The Venice Questionnaire #26: Jonathan Watkins

By ArtReview

Ali Samiaa, The Love of Butterflies (still), 2010, video. Courtesy Al Sumaria TV, the artist and RUYA Foundation Hareth Alhomaam, Buzz, 2012, video, 10 min. Courtesy of the artist and RUYA Foundation Jonathan Watkins on the rooftop of the historic Mustansiriya School building in old Baghdad. Courtesy Ruya Foundation

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to a selection of the artists exhibiting in various national pavilions of the Venice Biennale (and some curators), the responses to which are being published daily in May, in the run up to the Biennale opening. Jonathan Watkins is curating the work of artists representing Iraq. The Iraq Pavilion is at the Ca' Dandolo, San Tomà, Venezia.

What can you tell us about your plans for Venice?

We’ll be installing a group exhibition of work by eleven Iraqi artists – resident in Iraq – in a beautiful old apartment on the Grand Canal. It will be about resilience in very difficult circumstances.

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

We will not transform the apartment into a white cube. Visitors can relax there, sit and read books, listen to music whilst drinking Iraqi tea. All around them, the artwork will be combined with existing décor.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ a country? Do you find it an honour or problematic?

Problematic, because artists are not official representatives of a national culture and I will be representing the artists, above all. That being said, those we are working with share a cultural heritage and experience of recent historical events that are distinctly “Iraqi”. I am lucky to be working with them.

What audience are you addressing with the work? The masses of peer gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening or the general public who come through over the following months?

The general public is most important, and I’m sure the masses of peer gallerists, curators and critics would agree!

What are your earliest or best memories of the biennale?

I first went to the Venice Biennale in 1993. My best memories arise out of my involvement as guest curator for a satellite exhibition at Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa, Piazza S. Marco, in 1997. Artists included Graham Gussin, Pierre Huyghe and Oleg Kulik. I like making shows, especially in Venice.

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

The basilica on Torcello. It’s my pilgrimage.