This interview with Brian Dillon appeared in Metropolis M on the eve of the summer show, Curiosity, at De Appel:
Agnieszka Gratza: I was curious about the way you describe yourself in your bios these days. You know, the whole business of ‘writer and/or critic’, ‘based here and there’.
Brian Dillon: I try to avoid the ‘based in’ because it suggests you spend your whole life jetting around. I suppose writing is the centre of it. In the past few years I’ve done a lot of teaching, which I love, and I’ve also curated two exhibitions and seen myself described as ‘writer and curator’ recently. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with it but I don’t have the ambition to be one of those people who has that many job descriptions going on. Writing is somehow and always the thing that I come back to.
A: I’ve just read your review of The Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist who is the kind of art-world jetsetter you seem to distance yourself from.
B: Well, I admire what Hans Ulrich does.
A: That also comes across.
B: He’s somebody whose thinking about exhibitions has been grounded in his reading. His relationship with various writers, which comes out most obviously now in the Serpentine Marathons, is really important for him. As a critic, I feel like curating is a sort of adventure and an education. But then writing about art has also been an adventure and an education, because it’s not my training. I’ve been doing it for about twelve years or so, and it feels very much as though it’s been a process of learning. I feel about curating in the same way. Doing the ‘Curiosity’ exhibition was really thrilling but it was also totally unpredictable.
A: I would have thought that this would be part of the appeal. How did that project come about?
B: Roger Malbert, who runs the Hayward’s Touring program, put it to me simply. He said if you were to curate an exhibition for us, an exhibition which had its roots in Cabinet, what would its subject be? And it was immediately clear it had to be curiosity.
A: Right. Rather than privileging any single theme, you chose to go to the heart of what the magazine? is about. Was this exhibition somehow connected to Massimiliano Gioni’s ‘Encyclopaedic Palace’ at the Venice Biennale? So many Cabinet writers had been drafted in to produce essays for the catalogue and, in a sense, Gioni framed this exhibition as a cabinet of curiosities.
B: Absolutely, but our exhibition opened a week before that exhibition. We were in fact working at exactly the same time. ‘Curiosity’ took two years to put together. We discovered quite late actually that that was going to be his subject for Venice. It was a coincidence but I suppose it was a little more than a coincidence that we were thinking along these lines, that Venice looked, as you say, like a kind of cabinet of curiosities. The idea of a contemporary exhibition having its roots in the tradition of the Wunderkammer or the cabinet of curiosities…
A: Do you mean a contemporary art exhibition?
B: Or contemporary museums thinking about their historical roots in that way. Both those things seemed like clichés. I’ve seen some exhibitions that propose themselves as cabinets of curiosities that really haven’t worked; it’s a very difficult thing to do. But it’s interesting that it suddenly came back as a possibility.
A: What makes it so tricky for cabinets of curiosities to work in a contemporary museum context?
B: Partly because the visual motifs and texture of, say, the seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities suggest a look or an atmosphere for an exhibition that’s a bit too familiar. We were lucky in that we had at Turner Contemporary these very beautiful, very clean, very spare spaces designed by David Chipperfield, who was also involved in designing the exhibition. We could make something that wasn’t trying to mimic visually the fabric or the look of the cabinet of curiosities. I suppose that’s the danger. You want to avoid a flip over into kitsch. We were looking for something that felt a bit more restrained. “Curiosity” at De Appel in some respect is going to be more contemporary still.
A: Why is that?
B: Each version of the exhibition – Margate, Norwich, Penzance and now Amsterdam – they’ve all been different and for different reasons that have to do with space and loans and so on, but that’s an opportunity. Amsterdam is an interesting place to be putting on an exhibition on curiosity because we’re able to draw on some of the local collections. We’re borrowing from the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Teylers Museum in Haarlem. We have certain objects to do with magic, with colonial history, and we’re carrying on some of the sub-themes from earlier versions of the exhibition that had to do with secrecy and mystery. But there will be surprises too, I hope.
A: It was the first time you tried your hand at curating, a major show at least. Did it radically change your view of curating?
B: One learns a great deal of admiration for art handlers. Perhaps this is something that any writer would feel when they’re invited to curate an exhibition, which is that you don’t want to make an exhibition that feels like an essay, one that relies too much on text. What made it work for me is partly that I think of essay writing as a kind of collage or curating of various kinds of knowledge, narrative, etc. One of the things that Cabinet does in its written contributions as well as its design, its curation of exhibitions, its presentation of images is to give this sense that the essay as a form has a material and curating element about it.
A: Reading your ‘essay on essays’ in frieze, I was struck by this formulation: ‘the essayist’s aesthetic is that of the collector’. Do you collect anything?
B: Not really. Apart from a few thousand books, not especially. If there’s a kind of collecting impulse, you can find it going back through things I’ve written for Cabinet. It’s hard to describe your own work but there’s probably a narrative that runs through stuff I’ve written in the past decade that really is about things: about objects and bodies and landscapes. And that would have been surprising to me ten years ago, when I thought that if I’m going to be a writer I’d be a literary critic or I’d be writing about writing. But the thing that really excited me to begin with writing about contemporary art was learning how to describe things. With respect to art criticism, people often talk about something called ‘mere description’. I always want to stop them when that phrase comes up. Description is the hardest thing for me and in some ways the most exciting. Just describing an object, describing a thing.
A: How did you get into art writing then?
B: I’d always had an interest in photography and the history of photography. As a postgraduate student, I’d written a lot about Walter Benjamin. That led me into the history of photography and then into contemporary photography. So when I started out, I was mostly writing about photography and photographers. But practically it happened because I started writing for art magazines, first of all for frieze and then for other magazines in London like Modern Painters and ArtReview, and then discovered Cabinet. It seemed as if art magazines were much more open to an essayistic, generalist, a kind of eclectic approach than certainly the mainstream literary world was at that time.
A: That’s certainly their appeal for me. I’ve noticed, looking at your blog, that you seem to have drifted away from art magazines towards more generalist publications such as the Guardian or the London Book Review, aimed at a wider, non-specialist readership.
B: That might be accidental but things go in waves in terms of where I publish things. I started out writing for really mainstream publications like national newspapers, TimeOut. But I guess at the moment I quite like the idea, after writing a lot in the past for art magazines, of trying to take some of the things I’ve learned in that process back to a wider readership. There is a challenge involved in writing 2000 words for the Guardian on an artist that might not be on everybody’s radar.
A: You seem to be juggling all these different occupations – teaching, writing, criticism, now curating – and you could say that all these different activities are handmaids in the service of the artist, to an extent. At least that’s how I view them. Were you never tempted to have a go at art making itself?
B: Only very briefly with photography, but I realized that I was completely and utterly incompetent. But I don’t think I would bother to teach art criticism, for example, unless I really believed that criticism is more than a handmaid to art, that it is an art. I find it just as difficult, just as challenging in terms of the writing to write a 700-word exhibition review as I do to write books. As a writer I don’t feel there’s a gap between those things.
A: I was going to ask you about that. As a writer you’ve turned to so many different genres. The essay may be the core of your writing but there’s biography, the memoir, the novella, fiction and non-fiction. Which of these did you find most challenging?
B: The novella, Sanctuary, was probably the most difficult because I wasn’t used to inventing things, and I wasn’t sure that I had an imagination. A kind of essayistic voice and structure is the thing that I always had an ambition towards in the first place. I would have had models in mind for that, and they’re really obvious models: Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and so on – they’re all the heroes of anybody my age and background.
A: I was struck by the framing of Sanctuary, the italicized ‘interludes’ I want to call them, thinking of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Was that one of your models?
B: That was it. The Waves was totally the model. I recently thought that if I write another novel or novella, if I write fiction again, it would probably still have Virginia Woolfish interludes. I don’t know quite how else I would do it. There are certain writers who I turn to all the time and will never rid myself of. Woolf is one of them, Barthes is another, Sebald is another, David Foster Wallace, even though I sound and write nothing like David Foster Wallace. He’s always present in my mind as I’m writing and I suppose there are moments when you feel like you have to get away from those voices, to tell them to shut up. And it doesn’t always work.
A: Do you ever experience writer’s block?
B: Yes, but I think writer’s block for me is a thing that’s thankfully temporary. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve just stopped and not been able to write for more than a matter of days. But that doesn’t mean that like any other writer I’m not constantly convinced, practically every day, that I can’t do it any more. Someone said that writers are people who find writing more difficult not easier than everybody else.
A: More difficult as time goes on or more difficult full stop?
B: That’s a good question. I think it’s probably more difficult as time goes on. At the moment I’m writing a book and I will sometimes just sit down and write without really thinking about the shape of what I’m doing and then go back and try to salvage something from it. I think writing habits and the rhythms of writing change all the time and they should change, just as moving between writing and curating, editing, teaching and so on, is probably a good thing for the writing as well.
A: Can you tell me more about the new book?
B: It’s called The Great Explosion and it’s a book about an explosion at a gunpowder factory in Kent during the WWI in 1916. The landscape still has some of the ruins of this explosives factory. So it’s the last, probably the last product of my long-term research into modern-day ruins.
A: Which brings us back to curating because that’s your second curatorial venture. How did that come about?
B: I had a research fellowship for three years which produced the novella, an anthology of writings on ruins for the Documents of Contemporary Art series, and then I was asked by Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain if I would be interested in curating an exhibition from the Tate collection on the history of ruins in British art from essentially the late seventeenth century onwards. So that’s what it is. It traces from Piranesi up to the present day, people like Tacita Dean, Jane and Louise Wilson, Gerard Byrne. For an exhibition that’s drawn almost entirely from one collection, it hopefully feels quite diverse. There’s a temptation with this subject – ruins – towards a contemporary picturesque or sublime in images of abandoned Detroit, for example.
A: ‘Ruin lust’ is one way of looking at it but I’ve heard the term ‘ruin porn’ being bandied about, which seems quite apt, because there’s an element of voyeurism to it as well.
B: I can see why the phrase ‘ruin porn’ has taken off as a description of that tendency but it’s hugely limiting. Pornography typically wants one kind of response. We were very attracted to this phrase we got from Rose Macaulay’s book called Pleasure of Ruins from 1953, ‘ruin lust’, which seems a more capacious and ambiguous term, because there are all kinds of impulses and desires at work, some of which are prurient, others Utopian and exalted. There’s the ambiguous mixture of excitement and nostalgia and regret but also a kind of hope.
A: You mentioned that the cycle of works dealing with ruins will come to an end with the new book you’re working on. How does one let go of a subject? There are all these recurrent themes in your work. Curiosity is one, ruins are another, illness is yet another.
B: I only write about things falling apart. Once I’m finished with the present book, then the next task, I hope, is to write a book about the essay as a form.
A: I see. Do you think that Objects in this Mirror is a prelude to that?
B: I suppose. That book ends with the ‘essay on essays’ but I think there’s a great deal more to be said about a resurgence in the essay among writers and among artists and filmmakers at the moment. There are quite conservative versions of that, an idea of the essay as something that’s contained, self-contained. People have gone on to talk about a rebirth of the essay online as something that’s manageable, that can be read quickly, that’s portable and so on. But I think at its best the essay is something much more unruly, unpredictable than that. And for me has a great deal to do with a way of thinking about style and voice as well. That’s something that I want to explore in the book.
A: Do you think you’ll curate another show or did these two exhibitions satisfy the urge or curiosity you had about curating?
B: It satisfied a lot of curiosity; I have absolutely no plans and I just can’t say. It may happen again. Who knows? For curators who curate exhibitions all the time, they probably come into their minds in the same way that books do for writers, which is that they don’t arrive fully formed, as propositions. They arrive in your head as hints and rumours and small constellations of images and sentences, and they take time to come together.