Postsensual Aesthetics: On the Logic of the Curatorial | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Postsensual Aesthetics: On the Logic of the Curatorial

Postsensual Aesthetics: On the Logic of the Curatorial
James Voorhies

The MIT Press, 2023
176 pp., b/w.
ISBN: 9780262047609

April 2024

Reviewed by Hu Yue

This book was written in 2019 and published in 2023, a period during which the whole world experienced the outbreak of Covid-19 and convalescence from the aftermath. Under these milieus, people tend to consider other possibilities for life. In exhibition and curatorial practice, a crucial challenge is “how can people engage and communicate with each other beyond the physical public arena” (Voorhies, 2023, p. 20). Prompted by this, the author James Voorhies coins the term “postsensual aesthetics”, mainly taking dOCUMENTA (13), documenta 11, and the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (CCU) as examples to demonstrate the definition (2023). Postsensual Aesthetics has four main chapters in addition a Prelude and Interlude which give background and space to breathe between each chapter. The integral discussion is based on case studies from the early 21st century until now, with a particular focus on the period 2002 to 2018. Exhibitions, educational programmes, residency, and other activities associated with curatorial research and practice are included. Theodor W. Adorno’s theory of “constellation”, “mediation” and “exact imagination” underpins the entire book (Voorhies, 2023). 

The Prelude gives a brief introduction and sets the intention of the book- Postsensual Aesthetics reconsiders aesthetic forms to establish a theoretical basis for investigating how knowledge is generated by artists, curators, and audiences in contemporary art exhibitions. Here, “curatorial” puts more emphasis on the presentation of the concept or research outcome even progress than a showcase, and “aesthetics” indicates more than charming artwork or a decent space for showing off. The methodology and progress of curating are aligned with the progress of knowledge production. Adorno and his theories are throughout the chapters, however, specific viewpoints could be highlighted for dissection in the Prelude, which would help the audience to construe the orientation at the very beginning. For example, the section “Reading through Adorno” explains the purpose of referencing him and then diverts to the pandemic and its outcome while his academic opinions are not mentioned in detail until Interlude (page 63). The explanations from the ending Notes, for example, Immanuel Kant’s “aesthetical art” and Adorno’s aesthetic theory, the origin of “exact imagination” could be brought to previous chapters. 

Section 2 and 3 analyses dOCUMENTA (13) directed by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and documenta 11 directed by Okwui Enwezor in depth. Voorhies reflects on the relationship between the audience and curators and the artistic/curatorial practice as a research methodology for knowledge production. Voorhies asserts that a well-received exhibition does not necessarily provide a tidy conclusion to dictate to audiences what to think (2023). Curators offer contexts and tools to piece together knowledge using whatever means relevant (ibid). This is the way to reorganise existing knowledge to produce new knowledge. This section also raises the question for this reader of how to provide adequate information without forcing the audience into a deliberated conclusion. 

Voorhies acknowledges that the “most salient component” of the exhibition is the audience- the experiencing subject who gains aesthetic experience from exhibitions. The role of curators and artists- the concept and content producers are not exaggerated. There is no exhibition without the motion of the audience. He equates “followers” to social media users who consume “bits and bites” of culture. They gather and interpret content from mediated sources, constructing personal narratives about people, events, or issues without awareness of the full context. Contemporary art and exhibitions thus reflect how fragments of information are consumed and converted into knowledge (Voorhies, 2023). Just as when using social media, they can arrange the pieces in ways that potentially transform complex ideas and theories into a personal interpretation of the work before them. For me, the curator’s task is to make single pieces of art digestible and permeable to (hopefully) expect smaller ornithology pellets from the audience. 

As the audience flows through the exhibition route (while some of them don’t follow the guidance), they physically meander in the space, creating a flowing motion, while their thoughts are also fluid among the theme, contents, and subjectivities. Beyond the solid frames and massive high-tech digital installations, the concept is touchable and approachable. The body ‘flows’, and so does the mind simultaneously. The audience’s engagement also fulfils the exhibition. The author makes a convincing case for withholding a definite conclusion to an exhibition, this allows the threads of thoughts to contribute to the curatorial and artistic practice and helps them to approach the “termination” boundlessly. From this reader’s perspective, it’s always good to be entitled to the freedom to piece together the whole story. For each step they take, the audience gains the momentum to draw their conclusion, including the content, design, and even the safety guard who always stands in front of the masterpieces and appears in hundreds of photos on social media. In a word, the exhibition is to see, not to know. 

In her book Photography, Curation, Criticism, Liz Wells also considers exhibitions in a “theatre form” and comes to a similar conclusion (Wells, 2024, p. 35). She states that the audience’s experiences of exhibitions are accumulated, interact to invoke responses, and generate questions that transcend the import of single images or series (Wells, 2024). The audience is encouraged to freely navigate spaces in any direction at their own pace, particularly post-Covid-19, highlighting the importance of unrestricted movement. This also resonates with the work of curator Paulo Venancio Filho who prioritises immersive engagement with the physical space, emphasising a profound connection that precedes the final installation. He listens to both the artwork and the environment, fostering a total commitment to the space through “mentalisation which facilitates a comprehensive absorption of the artwork” (George, 2017, p. 169). 

documenta 11 witnesses the explosion of artworks. Voorhies elaborates on its complexity via scrupulous observation - from initiating the inclusiveness to the institutional legacy. However,  more than 600 hours of video display could be overwhelming, let alone their contexts, no matter how fascinating the ideas are. It is more an eye-catching product than knowledge production. In her essay on information overload, Claire Bishop comments, “We have felt the difficulty of seeing ever-larger exhibitions since the biennial boom of the ’90s” (2023), which indicates the indigestion of the broad context and information. In addition to prodigious exhibitions, the inclination of artistic research gives birth to abundant practice-based research showcases in the contemporary debate thanks to academic and financial support from universities and organisations as well as public consensus. The Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (CCU) in this book is one of the paradigms in terms of research and knowledge production. The proliferation of works and research legacy concerns the abruption of artworks and appeals to radical solutions. 

Building from this, Voorhies and Bishop resonate with each other on ideas of “Expanding beyond” or “boundaryless”. Voorhies pushes against the contours of the exhibition to stretch and expand them, showing us how the exhibition as a thing can be more than a presentation of material objects in physical space. The curating of context, concept, history, archive, etc., allows a “dialogue with place and time” (2023, p101). Thus, exhibitions are the central force for staging artistic experiences where ideas and knowledge emerge from context. Bishop also argues that artistic research should transcend conventional academic boundaries, integrating personal narratives and challenging the notion of ‘truth’ via fabulation and imagination (2023). Then research outcomes should be presented in aesthetically pleasant forms rather than mere information conveyance. Till now, this book review also mentions “beyond boundary” many times, which triggers this reader wondering where exactly the pre-existed boundary is. Is it the disputed standard of aesthetics and ugliness, margins of transdisciplinary subjects, or fragmented knowledge of post-colonialism, environmentalism, or artificial intelligence? Is this boundary set by time span, materials, or creators and audience? The above discussion opens a potential dialogue in further curatorial and artistic research. 

Chapter “Learning to Unlearn” rethinks aesthetic forms and theoretical frameworks for describing and analysing the production of knowledge. By reconsidering what knowledge is and the syntax of research, this chapter unfolds potential ways of knowing and learning then gathering information to ground it in a body of knowledge (Martinez, 2012). Returning to the main topic, I see the exhibitions and curatorial practice as a tool and process for reconstruing knowledge rather than the destination or outcome. Referencing Adorno’s “exact imagination [exakte phantasie]”, the final chapter revisits the theoretical framework on modes of knowledge production to refine postsensual aesthetics (Voorhies, 2023). The cognition of contexts, experience, and knowledge could affect the audience’s engagement with exhibitions and aesthetic experiences. 

In conclusion, this book provides an approach to understanding contemporary artistic and curatorial practices to knowledge production, showcasing diverse aesthetic activities across disciplines within the field. It emphasises the complex nature of curatorial endeavours as performances that challenge conventional understandings. It offers a theoretical lens for analysing artists’ and curators’ contributions to knowledge production in contemporary art exhibitions. Importantly, it prompts critical reflection on the implications of artistic research adopting methodologies from traditional disciplines, urging a deeper examination of the intersection of art and academia. 

Overall,  this book is comprehensive with appropriate examples and discussions. The language of the book is plain and heuristic without pedantic jargon as if a thoughtful storytelling. It offers informative case studies and general knowledge of exhibition curating rather than imparting knowledge and facts to readers. Moreover, it encourages readers to reflect on specific topics, e.g., the relationship between research and presentation, the audience and the curator, the postcolonial constellation originated from documenta 11 and so on. All above illustrates and defines the core concept of “Postsensual Aesthetics” gradually and meticulously. 


Bishop, C. (2023) Information overloadArtforum. Available at: (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

George, A. (2017) The Curator’s Handbook (Translated in Chinese Mandarin). Translated by ESTRAN Group. Beijing, China: BGP Artmedia (Beijing) Co., Ltd. 

Martinez, C. (2012) ‘How a Tadpole Becomes a Frog. Belated Aesthetics, Politics, and Animated Matter: Towards a Theory of Artistic Research’, in dOCUMENTA (13)Katalog 1/3 Das Buch der Bücher. HATJE CANTZ. 

Voorhies, J.T. (2023) Postsensual Aesthetics: On the Logic of the Curatorial. Cambridge (Mass.): The MIT Press. 

Wells, L. (2024) Photography, Curation, Criticism: An anthology. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.