Unfamiliar Territory

Kate Sutton at “What Art History?” at the Moderna galerija

Left: Moderna galerija's Zdenka Badovinac and Haus der Kunst's Okwui Enwezor. Right: Curators Vít Havránek and Geörg Schollhammer. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“WE ARE LIVING IN AN ERA of cognitive capitalism, where maps are more important than actual territories,” Moderna Galerija director Zdenka Badovinac told the packed conference room last Thursday in Ljubljana. “Under these conditions, what’s important is not maintaining the integrity of a given territory, but rather widening the participation in mapping the world.”

Badovinac’s words formed the thrust of the two-day conference at the Moderna, part of the run-up to this year’s Igor Zabel Award ceremony. Founded in 2008 to honor the late Zabel (a cultural critic and senior curator at the institution), the biennial award recognizes thinkers working to redraw the art-historical maps around central, eastern, and southeastern Europe. This year’s €40,000 top prize went to Russian curator Viktor Misiano, with additional €12,000 grants presented to curators Anca Verona Mihuleţ and Viviana Checchia, and to the organizers of Budapest’s eye-opening OFF-Biennale.

Titled “What Art History?,” the conference—which boasted curatorial powerhouses Okwui Enwezor, Charles Esche, and Ekaterina Degot—was dedicated to Piotr Piotrowski, a Zabel Award laureate who died in May 2015. Piotrowski was a tireless advocate of “horizontal art history,” a mode of thinking that sought to break from the vertical hierarchies of the Art Since 1900–style canon. While it sounds good on paper (and Piotrowski made it sound very good indeed), questions linger around terminology. “Doesn’t ‘horizontal’ imply that we’re all lying down?” gibed curator Jelena Vesić.

Left: Igor Zabel Award laureates Viviana Checcia and Viktor Misiano. Right: Tímea Junghaus, art historian and director of Gallery8.

Vesić’s crack may have gotten some warm laughs, but this crowd didn’t strike me as the reclining type. Curators Daniel Grúň, Kathrin Rhomberg, and Georg Schöllhammer had arrived fresh from their triumphant Július Koller “One Man Anti Show” at MUMOK in Vienna. Eda Čufer and the artists of IRWIN popped in between planning meetings for the NSK Pavilion in Venice, while tranzit outpost directors Raluca Voinea (Bucharest), Vít Hravánek (Prague), and Dóra Hegyi (Budapest) caught up with colleagues Silvia Eiblmayer, Hedwig Saxenhuber, Branka Stipačić, WHW’s Ivet Ćurlin and Sabina Sabolović, and Grazer Kunstverein’s director Kate Strain, freshly imported from Dublin’s Project Arts Center and eager to meet her new neighbors.

“It is a privilege to be here in the house that Zdenka built,” Enwezor cooed, before delivering his keynote on Haus der Kunst’s pulse-quickening survey “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and Atlantic, 1945–1965.” The curator admitted that tackling the postwar period “inevitably involves the question of ‘which war?’” What we tend to call World War II was actually several conflicts taking place all over the globe, which Enwezor argued, resulted in “the unmaking of a certain notion of the world that had held constant since the late fifteenth century.” He then proceeded to outline how the rebuilding of Europe was inextricable from the forging of the postcolonial world. “There’s a tendency to over-valorize the European experience of the war to the exclusion of 65 to 70 percent of the world,” he said, pointing out that 1945 saw the formation of the Arab League and the Pan-African Congress in Manchester, divisions among China, Korea, and Vietnam, the rise of figures such as Juan Perón and Sukarno, and unprecedented mass migrations. Basically, the world as we knew it unraveled. This sounded uncomfortably relevant.

“Postwar” roots itself in Hannah Arendt’s claim that the technology of the Holocaust was perfected under colonialism, a connection that inevitably tainted the perceived humanism of the postwar moment. (For all its moral outrage after the war, France was loath to let go of its colonies.) Enwezor identified the primary postwar tension as the “conversation around existentialism (white European suffering) against colonialism (“the rise of the brown body”). This friction became especially salient as former colonial subjects began to pour into European cities. In the context of this “modern cosmopolitanism,” Enwezor argued, the museum’s role in shaping the civic imagination is vital. “The museum should be deployed as a staging ground for difference, for that which has yet to come. The museum should serve as a horizon, rather than a terminus, a point of cultural and epistemological indeterminacy.”

Here he stopped short, catching sight of a familiar face in the audience. “Oh, it’s great to see Peter Weibel here. They are running a rival exhibition on the postwar moment and we were fighting over loans. So, yes, it’s great to see you, Peter.”

Left: ZKM's Peter Weibel. Right: Curators Kathrin Rhomberg and Daniel Grúň.

During the Q&A, an astute audience member quizzed Enwezor over the use of jazz in the Haus der Kunst’s promotional video for “Postwar,” noting it would have irritated Theodor Adorno. (“Let’s be clear, Adorno was an idiot when it came to jazz,” Enwezor shot back.) He then fielded the inevitable question on Eastern Europe’s integration. “I’m not interested in inclusion at all,” Enwezor stated firmly. “The principal idea of ‘Postwar’ is to deterritorialize the landscape of art history, not to expand it through inclusion.”

The discourse boners around “deterritorialization” would be delicately deflated in the first of the two panels, when, after a thoughtful presentation by Hungarian art historian Edit András, Tímea Junghaus took the stage. The soft-spoken founder of both the European Roma Cultural Foundation and Budapest’s Gallery8 (a commercial gallery dedicated to promoting Roma artists), Junghaus plainly laid out the case of the Roma, a diasporic nation whose communality has long been independent of geographic borders. And yet, rather than be applauded for their progressively flexible notions of statehood, Roma are openly ostracized as “European outsiders.” Surmising that “societies create their own ‘black’ through their closest colonies,” Junghaus outlined how art history has complied in spinning Roma as the “the flipside of the noble savage”: “Gypsies—and whenever I say ‘gypsies,’ it’s always in quotes; I hope I don’t have to explain that—were depicted as the unbaptized heathens, thieves, pickpockets, and criminals as early as the fourteenth or fifteenth century.” I couldn’t help but notice that that timing coincided with the beginnings of Enwezor’s world order.

With Catherine David a last-minute no-show, the final panel was left to the capable minds of Akademie der Künste der Welt’s Ekaterina Degot and Van Abbemuseum’s Charles Esche. Degot began with some kind(?) words for Ljubljana: “It’s still a refreshingly Marxist and intellectual city,” she marveled, before diving into the question of “how to be truly, deeply critical in our work.”

“The question isn’t what is to be done. What is to be done is over. It’s how it can be done. Or, rather, how in god’s sake it can be done.” For starters, Degot argued that “museums have to cut ties with biennial culture the same way they have cut ties with art fairs. Art that is mainstream isn’t critical, it is discursive commercialism.” She lamented the time spent talking around an artwork, bemoaning how the biennial context had isolated artists from real critique. “You can’t just say, ‘That video looks unfinished,’ because the artist will just say, ‘That’s intentional.’ Under these conditions, failure is impossible. It’s all rather boring.”

Left: WHW's Ivet Ćurlin, Van Abbemuseum's Charles Esche, and Akademie der Künste der Welt's Ekaterina Degot. Right: Art historians Magdalena Radomska and Edit András.

Esche seconded Degot’s conclusion, toying with the possibility of a “demodernism” that could operate in a similar way as decolonialism. To ground the proposition, he returned to the early, libertine history of the Louvre, which Esche characterized as “part-brothel, part rave”—this was, of course, before the museum got into the business of national narratives. Leaping from brothel to cabal, Esche compared the modernist canon peddled by MoMA to a kind of Al Qaeda: “Just as Bin Laden always served as an inspiration, rather than a central control point, they’re setting up a narrative that is then given to other institutions to develop.”

Much like that metaphor, the propagation of narratives tends to slip from control. “The museum has to stop broadcasting and start listening,” Esche concluded. How? One potential solution is L’Internationale, a loose confederation of six diverse museums across Europe: the Moderna Galerija, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, MACBA, the Van Abbemuseum, M HKA, and SALT (an impressive initiative, for sure, but one wishes Esche had allowed for a little more airtime between an Al Qaeda comparison and the introduction of a new institutional network.)

L’Internationale’s first big project is the collaborative five-year program “The Uses of Art: The Legacy of 1848 and 1989.” Moderna Galerija is in the middle of a three-part 1980s-themed exhibition under this rubric, with the latest installment curated by whippersnappers Asta Vrečko and Martina Malešič. “Zdenka thought it would be good to get our perspective on the era, even though we were only born in the late 1980s or even 1990s,” Vrečko explained, as she trotted conference-goers through displays dedicated to Yugoslavia’s various boutique biennials.

After the exhibition tour, a bus took us up the narrow winding road to the picture-book castle that presides over Ljubljana. The castle’s two-level restaurant was divided between our Eastern-leaning art historians up top and an office holiday party downstairs—mostly male, with scattered dancing girls dressed like slutty elves. At our table, Hravánek approvingly scanned the elaborate menu (“A Sea of Flavours”). “We always eat so well at the Igor Zabel Awards,” Ćurlin chimed in.

“Poor Igor,” Stipačić purred, with a grin. Glasses were raised to Zabel. Multiple times.

Left: Igor Zabel grant laureate curator Anca Verona Mihuleţ. Right: Grazer Kunstverein's Kate Strain with tranzit's Raluca Voinea.

By the time we reached the entrées, the difference between the gatherings on the two floors had grown negligible—an acute lack of slutty elfwear aside. Eager to end/extend the evening (our mission remained unclear even to us), Ćurlin and I started to ask about descending the hill on foot, but were sternly warned this was “too dangerous.” Reluctantly, we piled into the bus, which, for all its bulk, was unable to turn around on the tiny road and had to back down. A busload of Eastern European art historians slowly careening in reverse down a hill—surely a metaphor in the making.

The next morning—which felt brighter and earlier than it probably was—Reina Sofia’s director Manuel J. Borja-Villel delivered the closing keynote. The coffee hadn’t kicked in, but Borja-Villel was packing jolts of his own, contrasting an image of Ines Doujak’s Dressed for Conquering, 2010–, the politically perilous daisy chain that sparked turmoil at MACBA last year, with images from controversial advertising campaigns, including Angela Merkel at a urinal or Hitler rocking an Afro. “In instances like these, the ad company may face a fine, okay, but in the end, they still get the publicity,” he argued. “Basically, the art world is fighting for freedom from the commercial system, while having less freedom than that system.”

In the short break before the award ceremony, resident-artist Ulay was on hand to guide visitors through his retrospective at the Mestna Galerija, while curator Vladimir Vidmar was busy taking guests through the meditative Tao G. Vrhovec Sambolec solo show at ŠKUC. Over at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (an annex of Moderna Galerija since 2011), David Maljković was scrambling to fit in last-minute installation shots of his striking exhibition “Again and Again,” set to close the following day. For all its moaning about marginality, Ljubljana wasn’t looking so provincial.

Left: Curator Asta Vrečko. Right: WHW's Sabina Sabolović, Museo Reina Sofía's Manuel J. Borja-Villel, and artist David Maljković.

Immediately preceding the 8 PM ceremony were short presentations by the grant recipients. Misiano used his to deliver a close reading of Zabel’s seminal text, “We and the Others,” first published in the Moscow Art Magazine, a journal founded by Misiano. He was followed by the Sibiu-based Mihuleţ and Checchia, who, in 2010, swore off exhibition-making in favor of furthering critical discourse via Vessel, a residency program in Lecce, the heel of Italy’s boot. If few audience members batted an eye at the inclusion of southern Italy in eastern Europe, it may have been because Checchia insistently referred to things in terms of “north” and “south,” ending with the question, “What is more important: Where we operate or the knowledge we refer to?”

That question couldn’t be easily answered in the case of the last winner, the OFF-Biennale. “Ideological control over public resources has drastically limited the possibilities for progressive culture in Hungary,” co-organizer Nikolett Erőss reported. With a roster of 150 artists strong, the OFF-Biennale was the unicorn: a collectively organized biennial run without any state support (this means that of the thirty venues, not one was municipally or nationally funded.) Co-organizer Katalin Székely unveiled the theme for the 2017 edition: “Gaudiopolis,” an anomalous “children’s republic” that flourished in a Hungarian orphanage in the late 1940s until 1951, when it was nationalized (annexed?). Think Lord of the Flies, but instead of conch-lust, substitute a pint-size functioning democracy. I marveled at the organizers’ resolve, but Székely just shrugged: “Once more, we find we must build on the ruins.”

Left: Curator Silvia Eiblmayr with artist Hannes Zebedin. Right: Artists Bisan Abu Eisheh and Roman Uranjek.

Left: Erste Foundation's Christiane Erharter and curator Jelena Vesić. Right: Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory's Urška Jurman with Jasna Zabel.

Left: IRWIN's Borut Vogelnik and Andrej Savski with Moderna galerija curator Igor Spanjol (center). Right: Igor Zabel Grant Laureates OFFBiennale's Hajnalka Somogyi, Nikolett Erőss, and Katalin Székely.