A conversation with Ralph Rugoff

This interview with Ralph Rugoff about the central exhibition appeared in guide to the 2019 Venice Biennale published by Metropolis M magazine:

The most relevant Venice Biennial he has seen was Francesco Bonami’s mad experiment when he had nine co-curators each do a separate section. It played with the format of the Biennale in a very radical way. Talking to Ralph Rugoff about his coming central exhibition May you live in interesting times at the Venice Biennial of 2019. ‘There’s a type of political art which promotes a particular point of view and to me that’s the opposite of what art does.’

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Jill Mulleady, The fight was fixed, 2017, Courtesy the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles / Paris

AG: In The Art Newspaper, you’re quoted as saying that ‘The way forward for the Biennale is to think about the format and the structure, not the theme.’ Could you elaborate on that?

RR: Supposedly there’s now something like 300 biennales in the world. Some of them are quite small, obviously, but they all have themes. I read the press releases and all have very elaborate curatorial statements. So much attention is paid to the theme and the curator’s thesis or rhetoric that usually has very little to do with your actual experience of seeing the exhibition.

AG: Yet there is a kind of theme contained in the title of the exhibition.

RR: Yes, ‘May you live in interesting times’. It’s a title where you don’t really know what it means. Does it sound like a positive thing to you, or does it sound slightly ominous?

AG: The word ‘interesting’ is so loaded, especially in the British context. You seldom take it at face value. It usually has an ironic ring to it. I wouldn’t have known exactly what the phrase meant but I liked the story behind it, and the way it links to this whole idea of fake news. That may be a sort of running thread in the exhibition.

RR: It’s more of a leitmotif. There are lots of works that have nothing to do with it but it’s one motif that will recur. And one point about this title is just calling attention to the fact that ‘fake news’ is nothing new. There’s a piece of fake news that’s over a 100 years old.

AG: I bet you can find earlier instances of it, a pre-history of fake news.

RR: That would be a good book.

AG: Could you talk about the way you’ve gone about selecting the artists?

RR: Part of my research process was asking the artists whom I was inviting to be in the Biennale to also recommend to me artists whom they would like to be next to. My assumption was that they would choose artists who would probably have compatible approaches or some kind of affinity to their own work but which wasn’t necessarily obvious. It wasn’t because they were both exploring the same idea or subject or content but more about their approach.

AG: Were you always able to see what may have guided their selection?

RR: I couldn’t always see it but what I ended up doing was choosing the ones where I could see it; I didn’t take everybody’s suggestions or I would have had 800 people in the exhibition. Hopefully there are more subtle ways in which the works relate that way. You’ll see, as you go through the exhibition. You’ll go ‘Oh, look, here’s a work about a wall and here is another work about this kind of dividing architecture or barrier’. But in fact what’s more interesting is the shared conceptual open-ended character of this form.

AG: In your presentation, you spoke about the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini as being two separate exhibitions and yet the artists in each will be the same, which is quite bold and unprecedented as a curatorial gambit.

RR: Hopefully it is. The point there is to present different aspects of each artist’s practice because artists do many different kinds of work, they pursue different kinds of research. Sometimes it goes in completely different directions. Ryoji Ikeda will have an enormous digital projection in the Arsenale, with a digital electronic soundtrack. These pieces are based on mathematics and on parsing tiny pieces of digital information and creating a kind of sublime landscape where there is more than you could possibly take in. And then in the Central Pavilion he’s showing something which is almost the antidote to that piece. You’re in a glass corridor with extremely bright white light and there’s no sound. The white light is so strong that it’s basically blocking out any other kind of information and so you’re in an information deprivation chamber. In either experience when you come out of it things are going to look a little different to you. But they’re completely different experiences.

AG: And how would you differentiate each of the exhibitions?

RR: There is no theme for each one. I myself am very curious about what the difference is going to be. I think the character of the spaces will make the exhibitions quite different.

AG: Which do you find more challenging?

RR: The Arsenale is much more challenging as a space because it’s a 300-metre-long narrow rectangle with a little extra bit at the end. It has lots of columns and distracting visual elements; it’s not a clean space. It still feels very much an industrial space. A painter from Kenya, Michael Armitage, has a studio in London that’s got brick walls and crumbling columns. His paintings looked so good in the studio that I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to look exactly the same in the Arsenale’. A lot of people think that the only way you can show art is in a white cube environment where there’s no distraction; the only thing that stands out is the art. But I think we can learn to see art under many different conditions and it can work. I wanted to have the character of that building be present by having walls of plywood, rather than walls that look like they’re from a gallery, and fabric walls that are translucent so you have some sense of communication between different parts of the space. And because the Arsenale is like this endless intestinal track where you get chewed up and spat out at the end, I thought it needed to be broken up horizontally so that it’s a series of smaller spaces that I hope are more manageable for people as spaces in which to really focus on the work that’s in front of them and not to see 20 other artists’ works further down the room.

AG: What would you say your overall ambition for the Biennial is?

RR: It’s always to start conversations that challenge the ways we normally think and look at things and hopefully create a situation where there are lots of works that encourage people to make connections between things they haven’t thought of connecting. In one way this is the definition of creativity – to see connections between things when other people don’t see.