The Biennial Questionnaire: Juan A. Gaitan

Curator of the 8th Berlin Biennale, from the April 2014 issue

By Raimar Stange

Andreas Angelidakis, Crash Pad, 2014. Photo: Uwe Walter. Courtesy the artist and the Breeder, Athens & Monaco Juan A. Gaitan. Photo: © Thomas Eugster Haus am Waldsee. Photo: Berndt Borchardt

The 8th Berlin Biennale opens on 28 May. In contrast to its controversial predecessor – curated by Artur Zmijewski, the Voina group and Joanna Warszwa – this is a show that does not rely on activist approaches but, rather, on more or less autonomous artworks and a vivacious sense of history. Ahead of the opening, Berlin-based critic and curator Raimar Stange sat down with the exhibition’s curator, Juan A. Gaitán (Canada/Colombia), to discuss his concept for the Biennale.

ARTREVIEW: I read online that your curatorial concept for the 8th Berlin Biennale focuses on the work of the nineteenth-century German scientists Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Is this still up to date?

JUAN A. GAITÁN: Things have changed over the past year or so, of course, as it’s a long process. We are still interested in how a certain history, that of the nineteenth century, relates to the Berlin of today and the world of today; we’re also interested in certain moments where culture and mercantilism convey each other’s programmes, both historically and currently.

AR: What exactly is your interest in the nineteenth century? That it represents the beginning of industrialisation?

JAG: The interest isn’t strictly historical. It rather relates, for example in Berlin, to how the city’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture and culture are being restaged, with buildings like the Humboldt Forum [a reconstruction of the historical Prussian city palace] and Museum Island in general. It’s an interest that therefore emerges from the present, and from what I see as something like a restoration of the Prussian past, together with another kind of architecture that is forward-looking, like the Sony Center [in Potsdamer Platz]. Between these two forms (the Sony Center and the Humboldt Forum) lies the twentieth century, which seems to be thus actively negated. I’ve noticed similar situations in other cities around the world.

AR: Do you think that this negation of the last century occurs in other parts of society as well? And what is its ideological function?

JAG: I think the twentieth century, being our recent past, has an enormous presence in any society’s emotional composition. It is perhaps not unusual, then, to want to put it away, at least for a while, until its effects are clear, or until it is narrowed down in discourse. I am not sure there is an ideological function in this negation, as it might thus be less purposeful than the resurrection of previous centuries. In other words, I wouldn’t want to approach negation from a purely rationalist point of view. Thus we focus on the signs of this negation, on what surrounds it – in this case, the restoration of the Prussian principle in Berlin’s Mitte [district], and also the projection into the future that is signified by architectural statements like Norman Foster’s dome atop the Reichstag, or the Sony Center, and so on. 

The upcoming Humboldt Forum I see as an example of this too, and a more extreme example at that, for in this case it is the entire thing that is being built, so it’s no longer a reconstruction but a step removed, an imitation of a reconstruction, but based merely on images: the image of the palace in the three facades that will resemble it, and the image of the contemporary museum in the interior, and so on.

AR: How could art inscribe itself in this process that you describe as a putting away? As memory-work against this negation?

JAG: I am thinking more in the direction of a discourse on and around the image, and the kind of literacy that the image-world has established. So indeed your point about memory against negation is right, but we are also concerned with the notion that we are surrounded by images and that art might provide counter-images to the ones that dominate our world.

AR: Please make it a bit more concrete. Can you describe works that actualise this in the upcoming Berlin Biennale?

JAG: It is important to point out first that the Biennale is developing two statements in parallel. One is cartographic and has to do with Berlin itself. As you know, we are developing the exhibition in the Museen Dahlem and in Haus am Waldsee as well as at KW Institute for Contemporary Art. In this respect I think it important that the Biennale uses spaces already dedicated to art and culture, museums and art centres, because it is within these that we develop most of our relationship to contemporary cultural production. These spaces mark a space between them, and once the Ethnologisches Museum [Ethnological Museum] and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst [Asian Art Museum], both now housed in the Museen Dahlem, are translated into the Humboldt Forum, this space will become narrower and will concentrate almost all of the symbolic capital in Mitte. 

The second statement has to do with the image and image-literacy. Basically everywhere one goes the visual landscape (especially in urban areas, though of course it also happens in the rural areas) is dominated by images: we are exposed to them everywhere. We have become very good at ‘reading’ images, and perhaps even better than at reading and writing text; but the landscape of images, or the lexicon of images that surround our daily lives, is quite limited. There is surely much more in terms of what images can do or how they can function in the world.

AR: For example?

JAG: The most obvious case for us is Andreas Angelidakis’s Crash Pad (2014) at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, our pilot project [the first work commissioned for the Biennale], which is both a room – a multipurpose room for gatherings, for meetings, events, talks and so on – and a visual statement that counterpoises two divergent durées in the history of Greece: one that ties it to the Ottoman Empire and to the Eastern Mediterranean’s history of trade and empire, and another that bypasses nearly two millennia in order to claim a continuity between antiquity and modern Greece. The Crash Pad contends with this latter narrative by revealing its reliance on a very modern invention that in historical and art-historical circles is referred to as ‘the invention of antiquity’ (by intellectuals of the Enlightenment and the humanists). 

Another work has been commissioned from Olaf Nicolai, who is also part of the artistic team I am working with for the Biennale. He is going to work with a floor ornament taken from commercial architecture, namely a shopping mall in Berlin-Lichtenberg that will soon be demolished. The ornament will be deconstructed and recomposed anew on the floor of the Museen Dahlem. And then we are going to produce a series of posters as standalone visual statements accompanying the Biennale. For this I have invited several artists, some of them very well known in Europe, such as Mariana Castillo Deball, and others hardly noticed so far, whose posters will represent a wide range of artistic practices.

AR: If I understand correctly, the focus of the forthcoming Berlin Biennale is on cultural production in the form of images. In contrast, the last edition, which was curated by Artur Zmijewski two years ago, put its emphasis on the agency of activist art. Concentrating on images and exhibiting in three traditional art institutions, isn’t there the risk of catering to a notion of art that overly corresponds to a conventional and market-oriented one?

JAG: You seem to think that exhibiting in art institutions is equivalent to collaborating with the market, and that activism is its opposite. This assumption implies that we don’t need to discuss these institutions in themselves, for how they are and where they are, in their current state (which is far from stable) and how they fit in the larger cultural projects of the state and the city, points which my last answer I think at least tries to bring up. As public institutions they are also part of the state, and they thus mirror the current practices around cultural institutions by the state. 

Can we say that these three institutions, the KW Institute, the Museen Dahlem and the Haus am Waldsee are similar? I think these are three carefully chosen places for the Biennale, with specific histories, specific realities, collections in the case of the Ethnological Museum, and more importantly they’re located in specific areas of town, themselves loaded with history. As for the image, I am approaching it, as I said, as the primary source of information in our time, and I think it imperative (politically, socially) to continue to generate a critique based on understanding the way they are used in our everyday lives.

AR: For ages I haven’t seen a solo show at KW or at Haus am Waldsee by an artist who is not represented by a gallery. The audience in all three of the institutions are the better-educated people. So my last question is, for whom do you make the Berlin Biennale?

JAG: The question of the public always comes up framed by the idea, sometimes unspoken, that it is the responsibility of art to speak to a total audience. I think this is the ideal scenario, but one cannot expect everyone to like contemporary art, or to be able to relate to it. It is important to bear in mind that what we call contemporary art is one of many forms of critical engagement with the world and its cultural composition, its social and political realities. 

The Berlin Biennale is for everyone. It is for those who visit it and who are interested in contemporary art and artistic practices. It is also for those who only read and hear about it, and who would continue a conversation about themes raised in the Biennale but in their own place, in their own time and in their own terms. We could call these the ‘first’ and ‘third’ audiences of the Biennale, one that is immediately interested and involved in contemporary art, and one that is present in other ways, and which challenges the confines of contemporary artistic practices. Yet more precisely I think of the Berlin Biennale as a project for the city, and my hope is that it manages to raise questions that are important today, in 2014, in Berlin.

This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue.