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Ibraaz Talks: Global Art Forum 8

Adam Szymczyk: in conversation with Omar Kholeif

006 / 30 April 2014

In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum. In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Senior Editor Omar Kholeif speaks to Adam Szymczyk, recently appointed artistic director documenta 14, about modernism and artistic ancestry.





Omar Kholeif: I'm here talking with Adam Szymczyk, who is the director of Kunsthalle Basel and also the recently-appointed artistic director of documenta 14. He was also a speaker today here at Art Dubai, where he was on a panel looking at a century of documenta from 1955–2055. I wanted to begin the conversation, Adam, by thinking about some of the themes of the Global Art Forum and Art Dubai. One of the things that has come up this year is this idea of reactivating history, and – especially with the launch of Art Dubai Modern – the idea of thinking about different perspectives on modernism and different holes that may not have been filled in the canon.


I was wondering, thinking curatorially and about curatorial practice, how important you think the emphasis that is placed on filling in those holes, or the things that have been potentially forgotten, is to reforming your curatorial thesis and the artists list.

Adam Szymczyk: Someone else today in another panel mentioned the word 'retromania', and I think that there is a certain danger of falling into this mode that is not very productive. On the other hand, I fully acknowledge the need to look for the lost forefathers – and foremothers – which is part of the current drive towards the rediscovery of hidden, forgotten or supressed figures in various modernisms in different countries. I think to me it is a bit similar to a certain interest in re-enactment; re-enactment as a form or format or a way of working that we witnessed maybe a decade ago as a very interesting, productive moment in the practice of many artists.


Later on came an awakening of interest in modernism, and we see here in Art Dubai (and in exhibitions that are organized during Art Dubai in other places, like in Sharjah, for instance) part of this process of understanding history in a new way, or simply showing it. This is a very primary function of exhibitions, which comes from the latin exhibere; to bring things that been in the darkness, in obscurity, into the light. This is not an unproblematic manoeuvre because this very often takes place at the cost of other things. Things that are brought into light are not necessarily better visible, paradoxically.


OK: Earlier I was discussing with someone the context of the Internet and the digital, which evoked this sensibility of constant live-ness; this desire to constantly foretell the future, and the idea that curators hold the potential to foretell the future. I was wondering, in the context of documenta – which so many people see as a barometer of foretelling the future of art, or a survey of what is contemporary and what is significant in that particular moment – what your feelings were about the role that exhibitions should play in foretelling a potential future. Do you see the role of making exhibitions as something very much tied to the present or to the past?


AS: I see an exhibition as something that is tied to the present and that includes a good deal of reflection on the past. I don't think that I have any revelation on that, or anything that would be a polemical statement, but I think that this idea of a future that has to be grasped, or somehow figured out, from the present, is very much related to the logic of development and progress which is part of the neoliberal capitalist model. I wouldn't like exhibitions – or at least exhibitions that I'm in charge of – to somehow play into this speculation about futures, because we may have very beautiful ideas of the future, but then they will be corrupted anyway; they will be made part of history in a very brutal way. I'm afraid this history will not look like what we would imagine.


Imagining the future is very useful, pleasant and productive, but I think an exhibition is a fact. For me, it's a demonstration of material, it's like a deictic gesture of showing and naming (one could go to the 'show and tell' idea), and I think this is what exhibitions do. I think they are more concerned with actively engaging with the present, and, in this way, with helping us to understand in what way this present pre-existed in forms of the past. I don't think that we can programme the future in this way; it doesn't work in either direction, I'm afraid.


So 'A Century of Documenta from 1955–2055' (which is the title of the panel I was a part of with Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor and Hans Ulrich Obrist), I think it's a catchy phrase but I'm suspicious of it. It kind of makes me question the idea of perpetuation, even in relation to such a wonderful and venerable format as documenta.

OK: It's interesting, the idea of the archive was mentioned today during that talk, and Hans Ulrich mentioned that there was a documenta archive, only for Okwui to mention that he had never consulted or looked at that archive.

AS: I understand that. Which is not true, of course.

OK: Yes, but I was wondering how much historical exhibitions or other exhibitions form your curatorial practice or your curatorial approach. I'm not talking specifically about historic group shows, but even the idea of working with, potentially, the same artist over a period of time, and that conversation, how it evolves. Or do you see that the exhibitions exist somehow separately from those archival remnants or pieces of history?


AS: Yes, archives exist, but hopefully witnesses also exist. This a very interesting opposition that was used by Giorgio Agamben, and was the title of a book in which he was trying to propose a certain way of understanding or coming to terms with the Holocaust. I think that these two figures – the witness and the archive – represent two different modes of dealing with history: one is the history that comes in the flesh, that is somehow embodied, and that is the figure of the witness; and the other is the history that has a tendency to become property or something that is petrified in, for instance, the form of an archive or a collection of documents.


This of course brings us to the heart of documenta, because it has given it its title, in a way, so you have to work within this format unless you want to question that – and I don't want to question it. But I was wondering what the word Documenta could mean here. There is also a sentence that was penned by Michel Foucault in one of his interviews or books where he is talking about the documents and the monuments; the two different modes of existence of historical material, so to speak, and a certain danger in the monumentalization of history.


Here [at Art Dubai], of course, we have had a lot of talks today about minor histories and so forth. I just wanted to say that if we only imagine things as minor, I'm afraid we're not going to get anywhere. I understand the importance of rediscovery and speaking about minor histories, but at the same time, one also has to understand that we are now living in a very different world in terms of how culture is perceived than at the time of Catherine David's documenta, when the doors of the exhibition opened in 1997, and through subsequent iterations of documenta as well (and through so many other initiatives across the globe).


I don't think that we should be constantly preoccupied with this idea of obsessively focusing on minor histories or absent narrations, because this is becoming a kind of paranoid hobby. I think that we should somehow assert and fully embrace the position that we are lucky to have at the moment, where we can speak about many different issues and not create hierarchies as they existed previously, nor reinforce them.


So back to this sentence of Foucault's where he spoke about documents and monuments; there is an Italian architect who worked in Brazil – Lina Bo Bardi – who commented on this sentence by Foucault. She said that the meaning of Foucault's polemic against the monumentalization of history should also be extended to what Lina Bo Bobardi calls 'collective action'. She spoke about the fact that collective action should not become a monument to itself, a self-referential game, but it should actually be it, it should do things.


So the question is whether such collective action is still conceivable or possible within the realm, for instance, of contemporary art. I think it is; it takes the form of performative gestures such as, for instance, the Berlin Biennale, curated by Artur Żmijewski, and recently the withdrawal of the Chto Delat art collective from the Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg. One could say that these are the forms of collective action that are performative; they are acts that produce certain results. I hope that – I believe that – an exhibition should also, in this way, be able to do something, and not only to describe something.


OK: Just to follow on from that – and I'm thinking about archives here – I was thinking, what would be your position or your ideas around a context where there may not be an archive, a record, or even a witness? I'm thinking very particularly about the context of North Africa, where there aren't records or archives of a loss of significant practitioners, or art historical texts in Arabic. Yet we've seen in recent years the proliferation of practices, and it seems that there is so much that is weighted on a very recent history. I'm trying to tie in these ideas to the beginning, this idea of the historical; I was wondering how you locate those exhibitions or that practice when the potential reference points have never been documented, so what results potentially is a kind of imagination, as it were. I was wondering what you thought about that, and about artists as people who imagine a context or imagine a history, perhaps.


AS: First of all, I'm always reminded about this statement by a Polish artist, Paweł Althamer, who once said, very early on in his career as an artist, that artists are people without a place. It was very impressive for me, because what he meant was that, ontologically, the artist is a figure without a place, which puts artists dangerously close to other outcast figures (though not in a Romantic way). This placelessness and lack of origin, and this figure of wandering, trespassing – which, according to Althamer, is a distinctive feature of being an artist – is something that is very close to my way of looking at things. I guess that artists themselves embody this figure of a witness. I don't quite understand the situation when there is not situation, no archive, no record. That makes me think of Wittgenstein when he says (I'm not sure about the English translation), that about which we cannot speak, we should remain silent on, or something like that.


There is never absolute silence; there is always some echo, there are some signals that can be intercepted and amplified, perhaps. Artists are very mighty amplifiers, so a singular, individual action by an artist can be a game-changer – especially in the places you were talking about. Through social media and other channels of communication that are not yet fully controllable, and that can provide shifting or changing channels for the distribution of any kind of content, artists will be heard – and they are heard, however vague or powerless their statements may be. I think this powerlessness is also a great strength, in comparison to assuming a position of power that, for instance, a well-organized archive like Documenta gives you, because then you are almost sitting on your history, and you're comfortable with that, but what do you do next?


Earlier on I was talking about Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, and of course there is this one other important statement in the book, which is that the manuscripts don't burn. It's an almost theological concept, which makes you think about the origins of images and image-making, especially in the Russian orthodox tradition, although in many other traditions you would find similar figures. Russians say that icons are not made by human hands; so where do they come from? Well they are found in rivers, for example, or they fall from the sky, or they are found in caves. There is a moment of violent birth or revelation of the image, there is not the image which is a skilful representation of something done by an artist, for instance.


I think such occurrences of images or, to put it in a larger perspective, works of art, or performative action, or collective action, are to be heard no matter whether there is a well-researched situation in a given place or not. Of course it is important to find words and to create languages – the other day I had a very interesting conversation here with a gentleman who runs an organization dealing with artists' archives in southeast Asia, and he was talking about a project of trying to collect and invent a language of speaking about art across different cultures in this area which are lacking in this very well-organized, German-model concept of art history and theory. The project uses, in an interesting way, quite a heterogeneous vocabulary that changes from language to language in order to speak about art.


This is something that is extremely interesting for me because it's a completely different way of theorizing art; it's not like the application of a tool that exists, it's more like inventing your own tools and using what you have at hand; it's not just a top-down teaching process.


OK: Thank you so much Adam for your time.

About the author

Omar Kholeif

Omar Kholeif is a curator, writer, editor and sometime producer. He is the Manilow Senior Curator at the MCA Chicago. Previously he was Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, Senior Visiting Curator at Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester and Senior Editor at Ibraaz. The author of over a dozen books, he also writes widely for the international press and was a founding editor of Portal 9, an Arabic-English journal of urbanism and architecture. His publications include, Vision, Memory and Media (2010),  Far and Wide: Nam June Paik (2013), You Are Here: Art After the Internet (2014), Jeddah Childhood circa 1994 (2014), Before History (2015), Two Days After Forever: A Reader (2015) and Moving Image (2015). Follow Omar on Twitter: @everythingOK.



Chapters in this series