Okwui Enwezor, an international scholar and historian is a pioneer of curatorial practice on the themes of cultural difference and globalization. At the Documenta 11, Enwezor became the first curator to bring post colonial critique to the mainstream. He and New York gallerist Michelle Maccarone sat down to discuss the relevance of biennials and the business of art.
Michelle Maccarone: I did this project called the ‘Guantanamo Initiative’ and I’d originally shown the installation in Miami at Miami Basel at a commercial art fair. And we did this great political installation.
It has a lot of ephemera, documentation, and we set up, sort of, a shipping container and inside are the documents with the checks — videos of Fidel Castro talking about the checks, an interview with Jacques Cousteau and a naval officer at Guantanamo Bay and he’s asking him questions about the naval base. So this is an entire installation which exists in this shipping container, and we showed it in Miami Basel. Rosa Martinez saw the piece and wanted to bring it to the Venice Biennale, so I went with Christoph Büchel and we reinstalled the piece and we set it up and for the five days of the installation period I kept on referring to the installation as my booth.
Okwui Enwezor: [Laughs]
MM: I’m sharing this kind of anecdote with you because in a way these biennials and large scale installations, and the Carnegie, and Documenta become these event driven episodes in the art world, and you have people — the curators, collectors, artists — running around these things, and they treat it like it is an art fair. It becomes indistinguishable because you go to Basel and it’s these big major installations — it’s supposedly curated, they do artists projects, there are commercial booths that galleries pay money for, collectors are paying money to go…it’s tinged by everyone’s economic whatever. It just seems like we’re all on kind of a party train, or the art world’s supposed to be on a party train, going from these fairs and biennials, these exhibitions and these events, which become all indistinguishable somehow. What’s your opinion or what do you think about that?
OE: I’ve heard this idea that biennials and art fairs and so on are event driven and they’re all the same thing that form part of the same family, and I cannot help but disagree substantially on a number of levels — first on an ideological level, and second on an intellectual level. That is not to say that there’s anything wrong with an art fair per se, but I think it’s very important to tease out what fundamentally distinguishes a biennial from an art fair, and to perhaps imagine that maybe the case is the fact that art fairs have now begun to cannibalize the biennials. And I do not so much see biennials as event driven. I think they are very specific spaces of reception that have very clear intellectual, problematic, and historical perspectives. And in order to understand the function of each exhibition we have to refer back to their histories, to the very foundations of these institutions. So for example the Venice Biennale and Documenta could not, in any way, shape or form, be exactly the same kinds of exhibition.
OE: Besides the fact that they are cyclical exhibitions that happen within very specific temporal structures. Venice is biennially and Documenta happens every five years, but they were not designed with that logic in mind. So having said, that I think it’s important to ask of ourselves, what are the proper spaces of reception for contemporary art today?
MM: That’s a great question.
OE: In a moment in which what we have is not necessarily the proliferation of biennials, but the proliferation of museums and the modifications of museums as such.
MM: That was precisely another major question that I had. What seems to stun me the most is we’re living in the most politically ridiculous moment in recent American history. Yet at the same time it seems like everyone has these blinders on — collectors are buying painting. They’re buying really aesthetically driven works.
OE: Well, let me just say, I think perhaps the time has come for us to take a step back and not demonize collectors or make collectors scapegoats for the kind of deficits that exist in the contemporary art world right now.
MM: The deficit is really something I want to talk about.
OE: And I think it’s important to ask the question, what are the curatorial prepositions that are going on today? If curators don’t make it — if the artists don’t make it — collectors don’t buy it.
OE: Necessarily. So I don’t want to demonize collectors. I think it’s a very complex cultural ecology in which we all operate. I think that in that ecology there are a number of different incentives, and there are a number of different positions, and there are, of course, multiple historical, intellectual and aesthetic positions, all of which converge at the nexus of the market and the institutions. And here the question is, what is it that collectors buy if not with an eye towards the institutions? So there’s a kind of complicity here, between the collector and the institution, and I’m not saying that institutions are driving this collecting mania. I think that we’ve reached a sort of threshold in our contemporary milieu to begin to reassess what is it that makes art valuable to be collected and what is it that makes it not so valuable? This is what I see as one of the important roles of biennials as such. I’m a great advocate of these types of informal or temporary exhibitions because they have the capacity to transgress a kind of limited terrain that the institutions are unable to get into simply because the institutions are beholden to the trustees.
OE: They are operating under the guise of what they call public trust, under some limitations of space, under some deficits of growth in a problematic direction, under the guise of certain aesthetic tastes, and so on. There are all kinds of reasons. And then there are different kinds of dogmas that shape institutions, and that is not to say that biennials do not have some dogmas, but they do change. Biennials, to my thinking, are spaces of experimentation. They are spaces that gather the logic of artistic production at the very moment in which it creates a viable ontology for itself. In that sense what I would like to say is that within this cultural ecology there are many different spaces of reception and many different spaces of production, and each of them is completely attuned to certain levels of production or look in certain conditions of production. So the biennial in Sharjah cannot necessarily be seen as the same as the biennial in Gwanju. There are two different kinds of publics there. There are two different kinds of historical determination that make it possible for that public to be able to engage with the works that will bring force over there. So these are kinds of questions that we really have to ask; are biennials exactly the same all over the place, or do we just simply replicate the same versions of biennials out of Venice and out of Documenta? — which I think was years ago the most internationally visible of such institutions — or Carnegie?
But when we look beyond those spaces we really have to consider biennials in light of the ongoing process of modernization that many different places are undergoing in different parts of the world, whether it’s in China, whether it’s in Korea, whether it’s in Japan, whether it’s in Cairo. So — Sharjah as well — this is one issue. The second is that if we’re going to look at these institutions or these exhibitions in terms of the historical trajectory that they are mapped onto we have to ask the question, why is there a biennial in certain places and not others?
OE: And I think there are gaps in knowledge as to what these biennials are. I feel, that they may not necessarily be sustainable as permanent institutions in themselves.
MM: But the biennial is not a permanent institution in some respect either. With the proliferation of all these biennials in all these different places it’s also these economic structures whether or not they can be sustained every two years or whether it becomes every seven years. But in terms of the site specificity or in terms of the place do you see it as coming and going or do you see them as institutionalized? For each place?**
OE: Well in a sense it waxes and wanes, and it depends. This is precisely why I’ve said there are two moments of reception we have to think about: One, the reception of what sometimes we consider to be the proceedings of different cultural production, and the other is the reception that comes into being after the possibility to form a new kind of public for the culture, and so on. And this to me seems to be at least if not the one reason, one of the million reasons why biennials are created.
When Singapore wants to do a biennial it is not simply an act of mimicry. It is an act of trying to create a place.
MM: Or control.
OE: Yes, but the question is, who owns the global conversation? Who determines whether it’s truly a biennial?
MM: Exactly, and then the subsequent question is who is the audience? For every specific place does it change or do you think there’s a model? I think you basically answered the question, more or less, about why these biennials are initiated and why they exist in these various locations around the world, and I think that that’s the most intelligent point I’ve heard, because everyone’s like, oh my god there’s so many biennials, they’re all the same, and everyone goes to all these places but I think in the context that you put it, it makes this interesting point. I literally came back yesterday — I was in Venice and Basel — and for me, from what I saw, it just seems like everyone’s at a party. They’re at the Biennale but it’s the same audience that I saw two days later in Basel. But there’s a forum greater than that.
OE: Yeah. Unfortunately I’ve never ever been to Basel and I’m not a great fan of art fairs.
OE: They are too busy, and it’s not possible to really…I mean it’s a shop, and I think we have to accept it as such; it’s nothing more and nothing less than what it is, and this is not to say that you don’t have great art being shown there.
OE: And this does not mean that you don’t have interesting ideas being proposed in the art fairs, but the question is simply this: Where are the spaces today for the kind of artistic process of production that is homeless in institutions and in the market? Where do they take place? In the United States with the complete evisceration and eradication of so-called “authentic” spaces, we have seen disappear a cultural ecology where such things could take place. So it seems to me that when biennials become too institutionalized, or when we begin to sort of collapse the borders between biennials and art fairs then there is no space for these kinds of homeless ideas. That is why I will always insist and fight for this space of the biennials — these temporary structures that are quite fragile but are quite capable of hosting fugitive ideas and making them viable for whatever public may pass through. I know people complain about biennials. They say there are too many and so on, and we always somehow, in different configurations, end up in one of them. I am about to embark on curating another biennial in Seville next year.
MM: That same seven-months blast?
OE: Yes, and the question is — people say, are you not tired of biennials? And I say, absolutely I’m not!
MM: No, I mean you’re making the most intelligent argument that I’ve heard.
OE: So for me it’s a broad canvas, and often, and I’m not saying all the time, I’m not saying there are no struggles. But what often has the possibility of inventing a different kind of curatorial language is not possible within the strictures of institutions that already have a very solid and sometimes ultra fixed identity? And this is why I think it is a possibility to go and take on these biennials. And I’m interested in Seville simply because of its proximity to Morocco. I mean there are many different questions that one can ask in such a varied, interesting civilizational zone that is…
MM: …historically — again moving back to the question of history and historicizing the location.
OE: So can I go and propose it in exhibition to MoMA? Hell no. They are not going to be interested in it, and I’m not demonizing — there is a place for museums of modern art in the world, there is a place for the museums contemporary art in the world, there are places for historical institutions like the Met. And I would hope that there are such places for biennials. Let me give you an example. If you look at a place like Brazil, the Sao Paulo Biennial has done more for modern art in Brazil than all the museums they have ever built in Brazil have ever done.
MM: Because it creates an international forum.
OE: Precisely. Istanbul’s biennial has done more for contemporary art in Turkey than any museum they could ever build.
MM: Absolutely. Because the dialogue, it becomes…
OE: Precisely, precisely. So these are kinds of zones of, not necessarily of contestation, but zones, if you say, of a certain type of hospitality — and very very difficult to raise — that might not otherwise be able to accommodate the kind of ideas that often happen in biennials. And biennials…this is where you can make mistakes…
OE: And biennials…this is where you can test that, and where you release certain kinds of answers or information, and allow this to enter into the world. I don’t want to mention any artists that are now completely integrated into the museum world, into the market and so on, that have come out of exhibitions that have been part of whether it’s Johannesburg or Documenta or any other of these exhibitions. I think that they are proper forums. And I think that we should just simply go…just like art fairs are proper forums for people who want to buy art, biennials are proper forums for people who are interested in exhibitions and the ideas of curators. Museums are proper forums for the continuity and preservation of certain ideas of historical — or similar ideas of history — within the context of art. So all these different things play a role. Curators have a role, collectors have a role, galleries have a role. It’s really unhelpful and uninteresting, if you will, condemn collectors. I think it’s rather too easy.
MM: Another thing I’ve been kind of thinking about is relevance. As a gallerist, as someone who is immersed in the art world, going around to either galleries in Chelsea or even the selections at the Museum of Modern Art, there seems to be an inordinate amount of irrelevant work.
OE: Perhaps you can…
MM: But again you’re going back to that question of there’s a time and a place for every sort of…
OE: Well, perhaps you can use such words, and I don’t want to say irrelevant because I don’t know the context, but I think you are quite correct in your assessment of the current state of things in institutions.
MM: Irrelevant in tandem with the political situation that we’re now in. I do feel like we’re burying our heads.
OE: But we know that the markets and the institutions, in times of crisis, exist in an utterly de-historicized context. Walter Benjamin raised that question in the 30s in his text “The Author as Producer.”
MM: But knowing all of this and being as sophisticated as we’re supposed to be, especially us as the harbingers of contemporary culture. I feel like galleries and curators have traditionally been responsible. Everyone is cognizant of history but how are we now in this moment? That’s my big question.
OE: I think we mustn’t confuse the fantasy we each hold of the art world as progressive and the reality of very basic serious business, or raise it out of the world; the art world itself, it’s capitalized, at least in this part of the world. What I say is that there’s a struggle right now in which it’s not only just simply the context of the political upheaval that we live in as our contemporary experience today, but a struggle of whether institutions can play a role in defining what justice means. I haven’t seen that institutions are capable of doing this. One basic reason: There’s an incredible failure of the imagination, and the start of the inherited tradition that art is depoliticized precisely because we want to imagine for it a different kind of career than its intended for, than the makers of art intended for it, and so on. And I think, because of a conservatism of beliefs in art from any kind of social and cultural possibility that makes it possible for institutions to really go on and act, in their mind, in the public interest by showing works of artists from “the political sphere.”
So I don’t know. I think that these are questions that curators will have to take up; I don’t want to suggest that we save institutions. The institutions are made of individuals, of all kinds of actors, of all kinds of everyday users, if I may use Michel de Certeau’s terms. It’s made up of all kinds of agents, if I may use Pierre Bourdieu’s terms. These are the people we must constantly interrogate. We must always come to the position where we have to constantly interrogate the limits of our own practice. And I think we don’t do this enough in our interaction with the public sphere, insofar as the exhibition space, insofar as the museum space, is our public sphere. I don’t think that the commercial dollar is a public sphere. It’s a marketplace; it’s not a place of conversation at all.
MM: I think that’s my big fantasy. I mean that sort of… I’m a commercial Daoist. I’m here. I’m trying to sell things so I can keep things going. I feel that I have a responsibility because I feel like if I’m selling art, it’s a cultural currency, and it’s something that’s reflecting this particular moment, and I feel responsible somehow to perpetuate whatever political or sociopolitical economic agendas, and represent artists and mount shows that in this moment in time need to be shown. And I really feel this sense of urgency, and I always get really depressed because I have this position, but yet my colleagues… or when I look around, nobody’s doing that. It’s driven by something else. And I’m not saying that I’m a better gallerist. I’m also making a hell of a lot less money than colleagues in Chelsea and I’m not profiting from this very impregnated economic moment that the art world is having at all. And it’s not to elevate my stature in the art world or anything because I’m more a curator than a gallerist — I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that how can there be so few gallerists that feel that sense of responsibility? I’m not saying a gallerist should be a curator, but I still feel there’s been a history in New York that I think certainly that the ’60s and ’70s were…
OE: Well, what I can say is that you have to propel your own intellectual interests.
MM: Exactly. And that’s the bottom line, and that’s what I feel like I’m doing, but it’s just… it’s obviously a really depressing thing to constantly be doing it and constantly challenging things.
OE: Well, these are passing cycles.
OE: And we are in a cycle now of incredible indeterminacy, and a cycle of transition, and I don’t know where we’re transitioning to…
MM: What year was your Documenta? Was it 2002?
MM: That’s not that long ago, we’re talking three years. Don’t you feel like where you were and what happened during that Documenta and where we are now, and what’s happening globally in the art world… you did this amazing work, you did this thing and it’s very specific. Isn’t it amazing that we’re at somewhere completely different? I mean major, important things. You changed some of the curatorial model with that Documenta, which is now kind of the ruling thumb, I think, in terms of the curatorial teams, which are now sort of assumed, and that’s the groundbreaking, or one of — the groundbreaking things that happened. But there’s that, which is now sort of the model, and the second thing is there seems to be a bastardization of globalization at this point in time. Do you think of yourself as an icon?
OE: Oh no, not at all. [Laughs]
MM: But why do you think people perceive you as such?
OE: I don’t know, I don’t know that they do. [Laughs]
MM: Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s just an idea because we’re doing this interview for the icon issue, and obviously someone thinks you’re an icon.
MM: I feel compelled to ask the question, and I actually don’t even understand the question.
OE: Maybe it’s a kind of an enigma that surrounds curators.
MM: Well I never met you, I knew nothing about you, spent three days at Documenta, have the catalog…
OE: Yeah. [Laughs]
MM: …I’ve seen a lot of what you’ve done. I was so intimidated to do this, I’m like, oh my god I’m a gallerist!
OE: But you see I’m not…
MM: But you’re awesome, you’re totally down to earth, I mean, aside from being wildly intelligent — you, I think, are really very democratic. I mean people get so wrapped up in wanting to fight this against this, and you see things on this other level.
OE: Okay. So. Any more questions?
MM: Do you watch television?
OE: Not really. No. Not for any reason just simply because any time I watch television it’s to watch the CNN news.
MM: But you do watch America’s Next Top Model? You don’t watch any reality TV? You don’t find yourself watching reruns of Will and Grace?
OE: It’s interesting. I missed a lot of the excitement of television until very recently. I’m so terribly behind the times, I have never watched the American Idol. This is really the god-honest truth.