The Art Life‘s special on The Biennale of Sydney goes to air on ABC1 on Tuesday July 22 at 10pm. We feature a number of interviews but due to the constraints of the documentary’s 27 minute duration those conversations have been edited down to just a few minutes each. We’re happy to be able to present our complete interview with The Biennale’s artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev...
TAL: What will someone experience when they come to the biennale?
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Well, there are many audiences and many kinds of people who will experience, hopefully, many different things. I think a good exhibition is one where people walk away with different things, and therefore the exhibition engenders a kind of discussion and conversation. And echoes like ripples in water. I do believe that they should hopefully, come away with a lot of questions. I don’t give answers, I ask questions.
TAL: Who is the Biennale for?
CC-B: Well I usually say if my mother in law and my daughter like it, it probably is a good piece of art, because it’s very hard to achieve that. So I suppose I’m interested in people who are not necessarily experts in contemporary art. I’m interested in people who go to art the way that they will go to a film, or read a novel. And it’s about finding a space of respite or a space of freedom, or a space of challenge of your stereotype views of whatever. So you do it to find a form of emancipation. So I guess my audience is, is everyone that feels they need that experience. It’s a space of radical freedom that we don’t have in our society. We are always thinking about organised work and productivity and organised leisure time, and even going on a holiday is a job. So it’s something that’s not leisure and it’s not work. It’s something else that is making your brain feel alive and making your emotions and your brain work together.
TAL: Did you know much about Australia before you came out here?
CC-B: No, to be totally honest, I must say I knew what I could know through literature and films and um, stories people would tell. I had come however, I have an interesting memory of doing some shows here, some exhibitions here including the William Kentridge at the MCA. And then I brought the Arte Povera collection from our museum, the Castello di Rivoli in Turin to Sydney as well. So there was a working relationship but I remember that those times were very hectic. I came, installed and worked, worked, worked and then left. So this Biennale has given me the opportunity to learn a lot more.
TAL: What do you know now?
CC-B: Ha! Well I’m hesitant to make judgements and pass opinions on a place that I know so little about. And I’ve come now over the last two years quite a bit and have been living here over the last months. So I can give you the impressions of someone who is an outsider, I cannot give you a really knowledgeable impression. So that said, I think it’s a wonderful – one the one hand it’s a fantastic country in terms of the nature and the way that the harbour – the way that the landscape mixes and blends with the urban. And there are very few places in the world, and I know a lot of big cities, a lot, where you don’t have terrible problems of smog and the – it’s just unhealthy. I mean most large cities in the late 20th century and early 21st look like what London must have looked like at the time of the industrialisation in the late 1700s.
TAL: What are your impressions of Australian artistic community?
CC-B: It’s interesting that you ask that because the firs thing I did as a curator of the Biennale was not to buy a ticket and go to Shanghai, it was to go to Tasmania. So my first studio visits were in Hobart actually. Which is a little unconventional for the director of the Sydney Biennale to do that, as the first set of studio visits. But I was very curious to learn about what was going on here. And I found that there is an enormous, really a very, very rich cultural field here. And many artists that are good, and that are under-recognised internationally for a number of reasons. Not only young artists, not only emerging artists, but older eminent figures that are fantastic, you know. And so I guess the distance and – it was quite difficult in the past for the communications before the internet, it was a little harder for things to get around. So I believe that here’s a lot to do in terms of having that knowledge of – not only Australian – but also very interesting avant-garde and experimental work in New Zealand, too. So the whole area is really interesting. It’s a society that has many aspects to it, it has of course it’s history as a colonisation of British and the fact of it being a prison, you know, the largest prison that Europe ever built was here. And this prison was made six months before the storming of the Bastille or maybe nine months before, it was in the autumn of 1788. So if you think that the storming of the Bastille is in July ’89, it’s a kind of an expression of a neurotic behaviour of Europe, let’s say. So that history is of course I think still present in the culture today. There is a lot of self repression and self inhibition, there’s a lot of wanting to be proper. And so the artists are sometimes breaking out of that wanting to be proper, in a way that you don’t have in maybe other places that don’t have that history.
TAL: Does the distinction between indigenous and non indigenous artists have any meaning for you?
CC-B: Ho, well, let’s put it this way. The relationship between indigenous Australians and Australians of western descent or more recently other areas of the world is a very, very complicated and fraught with contradiction. And sad and tragic relationship. It’s absolutely unresolved. It’s one of the aspects of my time here that has been most… fascinating is not the word, because it’s been a tragedy. But engaging emotionally. I’ve made a lot of friends that are actually in the Aboriginal community. I don’t like the term indigenous because it’s a genetic term, it means from – genetically from the place, I don’t like that. And I don’t like the word Aboriginal either because it’s a European word that means ab-origine, there from the beginning. So you’re there from the beginning only if you’re defined there from the beginning by somebody else who’s not been there from the beginning. Otherwise you’re just a person. So I don’t even know how to speak this conflict, and this contradiction, I cannot speak it, there is no language to speak it. I think that the culture produced by this conflict is extraordinary, ranging from curators like Hetty Perkins or Keith Munroe, Brenda Croft to poets and writers like Romaine Moreton who will be doing a fantastic spoken word reading of her poems that she’s writing for the Biennale. To artists, there’s many, many artists that are, let’s call them of the – originally of the place. Let’s call it that way. Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Destiny Deacon, Tracey Moffat. But I didn’t do it on purpose. The thing that I really find wrong as a curator is to frame and bracket communities, or groups. So as a feminist I’ve never done an exhibition of art by women, it think that’s anti-feminist to do that. I mean I would never do an exhibition about the sensibility of an – only artists who are gay, for example, I would never do that, I find that racist, I find that wrong. So my way of being um, against those ah … inequalities which I think there are, my way of doing it is not to, to isolate and celebrate, I think that’s hypocritical. But to break the boundaries and bring together, that’s what I like to do.
TAL: Is revolution possible?
CC-B: Of course. It has always been and will always be. Every society feels that there will be no more trouble and it never was. I being in Italy know that very clearly because of the history of the Roman Empire. It’s natural to society.
TAL: Why do you think in the last 20 years the idea of revolution has become marginalised?
CC-B: It has been marginalised and mainstreamed at the same time. So I think in the age of the internet it is very hard to control people. In the age of cell phones there’s more mobility so the ideology has been – infused into people that if they do anything that’s rebellious it will be bad for the society. So suddenly anybody who does anything is a terrorist or anybody who does anything to change things radically – you know, Charlie Perkins, one of the greatest activists in the Aboriginal movement in Australia, he said, sometimes you have to break rules. There are people under trees that don’t have food. You clarify your objective. This is what I say,- you clarify your objective and act accordingly. History has always done that. And so today I think people are afraid of change. Change has been ushered into a consumer culture notion, so change is about fashion. But you know, anybody who knows anything of how the human psyche is developed and develops, knows that it develops also in the child, in the baby through stages. One of those stages is breaking things, you know, it’s the learning and testing limits and breaking things. And it’s a very important impulse to do things that you’re not supposed to do. But historically and socially it’s a philosophical question. You cannot change a system from within the system, it’s impossible. So there are limits – you can change a little bit, like micro changes. But you always hit a point where something is not constitutional. So societies have always gotten to a point where to make change you have to go against the rules that that society had implemented, whether it’s the ancient Egyptian pharaohs or you know, a community in Africa somewhere or Rome or London. It’s normal, it’s natural.
TAL: How does the work in the Biennale engage with this idea?
CC-B: I think all art, when it’s good, is revolutionary. All art is about questioning paradigms and breaking paradigms, you think you cannot make a canvas without a figure, ha, let’s revolutionise that idea. And Malevich makes the black square. Um, the reason why certain revolutionary things happen in art is always about experimenting through from. And experimenting through language, how we live, how we construct knowledge. So it is about every one of us. So if you take the Malevich example, you are in a society that was suddenly flooded by photography, the new big medium, photography becomes something oppressive suddenly because you have police photography being born and so on and forth. Phrenology, phrenological developments that turned into what they turned into in the 1930s and ‘40s, as we all know the tragedies of that. So you have an artist saying, no zero degree, blank, I will not communicate anything that is figurative because I am questioning that world of the photograph. So there’s always an indirect social relationship you know between art and society. But what I think I’m trying to say is through the works of the contemporary artist there are about fifty wonderful works that are new works by young artists. There are also new works by very old artists, there are works by artists who are not alive. I want to break the boundary also that a biennale has to be young artists, who says that. But I want that energy in it as well. There are many, many works that are exploring this question of revolution that to me has to be a revolution of form. A revolution in the language first and foremost. And a revolution in the body, in the way that the viewer smells, you know what you smell when you’re in the Mike Parr installation. That’s important.
Nedko Solakov, A Life (Black & White), 1999. Installation view.
Black and white paint; 2 workers/painters constantly repainting the walls of the exhibition space in black and white (in rotation) every day for the entire duration of the exhibition.
TAL: What do you say to people who come to the Biennale expecting to see a lot of paintings?
CC-B: Well there are some, there are some paintings. What is a painting? It depends, what is a painting? The definition of painting changes. Nedko Solakov is fantastic artist from eastern Europe. He’s painting with volunteers who are painting for three months of the whole exhibition, the lobby of the art gallery of NSW. One person is painting it black every day the other person is painting it white every day. And they’re following each other in a circle. So that’s painting, it’s absolutely painting.
TAL: A lot of works in the biennale put an emphasis on experience or creating a relationship between the artist and the audience. Is this work something you were looking at for this Biennale?
CC-B: I think all good art is participatory. It must create a relationship with the audience. If you’re walking into a cave and there’s a cave painting.
TAL: But, you know what is meant by participation?
CC-B: I sort of do but, at the same time there’s no high tech participatory interactive work in this biennale, I’m kind of against those things. They don’t usually, they’re not usually based on a true freedom of the viewer. But participation… It’s just that for me it’s difficult because all the work I’ve ever done has been like that, so it doesn’t stand out as anything particular to me because of my background, I guess coming from Arte Povera. I come from that history, if you go backwards, I come from loving the Dada theatre and the Futurist theatre, and so those were all participatory works. I come from clothes that the futurists would make that people were supposed to wear. And so my whole history as a curator or as an intellectual has always been about complete sensorial involvement. So even in a video installation, I will never judge it only by the images in the video. It’s always about where the screen is in relation to the body of the viewer, and where the sound is coming from in relation to the body of the viewer, it’s always about the body of the viewer in relation to something – I don’t think the art work exists in its materiality, there – the artwork only exists in that relationship between something that’s a prompt for the artwork and someone who’s experiencing it. So in that relationship between the prompt and the person experiencing, there is something that goes on, and that’s the artwork. And it’s immaterial, it’s emotional, it’s sensorial, it’s bodily, it’s physical. But I don’t think it’s something that it is particularly of our time. There are things that are of our time. For example, these a lot of performance going on now. It has to do with censorship for example, there’s a lot of performance in countries where you’ve got to do it really fast before somebody notices what you’ve done. So this is just done. And performance allows you that. It also has to do with wanting to make art without a lot of money. You know the ‘80s and the ‘90s were about making art with a lot of money. So – who’s got the better software and the higher ansi lumen projector and all that high definition stuff. I think that now there’s a reaction against that, so these a lot of artists around the world, both in the west and in non western places that are wanting to kind of impoverish the work. Out of their desire to be free. You know, like, fuck it all, I just want to be free and do it myself and so if that means I’m going to do it with this material that costs zero, I’ll do it with this material that costs zero. So there’s an impulse of wanting to be free from a need for expensive stuff to make art works. And that is indeed a little bit new in the sense that – not new, it comes and goes. But it’s a little bit wanting to break from those high end productions of the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. Nonetheless I would say that my own work as a curator has always been interested in – I’ve always been interested in works that are participatory, but I don’t like works that celebrate the participatory nature. That’s like the artist saying, hey look at me, I’m making this work that you can interact with. No.
TAL: Does good art propose a question or an answer?
CC-B: I think art proposes a question. Never an answer. Propaganda proposes an answer. And we are in an age that is claiming there are a lot of answers, which means we are in a very, very dangerous age.
TAL: Do you really live in a castle?
CC-B: Ha ha! I don’t live in a castle! I run the program of a museum that’s located in a castle, yes. The Castello di Rivoli. You could say I live there because sometimes I’m in there until 4 am at night. When I was doing the Pierre Huyghe exhibition in Rivoli we would leave always I remember hearing the birds chirping of the dawn when we would leave the museum, the castle. So you could say I live in a castle. But I really don’t…