Conversation with Achim Borchardt-Hume

published in RES Art World / World Art No.5

In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Harald Szeemann suggested that the curator has to be flexible; that the curator acts sometimes as a servant, as an assistant, a coordinator or an inventor. How would you describe the role of the curator?

I think it’s true to an extent that you have to be flexible, and that this changes with every project and with every artist you work with. But what I see as one of the important aspects of the job is to secure a certain degree of criticality, so that you position the work in a wider context or against history, or examine the reading of the work, and maintain a dialogue with both the artist and the work, and then make that dialogue transparent to an audience.

In your opinion, what is absolutely necessary in terms of exhibition making?

There are two things that really stand out in a dynamic with one another. One is that an exhibition, to my mind, must have an argument, and it should be more than just the accumulation of works. The perception of a work should be altered by the way in which it becomes part of an exhibition, and it should be done in a the way that is open and allows for interpretations that go beyond the one reading which you might propose.

The other key thing for me is that exhibitions must be experiential. It has something to do with encountering the work in space, face to face, and the uniqueness of that encounter. I think it’s the most basic element, but also the one most easily forgotten, and that is to my mind the reason for making an exhibition, because otherwise you could just make books.
Your curatorial background is very institutional; you have worked at Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery and now the Whitechapel Gallery. Does being an institutional curator have disadvantages as independent curators claim? What are the differences between these two working methods?

I think the dynamics are slightly different. If you are working with an institution you have to be mindful of the program, and weave it to address different audiences, or have a more varied conversation. I think if you are an independent curator you are more driven by your own authorship, though the line isn’t as clearly divided. Independence is always relative, as we all work within practical parameters.

You curated many important exhibitions which included key artists of modern art history such as Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy and Per Kirkeby. What was your main motivation for these exhibitions, and what is the importance of showing and reconsidering modern art?

One thing I find hugely gratifying about what exhibitions can do is that you can show people something that they think they know, yet in a different light. People may arrive with a certain set of expectations, and a certain degree of familiarity. One can add a different layer to this. For example, in the case of Rothko, until the exhibition at Tate Modern no one had looked at his later work. Here is an artist who’s work is very popular, a poster artist and no one was doing any serious art historical research into Rothko anymore. Then, in the exhibition, there was a body of work which, most of the audience actually didn’t know, and this changed their perception of Rothko. The same goes for Albers and Moholy-Nagy; here are two people who had worked at an important moment in Germany before the Second World War, at the Bauhaus. Both of them went to the States, and became hugely influential teachers, almost more influential as teachers than artists. So to compare, you have to ask; what are the two different ideas, what are the links between Europe and America, and how do ideas travel. I think at the time there were a lot of young artists, and now there are many who have a great interest in the beginnings of modernism, and into exploring what of that legacy is valuable to them, and where the potential lies, rather than simply talking in terms of the modernist utopia having failed.

The Whitehapel Gallery is currently presenting an exhibition titled Social Sculpture, which is not in any particular gallery space, but is rather a series sculptural works installed throughout the building. For instance, Franz West’s piece, Diwan welcomes the audience at the entrance to the building. The audience is invited to experience contemporary art as a part of everyday life, what was the idea behind this exhibition?

The idea was that the whole building should be penetrated by art, or that art should be everywhere and not just confined to the gallery environment; the exhibition space weaves its way into the building, so that some of the objects which also fulfill a practical function were originated by artists.

Can you tell us more about Goshka Macuga’s exhibition, which also questions the exhibition space?

Goshka’s was a slightly different proposition. As part of the expansion, there is a new gallery space which is open to hosting an annual commission. Goshka’s is the first, and she drew on the seminal moment in the Whitechapel Gallery’s history, when Picasso’s Guernica was shown, as a piece of propaganda rather than art. For her exhibition she turned the entire commissioned space into a meeting room, and therefore into a space for discussion and debate, with the tapestry of Guernica as a background. What she was interested in was how the meanings of works of art are altered by context, how they sit within history, how they are being read as pure art or as something else, and if so what that something else could be. I think these are all personal questions.

You studied the relationship between art and politics in Italy during Fascism when you were a PhD student. What do you think about politically engaged art of today?

This is a difficult one, as my PhD was not specifically about propaganda art, but about the question of how a strong political current may affect artistic practice, and how this can be dealt with by our exhibition making, acquisitions, and critical discourse, in a way this can be applied to everything, though that was a particular historical circumstance. I also think that to a certain degree every work of art is political, because the act of making is political. Work that is explicitly ideological, I always find quite difficult; something which puts forward one very circumscribed idea, because I don’t know where the space for the viewer remains. As for the question of how much it can actually function, or what it can do, I think it would obviously be very limited, because there is always a symbolic exchange value rather than an actual exchange value. I think what is perhaps most important is that art can still create a space for thinking and debate, and an openness of thinking, which otherwise is quite rare because we live in a society which is geared towards an instantaneous fulfillment of desire, as that is what drives capitalism. So it’s quite interesting for art to create something which wasn’t there before, and thus by creating this new open space, it again makes you more aware of what it is to be in the world. It also depends on the circumstances in which the works are shown. For example, in the last Istanbul Biennial in 2009 there were some truly extraordinary works, and many of them had very clear political points of view. The ones that interest me most are those that create a space of ambiguity.

The Whitechapel Gallery is exhibiting 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. What do you think about the tackling of international local issues in non-western contemporary art?

That exhibition is not so much of an issue-based exhibition. It is really a survey of a particular medium, of photography. What is interesting is that one can clearly trace the history of that medium in Pakistan and Bangladesh from the moment when it first arrived, and yet it never becomes quite democratized to the degree we assume – as cameras were too expensive. So there is a question as to who can look at whom, and what is actually pictured. It is as much about image-making and the possibility of image-making when it becomes available to you. I think we are very good at grasping new technologies, or new forms of expression, when they become available, and at putting them to use. I think it’s quite interesting that one can trace this, and those tensions, and by doing so, we then get a sense of how practitioners in those territories see themselves when they direct the camera onto their country.

Apart from this exhibition, what do you think about the treatment of local issues in non-western contemporary art? You mentioned that you saw the 11th International Istanbul Biennial last year, what did you think about it?

I think ultimately everything is local, and this is easily forgotten. The most interesting works of art may be rooted in a very particular local setting, and can be read in that setting, but also begin to transcend their locality in the way they can communicate above and beyond it. This is not to argue that there is such a thing as universal art, but it is a question of degrees. What I personally found difficult when I came to see the Istanbul Biennial, was that I always see the central areas of the city, and get a very particular flavor of the city from this perspective, so a lot of the issues that were being talked about were very difficult for me to grasp. At some point I almost wished that it were an exhibition which was engaged with the surrounding context, and that I would actually be taken to some of these places and see more of what they are like. I realise that this is very difficult, and that you do not want to take exhibitions as a vehicle for sight-seeing. It’s a curious dynamic. At the same time, I think exhibition spaces do have a responsibility towards local artists, and providing opportunities for them to show their work. I can also very well understand that where the opportunity arises, and one knows that there is a large international audience, one grasps that opportunity.

I would like to ask you about the upcoming exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery. It has been announced that Athens-based collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos’s collection will be exhibited in June. The collection includes artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, and Matthew Barney. The exhibition is going to be in four chapters, but not in four separate displays. Can you tell us more about this specific exhibition method and your curatorial practice?

The key thing in working with a collection is that in a way you are working in hindsight. You read an accumulation of objects after they come together, so when I looked at the collection I tried to work out what I saw as the highlights, the strengths, and the themes running through, and I arrived at the idea of the real and reality as captured through materiality. This is something one can trace from the 1980’s to today, so it would be good if one of the small exhibitions had something to do with its predecessor and they formed a chain of displays.

We have a space for collection exhibitions, so the first one will happen, then the next, and so on. The ideal scenario will be that people come to see every single one, and that they understand that the second one has something to do and is in response to the first one, and the third one again to the second one. It does not necessarily work in that way, you can see them as stand-alone exhibitions, but it is conceived very much as a sequence.
Can you tell us about the idea of “the micro exhibition” within the exhibition?

The idea, rather than just simply showing highlights of the collection, was much more to treat it as an opportunity to work with these extraordinary works of art, and to make the fact that they come from this private collection one aspect of it, as well as what the works tell you and how could they benefit from interaction, if they are shown together in certain configurations. Then came the themes, and then out of that came this idea of making four micro exhibitions; each one would take an aspect of the central theme of the real, and play that out in a particular way.

The main concept of the exhibition is ‘reality’ in terms of physical, material, psychological or political as a reference to Hal Foster’s ‘The Return Of The Real’.

I would call it more the ‘real’ than ‘reality’. It was very much seen in terms of looking at the major currents in the art produced over a period 20 to 30 years, and that the one that seems to be more strongly captured by this collection was this notion of the real, so focusing on work that rather than engages with an idea conceptual, has purity. There is very little painting, and it’s not minimalist so it’s not so much about the interaction between the work and the space or the viewer, and it seemed much more to consist of objects that have a strong sense of their own physicality, their own material and reality. To me this is interesting -how does this start again in the 1980’s and become so dominant? There is a lot of work from this period that has to do with the corporeal or the body, and how we react to that, we may very quickly relate it with something very abject when in fact it is just a reminder of what is really happening. I also think it is an interesting counterpart to view this kind of work from our position today, because we talk so much about the virtual and we don’t have a sense of reality anymore. Actually I think it is precisely works of art with physical presence, that create those instances where you get a strong sense of the fact that things are real.
Following the concept of reality, is it going to be a modern and contemporary art historical exhibition with a thematic approach, which I believe is beyond that, maybe you can talk about this. (can you please re-phrase? What the question is remains unclear)

Do you think this exhibition has an art historical based thematical curatorial approach? I believe, it includes beyond that, maybe you can talk about this..
It’s curious because it comes out of a very confined pool, which is what one person decided to collect, but within that you can trace a story. I think one of the things I am interested in is to convey a little bit of the whole idea of collection. Every collection is particular, whether it is a private collection or a museum collection, and all collections imply value judgments at a particular moment of time. People have different strategies about this. So it would be nice to convey a sense of what it actually means to collect. It is more than just material ownership, though that is of course a part of it, but collecting also has to do with what happens to the works when they enter this different dynamic with one another. You may read a work that you think you know very well, in a different way, depending on what it is shown with.

Achim Borchardt-Hume is Chief Curator of the Whitechapel Gallery since February 2009.

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