CT The monuments of industrial archaeology, abandoned office buildings among them, have often become the counterparts of the desert sought by land artists of the 70s. These artistic gestures were an attempt not only to turn us away from the established circuit of art institutions and museums but also to alter or permeate the existing environment and create a new one in which the viewer is meant to participate. Rosalind Krauss describes these spaces as a “ghostly presence, grazing the surface and like an elsewhere, a paradox of being physically present but temporally anterior and locally exotic.” The strategy for the Berlin Biennial to place the entire parcours on one street was a spatial advance on this trope.
MG In my work, I’ve often borrowed deserted edifices for an art project. In Milan, where I’m the curator for the Trussardi Foundation, I make use of public, private or otherwise unconventional exhibition sites for contemporary art. To adopt spaces where you still feel the presence of embedded history is compelling, and Berlin is a multilayered place where much of the architecture contains a legacy of stories, legends and memories.
CT Obviously, street credibility was a high priority for your curatorial team. Berlin is known for its anti-institutional avant-garde scene, but was it the city’s macabre history that compelled you to create this unusual form of exhibition?
MG It was a combination of things. At first, we were offered the Martin Gropius-Bau, a very bourgeois middle-class building, but it felt wrong. Since there were many fascinating artists of our generation in Berlin, we realized that an institutional site like Gropius-Bau would be the last place these artists would visit. They see art in galleries, nonprofit spaces, certain institutions and especially in each other’s studios. There are any number of spaces where Berlin artists catalyze different scenes and create their own structures in which to present work.
CT This, the 4th Berlin Biennial, has been credited as a model for an intimate, experiential theater of the absurd, one that took place in venues including apartments, a cemetery, a former school, stables and the street. With the team of Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick and yourself curating one show, how did you reach consensus on the concept?
MG First, we all agreed there was a certain tiredness with the model of the biennial as a global village. The original biennials were descendants of national expositions, and 100 years later, Harald Szeemann resuscitated this with the Aperto in the 1980 Venice Biennale, a post-nationalistic model of a grand sprawl. Here, one could go from Chen Zhen to Jason Rhoades to Pipilotti Rist to Mike Kelley as if inside a transnational community where it was possible to skip from one place to another at the speed of the Internet. Maurizio, Ali and I were tired of that model; it didn’t belong to us. We were inspired by Auguststrasse, the street on which sat the Kunst-Werke and the Jewish Girls’ School. It was a new spatial experience where, instead of sprawl, there would be a highly concentrated, fluid space. As there were national historical considerations and traumas here, it took two years for us to get the proper permissions; we knew we would have to overcome skepticism and the fear of opening up old wounds.
CT How did you attempt to alleviate the council’s mistrust and do a show in such a loaded environment?
MG First you have to define what’s political. As a curator, you’re a diplomat, and the main thing is to listen to the voices of the artists and help realize the exhibition without your own politics getting in the way. Also, with the national status of such a biennial, to gain the city’s confidence—especially in the Jewish community—took a lot of time and education.
CT Of course, a large part of the curatorial mission is to understand what it takes to make something happen and, thus, to be a good negotiator.
MG Sometimes it’s boring, but this is important; if curators left holes in the budget, it would screw up the economics for the next show. We had to respond with efficiency to ensure the artist’s and the institution’s survival. Even the discussion about Gropius-Bau was a long conversation. Originally, we wanted to use other kinds of spaces prevalent in the 90s, like converted warehouses, but when we saw the girls’ school and other structures on the street, our idea evolved to include the philology of a place—to amplify and preserve the fugitive voices already present—and the artwork we introduced would function as a guest.
CT In 1984, Jan Hoet organized Chambers Des Amis, where artists were selected to make works inside different homes in Ghent. Here, too, the art had guest status.
MG Yes, that was about domestic spaces where people still lived. For our show, most of the apartments we chose were empty. The subtext and theme for the show was loss, abandonment and surrender. When you stepped into these places, you knew someone had been there before and something had happened, but you missed it.
To communicate the project concisely, I always try to find a synthesis; perhaps I learned that from Maurizio. Some say the single-street idea was a manipulation, but we believe that it was a way for the viewer to engage their imagination.
CT The title of this Biennial, Of Mice and Men, was an appropriation of an appropriation; you took it from John Steinbeck’s novel, and he took it from a Robert Burns poem.
MG Both the Steinbeck story and the Burns poem are about loss, surrender and the uncertainty of the future. Another common element bore upon people behaving like animals, and animals like people—such as when humans turn into beasts, e.g., the Nazis perpetrating the Holocaust. We also felt this title would bring people to a new place.
We made lists of hundreds of types of biennials that would be unique, ones we’d never seen before. Finally, we came up with a Biennial with no objects—just animals and people. At that point, we tried to radicalize, to go beyond this to the street and atmosphere, to where the first tensions emerged, and for this the title was perfect.
CT A book I read recently, A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, was written by an anonymous woman who lived in Berlin right after the war. She describes the people in her ravaged apartment building behaving like animals, scrambling to survive among the chaos, rapes, vermin, vandals and ruins.
MG There is this Italian word, sprezzatura. It’s about the ability to do something difficult in ways that don’t reveal its complexity. It’s also the principal behind Mannerism, where one executes an incredibly complex drawing with a lightness that masks the difficulty. In my work I always try to hide the intellectual references so as not to be obscure, but reading and research are very important. One source of inspiration was from a W. G. Sebald lecture, The Natural History of Destruction, in which he states that in Germany, the Holocaust was erased from the history books until the 70s. Germany never came to terms with its complicity and trauma after the apocalyptic Allied bombings of Dresden, where thousands perished and millions of flies swarmed the city.
In my catalogue essay, I mention another book, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov—about a Moscow that never existed, where cats speak and the devil flies.
Another influence, an American cult-classic road story, set in a small midwestern county, is Blue Highways, written by William Least Heat-Moon. In 1,000 pages, he paints remarkable portraits of the people living in each room of a tall building. His tales descend beginning from the top floor; instead of a sprawl, it’s a vertical hyper-concentration.
Then theres Giorgio Morandi, the reclusive painter who spent his life painting the same bottles over and over—a search for density and depth rather than mobility or multiplicity.
Inspired by the idea of density and anti-mobility, we traveled through Germany by train only, searching for artists we had never worked with before. We didn’t include the Chinese, however, simply because we had to find our own voice outside of the global mentality. Our idea of using one street 920 meters long was cinematiclike a daydream or a movie. There is the idea of hyper-pentimenti, corresponding with the depth and density of research derived from Morandi or Blue Highways, which translated into one space going into many different spaces, like a mouse or a rat. It was also a reason for including Bruce Nauman’s labyrinth.
Once we had the girls’ school—an amazing place like nothing we’d seen—we knew it was right. The memories of Szeemann’s Arsenale from the Venice Biennale, as a beautiful walk micromanaged to see one thing and then another, was inspirational. Our show was similar, but taken outside.
CT The notion of site-specificity refashioned the idea of the journey by no longer confining it to the abstract gallery space. Through this, a form of domestic tourism was invented—one that renewed ties with the modern tradition of the flaneur and his fascination with the strangeness of the city and its slightly tawdry glamour. After the wall came down, Auguststrasse in Mitte was the first place of gentrification. Galleries appeared, and now it has become posh and hip. In terms of using it for your Biennial, there must have been skeptics.
MG They all made fun of us. “It’s the tourist area,” they said. We assured them it would be amazing, and afterward, they understood the depth of our project. Our quest for authenticity reached the point that in the girls’ school, wherever we drilled holes in the wall for artworks, the residue dust would be taken up so not to mingle the present with the past. It was a hyper-concentration where time became a crucial note, like the paper houses of Peter Fritz.
MG A guiding principal of the walk on Auguststrasse was, What happens to humans with time? The walk, beginning at the church, ended at the cemetery with Susan Philipsz’s sound installation and passed though the typologies where time is spent: church, school, factory, apartment—places where we pray, work, eat, play and die. Among the artists in the girls’ school were Roland Flexner, Francesca Woodman and Rachel Harrison. Peter Fritz and Corey McCorkle were installed in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. We knew we didn’t want to be as theoretically heavy as is typical in Germany, exemplified by the 3rd Berlin Biennial. Instead, our show would be a research about the city, perhaps because Maurizio is an artist and Ali and I come from backgrounds where literature and art would be the guiding principles.
CT Did the three of you read the same literature and watch similar films and TV programs?
MG Part of my role was to construct the intellectual framework, but we all shared the readings. Cattelan was reading The Battles of Napoleon and we all watched the same TV series—24. Our idea of unity was very important and we felt our work should be very tight and clear for the exhibition, to be like one experience. We also wanted the viewer to have the feeling of entering a world where the rules are different.
CT Something like the carnival, a place where you can suspend traditional hierarchies and briefly subvert them?
MG Well, maybe institutions too can disrupt the normal flow of things and then return to normal.
CT How does the rise of creative industries reflect on the role of the artist and creativity in this first decade of the 21st century?
MG Because art can produce so much wealth, the artist can get away with more.
Regarding the art market since 1999, when I thought it was going to crash, a work by Cattelan went for one million! It never crashed, but I do see a major change; the price now determines the quality, and this absurdity has the ability to monopolize every conversation. It’s now the issue of the investment bankers who have made the audience bigger. Money has the power to change everything, and Jeff Koons has made the game even bigger. With rich new audiences, it is all happening through money.
CT After the downward spiral of the stock market in 2001, people diversified their wealth into art not only as a commodity but also as an activity that carried with it social status, exclusive parties and art fairs, with or without the presence of the artist.
MG Biennials are publicity machines, but the equation that money equals = evil is wrong. Money is a tool. You could say that it’s better to spend money on biennials than on weapons and wars. Furthermore, money and art have been in bed forever.
CT Is that what you were thinking when you opened a branch of your own Wrong Gallery in the Biennial and rechristened it Gagosian Gallery?
MG The Wrong Gallery1 was originally born as a challenge to the Chelsea thing—it was about real estate and a space that operates at zero economy—a no-profit, no-budget space. But for a biennial, it’s more interesting to accept the job as a curator and do it in a way that’s unexpected, bending the system and giving voice to practices that were previously nonexistent.
For us, this 4th Berlin Biennial was a creature with many heads and different identities. Biennials happen every two years, and within that period we started a column in a local magazine where we interviewed artists. Then we started Gagosian Gallery, followed by an issue of Charley,2 which included 700 artists whose work we had viewed. This two-year period of activities relating to the Biennial was very clear on a local level, but not globally.
CT Why did you appropriate the name “Gagosian” for the Wrong Gallery here in Berlin?
MG Actually, Ali invented the term guerilla franchising!
CT Did you ask Gagosian if it was OK?
MG Yes. He knew and thought it would be a one-time thing but was upset when he got the second invite. It lasted for one year. We live in an age of knockoffs, and to do a gallery as such was to challenge the provincial nature of the art world.
CT Was it a non-profit space?
MG It was a place to show works with a very small part of the Biennial budget. I’m interested in relations that are parasitic, so think of it as a sort of viral campaign. You know, we’re not the St. Francis of the industry.
CT The hierarchy has changed in the art world; it now seems that the collector is the apex.
MG Yes, but it all points to the artist, whose role is the most important. He/ she makes the commodities for collectors. The main actor of the 90s was the curator, and now it is the collector. The new model of the 90s was the biennial, and now it is the art fair. It goes in cycles, but without the artist, none of this exists.
1. “Since 2002, the team of Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick has been running The Wrong Gallery, a miniscule exhibition space in Chelsea, New York’s district…. Playing with exhibition formats and distribution tactics, The Wrong Gallery has also promoted small clandestine interventions in public spaces…. The team also publishes The Wrong Times, a newspaper that features interviews with all of the artists presented at The Wrong Gallery.” 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art website: http://alt.berlinbiennale.de/eng/pdf/bb4_web_curatorsteam_cv_120705_english.pdf
2. “Cattelan, Gioni and Subotnick also founded and co-edit the systematically inconsistent contemporary art publication series Charley, which is supported by the DESTE Foundation in Athens. A do-it-yourself combine, bound to change content and format at each and every appearance, Charley digests and processes images, artworks, articles and previously published materials, in order to reshuffle and re-interpret information” (ibid.).