BY Pablo Larios in News | 24 MAR 20

‘A Whole Generation of Artists Might Be Wiped Out’: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev on Museums, Care and the Covid-19 Crisis

Why it’s not so simple to move art online – and other news from our Europe dispatch

BY Pablo Larios in News | 24 MAR 20

From self-quarantines to social distancing, coronavirus has already shattered our work, social and cultural routines. In the arts, spurred by a season of mass cancellations, digital viewing rooms and online programming are revving up. But it’s not only that people can’t see shows in person. Shipping, logistics and supply chains are under immense pressure, and whether you’re a freelancer, artist or business owner, the outlook is stark. It won’t be business-as-usual for a long time – maybe never again.

On 17 March, philosopher Giorgio Agamben lamented the social and political erasures caused by this state of crisis. This past weekend, the consultancy Nemesis released a new memo, subtitled: ‘autopsy of the experience economy’. Are we at the end of the ‘experience economy’ as we know it?

As experience turns increasingly online, one of the most fleet-footed institutions in Europe to reorient its programme digitally is the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, in hard-hit Italy. On Friday, I spoke on the phone with the museum’s director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The picture she painted was grim – in a country which, this past Saturday, saw nearly 800 deaths due to Covid-19.

Giuseppe Penone, Ephemeris [Malevich], 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’arte Contemporanea, Rivoli – Turin © Archivio Penone 

Pablo Larios: What’s the situation now where you are?

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: I think we’re ten days ahead, since Italy was hit earlier than most other countries. What happened in Italy needs to be seen as what will happen elsewhere. We have not hit the peak. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better, but it will get better. You’ll start to see the effects in a couple weeks. You’re going to be locked down very soon.

PL: What were those effects for the museum?

CC-B: The museum closed on 5 March, and after 9 March all restaurants and cafés in the country were shut. That was easy enough to do in China, but for a western democracy that was a big step, and a big risk. Yet, seen from the perspective of a place where 400 people died yesterday, it’s the only way.

Everything I initially thought about this virus is not what it has turned out to be. It’s extremely contagious. I have six people home on sick leave from the museum, some with symptoms of flu, but they have not been tested for Covid-19. We have a huge loss of tickets and sales, bookshop and gift sales, guided tour sales – that’s hundreds of thousands of euros that won’t be recovered. Protocols allow for keeping on only essential staff: I need to make sure that the collection is protected and the works on loan, so I have basic security presence, conservation, building security and one administrative employee.

Liu Ding, Temporary Actor A, 2015, oil on canvas, 250 × 500 × 5 cm and Mao Tongqiang, Archives, 2011-2013, mixed media, dimensions determined by space, Sigg Collection, installation view, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin. Courtesy: Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin; photograph: Antonio Maniscalco

PL: I’m seeing galleries and museums such as yours quickly ramp up their offerings for viewing art digitally. What steps have you taken in this direction?

CC-B: Our openings – the Uli Sigg collection of Chinese art, Renato Leotta, Giorgio Morandi and James Richards – were supposed to take place on 24 February, but we couldn’t open. That triggered the idea that we would accelerate our digital platforms.

We opened our Digital Cosmos, which was already in the works (it’s overseen by the curator Giulia Colletti), for which we invited artists such as Michael Rakowitz and Giuseppe Penone to present art digitally. We’ve also shared a reading by a young philosopher named Leonardo Caffo. It’s about youth. It’s a very poignant thing to listen to, because the elderly are at risk and we’re a country of old people. Some of our great intellectuals, like architect Vittorio Gregotti, are dying.

It’s very, very important to protect the old right now. A whole generation might be wiped out. Normal people, but also artists, writers, philosophers, architects and filmmakers. It can be traumatic for a culture and a civilization. So we strongly believe that the elderly should be taken care of. That’s why this text about youth is so beautiful in this moment. It’s this alliance between the young and the old to protect the old – that’s what we’re thinking about.

James Richards, ‘Alms for the Birds’, 2020, installation view, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin. Courtesy: the artist and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

PL: What are the long-term artistic effects of this situation?

CC-B: One thing we’re very aware of is the coming financial and economic crisis. The art world is made on the one hand of extremely wealthy collectors buying pseudo-Leonardos for US$450 million, and at the same time young art handlers who are also artists, who are not handling art right now. And the whole gamut in between. And it’s critical because there’s no social protection for artists. Thankfully, Italy has just now passed an extremely strong financial package to prevent the economy from going under entirely. It provides for 9 weeks of pay at an 80% salary rate for workers, so it’s a kind of paid leave of absence, which can include museum staff such as mine.

PL: What does the city feel like right now?

CC-B: To see the city at night, empty of people, only with the homeless – because the homeless don’t have a home to be quarantined in – Turin looks the way Giorgio De Chirico would have seen it. He first made his metaphysical paintings of archways after he spent ten days in Turin in 1910. And this is truly a metaphysical situation: you have these electric lights on in the city, but there is nobody outside, nobody walking.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is director of Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, Italy. In 2012, she was artistic director of documenta 13.

Renato Leotta, ‘Sun’, 2020, installation view, Castello di Rivoli, Turin. Courtesy: the artist and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Elsewhere in Europe:

– The legendary Belgian choreographer and dancer Anne Terese de Keersmaeker’s dance company, Rosas, has launched an online series (titled ‘Dance in times of isolation’) in which De Keersmaeker teaches viewers how to dance at home, including the steps to her breakthrough piece Rosas danst Rosas (1983).

Berlin’s KW Institute has just appointed four new curators: Kathrin Bentele, Clémentine Deliss, Léon Kruijswijk and Nadim Samman.

Berlin’s Gallery Weekend has been postponed to September. Latvia’s RIBOCA biennial will not open in May as planned. Cannes Film Festival is postponed until the end of June or beginning of July 2020. François Pinault’s private museum, Bourse de Commerce, has delayed its opening to September 2020.

– Online viewing rooms are mushrooming – with Esther Schipper, Hauser and Wirth and others gearing up their sites for dedicated digital viewing.

Exhibitions may shut doors, but art goes on – for a list of shows on our radar disrupted by the coronavirus, click here.

Main Image: He Xiangyu, The Death of Marat, 2011, fiberglass, silica gel, 36 × 183 × 85 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin and Sigg Collection

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.