Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

The Libe Slope Wild Garden on 09/12/2022.

March 2, 2023

Conversation with a Curator: The Cornell Arts Biennial

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Futurity — an alluring and daunting prospect — requires us to orient ourselves toward the unexpected and brace for new events, experiences and sensations. It was an exciting year in art, and, importantly, art at Cornell was no exception. Among the most memorable shows was the 2022 Cornell Arts Biennial, a selection of installations and exhibitions featuring wide-ranging artistic mediums and a number of artists and collectives. The works powerfully reflected on eras current and future, transforming futurity into art with a spirit of collaboration and optimism.

Professor Timothy Murray, Department of Comparative Literature and Literatures in English and Director of the Cornell Council for the Arts, was the curator of the 2022 Cornell Arts Biennial. He had previously worked on two biennials, making the most recent one his third. I had the pleasure of conversing with Murray on the biennial and his role within it.

His understanding of the contemporary art world informed his selection of the art used to illustrate the biennial’s theme: Futurities, Uncertain. Amid the changes of the past year, with a global pandemic and other crises, Murray described the importance of the biennial as a reflection of global pressure points coming together. The biennial, he said, was a way to “ask artists to help us think about how we can think about futurity differently in the face of these big social issues.”

Many installations and displays filled and elevated spaces across campus. The works integrated diverse disciplines of social justice, ecology, health science and recent developments in visual arts. Murray expressed admiration for all of the artists and collectives he worked with.

“Extraordinarily beautiful and really interesting…it’s quite stunning,” he said, when discussing the native plantings of Matt Dallos’ “Libe Slope Wild Garden.” Later, we conversed on a unique performance art piece, “Black is Blue” by Oupa Sibeko, which involved a three-day performance at the Johnson Museum where Sibeko lay completely still across two chairs in the middle of his installation for five hours at a time. For Murray, I got the sense that he possessed a distinctive understanding and appreciation for each artist and project. 

Notably, the biennial overcame several challenges. Pieces faced longer-than-typical gestation periods alongside the complicated nature of public art projects. Murray explained, “Not only do the artists have to design for a space, but the space has to be approved internally, it has to be the right configuration.” An example he provided was Jennifer Birkeland and Jonathan Scelsa’s “Cornell Sage Knoll,” which was initially scheduled for the 2020 biennial at a different location. When the pandemic disrupted those plans, Birkeland “completely retooled her piece and her concept; [they] found a new location, and were able to put that up.”  

Murray also played a pivotal role in the expansion of the recent biennial. This was the first biennial to feature an exhibit at Cherry Arts and the first to collaborate on NFT artworks with Cornell Tech to have artwork in both New York City and Ithaca.

The existence of art exhibits — the transition from one to the next — can feel evanescent, when in fact the interplay of individuals, ideas and artistry leave lasting impressions. The past biennial and Murray’s role as a curator was an example of intelligent collaboration and execution, with impacts on our community that will extend well into the future.   

Anna Ying is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].