PRINT May 2009

International News

Tim Griffin talks with curator Daniel Birnbaum about the 53rd Venice Biennale

ON JUNE 7, THE 53RD VENICE Biennale will open, curated by DANIEL BIRNBAUM—himself no stranger to the biennial format, having organized grand shows over the past decade in locations around the world, from Turin, Italy, to Yokohama, Japan. Titled “Fare Mondi//Making Worlds//Bantin Duniyan//Weltenmachen//Construire des Mondes//Fazer Mundos . . . ,” Birnbaum’s exhibition seems particularly reflective of both his cosmopolitanism and his inclusiveness, featuring more than ninety artists and expanding the exhibition’s parameters beyond the traditional venues of the Giardini and the Arsenale. Last month, Artforum editor Tim Griffin phoned Birnbaum—who is director of the Städelschule in Frankfurt as well as a longtime contributing editor for the magazine—to discuss plans for this year’s Biennale amid uncertain cultural and economic circumstances.

Tomás Saraceno, Galaxy forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider’s web, 2008, elastic, dimensions variable.

TIM GRIFFIN: You recently wrote in the essay “The Archaeology of Things to Come” that Francesco Bonami’s Fiftieth Venice Biennale in 2003 marked a kind of end for biennials as an experimental format—because, you said, his show “tried to exhaust all possibilities at once, and pushed the plurality as far as possible.” I know that you were speaking to that specific exhibition’s simultaneous presentation of numerous curatorial efforts, with its inclusion of Catherine David’s “Contemporary Arab Representations” alongside, say, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Utopia Station.” And yet you collaborated on the show with Bonami as well. So I wonder what the implications of your observation might be for your own Biennale this year.

DANIEL BIRNBAUM: Well, of course, in that text I was only playing with the trope of the “end” of things. If Roland Barthes wrote about the end of the novel, he wasn’t saying there wouldn’t be any more novels. Rather, he was underscoring that any search for new beginnings must start with the acceptance of a crisis within a given form.

That said, you might rightfully ask, How should the search for a new beginning be conducted today? But maybe one doesn’t have to look so hard for an answer. I mean, something is falling apart right now, and not only in the art world. However tempting it may be to say simplistic things about the current financial crisis, one can safely surmise that we are at a turning point, culturally and creatively speaking. And so my hope is that this Biennale does not merely present fragments of something that has broken down but will also offer a glimpse of something still to come—if not as a new, totally coherent vision, then at least as an emerging plurality of possibilities.

TG: You’re establishing a very different tone from other biennials—ostensibly less polemical. In fact, in your first public statements about this Biennale, you’ve simply said that the show would feature a number of different but interwoven thematic strands.

DB: There will be a few thematics, let’s say, and one always wonders whether they will be visible to anyone but my colleague Jochen Volz and me. But such elusiveness is part of the very title of the exhibition, which consists of innumerable translations of the phrase making worlds. In every language, the words have a slightly different connotation: In English, they conjure a sense of craftsmanship and a very down-to-earth approach to making things; in French, on the other hand, construire des mondes has a more technical ring; in German, Weltenmachen sounds a bit bombastic; and, in Swedish, Skapa världar has theological connotations steeped in the idea of creation.

TG: The title itself begins to disappear, lost in translation—or becoming more about the act of translation than about any given word by itself.

DB: I think that the Biennale can be seen as a place where more or less successful translations and productive misreadings take place. This is what makes it a creative site and not simply a place where one culture is put on display for another’s consideration, in a way tantamount to treating each culture as something static—or as a fixed essence, which almost inevitably means stereotyping it. Instead, there is the possibility of truly poetic confrontation, what Édouard Glissant, the poet and intellectual, calls an éclat—a clash that also creates sparks of novelty. If it is true, as he suggests, that with each language’s disappearance from the world something of the imaginary in the world disappears with it, then it is likewise true that the imaginary is enriched with every language’s translation into another. Perhaps new worlds emerge where different worlds meet.

I don’t really know what Stvaranje svjetova, Facere de lumi, Pasaul,u radišana, Karoutsel Ashkharhner, or Dünyalar Yaratmak sound like to the people who speak these languages. Yet for me, underlying all these valences of making and worlds is the impulse to move away from any understanding of this show as a museumlike presentation of beautiful objects. I know that is hardly a revolutionary conceit for a biennial today, but we can still place particular emphasis on its character as a site for production and experimentation.

TG: Our conversation has to range from the theoretical to the concrete and down-to-earth, then: How is that emphasis on production and experimentation manifested uniquely here?

DB: Most notably, perhaps, the Italian Pavilion, in the Giardini, is being renamed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and will remain open year-round as a platform where all the disciplines—art, architecture, dance, theater, and cinema, each of which is the subject of a biennale in Venice—will come together. With that interweaving in mind, Paolo Baratta—the president of the Biennale, whose idea this was—asked me to approach different artists to help create semipermanent spaces in the building. So, for example, Tobias Rehberger has designed a new cafeteria for the pavilion, Rirkrit Tiravanija created a bookstore, and Massimo Bartolini is making an educational space.

TG: I can’t help but wonder about historical implications and timing here. On the one hand, I know that you have a keen sense of the Biennale’s history, since you’ve written extensively on Harald Szeemann—who comes to mind here because he inaugurated the show’s Arsenale section in 1999. In this light, your project seems another kind of first, representing a similarly fundamental shift in the Biennale landscape. On the other hand, this particular undertaking is highly reminiscent of work made during the 1990s, when artists often created social and educational settings. And the cultural context has changed a bit since then.

DB: I have actually been wondering how people might receive this project, particularly given that Rirkrit and Tobias don’t really make that kind of work anymore. But I think it’s important to realize that, in fact, they are being asked to do something different from what they were doing in the ’90s. Rirkrit is not making some kind of “model for communication,” for instance, but an actual, functioning, semipermanent bookstore. And Tobias is not making some meeting space where you can sit down and eat, but an actual cafeteria. Similarly, Massimo’s educational space is really there for students. These aren’t model-like situations, where the model is not identical with reality. Rather, the reality game—or whatever we want to call the relational or social engagements of the last decade—happens to be reality itself this time.

TG: It’s interesting that Baratta should ask you to engage the actual institutional structure at an uncertain cultural moment. The framing device itself is literally in play, however modestly.

DB: And this is true elsewhere as well. Baratta, in his expansive, slightly Napoleonic approach to the Venetian situation, is also opening another garden—the Giardino delle Vergini—that has never been used before. The buildings there are like ruins, with a strange tower and a very romantic-looking old storage building. I mean, it’s so beautiful that one doesn’t even know whether one should put anything there. But that’s where Miranda July, for instance, will make very humorous, joyous sculptures with messages on them like SELF-DOUBT WILL NEVER DEVOUR HER DREAMS, with which people can pose for photographs to send back home. William Forsythe will lay out sets and props so that you, the viewer, are a dancer in the garden. And in the tower, Nikhil Chopra, an artist from India, will perform in his own installation.

TG: And so the decidedly multidisciplinary character of the newly named pavilion is reflected by your entire exhibition.

DB: We just want to involve all the things that visual arts can embrace. In the Arsenale, for example, there will be performances related to Dante by Joan Jonas, and the Moscow Poetry Club will present readings every month in both the garden and the Bartolini auditorium space. I know that Arto Lindsay, the Brazilian musician and artist, is going to do a parade in the city between the venues during the Biennale opening; it’s called If You See What I Mean, which is appropriate, since it won’t be so easy to define genre-wise.

TG: And architecture?

DB: Architectural experimentation will play a very important role, since there will be numerous large installations dealing with visionary, utopian takes on society. For instance, Yona Friedman, an architect and artist who was working on futuristic visions of cities as early as the ’50s, will be collaborating with many young artists on a project. And Tomás Saraceno will occupy the opening space of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, presenting a large yarn work obviously inspired by Friedman and perhaps also by the Archigram group and Peter Cook. All these works are preoccupied with alternative modes of being-in-the-world, so to speak, as they might be made possible through architecture and urbanism.

TG: If I may play devil’s advocate, these projects, as you describe them, would seem to look back in order to move forward. How is that distinct from other recent, more nostalgic looks back at modernist precedents?

DB: Actually, when it comes to bringing back things from the past, I should say that the show’s title was also inspired by American philosopher Nelson Goodman’s book Ways of Worldmaking [1978], which has a great observation in it: “Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.” And perhaps, beyond what you are asking, this is also a good way to think about deceased artists in the show, such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Öyvind Fahlström. Matta-Clark is perpetually being reinvented by younger artists, while Fahlström is perpetually being forgotten, no matter how many times he has been recuperated by historians—and despite the fact that his work offered some of the first artistic perspectives on globalism. His name does not even appear in the October editors’ otherwise successful book Art Since 1900, which I find almost unbelievable. We’re installing one work in this vein, Dr. Schweitzer’s Last Mission, which first appeared in Venice in 1966.

But you know, someone decidedly contemporary—and key for me in thinking about this show—is Wolfgang Tillmans. Incredibly, he’s never been shown in Venice. Most interesting to me, however, is that while he is perhaps the best-known portraitist of his generation—documenting raves and protest marches and alternative communities—he has always been interested in abstraction. He seeks a kind of pure visibility in certain photographs; he even calls them metaphysical pictures. And yet these are not separate from his more political projects. They are all part of the same process.

TG: Is this a potential “new beginning” in the show?

DB: While we will not have Russian Constructivism in the show—it just was not possible—I think it’s useful to remember how such work represented a moment when abstract art was not apolitical. Abstraction wasn’t somehow outside the world. It was part of a vision. It was a promise of something.

TG: Abstraction as such is not immediately quantifiable, perhaps, within any preexisting system. Is this another way to think of the multidisciplinary impulse here?

DB: Well, perhaps that’s a decent way to describe the role for painting—or for the “painterly”—in the show. Tony Conrad’s “Yellow Movies” series [1972–73], for example, is not painting per se, but its beautiful, abstract screens possess a painterly sensibility. André Cadere offers nothing more than these stupid walking sticks, technically speaking, but they change a space wherever they’re placed or moved, making the room pictorial, like a painting. And with such loosening of categories in mind, you can also think of Ulla von Brandenburg, who is making an installation with colorful, Constructivist-style textiles. Or there is Cildo Meireles or Michelangelo Pistoletto, who is creating a performance in which huge mirrors will be smashed. Actually, we’re also reconstructing a large painting installation that Blinky Palermo created for Venice in 1976; it was destroyed after the Biennale then, and we’ll do the same after the show this year.

TG: Creation through destruction, so to speak.

DB: Or by offering counterproposals to the precious object. You know, I remember this beautiful science-fiction story by Italo Calvino with passages about the first “sign”: There is the world, and suddenly there is something else; it’s not the world, but it’s about the world. Yet that sign, while it doubles the whole universe, can be an infinitely small thing. That’s certainly true in this show. We’re going to present Yoko Ono’s “Instruction Pieces,” for instance, and some of them are very short, like ones that say FLY or LOOK INTO THE SPOT UNTIL IT TURNS SQUARE.

TG: What makes such gestures seem pertinent now?

DB: Of course, I’m aware to some extent of the need or desire for alternatives to the market, given its loosening grip on things. Ono seems relevant in this regard, since her instruction pieces are really not possible to sell or collect. They’re like poems. And then Fahlström was also obsessed with art for everybody; he thought art should be like an LP.

TG: But how much work in the show actually employs that model of generosity?

DB: Well, Thomas Bayrle, who has always been interested in mass production, contributes a very large pattern on the wall: It’s wallpaper that is free and infinitely reproducible. Then there’s Aleksandra Mir, who is making a million picture postcards of Venice; anyone can pick one up and send it back home. But here again, one can look back to history in order to find a way forward. There’s also a room devoted to Gutaï, the Japanese avant-garde movement that was interested in multiples and activities and Happenings—things that are not about the original object at all but rather about a given activity in itself. And after all, if one is to take “making worlds” seriously, one must think of how a world is normally something shared, no? The world is inhabited by more than one person, and so “making” revolves around building something common.

TG: On that note, again, I find it interesting to see ephemeral, performance-based, or multidisciplinary work functioning specifically within an institutional frame.

DB: Earlier you mentioned curatorial predecessors and models, and Harald Szeemann specifically. Obviously, Szeemann was incredible. Yet for me personally—and perhaps this is because I grew up in Stockholm—I cannot help but think of Pontus Hultén, who was never a Biennale curator. He was a museum director. In the end, however, he made the museum as expansive as possible. In fact, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which he founded, must have been the most progressive museum in the world in the ’60s. He turned the whole museum into a playground for nearly a month, for example. He also sponsored a show called “Poetry Must Be Made by All!” which was about replicas and multiples and copies and Happenings and readings all taking place in the museum setting. It tried to blend Lautréamont with Karl Marx; thus the subtitle, “Transform the World!” The first open-air museum was introduced by Hultén, in the garden of the Moderna Museet.

Now that I collect museum-exhibition catalogues, I can truly understand what incredible things such early projects were. And of course, I know we can’t just repeat those things. We have to create things for our own times, and the vision of a classless society in which art is a collective, integrated element that belongs to everyone might simply seem naive. But I would say those museum projects are at least as interesting as some of the best-known Biennale shows.

TG: And yet might there be some shade of a possibility for a combination of those elements now?

DB: Look, this is a kind of retroactive fantasy on my part. I was playing in the Moderna Museet playground in 1968. But I understand now that Hultén offered a visionary moment in the history of curating institutions. And while that was a museum for a very different moment, it’s still an inspirational place to think about as, for example, today’s market crisis creates problems for everyone. But along the lines of what we were saying earlier, for the past few years there has been a kind of iron grip on the world of art when it came to market forces, which is loosening up. Sure, certain things are bound to fall apart. But maybe something else also emerges.