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Michelle Kuo talks with curator Bice Curiger about the upcoming 54th Venice Biennale

GET READY TO GO BACK: The Fifty-fourth Venice Biennale, titled “ILLUMInations,” promises a historical and aesthetic return to the tenets of the Enlightenment—and even the Renaissance—when it opens on June 1. Curator BICE CURIGER will revisit classical ideas of clarity, knowledge, politics, and vision via works by eighty-two contemporary artists and three paintings by native son Tintoretto. Artforum editor MICHELLE KUO met with Curiger—director of Kunsthaus Zürich, a founder of the journal Parkett, and organizer of major shows such as “The Expanded Eye”—to talk about the forthcoming Biennale and its reexamination of Western modernity on a global stage.

Katharina Fritsch, Stilleben (Still Life), 2011. Rendering for the artist’s contribution to the forthcoming Venice Biennale.

MICHELLE KUO: Beyond its allusion to the Enlightenment, the title “ILLUMInations seems to refer to modes of communication but also to the problem of miscommunication, of national languages and their translation or misprision.

BICE CURIGER: Absolutely. I came up with “ILLUMInations,” and then I slept on it and thought, “Oh, you’re crazy.” But it’s quite good to have these multiple meanings in one word—if it’s just about light, that’s of course the classical theme of the arts, but it could also be a bit boring and too abstract. I like that, in highlighting the false suffix, the term acquires this more realistic anchor, a different semantics.

MK: And it points to thinking about the Enlightenment, about modernity, as principally about the negotiation between the individual and the group, the state, the world.

BC: Right. I’ve been reading Nicolas Bourriaud’s The Radicant [2009], which deals with exactly these questions. Either you have globalized pastiche, where you just say everything is the same, or you start to negotiate. What are the values you want to keep, and which values are better left behind. I mean, the Enlightenment and the idealization of rationality have long been under fire. But at a time when you have to think about human rights, it’s clear that there is this modernist tradition that is also worth fighting for. That these values still hold up.

MK: It seems, though, that many global exhibitions of the past fifteen years tried to make a statement about the status of globalization or multinationalism—and that they often lapsed into either a simplistic critique of economic globalization or, on the other hand, a crude family-of-man humanism. How would the rubric you’re outlining, a return to Enlightenment ideals, avoid the latter pitfall?

BC: I feel more comfortable starting with art, not with cultural theory or sociology or political discourse. And I think the Biennale is an interesting place to do that, because history and politics play a dominant role anyway. In fact, the people who came to Venice with big theories about the world were the same ones who said that national pavilions are anachronistic. But you also risk anachronism when you erase the memory of the place.

MK: Many of the artists whom you include in your show deal with the local as a concrete phenomenon, just as you say is implicit in the pavilion projects. Given this perspective—and the rediscovery of democracy as a global aspiration—is there any aspect of the main show that you can see addressing the turmoil in the Middle East or, by extension, the uncertain future of stable states and cities?

BC: I know now of one work by an Italian artist, Norma Jeane, that will pick up the theme of the Egyptian revolution. I think that this is wonderful—if you work with eighty-two artists, you hope that things like this are going to happen.

MK: And you will have temporary structures that embrace this contingency, too, by Franz West, Oscar Tuazon, Monika Sosnowska, and Song Dong.

BC: I call them “parapavilions.” With the thematic national pavilions outside, the parapavilion becomes an alternative approach where you can ask artists, for example Oscar, whether they would like to create sculptures that could host other artists’ works.

Then we asked Asier Mendizabal to show inside Oscar’s structure, because he had work, a slide projection, that I thought would probably get lost in the Arsenale. And the Franz West pavilion is really funny—he immediately said, “I’m going to do a reconstruction of my kitchen in Vienna in Venice, but inside out.” He has numerous artworks by his friends in his kitchen, and now the actual works will be moved and installed on the exterior of his pavilion. So these twenty-some artists are a kind of addition to my artists. Inside will be a Dayanita Singh slide projection.

MK: In the last Biennale, there was a great emphasis on participatory situations and event-based projects, a nod to the legacy of Pontus Hultén and exhibitions as related to performance and pedagogy.

BC: Well, there will also be ephemeral projects like that this time. Gelitin have researched an oven that was used to melt glass in ancient times. And they will melt one ton of glass and it will just spill over the lawn in the garden of the Arsenale. Then visitors may even walk over the glass when it’s hard, so that it breaks and moves underfoot. It’s about communal life and being there and doing something, and someone will play music.

MK: What about, in a very different register, the theatricality, the drama, of Tintoretto, paintings of whose you’ve chosen to show? How can such different historical moments be at all compared?

BC: Tintoretto was highly experimental, and including his work is an occasion to question conventions, conventions of the art world, conventions of the contemporary art public, conventions of the old-master public. I belong to the generation that once had to fight against what we call, in German, the Bildungsbürger: It was all about canonized Western culture, about knowing Goethe and Schiller and inhabiting the guise of the middle-class intellectual. We have questioned that, with the result that, I think, we have in a sense lost our way. Today we have to go back to the discussion, What is culture, what is art, what are its fundaments in a globalized world?

MK: Is there a danger, though, that people will see the inclusion of Tintoretto as an attempt to establish these fundaments within the heart of Western high culture? Or is a biennial in Venice inevitably Western-centric?

BC: Of course one can walk through Venice by totally ignoring the place and pretending to be in just another urban metropole. I think we should be honest. What’s wrong with starting from what we actually know?