in Liverpool and beyond.
Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen will run from April 2 to June 17, 2018 at Tate Liverpool. For more information, visit the website.