Tag Archives: Hans Ulrich Obrist

Transformation Marathon

This piece appeared in the “Conference Room” section of LEAP magazine, in Chinese translation:

DATE: 2015.10.17-18

LOCATION: Serpentine Gallery and Serpentine Radio

PARTICIPANTS: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Saskia Sassen, Bruno Latour, Gilbert & George and Victoria, Tino Sehgal, Alice Rawsthorn, Eyal Weizman, Etel Adnan, Dorothea von Hantelmann, Juliet Jacques, Kim West, Judy Chicago, François Jullien, Marcus du Sautoy, Jimmie Durham, Gabriella Coleman, Julieta Aranda, and many others.

Now in its tenth year, the annual Serpentine Marathon at the close of Frieze Week has become a London institution. Initiated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2006, the inaugural 24-Hour Interview Marathon was co-curated with architect Rem Koolhaas; subsequent marathons explored topics as diverse as maps, manifestos, gardens, poetry, memory and, last year, extinction. The Transformation Marathon grew out of this last entrant, as a counterpoint to a loaded theme with a certain ring of finality to it.

“Transformation is change with no interruption,” Obrist made his own Etel Adnan’s claim in his opening speech. The Lebanese-American poet, who has been in six prior editions of the Serpentine Marathon, is an oracle Obrist consults in the run up to each new marathon. On the eve of the Transformation Marathon proper, she and two other marathon stalwarts, the artist duo Gilbert and George, took part in an hour-long Flash Marathon at the Google Cultural Institute, alongside Obrist and Juliet Jacques, author of Trans: A Memoir (2015), which, together with Paul B. Preciado’s 2008 Testo Junkie, originally published in Spanish, inspired the transgender strand of this year’s marathon.

“Trans” means to go through or beyond, outgoing Serpentine director Peyton-Jones reminded the audience in her inaugural address, adding that the chosen topic of transformation “touches everybody in spite of their race, color and creed.” Coming at the notion from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and interests, the 100-odd participants considered its social, political, biological, ecological and institutional ramifications. Among other things, the marathon’s anniversary edition addressed the transformation not only of museums and art institutions but of the marathon format itself.

As in previous years, the marathon availed itself of different presentation formats – from talks and conversations to screenings and sound performances – lasting about 15 minutes, and occasionally longer. The Transformation Marathon as a whole reverted to the original non-stop 24-hour format, scaling back somewhat from the last editions. Whereas the initial twelve hours happened live before an audience gathered in Zaha Hadid’s sinuous white Magazine at the Sackler Gallery, the remainder continued on air from midnight until noon the following day in a bid to explore the “transformative power of radio”.

“Bringing together all fields of knowledge but not in a continental and homogenizing way,” in the words of Obrist, the Serpentine marathons invoke Martinican writer Édouard Glissant’s “archipelago-thinking.” What follows are three islands selected by LEAP from the archipelago of ideas.

ETEL ADNAN

Poet and painter

 When you speak of transformation you have the beautiful combination or contrast of something permanent that is there, a substratum, and something that changes. There is a mountain north of San Francisco called Mount Tamalpais. The Indians called it the Sleeping Woman. When I became a painter, I started drawing it and I realized how much something that looked so stable was never the same. This was a great discovery that helped me understand painters like Giorgio Morandi, who painted the same ten bottles in his kitchen, or Paul Cézanne, who went everyday to Mont Sainte-Victoire. The area where I lived had phenomenal fogs in the summer that came like rivers, like in some old Chinese painting, and the mountain would be cut in two. You would see the tip and nothing else. When a cloud came under the sun you had shadows moving on the mountain, as if a guardian or some spirit was touching it and moving with it. Sometimes I had the feeling, when these shadows touched it, that it was like some people’s face. You speak to somebody and you say something that moves them and their physiognomy changes. This mountain became as close as a person. It was alive in a strange way. Still on paper or on canvas I try with colour to catch the different moods; the mountain is moody like people are moody. The transformation of the mountain transforms you.

FRANÇOIS JULLIEN

Philosopher and sinologist

I call the “silent transformation” a transformation that takes place without noise and which we do not talk about. Why don’t we talk about it? Because it is global and continuous. It takes place discreetly. We cannot see ourselves getting old because everything within us gets old. Everything is a silent transformation. Ice melting or the falling out of love. I am a philosopher and I follow the Greeks, but I have also decided to look at China because that enables me to step back from our European culture and to consider it from an external point of view. The Greeks did not know how to think about transition, which is at the heart of transformation. Plato spoke about melting snow. Snow, while melting, is indistinct: it is neither water nor snow. It has no essence. Greeks and subsequent philosophies such as ours thought that transition is distinguishing what is indistinct. Chinese thought helps us to think about transition. In China, there are two concepts that refer to transition: modification and continuation. There are four seasons: two seasons which change and two seasons which continue. Winter to spring is a change, spring to summer is a continuation, then to autumn is a change and a continuation into winter. Transformation is an alteration rather a change. This alteration within continuation enables renewal.

JUDY CHICAGO

Artist and feminist

By the end of the 1960s I began looking back at women’s history because I’d decided that I was tired of not being myself. At the time I don’t think I realized what a radical break I was about to make. In Pasadena Lifesavers, I was starting to try and infuse the minimal language and the colour systems I had developed with my own content and subject matter as a woman. I became incredibly interested in trying to fashion images of female sexual agency. The image of the flying phallus, active male sexuality, goes back to Greek times. There is no comparable history of female sexual agency. So imagine if you’re a female artist and you feel not only active as an artist, as a sexual being, as a person, actively wanting to participate in human history – you have to think and stand against the entire history of Western thought. Pasadena Leftovers was probably my first baby step in preparing myself to stand against the tradition of art history and of Western culture, to find my way and create a path for female sexual agency. When I decided to make this radical change in my work, I wanted a way to symbolize it. And I thought I’m going to announce with a name change that I’m taking control of my future, my identity, my art making.

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Artissima

This report from Turin at the time of Artissima appeared on artforum.com:

“SOME OF THE OTHER FAIRS need to step it up,” artist Hugo McCloud declared as we stood outside of the brightly lit Lingotto Oval on the opening night of the twenty-second Artissima. Formerly a skating ring built for the 2006 Winter Olympics, the pavilion is nowadays oval in name alone. Artissima director Sarah Cosulich Canarutto, whom I had run into earlier at the plush VIP Lounge styling itself as an “Opium Den,” took me up to a suspended observatory kitted with design furniture, where the jury members for the different prizes convened. (Rumor has it that it was designed for the director to sleep in.) From that elevated vantage, we could see at a glance the neat rows of fair booths on each side of the two central Janus-like sections, looking forward and back with curated solo presentations of young emerging artists (Present Future) and historical avant-garde figures (Back to the Future).

Artissima is the curators’ fair par excellence. “Curators are involved at every level—the juries, the selectors, the people participating in the walkie-talkies,” critic and Per4m coordinator Simone Menegoi assured me. His cocurators, Chris Sharp and Sophie Goltz, concurred. Sharp had just had a public manicure session with artist Julie Béna; I eyed his polished nails enviously. Nail Tang, named after the Parisian Galerie Joseph Tang representing Béna, was one of twelve works showcased as part of Per4m, which prides itself on being “an actual section of the fair” as opposed to a collateral program of events. You wouldn’t necessarily know the difference, Menegoi conceded, as nearly all performances take place in a designated part of the fair at an assigned time. But they are in principle for sale like any other works. (I hated to ask how many actually sold.)

Left: Dealer Jocelyn Wolff. Right: Dealer Felipe Dmab.

Since practically everything at the fair—except for the main gallery section, perhaps—appears to have been “curated,” not least the eclectically oriental Opium Den, I half expected OwenCorp’s Michèle Lamy, who I spotted sitting in the VIP lounge surrounded by her retinue, to tell me she was responsible for some of the finer catering on offer, like the delectable green apple sorbet I was about to tuck into. “My input,” she said, pointing with her bejeweled fingers to a young woman kneeling by the table, “is that I gave birth to that girl.” Her daughter, artist Scarlett Rouge (surely a stage name?), had designed the fetching knitted rugs for the Opium Den—enough to make Edward Said turn in his grave.

With no magic carpet to spirit us away from the fair, McCloud, his dealer, and I had to wait for a cab to take us to Fondazione 107 for a sneak preview of the New York–based artist’s show opening the following evening in one of the repurposed, out-of-the-way warehouses that Turin has in abundant supply. Rouge, who moved to Turin with her partner a year ago, gave me a lift back to the city center. A wrong turn set us adrift in some eerily empty industrial zones, but we still made it to Bar Cavour, facing the baroque facade of Palazzo Carignano, before everyone else. Strains of what turned out to be Darren Bader’s Proposta per le 9 Sinfonie emanated from a vacant nobiliary apartment overlooking the piazza, whose bare rooms were each filled with the rousing sounds of a different Beethoven symphony.

The extended OwenCorp family, sporting gorgeous Rick Owens–designed creations, eventually joined us for a light supper of Piedmontese specialities washed down with champagne, ceaselessly replenished by Bar Cavour’s assiduous staff. We lingered in the elegant mirrored interior whose refinement no VIP lounge could possibly emulate until it was time to head to the Artissima bash at the Circolo dei Lettori in yet another monumental palazzo. For all its faded opulence and some decent music, the rammed yet somewhat sedate party—where everyone I spoke to seemed to have stayed “for just half an hour”—did not seem to warrant the effort it took to get inside.

Left: Artist Paul Etienne Lincoln and dealer Guido Costa. (Photo: Agnieszka Gratza) Right: OwenCorp’s Michèle Lamy.

The next morning, we started bright and early with a visit to the much-loved but fusty GAM Collection, followed by that of the outlying Castello di Rivoli with its sweeping views of the Alps. Francesco Bonami’s two-part “Tutttovero” group show—effusive in its very spelling—was spread over both venues, bridging two of the city’s most important public art institutions, dedicated to modern and contemporary art respectively. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who has been tasked with coordinating their programs, is only due to take up her position in January 2016, but at the crowded opening of Rachel Rose’s prize exhibition, the returning director of Castello di Rivoli gave the impression of being already in charge.

The winner of last year’s Illy Present Future Prize is certainly having a moment. (She won for her video A Minute Ago, brought by the prescient Parisian gallery High Art.) Unlike Cosulich Canarutto, understandably eager to claim the artist as an Artissima discovery, Rose appeared keen to play it down. “It all happened kind of at once,” she said, alluding to the Frieze Artist Award as well as the Serpentine and the Whitney solo shows, the last of which had opened only three days before. For her prize exhibition at Castello di Rivoli, she wanted “something small and intimate,” and that’s exactly what it was. The solo exhibition consisted of a single video installation, Interiors, projected against a lunette-like gray backdrop matching the shape of the semicircular space fitted with a cream-colored carpet (“the colour of Cosmic Latte,” according to the press release).

Back at the fair, I joined a sizable group of visitors for the first of the oversubscribed and occasionally quite entertaining walkie-talkies, in this instance pairing Documenta Kassel’s Pierre Bal-Blanc with Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo of the eponymous private art foundation, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. If Artissima employs many a curator (some fifty of them, in fact, for this edition alone), it also gives collectors more visibility. This year, curators were invited to team up with a collector of their choice and to take a few works or booths that spoke to them as the starting point for an itinerant conversation à deux.

Left: Dealer Ellen de Bruijne. Right: Castello di Rivoli director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev with artist Rachel Rose. (Photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

The walkie-talkies, however entertaining, are not what makes a fair exciting, as far as Martin McGeown is concerned. The codirector of Cabinet Gallery was at Artissima to show Pierre Klossowski’s erotic large-scale drawings, among the standout solo presentations in the Back to the Future section. Forty (or was it 60?) percent of the works on view at the fair struck McGeown as “inconsequential.” Be that as it may, the remaining 60 (or 40) had much to hold one’s attention, from videos and documentation of Michael Smith’s performances at Ellen de Bruijne Projects and Japanese artist Chu Enoki’s camp self-portraits in White Rainbow’s thoughtful display to Alina Chaiderov’s twin sculptures in Galerie Antoine Levi’s spare but surprising installation (those curious enough to walk behind a deceptively plain, painted closet discovered its shelves were packed full of real bananas), which deservedly won this year’s Illy Present Future Prize.

The Bal-Blanc–Re Rebaudengo pair sat across the table of honor at the wedding-style reception—complete with a marquis, a (birthday) cake, and speeches—hosted by the collector at her villa that evening. Aside from Stedelijk director Beatrix Ruf, Serpentine director Hans Ulrich Obrist, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, McGeown, and Christov-Bakargiev, the table counted four artists, quickly pronounced “great”: Rose, Adrián Villar Rojas, Ryan Gander, and Ed Atkins, there to plan his solo show at Castello di Rivoli next year. Gander happened to be in town to show work he had made with his six-year-old daughter, who is already “good at making bad paintings,” as the proud father put it.

I missed my chance to see Villar Rojas’s rock garden at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo by night, as Obrist urged us to do in his speech, since the installation is lit with natural light alone. (For his own part, Obrist, the cofounder of the Brutally Early Club, was planning to catch a 5 AM concert programmed in Turin’s Club to Club festival, running concurrently with Artissima.) Instead, I joined Artissima curators Menegoi, Eva Fabbris, and dealer Norma Mangione, en route to the Mad Dog speakeasy, whose doors would only open once the magical phrase “Norma is drunk” was pronounced. What is it with fairs and speakeasies? You can’t have one without the other.

Brian Dillon

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.

 

14th Venice Architecture Biennale

This report from the German, Austrian and Swiss pavilions at the Venice Architecture Biennale was posted on the frieze d/e blog:

German Pavilion, all images courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia; photographs: Andrea Avezzù
 

In an unprecedented move, the director of this year’s Venice architecture biennale, Rem Koolhaas, proposed a single, admittedly capacious theme for all 65 national pavilions to grapple with: ‘Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014’. The thesis behind this – with the fraught concept of ‘modernity’ at its heart – seemed to be the contention that over the last century the distinctions between national architectural styles, once pronounced, have given way to a universal and generic modern aesthetic. While some commissioners proved willing to use their pavilions as a testing ground for this supposition, others chose to address it obliquely or not at all – if the German, Swiss and Austrian pavilions are anything to go by.

German Pavilion
 

Of the three, the German contribution bore the closest relation to the theme. Zurich-based architects Alex Lehnerer and Savvas Ciricadis responded to Koolhaas’ suggestion by grafting modernist architect Sep Ruf’s glass ‘Kanzlerbungalow’ – built in 1964 as the German chancellor’s official residence in Bonn – onto the German Pavilion in Venice. The monumental neo-classical building, which dates to 1909, though renovated in 1938 at the behest of the Nazi government of the time, represents another, tainted face of modernity.

German Pavilion
 

The pavilion literally absorbs the partial but life-size replica of the bungalow temporarily lodged inside it. This superimposition produces a ‘third’ entity, a curious crossbreed of the two buildings, as reflected in the name ‘Bungalow Germania’, the homely connotations of the one deflating the nationalist rhetoric and pretensions of the other. The horizontality and asymmetrical layout of the bungalow, made of glass, steel and brick, offset the vertical thrust and the rigid symmetry of the stone pavilion.

Beautifully uncluttered, the skeletal interior of the Kanzlerbungalow – with its succession of ‘rooms’ framed by glass-and-steel partitions, wooden ceilings, bare walls and a monumental brick fireplace dominating the main, atrium-like space – relates to the ‘elements of architecture’ theme staged in the central pavilion as part of Koolhaas’ Fundamentals exhibition. Assigned no clear function or order the rooms mirror the structure of the accompanying essay by Quinn Latimer, ‘Your Bungalow Is My Pavilion (This Room Is An Island)’, like so many thought units or bubbles, teasing out parallels between the two historically and geographically remote buildings.

Swiss Pavilion
 

The single-storey Swiss Pavilion, designed by Bruno Giacometti in 1952, could almost exemplify the modernist theme proposed by Koolhaas. But the catch-all title of ‘absorbing modernism’ was quietly side-stepped in favour of the pavilion’s own agenda – to investigate time-based display formats, centered on people rather than objects – articulated by art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann in a series of compelling mini-lectures styled as ‘vignettes’. These punctuated the breathless two-day Marathon coinciding with the biennale’s opening. Modelled on the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion’s own Marathon event series organized by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the event boasted a stellar line-up of speakers, in addition to the not inconsiderable number of artists and architects who had collaborated to the Swiss Pavilion’s presentation.

Swiss Pavilion
 

Titled A stroll through a fun Palace with reference to British architect Cedric Price’s best-known though unrealized project and the science of ‘strollology’ or walk-taking advocated by the Swiss sociologist and urban planner Lucius Burckhardt, the Swiss Pavilion pays homage to two revered figures whose playfully anarchical take on architecture, if anything, challenged the pretensions of modernism. Projects such as Price’s 1999 ‘A Lung for Midtown Manhattan’ – whose plans were presented to me by a student from the gta (Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture) at the ETH Zürich – emphasized the potential of non-built urban space.

Austrian Pavilion
 

For the duration of the International Architecture Exhibition, extended from three to six months in line with the sister art biennial, architecture students will be on call to communicate the ideas of Price and Burckhardt to visitors in a ‘living archive’ of sorts, conceived by Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza, jointly with architects Herzog & de Meuron, who designed the archive room and the trolleys on which the facsimiled materials were wheeled out and displayed. Students from the Vienna University of Technology have likewise been co-opted to compile information needed to develop the 3D models (on a scale of 1: 500) of the 196 national parliament buildings mounted on the walls of the Austrian Pavilion’s main room.

Austrian Pavilion
 

On the face of it, the focus of the Austrian contribution to the architecture biennale, called ‘Plenum. Places of Power’, is only tenuously linked to the general theme set by Rem Koolhaas for national pavilions. ‘Absorbing modernity’, according to the project description, is seen through the prism of ‘absorbing democracy’ – two processes that come together in parliamentary architecture. Some of the masterpieces of modernist architecture indeed happen to be parliamentary buildings, from Oscar Niemeyer’s National Congress Building in Brasília to Louis Khan’s Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban in Dhaka, Bangladesh (without it saying much about their peoples’ access to democracy).

Yet, despite having been built in the last 50 years, the bulk of the parliaments confronted in ‘Plenum. Places of Power’ speak the language of classicism and deploy its elements: columns, cupolas, porticos, and the like. The pavilion’s centerpiece has affinities with David Mulder’s and Max Cohen’s ‘Theatres of democracy’ section in Koolhaas’ Monditalia show spanning the length of the Arsenale, which traces the semi-circular architecture of contemporary assembly halls back to ancient Greek theatres and the theatre of Siracusa, Sicily in particular. Protruding from the walls and painted a matching white, the architectural models arranged into grids and facing each other like so many cenotaphs, recalled the national pavilions themselves. Beneath the national variations on the parliament theme, their pleasing uniformity seemed to bear out Koolhaas’ thesis.

Solaris Chronicles

 This piece appeared on artforum.com:

Left: LUMA Foundation founder Maja Hoffmann with architects Annabelle Selldorf and Frank Gehry. Right: At the “Solaris Chronicles” event. (All photos: Herve Hote)

THE TWENTY-ACRE PARC DES ATELIERS, a defunct SNCF railway yard on the outer edge of Arles, might only be a fifteen-minute walk from the train station. But as I stood in midday heat last Sunday, with no taxis in sight, Maja Hoffmann’s proposal to build a station closer to the Ateliers made perfect sense to me.

Not so to my French travel companions, who saw it as a sign of how out of touch with (local) reality the Swiss-born arts patron is. A new railway station is, after all, “an affair of national concern.” Though Hoffmann, who recently purchased the Ateliers to transform them into a Frank Gehry–designed research and exhibition center for her LUMA Foundation, might be more in touch than many, given that she spent her childhood in the French Provençal city.

Spurred on by the prospect of refreshments hosted by LUMA, editor Phoebe Greenwood and I briskly made our way to the Ateliers, past the amphitheater and other Roman vestiges, pausing to gape at the women who drifted past us as in a dream in full arlésienne garb, looking starched and crisp despite the heat. We arrived in time to sip Bloody Marys and juice in the shade of the Atelier des Forges, overlooking the fenced-off vacant plot where the foundation stone of Gehry’s shiny stainless steel-clad tower—the centerpiece of the arts complex due to be completed in 2018—was laid in April.

Lunch was served on a table that spanned the full length of the Atelier des Forges, the first of the former SNCF sheds to be renovated by New York–based architect Annabelle Selldorf. In a speech prefaced with a caveat about her German penchant for sentimentality, Selldorf explained how the Parc des Ateliers was “more or less a ruin” before the LUMA Foundation set about “sensitively” refurbishing it with her help.

John Baldessari‘s Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man, 1984.

Designed to house photographic exhibits, the building with its pristine white walls was ready for the opening of the forty-fifth edition of the acclaimed photography festival, the Rencontres d’Arles, and put at its disposal. But gifts are sometimes spurned, and the Rencontres d’Arles, somewhat perversely, would have none of it. Its director François Hebel resigned earlier this year in protest against what he views as Hoffmann’s ruthless takeover of the Parc des Ateliers, whose dilapidated halls have served the festival well over the years.

All the political wrangling may be little more than a bataille de quequettes (“battle of peckers”), as the fireworks maker Christophe Berthonneau next to whom I was seated curiously put it, but it’s hard not to think that LUMA Arles is, if not quite ousting, then upstaging the festival with Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Philippe Parreno’s spectacular, changing “Solaris Chronicles,” a collaborative endeavor conceived as a Gesamtkuntswerk, whose second stage was precisely timed to coincide with the start of the Rencontres. Placed on the outside of the Atelier de la Mécanique, by the entrance to “Solaris Chronicles,” John Baldessari’s 1984 billboard Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man seemed apt.

By the time I reached the Atelier de la Mécanique, where the “Solaris Chronicles” event was about to begin, the cavernous hall—lit up by a single moving spotlight standing for the titular light-bearing planet—was filled with people, many of them from Arles. The most beguiling element of the show—the sharply outlined shadows of the building’s columns and of Gehry’s architectural models gliding over a white screen at the back of the room—was achieved by the simplest of means, reminiscent of early cinema and its experiments. Parreno’s strident, flickering marquees suspended above the models felt brash in comparison.

Deliberately low-key, the delicate indoor fireworks, orchestrated by Cai Guo-Qiang with the aid of Berthonneau and his Camargue-based Groupe F, who have been creating fireworks displays for some of the most high-profile events in the past two decades, were never going to be crowd-pleasers. Yet, judging by some of the bemused reactions (“Wait, we’ll get crushed by a maquette”), Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza’s choreography for Gehry’s signature architectural models (including one of the sprawling Facebook West Campus building in Menlo Park), which were shifted around on trolleys and threatening in their sheer bulk, had an awe-inspiring effect, compounded by Pierre Boulez’s atonal musical score.

Left: Kunsthaus Zürich curator and Parkett editor Bice Curiger. Right: Artists Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza.

The sun was no longer au rendez-vous when we emerged into broad daylight. Soon after the start of the afterparty at the Villa des Alyscamps, a former convent adjoining the Roman necropolis of the same name, it began to rain, forcing everyone to huddle together beneath an old tree, large enough to shelter us all. “People should always hold conversations under trees,” Obrist said, invoking Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan. Behind the villa, beneath another tree, the LUMA “core group” and its extended family of artists, art-world luminaries, and Ping-Pong aficionados were discussing the foundation’s weighty matters as the party got going.

The rain and inevitable grumbling about the DJs didn’t stop us from dancing on the sodden platform in the shadow of the ruined Saint Honorat Church facing the villa, its lit-up tower rising above us like a premonition. Hoffmann herself joined in at some point. “Who could stop her?” someone comments. “Did you see her dance? She’s a force.” I have to concur.