Kasper König and Jean-Hubert Martin, Picturing the Exhibition
In January 2000 art press published a special issue titled “Forget the Exhibition” exploring the various unconventional ways of showing art. Fourteen years later, the classical exhibition format is far from “forgotten.” In fact, there seem to be more conventional exhibitions than ever (950 openings per week around the world, against 540 back in 2000, according to artfacts.net), and the exhibition as event reigns supreme, with the curator-communicator-svengali replacing the old museum conservator. Art has certainly been democratized as a result. But it also suffers from collusion with the entertainment biz, with its readiness to reach for intellectual comfort and industrialize culture. Globalization, simultaneously, is expanding the selection of artists, tipping post-colonialism to the point where the old hierarchies of taste and value not only change but go into reverse. After all this time when it was used to setting the rules, the West is no longer the only prescriber nor the only “supplier” of artists and careers. In 1989, in Paris, Jean- Hubert Martin presented Magiciens de la Terre, an exhibition that would revolutionize approaches to choosing artists. Here, the South met the North, and the holy object met the artwork designed to express immediate meaning or pure form. Last year, in Théâtre du Monde (Maison Rouge, Paris, fall 2013), he reprised this principle by juxtaposing votive objects from Oceania and current artworks. Kasper König, too, has a number of seminal exhibitions to his name, including
Westkunst (1981), Skulptur Projekte in Münster (1987 and 2007). Formerly director of the Ludwig Museum (2000–2012), he has just curated Manifesta 10. Below, the two men discuss their “business” of conceiving exhibitions. And, while they express their viewpoints in measured words, they clearly indicate the limits of both ideological strategies (the group show of new art as a narrative or didactic device) and “artistic curating” (the exhibition as an individual figure of style).
Paul Ardenne This summer the Pompidou Center is revisiting the epoch-making exhibition it put on a quarter of a century ago, which helped reconfigure the art map and redefine its hierarchies. Magiciens de la Terre: retour sur une exposition légendaire (July 2–September 8, 2014) is rich with archives and documents and is being accompanied by a series of lectures and seminars on the same theme at the Center (July 1–10), analyzing the show’s impact. Here, Jean- Hubert Martin, the curator of Magiciens, discusses the future of exhibitions with Kaspar König, curator of the tenth Manifesta, being put on this summer in Saint Petersburg.
Group shows are all very well, but what criteria do you emphasize? Origins, radicalism, exoticism, extravagance, tradition, personal taste? Or all these things at once?
Kasper König To me, a most important issue in selecting artists is avoiding opportunism. But this is often a problem because, when you select, you either include or exclude. Ideally, one should continuously check the selection criteria. And this is a very dialectical process that cannot be separated from the context in which you are working. I personally have a very subjective way of approaching things and my main criteria are to make sure that the work objectifies itself within the exhibition, that it becomes plausible to anybody who is curious, open and wants to find out, and hopefully, that its plausibility goes beyond the inner cycle of the art world. By plausible, I mean that the innovation, the originality, should not render the work obscure. Plausibility is a long way from “name-dropping.” It is not about: “Ha, this is a well-known artist…” The question, rather, should be: “Why should that particular work be known?”
Jean-Hubert Martin For Magiciens de la Terre I applied these selection criteria: originality and invention in relation to the cultural context, the artist’s relation to this milieu, which may involved adhesion or critique, the match between artist and work, the energy and the radicalism of the propositions.
That was twenty-five years ago. The context was different then, wasn’t it?
J-H M Yes, but I still cleave to those criteria, which I think remain valid today. The key is intuition. Let’s not try to deny this reality. Curators are often very discreet about their intuitions because everybody tries to rationalize, to create categories and systems, but in fact intuition is essential. In each exhibition there is an approach. It is very important to define this approach, if only so that you can affirm the objective you are pursuing and the theme you are working on, so as to determine the selection criteria. We must define a line and a frame and, sometimes, exclude certain artists who are close to us in other ways, or who may even be friends. If they do not meet the chosen criteria then, whatever our ties to them, we must forego inviting them, however difficult that may be.
A MACHINE EATING ITSELF
So philia (which some might translate as cronyism) is therefore to be avoided?
KK In 1993 I did an exhibition with Hans Ulrich Obrist on painting, at a time when painting was totally “out.” It was called
The Broken Mirror. There were a good number of artists who wanted to be part of the show. And we tried to make decisions in favor of something and not
against something. The question of inclusion and exclusion is always dealing with a specific situation. You choose a specific artist because he or she is part of the focus. This is the negative aspect of the job. I remember when living in North America I was very involved in conceptual art and minimal art such as Carl Andre’s work. And then the attention shifted to Donald Judd. I remember Judd was celebrated as a minimalist icon producer—a new modern style in Paris initiating a cool boutique design. And it made me feel very uncomfortable. I realized that for about thirty years now being
part or part of a certain lifestyle or certain kinds of aesthetics has been potentially decisive. Sometimes art is ahead, sometimes far behind, and lifestyle takes the path. We are in a machine that is eating itself up, faster and faster.
A good curator will clash with the consensus?
J-H M A few decades ago we were very much part of an art scene strongly marked by conceptual art. We knew that we were working within the dominant tendency of the day. Today, the situation is globalized. We are faced with so many different styles, so many different ways of making art, that everything is more complicated. But this new situation is stimulating. It forces curators to position themselves in relation to a set of very diverse aesthetic canons. We must now think of the past as the root of the present and look at things through a different prism. It’s a really exciting challenge. In fact I’m tempted to say that before now it was too easy!
KK My personal approach is subjective. But then, my job is to objectify my personal curiosity, and make it somehow readable. I think of myself in quite “old fashioned” terms, as an “exhibition maker” rather than a “curator.” I am trying very hard not to be a kind of “alter ego artist” and not just show my own view of the world. I feel it is very important to always relate to the particular, given anthropological situation. And what is important to me is whether it is meaningful, in any particular case, to use the format of an exhibition, of a film, of a book… How does one best convey the relevant content? For me, that process is always somehow linked to an economy of means. I have done a number of books with the purpose of addressing the following issue: instead of making an exhibition, is it meaningful to do it in this other context?
I see that you are uncomfortable with the Szeemannian idea of the curator-artist.
KK I do not define myself a “curator.” I am a defender of the institution. For instance, I really liked being in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris yesterday and seeing an alternative reading of French art, dealing with existentialism— very distinct from the mainstream. One thing that was great with Magiciens de la
Terre was that it was a real exhibition supported by the government for its own reasons, but the exhibition was also independent. So there was a very productive conflict, which meant something.
J-H M In a sense, Kasper and I have had opposing career paths. He came from independent practice and now works in institutions, whereas I started as a conventional art historian, working at the Louvre. There came a moment when I had to decide whether I was interested in Old Master painting or contemporary art. My artistic thinking has been shaped by my contact with collections and institutions and I only gradually became an independent curator and acquired a sense of relativity. For example, when I started working at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 1971, I spent months looking at the collections of paintings from the 1920s and 1930s, collections that no one ever sees. I realized that my colleagues who chose these paintings at the time selected them with conviction and enthusiasm, but that now nobody was interested in them. The feeling of relativity that I mentioned a moment ago has been very important to me ever since that time.
To the degree that a show you curated recently in Paris, Théâtre du Monde, mixes art and non-art. Doesn’t this kind of mixture exclude any kind of aesthetic hierarchy?
J-H M When I organize an exhibition like Théâtre du Monde my aim is to explore and elaborate the question of museums and institutions, to see how it all functions. My deep conviction here is that things have to change. Today, museums too often work from the concept of chronology. This way of doing things is obsolete. Analogical thought must have its place alongside dominant history.
THE ART EXHIBITION AS INDICATOR
KK When Jean-Hubert did Les Magiciens de la Terre it was a very hardcore proposition: what does art mean in different parts of the world, where sometimes the word “art” does not even exist? I was a real fan and a big defender of Les Magiciens. This was an exhibition about ideas, about attitudes, dealing with very complex things like religion. The only misgivings I had were towards Jack Lang’s discourse, always saying “We are against colonialism.” And when there was an aesthetic problem, it was called political and whenever there was a political problem, they called it aesthetic. It was indeed a very official-political show and politicians were trying to use it for their own purposes, while the artists were resisting that. To me the best exhibition ever was an architecture exhibition in 1928 in Stuttgart in Germany that focused on the problem of housing after the First World War, with Le Corbusier and all the modernists. All these great architects had a social idea on how to design living spaces for a family without a man, grandparents, children... Today the exhibition is famous in art history, but totally forgotten by our social history, although its main point was to provide a social i dea, a f orm. But sometimes we mystify certain exhibitions and certain books that very few people experienced at the time.
Manifesta. Nicole Eisenman. « It Is So ». 2014. 165 x 208 cm. (Coll. de l’artiste ; Court. de l’artiste et Koenig & Clinton, New York, galerie B. Weiss, Berlin, et S. Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects ; Ph. J. Berens). Oil on canvas
J-H M Mentally and in our work, we refer frequently to exhibitions that took place twenty or thirty years ago. I am thinking in particular of When attitudes become form, conceived by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1969. In those days, there weren’t that many exhibitions, there were about a dozen curators in Europe and we all knew each other. There were five biennials around the world, as opposed to two hundred today. The aim of exhibitions was very different from what it is now. More critical, without a doubt.
This way of organizing the artistic field derived from an ideological position, but that’s a thing of the past.
J-H M No, it’s not just in the past. As someone who conceived exhibitions, I del i berately position myself within a renovating process. I plan to fight the inertia of institutions, which are so difficult to budge. But things are changing, slowly. From now on we must think about what we can do in a completely different way. Starting with the admission that there is not just one kind of exhibition. For Théâtre du Monde at La Maison Rouge, I tried to create correspondences, associations between works from completely different periods and cultures. The idea was to show that this is how thought works, whereas art history tries to prevent us from working transversally, transculturally and trans-temporally.
Isn’t there a risk of eclecticism, a leveling of values?
J-H M Yes, but there’s always a risk when you are putting on an exhibition, and it’s a risk we have to take! We need to offer a counterweight to the exhibitions that take up an exclusively pedagogical position. I am not against knowledge but we need to make proposals that allow people to see and perceive works without needing to have read a book beforehand. Exhibitions based on sensations, on emotions, trusting each i ndividual’s appreciation and judgment. Today, material culture is more important than big, leading discourse. Let’s leave more room to artists and less scope for glosses and exegesis. Eclecticism is dangerous, it’s true. But today we do have this opportunity to apprehend new perspectives and make our perceptions move on, notably thanks to the increased tendency to look at the past and history and mingle them with contemporary art. A tendency that has gradually gained in prominence.
Is it necessary to be universalist?
KK No. I think there can be no kind of universality without local identity. And
well aware that I’m just a drop of water in this whole gigantic mechanism. When you look at things differently, when you look at a pear as if it were a Brancusi, you realize what a marvel nature is, a real masterpiece. This artistic response is polyphonic. We’re so used to the prodigality of everything around us that we don’t see it any more. For us, it’s just the organization of matter. Westerners have despiritualized the world to singular degree, particularly its most modest components. What we eat is also a source of spiritual nourishment, an enchantment that is given to us. All you need to do to understand that is a slight adjustment to your state of consciousness. And the gas takes advantage of this vortex, this breach in the mechanism of consciousness, to spread everywhere. Can art expand our consciousness?
REAPPROPRIATING THE PRESENT
In any case it can sharpen some of the questions we ask ourselves. Once I experienced something similar to your story about the pear, although less aesthetic. I accidentally stepped on a snail and crushed it, and of course I felt guilty, like a monster. We’re constantly committing little crimes like that. But on the other hand we can’t fall into the willful idealism of saying that we shouldn’t consume anything at all, because we’re living organisms and we have to absorb nourishing substances. We can do it with gratitude in our present incarnation. It’s the very heart of the present, the here and now, that lights our days. That’s our conscious presence in the world. Between blocking out the past, which psychoanalysis pays too much attention to and which we imagine contains our secrets (which is partially true), and the magical thinking of Occidentals who project themselves entirely into the future, the present is completely compressed and hardly exists anymore. That’s what makes us hurt inside and closes off our perceptual field, our reception of the world, and disenchants our daily experiences and our lives. In the end we have to reappropriate the present to get closer to the mystery and magic of this world. The same goes for painting. If we have such a marvelous relationship with paintings and we’ve found them fulfilling for so long, it’s partially because for a few seconds they help us incarnate the present. This ability comes from the way they expand our field of awareness, perceptually, culturally and analytically. You can call on all sorts of tools to try to perceive what you see; if you’re fulfilled, you feel it immediately and it makes you happy. When we’re around artworks, that helps us live in the present moment. Let’s say that you intensify the present moment, you try to augment our perception of it. This series makes us feel temporality very strongly. Each image seems to contain a period of time that seems immense, and at the same time we’re in the moment, as you described it, interacting with the artwork. It’s as if the image were coming from far away, like the light of stars that reaches us after so many years. There is a design, an interlinking of the whole mechanism, not just on the level of the cosmos or infinitely small, cellular life, but of all of nature, which I see as a miracle. We live in a miracle. What was there before the Big Bang? Astrophysicists have explained it very well: there was nothing because time invented the cosmos. The Big Bang involved a quantity of energy so phenomenal that it passes our understanding exactly because simultaneously with the invention of space, the cosmos invented time. The cosmos began with a phenomenal and marvelous chaos. (What a paradoxical idea—the aesthetics of chaos.) How can we even imagine this incredible quantity of matter infused with an irresistible desire to achieve equilibrium and calm?
NO ONE INVENTS ANYTHING
In this series, with this constriction, this concentration we talked about, did you feel like you were leaving this dimension of the “chaosmos” and entering another one yet to be defined? What you say is true, for reasons that in the end have to do with my practice. The adoption of a new artistic strategy, with new tools, means having to think about things differently, in a much more conceptual manner. By conceptual I don’t mean coldly or dryly, just the opposite. I had to rethink everything: the supports, the organic ceramic isolation bar and the almost imperceptible little shadow that makes the subject look like it’s hanging in air. Why would a planet have a shadow? It doesn’t make sense. Planets are always seen against a black background because by definition the cosmic void is the absence of light. This little shadow contributes to the equilibrium of the piece, its suspended feeling, maybe the feeling of time. There are a number of specific recurring elements in this work. I didn’t want to add any superfluous composi-