Not Only Possible But Also Necessary: Art in the Present Tense

Italy USA China

Much of the art world’s attention has been focused on the once-in-a-decade convergence this summer of the Venice Biennale, the five-year periodic survey of contemporary art documenta and the 10-year periodic festival Sculpture Projekte Münster, all opening within days of each other in June. The art landscape has changed drastically since their last convergence in 1997, aided by advances in communications technology and travel convenience that have forever altered notions of contemporaneity and divisions between the First and Third Worlds.

Overlooked in the excitement is the benchmark 10th edition of the Istanbul Biennial—opening in September—one of the first successful “non-Western” biennials that have since sprouted up in almost every conceivable location. Given Istanbul’s historical position as a bridge between Asia and Europe, and Venice’s similar reputation as a gateway for travel from West to East, we found the parallel between the two cities offered an intriguing window on the current changes in how we perceive our world. Geography, culture and value are no longer tied to opposing boundaries of time or distance; instead we have entered an era defined by transience and simultaneity.

Seeking to further understand how these changes have affected contemporary art, ArtAsiaPacific arranged a dialogue between this year’s artistic directors of the Venice and Istanbul biennials, Robert Storr and Hou Hanru—who will also curate the China Pavilion at Venice—to exchange their unique viewpoints on the upcoming activities. Storr has been a seminal figure on the American art landscape for over two decades, respected for his work as an artist, critic and senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and now ensconced as dean of the prestigious Yale University School of Art. Hou, originally from China, established himself as a curator in Paris and is representative of a younger generation of art professionals who challenge the very notion of institutional art. Appropriately, his 1997 touring exhibition “Cities on the Move,” co-organized with frequent collaborator Hans Ulrich Obrist, set the bar for reconsidering exhibition-making in he global era.

ROBERT STORR: Hanru, we had a conversation last year at the Art Basel art fair and I’ve followed your career and read your writing. I think there is a critical difference in our generational orientation. I started going to shows in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. I watch what you and your colleagues do, because I know that I wouldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t do what I do. But I don’t see this as a matter of competing or conflicting views. As the art director of this year’s Istanbul Biennial, how do you, as a Chinese curator, feel working in Islamic culture? The conversation in the West tends to be about European or Euro-American curators operating outside of their zone of influence. But it is just as big a leap to go from China to Turkey as it is from the US. So how does the question of cultural selectivity or viewer understanding affect somebody who operates outside the trans-Atlantic axis?

HOU HANRU: Luckily we don’t have to stick to the trans-Atlantic axis any more! In truth, most of the established institutions and markets are still based on that axis but the perspective is shifting. It’s not simply about telling the world that the new centers are now in the Asia Pacific. My approach entails a continuous negotiation between each locality and the global framework. You point out the generational difference. I think it’s a good thing that we are not the same kind of curator. The world needs more diverse approaches to art. However, I don’t think I’m a Chinese curator. I happened to grow up in China and I work with Chinese contemporary art, but I am a global traveler. Although the Chinese experience gives me strength, I consider myself someone who has continuously struggled against being Chinese. I discovered that in Istanbul, as well as in China, the most dynamic aspect of the art scene is the self-organization that takes place in these communities and the reinvention of self-confidence by embracing the global.

RS: When I made this argument elsewhere, people found it funny, but the discussion about post-colonialism is important. One fact that gets left out is that the US began as a colony. We have created problems for ourselves by acting like colonialists, but we were once on the receiving end of similar behavior. All cultures have been dominant in some cases and dominated in others. Right now, china is looking ahead to a point where its sphere of influence is going to be huge. And lessons learned from the misuse of power are lessons that everyone should consider. This is not addressed to you necessarily. The simple binary relationship between cultural limitations, bias, myopia, the trans-Atlantic binary—Europe and North America versus everybody else—obscures the fact that everybody else is not the same.

HH: The discussion of post-colonialism provided a foundation for my generation to evaluate what we are doing. But now the post-colonial question appears at the frontier of other conflicts; you might call them neo-colonial conflicts, or what Tony Negri and Michael Hart refer to as the “Empire,” which is imposing even more violent colonialism all over the world. It’s important to look at how different parts of the world are inventing strategies to resist this dominance. In terms of art we are somehow looking at the same situation.

RS: The fact that the world has so many active centers right now means that nobody has hegemony—and we don’t want it. As a curator, it’s one thing to say, “You should pay attention to this art because I find it to be thought provoking.” It’s another thing to declare that that’s the only worthwhile thing. Anybody that gets involved in that mentality runs a huge risk of hubris and doesn’t serve art very well.

HH: I totally agree. I grew up during a period when China was going through radical change. Every three to five years there was a revolution, from the 1960s through the 1980s. It continued like this until I left China for Europe and now I work everywhere—I live in the US but regularly return to China and Europe. All this helps me realize that any established system of discourse is always subject to critical review. It’s important to question the theories and approaches that I respect, and reconnect the reality in which we live with our critical points of view.

RS: I believe that there are contradictions, but the conflicts that arise from those contradictions are not productive, because nobody wins if you choose one side or the other. The same holds in professional terms. One can have spirited arguments, but there’s no such thing as a definitive win in the art world. Americans have a particular experience with this because in the 1950s and 1960s the critic Clement Greenberg and his formalist idea of art dominated the institutional structure, and for all the sophistication of that view it was devastating to art-making and to artists who didn’t fit those definitions.

HH: I belong to a group of curators who continuously try to challenge ourselves. I don’t follow a particular curatorial model. Directing Istanbul gives me the opportunity to relate international contemporary art to local conditions – to the different exhibition venues and to the history and reality of the place. I have chosen not to call it a thematic exhibition but rather to provide a range of possibilities surrounding the question of how modernity has been reinvented throughout history in different parts of the world and how this, in turn, provides an opportunity to think about a world that is dynamic, contemporary, modern and open, not based on a single dominant organizational or interpretive model.

RS: The theme for the Venice Biennale, “Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense,” has a variety of threads that I think of as tuning forks where you hit a note and it resonates. They deal with the displacement of peoples or displacement of identities. They deal with the relationship between sensual experiences that you can trust, and those that are open to intellectual doubt. There is a good deal of emphasis on both public violence or conflict and individual death in its relation to art—but these are topics I hope will be grasped primarily from the art itself, rather than from declarations that I make.

As for the title, we have been laboring under a number of philosophical and theoretical dichotomies that pit perceptual understanding against conceptual understanding. Really great art makes you think, makes you use your senses, makes you feel. I am trying to present this on a variety of registers, revealing the interpenetration of the intellect and intuition.

HH: The Istanbul Biennial also has a long title: “Not Only Possible but Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War.” The idea is that the biennial cannot be summarized in five sentences. You have to delve into it, experience it and use complex—not consumable—language to describe it. The biennial’s components deal with political utopia, the production of economy, global migration, community collaborations and so on. I also consider how a biennial can provide the local community a 24-hour experience, so it will run 24-hours a day. That requires a lot of effort and initiative from the local community, demanding self-organization and inviting alternatives to the usual interaction between art and society.

RS: Well, all group exhibitions are experiments in how to do it. I’m bothering by group exhibitions that are too big and shapeless as a result of trying to do too much. So I’ve opted to make Venice relatively small. I consider how much the individual viewer can take in, not in one visit, but in a couple of visits. Any show like this that has time-based work, video installation in particular, requires several walkthroughs.

And there are a thousand anxieties in Venice. They have to do with seeing whether it’s possible to pull it off at all given the severe budget limitations and the logistics. I decided early on that I was not going to do a “proportional representation of the world” show, particularly because in Venice you have the national pavilions. So the show is international but it doesn’t have—like Noah’s Ark—two by two for each place I went.

HH: From my perspective, this year’s convergence of art festivals in Europe is ironic because over the past 10 years we’ve seen may other biennials and events happen outside of the West. We’re looking at a wonderful shift beyond a Eurocentric viewpoint but now suddenly we are brought back to Europe. Will it signify a re-concentration of the old power system?

Looking at the global map today, it’s like a grid where the vertical intersects the horizontal. The divisions between center and periphery don’t apply any more, but the tensions between center and periphery remain and have developed specific to each locality. That tension is one of the important driving forces for every place to reinvent itself through contemporary expression, including art.

RS: On another tack, when I worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I got a lot of questions about “The Museum” in capital letters, and eventually I got interested in how institutions develop. Venice is history’s first biennial, and the only one that has a system of national representation. These characteristics make it unlike Istanbul or Saõ Paulo or Shanghai or any of the other interesting biennials that take place. So how does one take account of these differences?

I grew up in America, which is full of different cultures. I’ve lived outside the US for much of my life and traveled everywhere. When I was in America for eight years, I lived in a mostly Afro-Caribbean community where I was among the five percent of the people who weren’t Afro-Caribbean. To me it’s natural that one lives with other cultures or even as a minority in other cultures. So I approach the issue the way I approached my neighbors. Art is one of the ways that information can be exchanged. I don’t speak for artists of other cultures, nor do I speak for artists of my own culture. But I can speak to them, and have real and deep connections.

HH: I try to look beyond the community that I’m in and explore any social or cultural activity that can be considered creative. Basically I am trying to go beyond what we usually consider art to include other disciplines such as urbanism and architecture and now economic mechanisms in the current capitalist situation and global economy.

That opens up a very large perspective. In the past decade, we’ve gone from discovering the multicultural aspects of social life and the creative world in the West to the more global understanding that contemporary art takes place beyond Eurocentric limits. Another change is that contemporary art is becoming part of mainstream cultural industry. On the other hand there’s a continuous effort from the art community to go beyond the grasp of the establishment and deal with political and other nontraditional issues. Art that engages the public sphere, with the help of new technology, has spread quickly all around the world. This makes us rethink the notion of the public sphere even as the world is becoming increasingly privatized.

If art has a vocation to reveal what is hidden in society and what is being manipulated by the established power system, then the most crucial aspect of society today is economy. How one can conceive alternative systems of economy that balance out the dominance of one kind of power system or capital if we want to continue with the kind of creative activity that we believe in?

RS: Power is a fact and you can’t be shy about it. Having it is better than not having it, but misusing it is worst of all. The power to say, “Please pay attention to something that I have found meaningful,” is very different than the power to say, “Not only do I want you to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to, but I want you to think about it the way I think about it. And I also want you to do both these things to the exclusion of the alternative.”

HH: Art has to be anarchic. It’s the place where one can challenge established values. What is great about working in art is how one has to continuously reinvent oneself and the process of deconstructing established power.