A conversation with the director of the Venice Biennale for our Forthcoming Cadence Issue.
A friendly, hip, 20-something directs me down the dark, no-frills hallway to Christine Macel’s office. Filled with books, ambient light, and the noise of Paris’ bustling streets our interview is irregularly halted by the sirens of the ambulances below. Serious and friendly, Macel chooses her words carefully. It is clear that she does not joke around with her work as the chief curator of the Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou, and as this year’s Director of the Venice Biennale.
Macel stands in stark contrast to her predecessor, Okwui Enwezor, whose 2015 Biennale, All the World’s Futures, addressed, among other themes, the violent heart of capitalism. Whereas the Nigerian-born Enwezor made a name for himself through his tireless evangelizing of African art and that of the rich veins of African diaspora that run through Europe and the US, Macel signals a return to the European traditions of curatorship. Since 2000, Macel has organized exhibitions at the Pompidou that pay homage to the towering legends of Europe and the US (Picasso, Miró, Calder) as well as contemporary superstars (Tatiana Trouvé, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster).
According to Paolo Baratta – president of the Biennale – the change is a deliberate one. “[Enwezor’s biennale] centred on the many rifts and divisions of our contemporary world,” he says. “[Macel is] committed to emphasizing the important role artists play in inventing their own universes and in reverberating generous vitality towards the world we live in.”
This year’s theme is Viva Arte Viva, about which Macel says “[Art] is a ‘yes’ to life, although sometimes a ‘but’ lies behind.” When I ask her to explain, she says, “This comes from a quote from Nietzsche. And in a time where people are having a tendency to retreat into their own world and to not move beyond their preconceived ideas it is important to make a decision to have an approach that says ‘yes’ to life in an open and generous way. Of course, there is a ‘but’ that follows because it is linked to the crises and the geopolitical issues that we are currently experiencing. At the same time, I think it is motivating people and civil society to engage.”
Among other notable changes, Macel’s Biennale has increased the focus on female artists – a theme that has been gaining traction worldwide in the last few years – although she claims that the increased proportion of women in the Biennale is a direct result of a commitment to elevating under-recognized artists worldwide. “I did not seek to make a distinction between men and women artists but ultimately about 40% of the artists are women – which is a lot compared to the average.” Although, she concedes, she is “thrilled” by the result.
Having exchanged pleasantries Macel and I dive into the interview:
How did you become interested in art?
Art interested me from the earliest moments of my childhood – immediately and forever. But I could not tell you why. For me it was something essential that immediately attracted me to it and developed in me my curiosity and my passion.
You have said that one of your objectives in the Biennale is to help people understand the practice of art in an increasingly complex world. How does the process of making art change how you understand it?
My work methodology – which later informed the setup of the exhibition – was to start from the artists and their work to develop the Biennale rather than to start with a theme and find artists to suit.
It is important to consider in what material an artist works, whether the artist is Rodin or Brancusi. To see how he creates the works of art shows the intention of the artist. A work of art is not just an object. It is also a context, a practice. I am interested in a work of art in a large sense and not just the object that can lose its life if we decontextualize it.
I am interested in rendering intelligible this aspect of the art for the public because it is of key importance to an artist. I want to put the art and the artist in the center of the exhibit, so it seemed important to put what is important to them as a key component of the exhibit.
What is your process for finding works and putting them together?
It is a daily effort – both in the short and long term. It’s the work of a lifetime: to find and follow artists, to preserve time for research. Which means that there are always works that I haven’t had the time or opportunity to show or been able to showcase. And also, there are more circumstantial encounters because of the Biennale, when I sought to meet with artists to discuss their works and their upcoming projects. There are different timelines that come together to determine which works are shown.
I thought of artists and their works that inspired me and the fundamental themes that were questioned in their works, and that is how I began to design a path and the different chapters/pavilions. That being said, when I started thinking about the pavilions, I also started thinking about the artists – so, it was a bit of a loop.
The Biennale really was developed based on the works or what the artists could create as work. Out of the 120 artists shown, 52 are new works.
What do you think that work of women and lesser known artists adds to the visual discussion?
By choosing works from the '60s and '70s that were insufficiently viewed – I am thinking of Maria Lai, or David Medalla or John Latham to name a few – they asked the questions that for me are still valid today and some of them continue to work and are contemporary figures. I think a Biennale needs to show young, emerging artists but also all the generations. For me this is very important.
Who did you choose to help you curate the show?
I made my decisions alone without advisors. My choices are independent. The word solitary would be untrue as I am in contact with all of the world of art. Not alone but without any particular outside input. In contrast, I work on the exhibits themselves with a team and I have always enjoyed working with a team. You can’t say that you work alone on the Biennale. It is too big.
How will you decide if you have succeeded?
What is important for me is the exposure of the works that is enriching for the public. What really counts is this experience and what will remain in people’s memory and the curiosity and passion that it will inspire in the public. That is what I want to accomplish with the visitors. I also think what is important is that the search that I have done with the artists and a greater attention to the art itself – what it is, how it transforms in the current time period. What I am trying to show is that there is a vast amount of different ways to be an artist which is particularly liberating in today’s world. You can do oil paints, or cut out paper, or read a book, or work with ceramic. Work with others or work alone. Use computers or not use them. There is no Doxa, which means, a bit like what you see in civil society, that everyone needs to invent their own practice. They have to find their own medium and invent their day – to a certain extent. There are artists who go to the studio like they are going to work and there are others who have a totally different approach.
How do you approach the dialogue between the national identity of the pavilions and your overall vision? What is the role of globalism in these art fairs in a time of shifting national identities?
While I was not charged with the national pavilions, I thought it was important to link the expositions. I did this by calling the individual chapters of my show “pavilions.” The idea of national pavilions came with the birth of the Biennale and countries have continued to request to join and to build their own pavilions. In today’s world it doesn’t make sense. The Biennale was built around the idea of national power and a certain view of the world. My approach isn’t to erase it or to criticize it but rather to move beyond it with cross-national pavilions and to invite the national pavilions into my exhibits.
You have said that “art does not change the world, it is the place where it can be reinvented.” What do you mean by that?
Art is the most necessary of unnecessary things. Art alone will not change the world, socially or politically, nor will it create a revolution. But artists have always been prescient to the changes in our society. They have been able to sense things that others have not. They imagine other worlds, alternative approaches, and in that way art is profoundly necessary and indispensable.
Written by Eileen Laillier
Photographed by Louis Canadas