in Interviews | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Show and tell

An interview with Jens Hoffmann about his recent appointment as Director of Exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London

in Interviews | 05 MAY 04

Born in Costa Rica in 1972, Jens Hoffmann was educated in New York, Berlin and Amsterdam, where he studied Stage Directing, Drama Theory and Arts Administration. He has written and lectured on contemporary art and organized exhibitions since 1998. Hoffmann has curated a number of international shows in cities including Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Stockholm and Barcelona, the titles of which indicate a particular curatorial agenda: 'The Show Must Go On', 'A Show That Will Show That a Show is Not Only a Show', 'Invited to Invite', 'When the Periphery Becomes Centre', 'Exhibitions of an Exhibition' and 'The Exhibition as a Work of Art'. Hoffman's 'untidy cast of mind' and 'cosmopolitan loyalty' are endorsed by the ICA's Director, Philip Dodd, as being perfectly in tune with the ICA's impatience with 'disciplinary purity' and its 'cosmopolitan imagination'.

Hoffmann has worked with and written about a range of artists, including Marepe, Trisha Donnelly, Tino Sehgal, Maurizio Cattelan, Carsten Höller, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, John Baldessari and Martha Rosler. Most recently he curated 'SPECTACULAR: The Art of Action' for the Museum Kunst-Palast Dusseldorf; 'Institution2 Art Institutions: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Working with Contemporary Art' for KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki; and the e-flux online project, conference and book 'The Next Documenta Should Be Curated By An Artist' (

Polly Staple: You've often focused on institutional structures, the role of curating and exhibition strategy in your work. How does it feel now you find yourself Director of Exhibitions at the ICA?

Jens Hoffmann: I have been putting shows together independently for the last seven years. One of the first shows I did in 1998, however, was already critical in regards to the institution that I was working for - the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

PS: What were you doing there?

JH: I was Assistant Curator. I joined when they were putting on the motor-cycle exhibition. I was young and really keen, but the SoHo branch, which was used for the more contemporary exhibitions, was closed, so no art was being shown in one of the supposedly most prestigious art institutions in the world. So I put on a show in my office, called 'The Show Must Go On'.

PS: What did it consist of?

JH: Art for an office environment. The piece that worked best was by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. She had made over 50 visiting cards with different names. She sent them to me, I stapled them into my Rolodex and put the Rolodex on the desk.

PS: Did you announce that this was a show?

JH: No. But the museum found out and subsequently I left. Although they laughed about it, it was, 'you've crossed the line and we're really sorry, but you can't do that'.

PS: Had you curated any other shows at that time?

JH: I had done three, but the office show was a really important one in terms of my relationship to institutions.

PS: What followed after the Guggenheim?

JH: Years of independent curating. The best way to acquire the skills I needed was by putting on shows and working with artists.

PS: What do you think those skills are?

JH: It's important for every curator to find out why he or she wants to use an exhibition to say something about a certain topic. In my case those topics stem from a desire to understand what the potential of an exhibition might be.

PS: What was your last project before your appointment to the ICA?

JH: 'Institution2' at KIASMA in Helsinki. I invited ten innovative European art institutions with a particular focus on the Nordic countries to give presentations about what they were doing. I focused on Europe because what is happening in this field is specific to its institutions.

PS: Such as what?

JH: Up to the 1960s a curator was generally a custodian of a museum collection or an administrative organizer. Since then, from Harald Szeemann to Hans Ulrich Obrist, various curators have attempted to emancipate themselves from this anonymous position and become a kind of author. Now even the most conservative art institutions have accepted this role. But more recently this focus on the curator has reached a peak, and it totally backfired at the last Venice Biennale. Meanwhile there's a whole generation of independent curators who have moved into institutions, and they are bringing in skills that they've gathered from being independent, which may allow institutions to be more flexible.

PS: Did 'Institution2' answer some of your questions?

JH: Well, it was a can of worms. The issues in relation to funding and economies were largely unanswered, as were those about the relation of institutions to the realities of the cities where they are located. Catherine David from the With De Witte in Rotterdam described the presentation by institutions as 'metadispositive'.

PS: What does that mean?

JH: If the dispositive is a framework within which you present a certain situation, then the institution is a form of dispositive. So the 'meta' is taking the model of the institution and creating a form out of that. So each of the institutions was asked to reflect their model, but not by showing documentation of previous shows or projects. For example, Platform Garanti, from Istanbul, recorded the sounds inside and outside their institution, took the recordings to Finland and installed loudspeakers, so that on the streets of Helsinki you could hear the street sounds of Istanbul and inside KIASMA you could hear the sounds of Platform. Foksal Gallery Foundation from Warsaw invited Pawel Althamer to participate. He built a bonfire in front of KIASMA and invited homeless people to the opening to drink beer with him.

PS: It's interesting that the last exhibition you did before coming to the ICA was about institutions. On the one hand it's a powerful position, but on the other you've lost a certain amount of freedom in terms of what the institution demands of an exhibition.

JH: It wasn't a coincidence. It was a deliberate decision, after doing almost 20 shows, to come to a place where I can utilize my experiences. I want to bring experimental forms of curating to a wider audience.

PS: Are institutions then always going to be the place where the independent curator eventually settles down?

JH: Not necessarily, I don't think that working for an institution means settling down; it's just a matter of ideology and what you want to do. You can teach to earn money and make independent shows, for example. There are many different models.

PS: The ICA has film, performance and music programmes as well as exhibitions. What do you think about this?

JH: I originally studied theatre directing and the fact that the ICA is a multi-disciplinary institution is part of its attraction for me.

PS: Could you say a little about your forthcoming programme?

JH: 'Artists' Favourites' will be the first show. I'm inviting a group of around 20 quite well-known artists to select their favourite work by another artist. It's a response to the fatigue felt by artists at the development of curating over the past few years and the central role the curator has taken - for instance, theme exhibitions where artists are essentially used to illustrate the curator's plan at the expense of the work itself, and with little real connection to the other artists exhibited. It's also a response of sorts to the proliferation of Top Ten lists, the 'cream' of the art world; for example, why is no one asking the artists who they actually think is interesting to them, who has inspired them and who they have an affinity with. I really want to put the artists in the driving seat.

PS: In many of your shows discussions of curating foreground virtually everything you do. Do you think too much weight is put on these issues?

JH: These investigations have a lot to do with looking at particular periods of art history, specifically applying Conceptual art to the concept of exhibition-making. Michael Asher, Daniel Buren and John Baldessari are my main references.

PS: Do you think that curating exhibitions can be an art form?

JH: When I did the exhibition 'A Show That Will Show That A Show Is Not Only A Show' in Los Angeles, many people said, 'what you are doing here is taking on the role of an artist who uses the medium of an exhibition'. But I think that is an easy argument to dismiss what actually happened there. This is exactly what I'm not doing; if you say that I am an artist doing this, you take out the weight of what this is about - curating.

PS: Do you think curating can be taught?

JH: No. I think curating is partly a very intuitive profession. I would say find a space, find some artists you want to work with, put on a show and get your experience. Possibly a good thing to come out of these courses, though, might be a more sophisticated discourse around curating. But it's a mystery - only two per cent of art school graduates are able really to make a living as an artist, and it's probably similar for curators too. The most interesting curators tend to be self-taught. If you have to put on a show in, say, Rio de Janeiro or Los Angeles or Helsinki, it's a different reality every time. Also, I've always found that, the smaller the budget, the more creative I suddenly become because I have to overcome so many obstacles.

PS: So how will you maintain that kind of energy and sense of freedom when you're at the ICA?

JH: I have always deliberately put obstacles in my way. With 'Artists' Favourites', for example, what if an artist wants to have a Rubens? Would we get Chris Burden to re-do his shooting piece? There's a whole range of questions that suddenly open up.

PS: You have ongoing relationships with several artists: for example, Carsten Höller and John Bock. Will they be having solo shows at the ICA?

JH: There are many reasons I don't want to do solo exhibitions at the ICA, but one of the main ones is that other institutions in London are already doing a good job in that respect, in particular the Serpentine and the Whitechapel. Also the structure of the ICA doesn't lend itself to monographic exhibitions. I'm going to co-curate a show with John Bock, and we will explore ideas central to his work, such as the Grotesque and the Absurd, but without showing actual pieces by Bock. For example, there could be a series of Buster Keaton films or something that relates to his relationship to Viennese Actionism, or his writing or relationship to Dada and Surrealism.

PS: You're assuming quite a sophisticated knowledge of contemporary art on the part of the viewer.

JH: I think about these shows in the same way I think about The Simpsons: intelligent shows with mass appeal.

PS: Could you talk about your show 'Around the World in 80 Days'?

JH: It's based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name. The Reform Club, where Phileas Fogg starts his journey, is next door to the ICA. I've been thinking about London and how to make a show about the realities and history of this city. I am inviting artists who live in London but who come from a country Fogg travels through to respond to the novel. So it's a discussion of globalization and London's post-colonial situation.

PS: You're from Costa Rica?

JH: Yes, but I have lived in New York, Rio de Janeiro. Brussels, Berlin and LA. I haven't spent much time in London; I didn't have any affection for what was happening here in the 1990s with young British artists, although I was happy to work with people like Jonathan Monk, Douglas Gordon and Liam Gillick.

PS: The ones who left the UK! What do you think of the current image of the ICA?

JH: Being so multi-disciplinary and with its amazing history, the ICA has a strong identity, which I'm going to draw on in every way I can. But London has been very insular. I think my appointment reflects the ICA's desire to move away from that. The nice thing about the ICA is that people expect it to be experimental, so there's no pressure to go mainstream.

PS: You were once asked, as part of a Palais de Tokyo survey, what you expected from an art institution in the 21st century? I'd like to pose the same question.

JH: What did I say before?

PS: A revolution.

JH: Seth Sieglaub once said 'art has to change what we expect from it'. I would rephrase that to 'an institution has to change what one expects from it'.