In his time as the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, Ralph Rugoff has gained a reputation as a skilful creator of exhibitions featuring diverse artists working in and around complex themes. And now he is tasked with curating the ultimate group show: the Venice Biennale. His exhibition, called May You Live In Interesting Times, presents 79 artists and collectives from across the world. The boldest idea in his plans reflects his desire to make a coherent Biennale: he has chosen to divide the presentations in the two venues, the Arsenale and Giardini’s central pavilion, into two separate exhibitions. Each features the same 79 artists, but is showing distinct bodies of work by them. In the press conference announcing the exhibition, he said he chose artists whose works were “multivalent, that were richly ambiguous, that could deal with paradox and contradiction, that generated many, many associations, that could be interpreted in different ways by viewers”. He has also said that he wants the show to be playful, even in tackling the principal issue of “strong divisions in society and social discourse”. Those divisions were partly informed by the phenomenon of “fake news, so-called alternative facts”, Rugoff said, which “poses an interesting question for art. When governments are blatantly using make-believe and tools of artifice that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, then I think the category-questioning that artists do needs to take a new form. Simple oppositional critique is not enough.” He spoke to The Art Newspaper as he made the final preparations for the show.
The Art Newspaper: Let’s begin with the title: what is its significance?
Ralph Rugoff: I was thinking a lot about some of the more dreadful political things that have happened in the past two or three years and how not to create an exhibition that would reflect, in a depressing way, on the times in which we live. And this phrase, which I had known since I was a child, popped to mind: May You Live In Interesting Times. It seemed open-ended in what it might mean and might be a way to frame an exhibition that hopefully is reflecting on this time, but also offer the possibility that you might find a perspective of living in this time where you could see this an interesting time, rather than a dangerous, hair-raising, horrific period of human history. Then the fact that this was also a piece of fake news: it’s been said over and over again during the past 100 years that it was an ancient Chinese curse—everyone from pre-war politicians in the UK to Hillary Rodham Clinton, from Albert Camus to Arthur C Clarke have used this phrase, talking about it as an ancient Chinese curse— even though it never was. Now that we live in a world in which you can go online and find out in two minutes that there never was a curse brings up interesting issues that seem relevant to this time.
To what extent are the artists directly engaging with this notion of fake news or alternative facts?
Some artists are engaging with it quite directly, others are looking particularly at social media. I don’t want to say that this is an exhibition about fake news and alternative facts. In fact, it is really an exhibition against the very idea that a show might be “about” something, any more than a work of art might be about this or that. It’s more trying to present a strong sense of the complexity of works of art that generate many different kinds of associations that you have to work out for yourself; [works that] have a conversation with an audience and that are ultimately posing questions. For me, that is the goal of this exhibition: that it leaves people with interesting questions that they can carry with them afterwards. It is very much a show dedicated to the idea that the most important thing that happens doesn’t happen inside the gallery—it is what visitors do with that experience after they leave.
The most innovative idea is the separation of the presentations in the Giardini and the Arsenale into two separate exhibitions. Why did you do that?
For two reasons, one was to echo this idea of this social division that seems to have been exacerbated in our world, where we have these very polarised societies. Obviously we have this division over Brexit in the UK, with almost two different countries existing side by side, seemingly living in parallel information landscapes. But also, it was a way to call attention to the multiplicity of artistic practice, that interesting artists work in different ways. Their work straddles different categories in different ways. And to create a sense that you’re only seeing a part of a bigger picture when you come to an exhibition like this. And really to shine a light on this aspect of art, the way it dwells in ambiguity and embraces contradiction at a moment when our information landscape seems to be growing ever narrower.
We live in a time when the art media is prone to pigeonholing an artist or reducing their work to a kind of soundbite. And what you’re saying is that artists have a licence to go in any direction they want, and here, for each artist that you’re showing, are two examples or two ways of working.
Absolutely. And that each one of those ways is also completely multiple. And in a way, if you looked at it closely enough, defying any pigeonhole into which we might want to squeeze it. And there are countless examples of how that works in the exhibition. I think that is always the kind of work that has always excited me, and if I have a criteria for quality in terms of assessing a work of art, it’s the levels of resonance that a work of art can generate in terms of sending you off on this journey where you’re following one slippage of meaning to another, to another, to another and it doesn’t end. And that is a kind of sublime experience.
You’ve included exclusively living artists, whereas in the last Biennale there were a lot of dead artists. Why did you choose not to include artists from the past?
Documenta also included lots of dead artists. I think it’s become a curatorial fashion to try to recuperate artists who have been forgotten or who never got the attention they deserved, which to me is a great museum project. It’s about introducing people into the canon who should be there and aren’t. Of course, I love the disposability—and I know I’ll get into trouble for using that word!—of the Biennale, that it is something that happens every two years, has a short fuse on it, is something that can address this moment, rather than having to address who deserves to be in the history books. As a curator you have a lot more control when you’re dealing with dead artists, obviously, but it was a lot more interesting for me to be in a dialogue with the artists I was working with. All of whom were incredibly excited about having the opportunity to show two different types of work. Of course, we might expect that, but nobody was complaining about it. And I think people really did enthusiastically get behind that idea.
There are lots of painters in the exhibition, and you’ve pointed out that painting is like a zombie that keeps coming back from its reported death. What keeps it vital, particularly in relationship to this show?
I think it is interesting when you get a medium that starts to seem quasi-obsolete and to become a slow technology. Painting has always been more or less a slower way of processing information than photographic technologies or digital technologies in terms of making images—let’s leave sculpture out of this for the time being. And I think increasingly painting has become a place where artists reflect on the status of image traffic in the world at large, whether that’s happening online or on television through news images or in Hollywood. Even if an artist is making a self-portrait, it is influenced by these other media, and I think they’re also commenting on the way images today are so heavily mediated and end up circulating on all kinds of different platforms, so we don’t have a simple, singular relationship to an image anymore. And that is an interesting thing for a unique object such as a painting to explore; it is distanced enough from this phenomenon by its status that it allows you to look at that reality with the necessary distance.
In a text about the exhibition you write about foregrounding playfulness. The word playfulness is not something we can use about many recent biennials. What do you mean by playfulness?
I’m interested in art that entertains me. I don’t think entertainment is a bad word. I don’t think we should let it be co-opted completely by commercial, corporate-produced media, television and Hollywood. I like the word entertain, because we also entertain ideas, and that’s one of the powerful things that art can do; it casts a spell on you, it gets you engaged and involved. And to do that it’s playing with you; in some way it’s got to be able to play with your responses and get you interested in it. And because I’m really a strong believer in the idea that interesting art works as a conversation, an exchange with the viewer, that has to be a form of play, I think. There are artists dealing with matters of very serious import and some grave issues. I talk a lot about this idea of art embracing contradiction, that you can make a work of art that is sad and funny at the same time, that might be beautiful and ugly at the same time, these are things to me that make interesting works of art, because you can’t resolve them in any facile way, you can’t pigeonhole them; your brain keeps trying to work out what is that relationship between these seemingly incompatible qualities, and the feelings that are associated with them. So playful doesn’t have to mean funny or light. Sometimes things are seriously playful.
That makes me think of the artist Mike Kelley, who I know has been an artist of tremendous importance to your world view and your curating. Is Mike in your thoughts as a curator almost perennially?
Mike definitely is. He was the person who set me up to curate the first show I ever curated. And he has a phrase, “negative joy”, for talking about what he thought was the social function of art, that it should provide both critical insight but also pleasure. To me, too many exhibitions seem to forget the second part of this idea. I think it unnerves people, the idea that you might make a work of art about something that’s a very depressing reality, but somehow that work is also going to provide you with pleasure. That freaks us out from a moral point of view. How can we possibly take pleasure when people are suffering? And yet this is where art is different from journalism. There’s a really great piece in the show by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, called Walled Unwalled. One of the things it utilises is some research that he was initially asked to do for Amnesty International, to interview some survivors of a notorious prison in Syria that very few people survived. He carried out this research and interviewed people, and Amnesty International used it as part of a paper it produced. But then he found himself with a lot of information that he said newspapers weren’t interested in and it wasn’t appropriate for what Amnesty was doing. But he found it fascinating material and said that art was really the only form in which this kind of information could find a form that would ask questions that also had to do with questions about things like the nature of evidence, as well as the specific facts of these cases that he was looking at. I like this idea: that there is information in the world that won’t fit into these other formats that are much more black and white, but that art, because of its capacity for accommodating ambiguity and allowing a kind of reflection to occur around the way something’s articulated, was the home for this kind of material. So there’s an interesting back and forth between artists who art making work about things in the real world, but whose work takes specific forms that assert how art is different from the texture of facts and the way that journalism reports things.
Another factor that tells me that you’re a real exhibition maker is that you’ve thought about the journey through the Arsenale, which you’ve said can be a “march of death” when it is this endless long passage. You’re using see-through partitions. Does that again relate to the pleasure of seeing an exhibition? Venice can be an exhausting experience and you seem very conscious of that.
I am. I’m a funny person to be curating a biennial, because I generally find them to be difficult experiences as a visitor. I’ve always been fairly sensitive to the impact that architecture has on works of art, and the idea that they are very sensitive to the ways they are installed and what is around them. Working at the Hayward for the last 12 years has increased this appreciation for the impact architecture has. In Venice, you couldn’t have two more different spaces: a Neo-Classical pavilion from the late 19th century and a former rope-making factory that dates back to the 14th century. They already give every Venice Biennale a split personality in a sense, so it seemed better to address this consciously than not. The Arsenale is this long, 300m narrow rectangle and it feels a bit like a digestive passage; you enter one end and you’re spat out at the other. And usually because there are two rows of columns that run all the length. Typically people build walls running the length of the building, but to me it ends up feeling a bit too close to an art fair, where you can look down this long corridor and there is art on either side and you can see too much at once. So the way we’ve divided it up is with many sections that bisect this long rectangular space horizontally. It will be a bit more of a labyrinth; I’m hoping that it doesn’t prove to be just as exhausting. It might. But I think at least it will allow you to focus when you’re looking at a work, because you don’t have 15 other artworks in the background.
You talked about textual references or cornerstones—texts by Bruno Latour and Umberto Eco. I’m wondering about artistic cornerstones. You talked about Mike Kelley as a general cornerstone for your work, but are there past exhibitions that you had in mind when thinking about this one?
In a funny way when you are asked to do the Venice Biennale, you do end up reflecting on all the biennales you’ve been to, and it did make me think a lot about Francesco Bonamí’s Biennale in 2003, where he had nine co-curators and each curated a separate section. I remember thinking at the time that it was completely incoherent and didn’t add up to anything, but in retrospect, I find it more and more interesting, because it really addressed the fact that one big exhibition is almost too large to take in and how do you make a coherent connection between 100 different artists? And some of the smaller exhibitions that were part of that Biennale were really successful and were really interesting. In a way, I think that was the most radical experiment in the Biennale’s history. So perhaps that was in the back of my min
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