South African curator and artist Gabi Ngcobo and artist collective Elmgreen & Dragset talk about biennales in a panel at Art Basel.
Art Radar reviews the key points made at an Art Basel Conversations panel in June 2017.
The Art Basel Conversation’s original title “The Post-colonial and the Personal” was questioned at the opening and close of the conversation by both the moderator, Georgina Adam of The Art Newspaper, and the guests – South African curator and artist Gabi Ngcobo and artist collective Elmgreen & Dragset (made up of Danish artist Michael Elmgreen and Norwegian artist Ingar Dragset). The focus of the conversation, despite the misleading title, was actually the differences and similarities between two upcoming events: the Istanbul Biennial in September 2017, curated by Elmgreen & Dragset, and the Berlin Biennale in June 2018, co-curated by Gabi Ngcobo.
Biennales and co-curatorial teams
Gabi Ngcobo began by warning the audience that she was not able to divulge details of the plans for the 2018 Berlin Biennale as they are in process. However, the curator did reveal her decision to expand and fragment her own authority as lead curator by inviting a team of curators to accompany her, citing “collaboration” with other artists and curators as a key methodology in her own practice.
Elmgreen & Dragset introduced the theme of the Istanbul Biennale: “The good neighbour”. They shared a number of images of billboards they have organised around the world that show two people in conversation with a slogan such as “Is the good neighbour someone who has just moved in?” or the more critical “Is the good neighbour someone who has a ‘close the borders’ sticker on their car?”.
Ingar Dragset recounted the tumultuous year of 2016 and 2017 in which there was the coup in Turkey, the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom and the US presidential election result, all events that, as the artist states,
turned people into being rather bad neighbours, which gives the Biennale title renewed importance.
The billboard campaign, which has been a global campaign, was designed to show how “problems in one part of the world are not isolated from problems in another part of the world.”
Defending the biennale against the infamous biennale critique
Georgina Adam went on to ask the panel about their views on the legitimacy of the biennale structure asking, “can biennales with their expenses really be justified?” Ingar Dragset responded by noting how the critique of the scale of biennales has been very fashionable in arts criticism over the last ten years but that this is shifting towards, as the artist stated,
a general appreciation of the biennale form as a means of getting people from all over the world together in solidarity.
Ngcobo responded by stating that in South Africa there are no longer any biennales, which she attributes to the difficulty of supporting such a large scale event, stating that the biennale is a kind of “phantom limb” that is missing from the cultural life of the country. Ngcobo added that instead of critiquing the event of the biennale, it might be more helpful to focus on the biennale as a sometimes opaque process that unfolds over a long period of time.
Michael Elmgreen praised the flexible structure of the biennale, which is often the result of multiple layers of curatorial visions that come together, citing the 2016 São Paulo Biennale as an example – an event entitled “Incerteza Viva” curated by five independent curators. Elmgreen underlined his point that this kind of co-curatorship is very rare across the gallery and museum system.
The importance of a biennale in Turkey in 2017
The moderator asked “what makes a good biennale?” Dragset responded by noting that it depends on the historical moment and of course location. With reference to the Istanbul Biennale in September 2017, the artist-curator noted that due to the political situation in Turkey local arts and cultural life has been somewhat strangled, stating:
For those artists who cannot afford to travel or cannot secure European visas, many local artists are in very isolated situations rights now. Also no one is visiting the country, the tourism has dropped dramatically in the last year. The Biennale is therefor important for arts institutions but mostly for the local artists, which was not the case a few years ago.
Both Adam and Dragset referred to the cancellation of the Çanakkale Biennial in 2016 and confirmed they are collaborating with the organisers on a few projects.
Curators vs. artist-curators
Georgina Adam posed a question relating to the difference between artist sensibility and professional curators, to which all panelists declared they were not showing work in their own biennales. Micheal Elmgreen proceeded to argue that for him, in reference to his early art career in which he often organised exhibitions and performance festivals due to the lack of institutional support for younger artists in Copenhagen in the 1990s, there is not such a big difference between the curator and artist figures. He added that perhaps as an artist he was sometimes not very realistic but that can equally apply to a curator.
The panel proceeded to discuss the legacy of past biennales in their respective cities, with Gabi Ngcobo expressing the desire to revisit and perhaps reuse spaces already occupied by past Berlin Biennale events. However, she noted that because Berlin has changed so much and so fast over the last ten years, many of the original venues are now unavailable or simply not there. Regarding the question of the legacy of past biennales, Elmgreen & Dragset lamented the lack of comprehensive archives of biennales, noting that they were producing a publication for the 2017 Istanbul Biennale but that these kinds of materials rarely have information regarding the public programmes, which is “where the most interesting stuff happens”.
Closing questions and comments
An audience member asked the panelists whether they would like to have a budget that would allow all of the works to be new commissions, therefore “creating something new for everyone”. Gabi Ngcobo responded by recounting her experience of creating newness via other routes, for example providing new framing for old works or inviting artists to make work in residencies abroad, or inviting an artist to make a work they had talked about decades ago. Ngcobo questioned the idea of the commission as the only way to make new work. Elmgreen & Dragset concurred, citing their decision to present feminist work from the 1960s and 1970s alongside feminist work from the present in order to create new dialogues.
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