Madame Art: interview with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Writer, curator and art historian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is the first person ever to direct Turin’s GAM (Modern Art Gallery) and the contemporary art museum in Rivoli’s Castle at the same time. She has curated some of the most important art events in the world, such as the Sidney Biennial (2006-2008), the Istanbul Biennial (2015) and dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). She was the first to write a monograph on South-African artist William Kentridge and was also Senior Curator at MoMA P.S. 1 in New York (1999-2001).

We talked to this authoritative voice in the world of culture about the future of art, and more. Here is what she told us...

What projects are you working on at the moment?
The Rivoli museum is currently welcoming the collection of Francesco Federico Cerruti, an entrepreneur from Turin who passed away in 2015. Cerruti collected an encyclopedia of works, ranging from gold-ground paintings from Siena’s school to pieces by Giulio Paolini, but also including books, furniture and carpets. We are the first contemporary art museum in the world to incorporate a collection that also includes works of the past.

We are also working on the CRRI (Castello di Rivoli Research Institute), modeled on the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. It is meant to be an extension of our library, which is the most important library dedicated to international contemporary art in Italy.

Finally, we are preparing the first great retrospective on Anna Boghiguian, who two years ago worked on the Armenian Pavilion at Expo 2015 and won the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale. We’ll have an exhibition on Gilberto Zorio in the Fall and a collective exhibition curated by Chus Martinez in Spring 2018, on metamorphosis and on the digital age as an age of metamorphosis.

“ArtReview” ranked you amongst the one hundred most influential people in the world of art. Does that make you feel some kind of responsibility? 
Yes, I feel accountable because art history can take different directions. For example, perhaps without the First World War the United States would not have gathered so many works by the French impressionists, and the MoMA in New York would not flaunt now a collection that is the leading influence on post-war abstract expressionist art. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline were able to see the impressionists at the MoMA because the museum’s directors had acquired those collections in the 1930s. Had I never held the first William Kentridge exhibition outside of South Africa, at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1998, perhaps he would not be as famous as he is now. Some curators and personalities are opinion leaders and influence the history of art by making their choices – so yes, I feel that responsibility. In everything I’ve decided and done – selecting artists, holding conferences, acquiring works for museum collections – I always think about what people will know about the present, in the future: people like me build the past of our future, in terms of culture.

Last year, GAM and Castello di Rivoli started sharing a single director for the first time. What is the future of art, in Turin?
The two institutions differ under many respects. Castello di Rivoli is tied to site-specific productions, in close connection to Juvarra’s historical building; GAM is a late-1950s’ building renovated in the 1990s, and is a civic museum with various collections, from the 1800s to present day. The former focuses on avant-garde, while the latter embraces a wider period.

I think the future of art is quite positive in Turin. Castello di Rivoli and GAM collaborate with active private foundations such as the Merz Foundation and the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation, who are about to open the OGR as a new, poly-functional space for music, performance and art. Lately we’ve also seen many young (and not so young) artists move to Turin, because as a city it is beautiful yet more affordable than nearby Milan... I can see a gradual migration coming towards Turin.

What is your work process? Is there a “running theme” between the roles you’ve had for dOCUMENTA, in Istanbul and now in Turin?
Perhaps curiosity. With dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012, the Istanbul Biennale in 2015, but also with the Sydney Biennale in 2008, and now in Turin with my latest positions, I developed a kind of curiosity and passion for living artists. They are very open people, who do not seek solutions or answers. Other “running themes” are experimentation, merging art with other disciplines, pairing works of the past with other more contemporary ones, creating contexts that resemble wunderkammern, cabinets of wonders, instead of closing in on a single category, theme or period. Finally, perhaps I am attracted by the sensuality of materials and by art that can convey physical and sensory experiences.

You have and have had hugely prestigious roles in the world of art. What is your relationship with success?
I am happy to be part of projects that can change the way people see art, our imagination, our lives. I know I’ve been successful because directing dOCUMENTA is almost like being awarded the Nobel Prize for art. But I think experiences like that are also humbling. I can feel a kind of solitude growing, because fewer people dare contact me now. But being in the position to allow artists to create their masterpieces, and give life to the art of our age, is a great satisfaction. Art is a world of wonder, peace, joy and optimism, compared to everything else.

Do you think art has changed in the past few years, in part (or most importantly) due to social and digital shifts? Or have the basic dynamics stayed the same?
Art has changed radically since the digital revolution in the first half of the 1990s. I call young digital natives the “Elsewhere Generation”: through smartphones – which I consider the most revolutionary invention ever – and social media, they feel like they are in more than one place at once. Information is constant and plentiful, and this means no single city can ever become the world capital of art, like New York was after the Second World War and Paris was between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. Instead, there are waves of interest for movements such as contemporary African art now, or Arab art five years ago. Two opposites coexist in today’s digital world: art is influenced by market dynamics (with funding, auctions and fairs affecting contemporary art, and making its value rise above ancient or Renaissance art); but young independent artists are also active in residences on the outskirts of great metropolises.

What is your advice for young talents in the world of contemporary art?
It’s always difficult to advise young people. Today, a lot of them hope to become curators or collectors and fewer wish to become artists: in the digital age we are all creatives, and artists’ and curators’ roles merge. My advice is to be an artist because there are so many curators already! Study techniques, materials... the mystery of matter, breaking down and forming the chemical compounds of our cosmos: knowing about chemistry, biology and physics is great contrast to the idea of a virtual world. Also, get to know people, travel, go see exhibitions. And if you really want to be a curator: hold exhibitions, take on small independent projects, far from the institutions. Perhaps it might sound strange, but before you can access the world of art you should know what it means to be outside of it.

What makes a “good artist”? 
Perseverance and identification. When I see someone use materials, techniques and means that correspond or identify with the concept and content of their work, I often think they did well. However, a work of art must maintain a certain level of ambiguity: you recognize it because you cannot understand it.

What do you hope will be said about your work, one day?
That is a wonderful question. Perhaps you’ll think I’m vain, but I hope to be remembered for saving a great international exhibition from disappearing. When I directed dOCUMENTA, biennials and grand international exhibitions were seen as something from the past. But they didn’t disappear. I also hope people will say I facilitated the creation of many works of art by important artists, that I bought beautiful pieces for the museums I work for. I hope to be remembered as a woman who was able to establish herself as a leader in the field of culture, with an open mind and no fear of going against the grain.

Many say that contemporary art’s aesthetic is not always comprehensible to “outsiders”. Do you agree?
I agree there are some difficulties, just like in understanding mathematics, physics or philosophy: you have to study. You need to learn art’s symbolic code before you can truly appreciate it. On the other hand, the mystery of art is that it has to do with daily life, experiences and feelings. Allowing as many people as possible to access this special, symbolic and secret code is everyone’s dream: organizing exhibitions in public museums means “translating” for common people, but spreading culture is the only defense against regression into barbaric ignorance, which leads to violence, war and dictatorship.

Who do you consider the most disruptive artist of all times – someone you wish you had in one of your exhibitions?
I always invite all the artists I want for my exhibitions, and I don’t recall anyone declining... except Kai Althoff: he was scared of taking part in dOCUMENTA and wrote me a letter, which we showcased in an empty room. But his refusal had nothing to do with me: it was about Germany and dOCUMENTA’s history. There are many artists I wish I had known though: Malevič, Warhol, a young Matisse, Manet, Masaccio… Women too: Sonia Delaunay, Lou Salomé – who was not an artist but a woman of great imagination, in the late 1800s: she was very close to Nietzsche and became a psychoanalyst after meeting Freud – or Annie Besant, a theosophist. I’ve met all the contemporary artists and learned so much from Luciano Fabro, Alighiero Boetti, Gino de Dominicis.

What is the future of art?
I think contemporary art is a movement that straddles the 20th and 21st century, and soon there will be a huge shift. We will understand that this art, representing the “here and now”, is a real movement in the development of human culture. Museum collections will be reorganized according to new criteria, and I don’t think we’ll use today’s categories any longer. Our current concept of art was born in the 1700s during the Enlightenment, and has been the lens through which we have interpreted all of the cultural creations of humanity. In the future, our concept of art will be tied to all forms of creative expression.

Do you think art can influence the way people think, and therefore bring change in today’s complex and contradictory world?
Absolutely. Art is nothing but people processing the problems they see. It’s an attempt at understanding the world. Art has always been part of the education of the leading class. Since after the French Revolution, our times have believed in the utopia of civics – so art can certainly have an impact, but perhaps an indirect one through a general change of paradigm in society.

Interview by Barbara Palladino

© Castello di Rivoli 

© GAM Torino

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