Art Seen: International

JUAN A. GAITÁN // CURATOR OF THE 8th BERLIN BIENNALE

In conversation with Vincent Honoré

The 8th Berlin Biennale, curated by Canadian-Columbian writer and curator Juan A. Gaitán and his artistic team, opened on a diluvian day simultaneously in three different venues, two of them (very much) off-centered in West Berlin. Installed throughout the Haus am Waldsee, the Museen Dahlem, and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art – including the Crash Pad, a single artist installation commissioned as an off-shoot of the KW – the exhibition naturally brings together a varied range of international artists – what else do you expect from a biennale? Structured by autonomous works and individual positions, often forming an archipelago of small museum-like solo presentations, the goal of the biennale to “explore the intersection between larger historical narratives and individuals’ lives[1]” is in line with this loose theme.

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García Torres, Installation View, 8th Berlin Biennale, 2014. Curated by Juan A. Gaitán.

The exhibition may have suffered from a problematic relationship with its own contemporaneity, notwithstanding the uncommon venues that host it: a traditional art center, a former villa turned into an art center, and an ethnographic museum. Take for instance a project by Mario Garcia Torres at Museen Dahlem, installed in the lower galleries. The darkened space is faced with a highly traditional museum apparatus: vitrines, and documents in these vitrines. The project, as always with Garcia Torres, is remarkably well researched; it focuses on a little-known figure, Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), a US-born Mexican-naturalized composer who immigrated in 1940. Nancarrow spent most of his time inside his studio. He lived in relative isolation, yet produced a very challenging oeuvre in line with the avant-garde of his time. The story is fascinating, the material is interesting, but one could also wonder and question the nostalgia attached to the project, as well as the fetishism of every single document on view. The objects are fossilized in an attempt to create a museographical essay, which proves to be classical, if not retrograde. This is symptomatic of the biennale itself, where everything is framed, objectified, commodified, and adapted to a bourgeois conception of what a museum is.

In a work by Leonor Antunes at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the large gallery is dedicated to the creation of a new environment: one that recognizes her highly formal vocabulary and use of materials, such as cork, leather, brass ropes, and nets. It is very well balanced and elegant; she proposes a rich range of works inspired by female modernist architects such as Eileen Moray Gray (1878–1976), and Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992). The installation is impressive and the works are resolved, creating a very precise exhibition. Signs of an existing house in Brazil inform the space. Presented in the context of this biennale, however, the installation is somewhat too precious, or illustrative, of a certain exotic touch. Perhaps this is the main issue: the biennale may address globalization, but it misses the opportunity to embrace cosmopolitism.

I met with Gaitán at the KW, a sort of hub for the biennale. On a Wednesday morning, the day after the press preview, we discussed the biennale – our conversation focused on investigating approaches toward how one curates such a large event, and its potential to react to its own context, in terms of contemporary culture and with regard to recent developments in aesthetic debate. But, as we were allocated fifteen minutes, I may need to reduce my ambition.

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Andreas Angelidakis, Installation View, Photo Uwe Walter. 8th Berlin Biennale, Curated by Juan A. Gaitán, 2014.

Vincent Honoré: I guess we should start this conversation by defining a biennale, and what that term means in your view?

Juan A. Gaitán: I know the answer may fall a bit flat, but a biennale is an exhibition that appears every two years. But beyond that, you cannot have every event that is called a Biennale fit into the same category – the Berlin Biennale is incomparable with the Venice Biennale, for instance. They are totally different.

VH: What then is the specificity of the Berlin Biennale?

JA.G: In the case of [this exhibition], it is a much more flexible platform – it is primarily a curatorial project. This separates it from Venice or any other event or Biennale, it has the capacity to redefine what it is, and what form it takes, in each edition.

VH: You were appointed to be the curator in September of 2012. From your original concept to the result, how did the curatorial process evolve? Is the result in any way different from the first proposal?

JA.G: Things changed – but that is also a component of how I curate. That being said, I have never had the capacity to have such an inflexible plan: I have a starting point, throw the starting point out there, and from there things develop, in relationship to the works and in relationship to the spaces, and so on.

VH: Did you have a sense of the structure of the Biennale from the beginning, in its first concepts? Or was it something that developed?

JA.G: From the beginning, it was clear that the exhibition was the most important aspect of the process. It is one exhibition – divided into three parts, which varies of course. It varies for instance in the Crash Pad, which is one special component of the exhibition, a place where all the discursive events happen surrounded by an installation by Greek architect Andreas Angelidakis. There was also a desire to specifically engage with the Museen Dahlem. I immediately knew that I wanted to work with the context of this museum, and started negotiating to see if I could get some space there, and if they were open to the proposal. The third venue came later. It was a private villa that had actually been turned into an art center, and has been one since the 1950s.

Beyond that, came the process – the curatorial framing. So, if you look at the number symbolizing the Biennale, the 8 is a split graphic: when it is (vertically-speaking) in half, it generates two brackets. I used the symbol of those brackets to represent the curatorial framing of the exhibition and the space. Inside are the works. The framing does not interpret the work for the viewer. But within those brackets the viewer is asked to navigate the exhibition and relate to the works on their own. In a very good way.

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Leonor Antunes, Installation View, 8th Berlin Biennale, Curated by Juan A. Gaitán, 2014.

VH: And so in this way, the intent for the works is not to relay or illustrate a theme?

JA.G: No.

VH: So then to come back to the process – which is interesting to discuss further for a biennial happening in a city like Berlin – you found the  spaces you wanted to engage, the museum and the villa, but what about KW? Was it a central obligation of the biennial that you had to do something in this space?

JA.G: No – the office is here. The building is yours if you want it, but there is no obligation.

VH: The three selected spaces have some very specific functions and architecture, as well as histories and past uses. From that, do you think the buildings, their attached layers of history and the past or present function of the buildings informed the selection of the artists? Or was it more complex in terms of the selection of the works and the artists?

JA.G: The selection of the venues, particularly Dahlem, came before the selection of the artists. For me, the question was: how do these buildings frame the three different institutions, or – beyond their statuses as institutions – how do they figure different approaches to the museum? With the KW, of course, you start thinking about what you might want to do with it from the very beginning. In this current moment, when the autonomy of cultural institutions is seriously being undermined by different interests, I thought it was important to use the KW because it is in an art center, and it should have a dignified space in the city. The Haus am Waldsee came later, it is close to the Dahlem, which was important to me in terms of how it relates to the navigation of the visitor. Berlin is a very large city, larger than people think – but also, the biennial has a different scale from what people expect from such an exhibition nowadays. I wanted to point that a biennial does not have to be only grand gestures, but can also have specific and very precise moments.

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Andreas Angelidakis, Study for Crash Pad II, 8th Berlin Biennale, Curated by Juan A. Gaitán, 2014.

VH: Exactly. Concentrated moments, which occur in some specific sections or selections of works. What would you say the main concepts that determined the Biennale are, or the lead motifs that guide viewers through the three venues?

JA.G: One important motif is the notion of the museum or cultural institution itself: what are they now? What are they becoming? And what should they be? This is something that is not necessarily present in all the works, but there are many references to art display, and use of the display as a framework. In many cases the artists chose to keep some of the display cases that were already installed in the museum and to include them in their own installations. Through the work, you start noticing that there is a relationship not only to the museum, but also to the craft of showing cultural objects. Another big theme has been, in the curatorial process mostly, the way that history visits us in the present. How does it appear to us? What moments are being highlighted? There is also an insistence on the individualization of art – in the sense that the artworks are also proposing that we affirm our position as individuals before we are subjects; subject of politics, or subjects of history – and then from there, a proposal to understand our relationship to politics and history, not only in the broader sense of society but also in the affective and most empirical sense.

VH: Would you say this biennale speaks to individuals, or collectivity to the masses, as other big exhibitions tend to do?

JA.G: The biennale is meant to propose that we start looking at our political and historical position from the point of view of the individual. And perhaps this is the answer to the very aggressive invention of traditions currently taking place around the world in the last decade. These are based on certain ideas, religious ideas – or ethnic ideas. There is this sense that we have to belong to an idea and protect it, and it becomes our mission to protect that collective idea. I think the museum is an important point of analysis and critique today. It is not my suggestion that the museum is going to cease to exist, not any time soon perhaps. But we need to understand what its function is. And we need to understand what things appear within the museum according to our logic, and according to our specific consciousness. So in Dahlem, the Ethnographic Museum for example, you still have installations that were done in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and the 90’s – you have an anthology of display. And then there is the contemporary art. I hope that when people go through the exhibition, they become aware of not only these current objects, but how we display them, how we put them there. How we encounter them in space.

VH: Is this why you decided to ask many of the artists to produce new works, so that they would more consciously have a dialogue with their context?

JA.G: Yes, I did ask for new productions in most cases. And I wanted it to be so, because I wanted people to get the sense being there with their most current thinking. And with this, we get a more fully committed series of gestures directed at the present, and not merely an anthology of great works.

VH: The paradox to use contemporary art works together with historical displays in classical museums is very interesting, it created this sort of tension, enlightened by the fact we are looking with contemporary eyes.

JA.G: Absolutely


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The 8th Berlin Biennale runs through August 3, 2014.

Vincent Honoré is an independent curator and writer based in Paris and London. He was a curator at Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2001–2004) and at Tate Modern in London (2004–2007). He is, since 2008, the director and curator of the David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF) in London. He is a frequent contributor to Mousse Magazine and Cura Magazine and had been commissioned a number of texts for catalogues and magazines.


[1] http://www.berlinbiennale.de/files/pdfs/259/presskit-8berlinbiennale-komplett-e.pdf

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