PRINT Summer 1999


Carlos Basualdo talks with Rosa Martínez

“A BIENNIAL SHOULD BE A PROFOUNDLY political and spiritual event. It contemplates the present with a desire to transform it.” This is the ideal Rosa Martínez brings to her role as curator of SITE Santa Fe’s Third International Biennial Exhibition. A seasoned member of the new generation of globally aware, often peripatetic international curators, Martínez is passionate about her own role in producing such an exhibit: “I want to create events that translate the emotions and thoughts of a very precise moment in relation to a very specific place.”

Initially a student of literature and language (she considered pursuing an advanced degree in philology), Martínez eventually found her way to art history, a field that unexpectedly brought together, and even reanimated, her interests. In 1977, she was appointed head of the arts education programs at Fundació “la Caixa,” in Barcelona. (Spain’s main savings bank, “la Caixa” spends half its annual profit—a not insignificant $150 million this year—on social and cultural activities.) Martínez held the position for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until she accepted a new appointment as chief curator of the Bienal de Barcelona, a show of emerging artists from the Mediterranean region, that her curatorial career began. In 1992, it was back to “la Caixa,” where she assumed a new position—this time as a curator in charge of the Sala Montcada, an experimental space devoted to the work of young artists.

Martínez made her lnternatlonal curatorial debut as a member of the team responsible for the first edition of Manifesta, the European biennial focused on the work of emerging artists. It was her role in that seminal exhibition that led, a year later, to her appointment as artistic director of the Fifth International Istanbul Biennial, a massive undertaking that cemented her reputation. This summer, as the curator of SITE Santa Fe’s third biennial, Martínez will present the work of twenty-eight artists, from veteran sculptor Louise Bourgeois to emerging Cuban performance and installation artist Tania Bruguera, from Greenpeace, an organization whose efforts are not customarily associated with contemporary art, to kunsthalle staple Pipilotti Rist. Entitled “Looking for a Place,” the exhibition is scheduled to open on July 10 and wlll be on view until the end of the year.

Carlos Basualdo

CARLOS BASUALDO: Having been involved as a curator or as an artistic director at three different biennials, do you think there are criteria for what makes a “biennial,” or is the designation merely generic, an umbrella term covering a whole range of disparate, large-scale exhibitions?

ROSA MARTÍNEZ: I believe we are reinventing the biennial today. New biennials have arisen on the periphery. Havana, Johannesburg, and Istanbul are introducing new approaches that question the nineteenth-century model of the Venice Biennale—the reference point for all biennials until recently. Originally, this exhibition was introduced to celebrate the Western vision and the power of the dominant nations, each with its own pavilion. But these pavilions have become increasingly pathetic and anachronistic. In this type of biennial, state bureaucrats acting as curators choose artists they believe to be good, but who may merely be their good friends. Even Venice has tried to escape these limitations with the Aperto. At the last Bienal de São Paulo, the unevenness of the national pavilions highlighted the obsolescence of this type of presentation. By contrast, the Roteiros—the Aperto-like section of the São Paulo exhibition—was a more accurate response to how art is produced today, not limited by national boundaries but dealing with problems common to various social groups.

If biennials proliferate now, it’s because the label is prestigious. They are associated with topicality, innovation, and risk, as well as with an idea (or, at any rate, a certain idea) of internationality. In many cases, art is used as a diplomatic credential to enter into the sphere of “civilized discourse,” still synonymous with “Western.” More recently, however, new biennials have arisen from the will to exorcise political traumas (such as apartheid in South Africa), or to create new spaces for art in the Third World, such as Havana. And a biennial such as lstanbul is mounted to foster an idea: a clear bet on the secular world, the idea of democracy, and the encounter between East and West. The ideal biennial is a profoundly political and spiritual event. It contemplates the present with a desire to transform it. As Arthur Danto says, in a definition I love, a biennial “is a glimpse of a transnational utopia.”

CB: Both in Istanbul and Santa Fe you chose to spread the exhibition among a number of nonmuseological spaces, related in both cases to the hlstory of each city. Is this a comment on the limitations of the museum vis-à-vis the exhibition of contemporary art?

RM: I do not deny the value of and need for museums, but they don’t accommodate all of the needs of art. The basic function of biennials is not to preserve the past but to invent the present and explore art’s limits. In the best situations, a museum may allow artworks to be seen in all their splendor. But now that the very concept of art as an autonomous entity is changing, the function of the museum is also called into question, and to survive, it must be porous and allow itself to be contaminated with real life.

Biennials, with their energy and fluidity, are becoming a new model for the exhibition. But a biennial must have meaning, not just big names. It must bring together new forms of thought and adequate financial resources to allow artists and curators to develop specific projects with dignity, while allowing for aesthetic inquiry as well as political reflection. Independent curators are key figures in these new routes of contemporary art, and must insist on respect and decent economic conditions for ourwork. We freelance workers must not allow any institution to use our names in a superficial way, as happened with Cream (Phaidon Press). In that situation, the final product revealed a frustrated and commercialized version of the new biennial.

CB: I think there’s a prejudice about our generation of curators being “glamour engineers” who travel first class and are extremely well paid, when in fact that’s far from true. In your view, what are the expectations that biennial organizers have when hiring a curator? What’s our position in contemporary culture? Are we proposing real alternatives or simply replicating the artistic status quo?

RM: I believe I am proposing real alternatives. Or at least I push in that direction. I try to do more than offer a list of names and select beautiful pieces. I want to create events that translate the emotions and thoughts of a very precise moment in relation to a very specific place. Institutions sometimes understand this, sometimes not. What is clear is that we are usually not paid enough for our work. Institutions and politicians use independent curators as energizers, to revitalize museum programs or products (as in the case of Phaidon), but the working conditions for these same curators are still unacceptable—low fees, no health insurance, and no legal protections at all. You start to think, If they use me that way, what am I getting? Just the pleasure of developing my thesis or “prestige and fame”? Independent curators cannot become the glamorous proletarians of museums and politicians.

CB: In both Istanbul and Santa Fe you chose titles and subjects for the shows that have a “humanistic” resonance: the title of the fifth Istanbul Biennial was “On Life, Beauty, Translations and Other Difficulties,” and the SITE Santa Fe show is called “Looking for a Place.” Aren’t you afraid that the generalizing tilt of these titles may somehow diffuse the local histories and political tensions of the places where the shows are done?

RM: I am tired of exhibitions with rote, politically correct titles (“Identity and Otherness,” “Inclusion, Exclusion,” etc.), and I don’t believe that the content and radicalness of a biennial is defined only by its title. In biennials I direct, their political force is deliberately not reflected by the titles but by the artworks themselves. The works attempt to understand the hierarchies of language, to escape stereotypes, to rethink who may speak and how, which I am especially interested in as a woman, since I represent a group that is still subordinate and, in most cases, subject to domination. For example, we have been taught to dissociate politics from domestic life. However, today we know to what extent the personal is political. Even Freud was fully aware that individual fantasies are the result of social tensions and repressions.

CB: Among the group that you selected for the SITE Santa Fe Biennial, which artists, in your view, best embody the political force you’re talking about?

RM: All of them are political in different degrees and from different perspectives. Ghada Amer makes her Love Park (1999) with the desire to reflect on and reinvent affective relationships. By gathering sentences about what we have been taught love is and cutting public park benches in two, making the parts face opposite directions, she questions the model of the couple as the perfect solution. Tania Bruguera’s performance about silence and sacrifice in Cuba is clearly political. Charlene Teters analyzes notions of victory and defeat in the installation To the Heroes, 1999, in which she reveals the destiny of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian: He was one of the soldiers who raised the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, and he later died of alcoholism. Monica Bonvicini has edited a book on construction workers that explores gender labor divisions, titled “What does your wife/girlfriend think of your rough, dry hands?” Bülent Sangar presents images of the cultural and religious displacements linked to migration. Louise Bourgeois questions the power of the father. I could go on . . .

CB: Harald Szeemann will feature about ninety-nine artists in Venice this summer. How many will you include in the SITE Santa Fe show? What determines the number of artists included in the exhibition?

RM: I have selected thirty artists, a number determined by the institution’s budget and its organizational capacity. SITE Santa Fe is a small place with big ambition: the biennial reflects this.

CB: Curators of these big group shows are often criticized for presenting a list of artists that reads like an international investment portfolio, with a well-balanced mix of stocks—the majority from Europe and the States and a smaller number of risky but necessary and highly profitable investments from the “developing countries.” Do you think the logic of the stock market is permeating—or infecting—our work?

RM: Exhibitions are a reflection of the geopolitical and economic distribution of power, and their configurations may be read as such. But I believe that if we keep working consciously to broaden the spectrum, little by little, the balance in how art is understood and produced, as well as who and what is represented, will change. Hybridization is the source of intellectual wealth, while monolithic choices are asphyxiating. I build biennials starting from the pleasure and difficulty of hearing new voices—to share their rhythms and discover new possibilities and resonances. At the same time, I don’t lose my awareness that the market is implacable and tries to organize everything according to its logic; in fact, it’s liberating to work against that inevitability.

CB: In that respect, how did you come to know the work of Zwelethu Mthetwa or Yolanda Gutiérrez, just to mention two artists in your selection that have received relatively little international exposure?

RM: I “discovered” and fell in love with Zwelethu thanks to a special issue of Atlantica, the magazine dedicated to the second Johannesburg Biennial. I couldn’t visit Johannesburg, and Okwui Enwezor and Octavia Zaya could not visit Istanbul because both events opened at almost the same time, but we exchanged catalogues and information. The work of the very young Gutiérrez immediately seduced me when her gallerist, Yvonamor Palix, an extremely energetic Mexican dealer, introduced me to the work of many of her gallery artists during my research for the fifth Istanbul Biennial.

CB: In your statement for the third SITE Santa Fe biennial you speak of including the ecoactivist group Greenpeace as an example of the “expanded field” that you are demanding for curatorial practice. But the rest of the names in the list are mostly familiar for the audience of contemporary art as “contemporary artists.”

RM: The inclusion of Greenpeace in the Santa Fe biennial must be understood as a symptom of the shifting winds within contemporary creation and as a hopeful sign of where we are going. In classic landscape painting, there is a desire to see and think about the “place.” In Land art, artists sought remote, virgin sites far from institutionalized artistic space. They had the desire for liberation, but also the will to conquer. Today, Greenpeace’s work deconstructs the idea of “progress” as the exploitation and domination of nature, ad infinitum, and they believe the earth must be preserved. By appropriating extremely effective communication and performance strategies, they aim to intervene in reality and change it. They are pragmatic romantics, and they change people’s consciousness. The only difference between Greenpeace and the rest of the names included in the list is that Greenpeace participants do not call themselves artists.

CB: Are there any artists in the group who, to your mind, effectively address the sociological complexity of Santa Fe as a locality where several cultures coexist with very little interaction among them?

RM: I would not point to any artists reflecting that, but I would offer my own personal experience while preparing the show. No Hispanos and few Native Americans came to my presentations in Santa Fe. The audience of SITE Santa Fe could be defined as “white Anglo-Saxon” despite the biennial being the only international one in the United States. I tried to convince the organizers of the third biennial to make our publications bilingual but I did not succeed. I hope through public projects a wider spectrum of local visitors will visit this biennial.

CB: What does it mean to abandon the autonomy of art in the context of curatorial practice? Do you think that the biennials are accelerating this process?

RM: Art has stopped being self-referential; the field has broadened. The title of the Santa Fe biennial is “Looking for a Place,” because we have to reinvent the places occupied by art, go beyond the limitations of disciplines, cross over the museum walls, discover the underlying implications in the separation of public and private spaces, and redefine the politics of exploitation, whether sexual, ideological, economic, or aesthetic. Art must contribute to making the world a more habitable place.

CB: What will be the role of the curator in the context of an ever-expanding field of art? If our decisions will no longer be based in art-historical criteria, what other set of tools shall we put at work when doing a show?

RM: Today we have to go back, take another look at history, and ask ourselves who has been benefiting from the established discourse and who has defined the existing values and hierarchies. Post-colonial thought, feminism, and voices from many other marginalized sectors—all criticisms of the dogmas of modernity—are calling into question both tradition and the “universal” claim of the kind of history reflected in encyclopedias, as if it were every group’s experience. A good curator has to be malleable and multifaceted. The curator’s toolbox must be diverse, ranging from the knowledge of art history to the critical ability to deconstruct history, from those most ethereal of weapons—intuition and emotion—to the most important tool of all: the awareness that the curator’s every move is profoundly political and must be used to reinvent a new ethic of existence.

Carlos Basualdo is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Translated from Spanish by Eileen Brookbank.



Helena Almeida
Ghada Amer
Janine Antoni
Monica Bonvicini
Louise Bourgeois
Tania Bruguera
Cai Guo-Qiang
Lygia Clark
Diller + Scofidio
Dr. Galentin Gatev
Yolanda Gutiérrez
Mona Hatoum
Carl Michael von Hausswolff
Carsten Höller
Simone Aaberg Kaern
Zwelethu Mthetwa
Nikos Navridis
Shirin Neshat
Rivale Neuenschwander
Gabriel Orozco
Pipilotti Rist
Francisco Ruiz de Infante
Bülent Sangar
Arsen Savadov & Georgy Senchenko
Charlene Teters
Sergio Vega
Miwa Yanagi