PRINT December 2010

Chris Dercon

1 Via Intolleranza II, 2010 (directed by Christoph Schlingensief) Based on Luigi Nono’s polemical opera Intolleranza 1960, Schlingensief’s last major theatrical production—a ferocious dramatization of Africa and Europe’s fraught relationship—is closely related to the director’s final and most ambitious Gesamtkunstwerk: the “opera village” Remdoogo, a kind of ready-made Bayreuth under construction in Burkina Faso. In the months preceding his death at age forty-nine this past August, Schlingensief poured tremendous energy into Remdoogo while also relentlessly speaking and writing about the cancer in his own body and courageously enacting his fears onstage. His vitality was such that it was difficult to disbelieve Alexander Kluge, who, in an interview, flatly insisted: “Christoph Schlingensief is not dead.”

2 Diébédo Francis Kéré (“Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement,” Museum of Modern Art, New York; curated by Andres Lepik and Margot Weller) Rising architect Kéré, Schlingensief’s main collaborator in Remdoogo, was born in Burkina Faso in 1965. He trained as a carpenter after studying in Berlin and now uses local materials and traditional techniques to create highly effective and beautiful eco-architecture. One ingenious example was documented in MoMA’s excellent show: a Burkinabe primary school whose “floating” roof keeps the building cool. Kéré fully intends to realize Schlingensief’s dream of creating an opera house for one of Africa’s poorest countries.

3 Oumar Ly (African Photography Biennial, National Museum of Mali, Bamako, curated by Michket Krifa and Laura Serani) Senegalese photographer Ly’s series “Portraits de brousse” (Portraits of the Bush), 1963–78, was one of the great discoveries of the latest edition of this now legendary African photo festival. Ly, sixty-seven, lives and works in the north Senegalese town of Podor, but he traveled to his subjects’ villages in the bush to take these casual yet startlingly revealing portraits (which Filigranes Éditions published in a wonderful book in November 2009). It turns out that a man’s voluminous robe, the traditional grand boubou, makes the perfect backdrop for female sitters.

4 Rashid Johnson (Art Statements, Art Basel; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles) In Basel and Los Angeles, Johnson presented scenes from another black history in a most original way, creating an uncanny installation in the form of a carpeted meditation room–slash-library. There, visitors were invited to peruse sculptural shelving units full of books, records, and other artifacts relating, if sometimes obliquely, to the Boulé—an elite, semisecret black fraternal organization whose members have included such towering figures as Frederick Douglass.

5 “Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity” (Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm/Burlafingen, Germany; curated by Okwui Enwezor) Since the mid-1990s, erstwhile investment banker Arthur Walther has been building an extraordinary collection of contemporary African photography. Happily, the trove now has a public venue of its own in the Bavarian town of Burlafingen. In this relatively out-of-the-way setting, Enwezor organized a grand inaugural exhibition, showcasing the collection’s riches and, in one section, ingeniously juxtaposing African photographers and their European counterparts.

6 “The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600–1700” (National Gallery, London; curated by Xavier Bray) In seventeenth-century Spain, Catholic sculptors and painters did their part for the Counter-Reformation by teaming up to create expertly carved and polychromed devotional statues. The goal was to make the faithful feel as if they were in the actual presence of the Savior and the saints; the result was a new kind of realism. With his straightforward and beautiful juxtaposition of sixteen sculptures and sixteen paintings, Bray proved that the “hyperrealistic” principles of painters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán were predicated on their intimate knowledge of three-dimensional modeling techniques. Contemplating Pedro de Mena’s 1663 statue Saint Francis Standing in Ecstasy, I hallucinated that I was looking at the man himself.

Co-organized with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

7 “Design Real” (Serpentine Gallery, London; curated by Konstantin Grcic) Munich-based product designer Grcic, who studied carpentry just like Kéré, not only is one of the most important figures in his field but also has a deep understanding of the work of his colleagues. At the Serpentine he organized a sharp, clear exhibition that celebrated the past decade’s most innovative industrial designs, all of which—hooray!—are available to a mass audience.

8 “Long March Project: Ho Chi Minh Trail” (Long March Space, Beijing; curated by Lu Jie, Song Yi, and Xu Tingting) For this exhilarating ongoing project, twenty-eight artists, thinkers, journalists, and curators retraced the circuitous paths by which North Vietnam once funneled resources to its insurgent comrades to the south. These peregrinations served as the central critical metaphor of a multiplatform enterprise, based at Beijing’s Long March Space and supported by the Prince Claus Fund, that explores the social, political, and economic networks linking Southeast Asia, China, and the world. When I visited the Long March Space in the spring, my impulse was to embark on the trip immediately.

9 Saloua Raouda Choucair (Maqam Art Gallery, Beirut) Choucair, born in 1916, is one of the pioneers of abstract art in Lebanon. Though clearly attuned to Western modernisms, she situates her intricate paintings and sculptures—which remind me of Lygia Clark’s folds—in the mystical tradition of Sufism. While Western viewers are gaining a better understanding of the contemporary art of the Middle East, we often ignore or fail to grasp earlier work from the region. Choucair calls on us to correct our oversights and challenges us to accept a continuity between Arab modernism and the art of the new century.

10 Mehr Teppich/More Carpets” (Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin) I am a huge and, until recently, furtive fan of textile art. But suddenly, to my gratification, many in the contemporary art world are raving about textiles. Bortolozzi undertook an ambitious research program, not only finding carpets made by, of course, Robert Rauschenberg and Dieter Roth with Ingrid Wiener, but also tracking down earlier floor art by the likes of Lucio Fontana and Carol Rama. A good selection of contemporary practitioners, such as Rosemarie Trockel and Albert Oehlen, lay underfoot as well.

Chris Dercon is director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst and will take up the position of director of Tate Modern, London, in spring 2011. He is curator of the Haus der Kunst’s “The Future of Tradition, The Tradition of the Future,” an exhibition of modern and contemporary artists from the Middle East, on view through January 9. His last exhibition in Munich, the retrospective “Carlo Mollino, maniera moderna” (Carlo Mollino, Modern Style), will open in fall 2011.