Liminality — Toward Concrete Space

by Edward J. Sullivan
Deputy Director; Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art
The Institute of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Sciences, New York University

The term ‘liminality’ defines the overall content of this year’s Curatorial Collective project in which undergraduate students from the Steinhardt Art and Art Professions Department work with a small group of curators from the Institute of Fine Arts. These younger and older colleagues seek to fashion, over the course of the spring 2020 semester, a series of exhibitions that explore spaces of transition, states of uncertainty and strivings to become. Such a definition is, of course, both theoretical and vague. Nonetheless, ‘liminality’ is an apt term because of the transitional nature of the artists themselves (they are soon to shift their activities from those of students to practicing artists within a ‘real’ world setting). It is also an appropriate descriptor of the general sense of dis-ease in the political world today (I use “political” in its broadest possible definition) manifesting as a syndromic state of anxiety, disturbance, and displacement. This malaise creates a pervasive apprehension to which both artist and curator must, by necessity, respond.

‘Liminality’ is used as a key phrase in several disciplines, most notably psychology and anthropology. Deriving from the Latin word limen (meaning ‘threshold’ or ‘door’), it may well be employed to describe the work of artists whose energies and aesthetic imaginations are in every way influenced by the pervasiveness of a societal disorder caused by dislocation. The word ‘liminality’ may also serve to evoke notions of exile, wandering, leaving for unknown places or delving into realms (of thought, affect or psychological state) that are still murky and inchoate. This is precisely the area of both the brain and the imagination that artists who are starting their mature careers must use as a point of departure. All of the manifestations of artistic originality that we see within the panorama of the exhibitions produced under the rubric of the Curatorial Collaborative serve as testimonies to longing and struggle with the unknown. They are also, inevitably, indicators of the inexorable battle of wills that take place within the creative process where artists and curators strive to arrive at a détente about the best procedures to take in order to show their mutual labor to best and most productive advantage. 

Do not expect to see in these exhibitions conventional imagery, traditional forms or anything dictated by custom. Art derived within the struggles that define ‘liminality’ is, by its very nature, contested and fought over. These exhibitions represent synergistic comings-together of individuals with varying agendas but, at the same time, manifesting goals that collectively constitute a desire to transgress boundaries and create territories that can be defined as their own. Curator and artist function as a complementary unit, fashioning a product that speaks to present and future spaces, ideas, psychological places and desires.