53rd Venice Biennale
frieze talks to Daniel Birnbaum about curating the Turin Triennial and his role as Director of the 53rd Venice Biennale which opens this summer
SAM THORNE In your introductory essay to the Turin Triennial, ‘50 Moons of Saturn’, you describe the exhibition’s themes as ‘transformation, digestion, defiance’. Could you describe the background to the show?
DANIEL BIRNBAUM A starting-point was a book I wrote with Anders Olsson in 1992, As a Weasel Sucks Eggs: An Essay on Melancholy and Cannibalism (published in English in 2008). It’s more about literature than art: Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Sigmund Freud. The 1998 São Paulo Biennial was called ‘Cannibals All’. Paulo Herkenhoff invited me to contribute an essay for the catalogue to do with reading as eating; hermeneutics as a kind of oral discipline [laughs].
The idea of the melancholic as someone not only passive and depressed but also creative is the basis for the Renaissance idea of the genius – the dialectic between darkness and light, destruction and creation. But it’s not easy to do a show of contemporary art around such notions. In 2005, Jean Clair curated a huge show at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, titled ‘Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West’, which was interesting up to Max Ernst but less convincing with more recent work. My idea for ‘50 Moons of Saturn’ developed through conversations with Wolfgang Tillmans. He asked me to write a short essay about his abstract photographs for his exhibition ‘Lighter’, at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.
ST In that essay you suggest that the abstract has really always been present in his photographs.
DB Yes, although perhaps it’s not clear in that the essay that this idea is the basis for the Turin Triennial. Wolfgang also teaches in Frankfurt, and we talk a lot. I think his chemical works – or alchemical, as he calls them – are concerned with a curiosity about the cosmos. So the idea of doing a show about melancholic imagery but also atmospheres and ambiences came out of that. I wanted to include younger artists and two major new productions by Olafur Eliasson – who is key to this idea of testing the limits of human perception – and Paul Chan.
ST You talk about the ‘ambivalent state’ of the melancholic, which is both depressed and productive. How in tune do you think this show is with the current political situation?
DB I’m happy that Barack Obama’s election made the transformative notion of melancholia feel more believable. When Arto Lindsay played at the opening of the Turin Triennial, he said: ‘I’m so happy to play at the opening of a show about melancholia on the least melancholy day of the last decade!’
ST When did you start working on the show?
DB I was invited around a year ago; we started to talk about themes in early spring. By the time I was invited to Venice, the ‘50 Moons of Saturn’ theme for Turin was already conceived and the artists already invited, so there is no link between the shows.
ST But presumably working with three Italian institutions and 50 artists is all good preparation for Venice?
DB Yes! There are around 12 Italian artists in the Triennial, and I’ve visited lots of studios in Milan and Turin.
ST How much has the 2007 Venice Biennale influenced your decisions?
DB Not much, although I was involved with the 2003 Biennale so I’m not naive when it comes to the problems. But with the current financial situation, it’s more difficult than ever; a problem I share with museum directors around the world.
ST What did you learn from your experience of co-curating the Italian Pavilion in 2003?
DB I was involved in installing the show, not the organizational logistics, so I know the Pavilion by heart. We’re changing it now. The ambition is to turn it into something that could be open all year, and where seminars and workshops initiated by various nations can be held. We also want to create a library, research centre, a bookshop and a better cafeteria. Most importantly, perhaps, although this will not be done by summer, we want to turn the Biennale’s incredibly interesting archive into a kind of academic institution.
ST Has it ever been open to the public?
DB It has been semi-open, though not easy to access. A dance academy has already been established, and there could be similar projects that are more linked to young artists and production – even an art school.
ST What are your thoughts on national pavilions?
DB The other day we had a meeting with all of the commissioners and some of the curators, and it was like a mix of the Marx brothers and the UN General Assembly! The pavilion system may appear obsolete, but it’s also a perfect platform to challenge notions of cultural and political identity. For example, Liam Gillick – who is, of course, British – is representing Germany; a decision that was well received in the German press. On one level it’s easy to criticize the Biennale’s structure of national representation, but from a more pragmatic point of view it works. People want to see how their country is represented. More and more nations want to participate: in 2009 it will be 90 nations; in 2007 it was 76, so it’s growing.
ST It now includes, among others, Andorra, Pakistan, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. It seems to me that the model is perhaps more important for the less commonly represented countries: for example, the popularity of the Romanian Pavilion in 2007.
DB That is probably true, but these initiatives come from the outside, never from the Biennale itself. It is my task to arrange a large international exhibition to which I invite artists, not nations. But one could see Venice as a kind of structure in which to discuss such things.
ST How does the budget for the Venice Biennale compare to those of other big shows you’ve worked on?
DB In Turin the budget was fixed before the financial crisis, so we were lucky. Venice will be much more difficult; our financial means are very limited, and we rely on support from third parties.
ST How many biennials and triennials have you curated now?
DB The first festival I was involved in was ‘Momentum’ in Moss, Norway, in 1998. I then curated a section of the 2003 Venice Biennale and co-curated the first Moscow Biennale in 2005 and the Yokohama Triennial in 2008.
ST How do you see Venice’s role differing from these other festivals?
DB If you include the 90 nations and the 40 or 50 ‘collateral events’, it’s a more complex operation than any other, but the international show at the Italian Pavilion is not so big. There is another kind of excitement in Venice: every artist we ask to be in it says yes!
ST Now that the São Paulo Biennial has scrapped the model of national pavilions, are there any other comparable structures to that of Venice?
DB I really don’t know. I’m not sure what Abu Dhabi is planning for its forthcoming biennial.
ST What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the African Pavilion in 2007 – in particular, on the use of a private collection and attempting to represent an entire continent?
DB There was a lot of debate about this. I will be working with artists from African nations, as well as elsewhere, but I will not call certain sections ‘pavilions’ – it will be a single articulated exhibition, for which I’m responsible.
ST Two conservative critics have been nominated to curate the Italian section in the back of the Arsenale: Luca Beatrice of Libero and Beatrice Buscaroli of Sivio Berlusconi’s Il Giornale. They have announced they will not show any Arte Povera artists, as they are ‘alien to our art history’. Do these appointments have your support?
DB I have nothing to do with the selection of the curators of the national pavilions.
ST What will the theme of the 2009 Venice Biennale be?
DB Our starting-point was a book by Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (1978). The idea is that every work of art contains a world of its own. We couldn’t translate the title literally, so we’re calling the show ‘Fare Mondi: Making Worlds’. If, say, a language-based work by Chinese conceptual artist Xu Tan can be a way of making a world then so can a huge installation by a visionary architect like Yona Friedman. We’re going to create a show that is closer to the site of production and creation – the studio. While it won’t be some big relational aesthetics thing – that is, not just an art school or a studio – there may be some works that will be displayed still in production. There will also be a painterly theme through the exhibition. I’m thinking about the Russian avant-garde in which there were visions of how society is constructed alongside art: for example little Kazimir Malevich paintings or an Alexander Rodchenko perhaps, as a way of making a world. I mentioned that we will build some installations on-site, and some of them will be collectively produced.
ST Going how far back?
DB To the 1960s or ’70s, a few anchoring points; but these are complicated, so I shouldn’t talk about them yet. Venice has an enormous attraction for artists, but it’s not always so easy to borrow work from collections.
ST Will the painterly theme you mention be a reaction against the number of video and installations in previous Biennales?
DB I don’t react to previous Biennales. The only book I have written that has really gained any serious attention, Chronology (2005), is a book about video art, so there’s no reason I wouldn’t take the medium seriously.
ST And will there be any crossover with the artists included in Turin?
DB A few, yes. But that’s more of a coincidence; one can’t totally reinvent one’s interests. The Venice Biennale will also be informed by the atmosphere of the Frankfurt Städelschule and Portikus, which I have directed for ten years now. The proximity of education, production and display has made it an ideal location for a number of collective exhibitions instigated both by teachers and visiting artists: from the renderings by students of Yoko Ono’s ‘Instruction Paintings’ (1961–ongoing) to a colourful parade organized by Arto Lindsay, from Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe and art historian Pamela M. Lee’s installation of a Gordon Matta-Clark show inside a house built from a few hundred large loaves of bread baked by students (In the Belly of the Architect, 2004) to John Bock’s collision of disciplines.
A school is a school, but it can also be an unusually energetic production site of art that finds new forms of visibility and new forms of display. If a little bit of that atmosphere could be injected into the Venice Biennale, I think it would make a difference. In 2002, we did ‘Gasthof’ at the Städelschule, which was key, I think, to that development. The genealogy of that runs all the way through to ‘Utopia Station’ (curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija for the 2003 Venice Biennale). We can’t turn the whole Venice Biennale into the Gasthof, but it would be nice if we had both the Gasthof and a painterly show.
ST Is ‘Utopia Station’ the kind of structure you’re still thinking about?
DB Not for the whole exhibition, but I did appreciate ‘Utopia Station’ then. There have been a few editions of the Venice Biennale in which a new generation of artists became visible. For example, the 1993 Biennale included Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney and Rirkrit Tirivanija. Harald Szeemann, certainly, opened up the whole structure of what an exhibition is. And I would say that of Francesco Bonami’s 2003 show too; it questioned the very form of a biennale. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I know mine will be an idea with a few themes – contrapuntal, like a fugue.
ST So a Bach fugue is what we should be looking forward to?
Sam Thorne is the editor of frieze.com.
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