The Venice Questionnaire 2015 #31: Philippe Van Cauteren

Curating the Iraq pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Philippe Van Cauteren answered our short questionnaire

Akam Shex Hadi, Untitled, 2014–5. Courtesy the artist

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2015 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening.

Philippe Van Cauteren is the curator of the Iraq pavilion. The pavilion is at Ca’Dandolo, San Polo 2879.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

The exhibition Invisible Beauty, which was commissioned by the Ruya Foundation for the Iraq Pavilion in Venice, will be an exhibition that gives a platform to five artists spanning three generations. Three of the artists (Salam Atta Sabri, Latif Al Ani and Akam Shex Hadi) are still living in Iraq. The remaining two (Haider Jabbar and Rabab Ghazoul) live in the diaspora. The work of all of the artists will be sensitive membranes capturing, in photography, drawing, painting and video, fragments of the current reality of the country they live in. The exhibition will focus on artists who are taking a position and do believe that art is a tool of communication for addressing the current conflict in their country. This sounds logical, but it is not logical for a country where the art scene is still dominated by an orthodox, formal and decorative approach. Invisible Beauty will be an exhibition that reveals the work of five artists who should have gotten international attention much earlier.

Are you approaching this show in a different way as to how you would a ‘normal’ exhibition?

I am not approaching this show in a different way than I would a normal exhibition. It would be a very ‘colonial’ attitude to take another position to make this exhibition. Even if an artist lives in extremely difficult daily conditions, that does not mean that my professional attitude should change. The way to get to the results is of course different then in some other cases. A studio visit involves a different type of organisation then in, for instance, Berlin. But apart from that, this show is as ‘normal’ as all the other shows I have organised. The difference might be that I have myself learned much more from this show then from any of the other ones I have done. I learned lessons about the superficiality and the arrogance of the art world. Working on this exhibition has been a ‘reality check’ that has brought me closer to the art and to nothing else.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ a country, which in this case, isn't your country of origin? Do you find it an honour or problematic?

Being curator of the Iraq Pavilion, a country which is not mine, is perhaps even less alien to me then anything else. It is an honour to contribute, maybe, to changing the clichéd perception of Iraq

I was co-curator of the Belgian Pavilion in 2013. Even though Belgium is the country where I was born and I grew up, I did feel that I represented, in the first instance, an artist more then anything else. In the case of Iraq it is exactly the same: I represent five artists who for one reason or another have their cultural and social backgrounds in Iraq. As a matter of speaking I could say that I am as much Iraqi as I am Belgian. The notion of nationality and the representation of nationalities at the Venice Biennale is a concept that goes back to a moment of time where the geo-political condition of the world was different. One does not change this notion by changing pavilions (as last time France and Germany did). This is the game that is played in Venice and the tradition also has its benefits. Being curator of the Iraq Pavilion, a country which is not mine, is perhaps even less alien to me then anything else. So I consider it an honour to do it, an honour to be at the service of these five artists. And it is also an honour to contribute, maybe, to changing the clichéd perception of Iraq.

How are you approaching the different audiences who come to Venice – the masses of artworld peers, artists, gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening and the general public who come through over the following months?

This is a question which is difficult to answer. I hope to address all of these audiences by making an exhibition which is clear and respectful to the artists, and which also tries to generate a consciousness in its audience on the current tragic condition the country is going through. That’s why next to the exhibition Invisible Beauty we will also have a series of drawings made by Iraqi refugees on view under the title Traces of Survival, a project to which Ai Weiwei also contributed.

What are your earliest or best memories of the biennale?

My earlier memories of the Venice Biennale are the ones when I was a teenager and I had occasion to flip through the catalogues to which I had access. Later on in my early twenties I used to take the night train from Brussels to Venice to go and look at the Biennale in one day. Consider it a pilgrimage, a ‘holy’ experience for an art aficionado. I always loved to be able to look at contemporary art and now and then sneak into a church or scuola to see Bellini or Tintoretto….

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

I am looking forward to seeing the Icelandic Pavilion (Christoph Büchel), the Romanian Pavilion (Adrian Ghenie), the New Zealand Pavilion (Simon Denny), and of course also the Belgian one (Vincent Meessen). But it is difficult to make a selection. I will take the time and pleasure to look at the whole Biennale with fascination.

How does a having a pavilion in Venice affect the art scene in your home country?

I cannot say that it does affect the art scene in my home country. But I can say that it will affect the wider audience, the general public, in my country. I am happy that I will be able to share my experience with a wider audience, not only the art audience. Bringing the exhibition Invisible Beauty to S.M.A.K. (Museum for Contemporary Art, Ghent Belgium), the museum of which I am the artistic director, will give me the opportunity to share it with this general and artistic audience.

Read all responses to the Venice Questionnaire 2015 edition published so far

Read all 30 responses to the Venice Questionnaire 2013 edition

Online exclusive published on 7 May 2015.