‘Art Is the Place Where You Can Reinvent the World’: Christine Macel on How to Understand Her Venice Biennale

In a wide-ranging interview, the curator of the 2017 Venice Biennale explains the key themes powering her ambitious exhibition.

2017 Venice Biennale curator Christine Macel. Photo by Andrea Avezzu, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

Every two years, a curator comes to Venice with a mandate to rally the world’s greatest artists and unite them in a great enterprise on behalf of humanity. That may sound like a premise out of J.R.R. Tolkien, but it captures the heady, high-stakes spirit of the event, and the organizers rarely stint on ambition. In the past few editions, we have seen curators of the Venice Biennale use their Prospero-like powers to direct artists to tear down the wall between older art and the contemporary, to construct a marvelous portal to the collective unconscious, and to wage an insurgency against the unequal global status quo.

This year, under the direction of the highly accomplished French curator Christine Macel and energetically titled “Viva Arte Viva,” the project is slightly different. As Venice Biennale commissioner Paolo Baratta said when naming Macel to her post, she is “aware that we are currently living in an age of anxiety” and is “committed to emphasizing the important role artists play in inventing their own universes and injecting generous vitality into the world we live in.” With that aim, instead of sending her Biennale’s 120 artists off on an epic mission, she’s asking them to come together, settle down, divvy up the artistic labor, and go about their salutary business as citizens of a vibrant, functioning city-state of the mind.

Given the messes our existing polities have gotten into recently, amid the rising tide of conservatism and xenophobic reaction, maybe there’s something we can learn from this artist beehive.

As a curator, Macel has experience with bringing new models into being. In 2000, she created the Centre Pompidou’s contemporary art department, giving it the unusually ambitious title of “la collection création contemporaine et prospective”—in other words, dedicating it not only to the cutting-edge art of today, but also that of the near future. Her perspective, however, is equally informed by the distant past. A sensationally voracious and wide-ranging reader, she draws much of her inspiration from books, and her illuminating, precise artistic statement for her Biennale brims with casually erudite allusions to texts from the ancient world to today.

To better understand the themes animating the 2017 Venice Biennale, artnet News editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein spoke to Macel about what we can expect from her exhibition, and why.

People who come to view the Venice Biennale typically go in expecting a response to the state of the world, a commentary on our geopolitical—or psychosocial—moment. How would you, as the curator, describe the state of the world today? What do you mean when you say it’s a “conservative” moment?

It is indeed a moment full of uncertainty, of conflicts and risks, due to a lot of conservative if not regressive voices. Populism is a real danger, especially for art and culture. This historical context led me to choose to orientate the Biennale toward the art and the artists, since I think that art is a resistance per se, an alternative in se. And it does not matter if art addresses political issues directly or makes commentaries on the geopolitical situation. Art has never been a message, it is plurivocal.

I ask because often the Biennale is an occasion for a curator to marshal the world’s art toward an urgent cause. Your “VIVA ARTE VIVA” comes after two editions that made very strong claims for art’s purpose, with Massimiliano Gioni positioning it as a nourishing subterranean spring for relief against external realities and Okwui Enwezor framing art as a guerrilla weapon against global imbalance. How do you hope art can help us navigate these challenging times?

I don’t like these dichotomies. I am more interested in exploring dialectics without making a definitive point, because all of these positions make sense if the artist is significant. It’s not the position that makes the art. But this is the eternal dialectic of engaged art or art for art. I am interested in Joris-Karl Huysmans as well as in Émile Zola, in Joseph Beuys as well as in Robert Ryman, if you see my point. Art in itself helps us to navigate in these times; its very existence is a resistance in itself. As Gilles Deleuze used to say, art is not about communication, but it is an act of resistance. To me, it resists emptiness—which should not be mistaken for vacuity, the Zen notion, which is very different.

In your statement for the show, you refer on more than one occasion to art as a kind of antidote to—or “last bastion” against—“individualism,” which you call “a worrisome threat in today’s troubling climate.” Can you please expand on that a bit? 

I believe in individualities, but I am always shocked by the degree of individualism that we have reached, because that leads toward indifference. I’m not talking about what people say—because very few people would say that they don’t want to change things, at least a bit, to reach more equality—I’m talking about concrete actions. When it comes to doing something, then you have always fewer people present, and most of the time personal interest would be the only driving force for communal action. The question is: what can we do now in common, after the “the loss of the common” described by Hannah Arendt?

What is the optimal alternative to individualism, and how can art help?

Art does not help anything and does not change anything. But it also changes everything. It’s an “aporia,” like freedom. You are free and not free—both are true. For me, art is the place where you can reinvent the world, the absolutely necessary place to make us fully human. Many artists from modern times, especially those influenced by the communist ideology, believed that art could play a major role in building a communal space, for example the Surrealists. At the end of the 1960s, and again in the ’90s and after that, there were many waves of artists who have discussed this issue. Participative or relational practices are typical of these eras: David Medalla with A Stitch in Time, which he began in 1968 and is still ongoing, or Rasheed Araeen with his moving colored cubes from the ’70s, which the viewer can rearrange continuously. The younger artists in the show, like Marcos Avila Forero, try to generate common practices—in his case, a communal dance in a river—but danger and doubts are always present. In the installation Common Places by Martin Cordiano, the moving balls are constantly separated by low walls.

Adam Curtis made a strong case against individualism in his recent film Hypernormalization, arguing that the trend to self-expression has eroded the groups that make up the social fabric and allow for collective progress and positive change. Now, of course, these kinds of groups are largely springing up online. How much importance did you give to incorporating technology and the digital layer of contemporary life into your show? Why?

I wanted to use the digital technologies in the best possible way instead of putting them aside. I am not a particular fan of technologies; for me, they are only tools. And in the case of my Biennale they offer a lot of possibilities, for instance to put online a video project called Artists’ Practices that I have developed with the artists about their own artistic practices, with videos made by each artist, and which I have made available online since February on the Biennale website, one per day. I will also livestream every performance and every Tavola Aperta [Open Table], a series of lunches with the artists and the public that will take place twice a week. Anyone who cannot physically come to La Biennale, unlike those 500,000 people who have a chance to visit it, will have free access to part of its content.

You wrote that “the exhibition is intended as an experience, an extrovert movement from the self to the other, towards a common space beyond the defined dimensions, and onwards to the idea of a potential neo-humanism.” What does it mean to ground an exhibition as an “experience”? What is the alternative to an experience?

Art is an experience. A physical, perceptual, intellectual, spiritual experience. You have to live it. And every detail matters in this experience. The works need some particular care, a specific architecture. An experience is always a possibility of transformation. Again, it is something working against “indifference,” as described by Antonio Gramsci in “I Hate the Indifferent.” It is about commitment and coexistence. As you can see, I prefer idealism to cynicism, because if reality stops you at a certain point, at least you have developed a specific energy that has changed the whole perspective.

You write that you position your biennale halfway between “otium and negotium,” or leisure and business, which is interesting because so many of the most profound changes in our visual culture are coming from the business sector. For instance, the product manager behind Facebook Messenger recently told Techcrunch that “we like to think of the camera as the new keyboard.” Also, in talking about the artist’s need for leisure time, I am reminded of another of the major themes facing our era, which is the rise of robotics and the call for a universal living wage, which some more optimistic prognosticators say will usher in a new age of creative leisure. You wrote: “The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates.” Today, so much of that is because of a broader tendency toward the visual in mass culture, driven by technology and business. Does your Biennale address these tides, and if so how? If not, why?

Yes, this is exactly the point. I want to redesign a hierarchy in which art and artists come first. I am not a fan of books announcing the end of the cultural world, a tradition initiated in 1918 by Oswald Spengler with The Decline of the West, but I must admit that it is true, and I see it with my own eyes. We live a time of deep cultural change: we have both a better image of art and artists, thanks to the media, but on the other hand, a sort of cultural leveling. In the art world, this has occurred after the mid-’90s. When I was studying art history and contemporary art at the end of the ’80s, it was considered as a kind of weird activity. Today, everyone wants to be a curator. My only conclusion would be to never stop studying, working, reading, listening. Umberto Eco used to say that if you train your memory, you will not only have lived your own life, but also all the other ones that you can remember.

A look at your artist list suggests that the show will put the emphasis on older artists and traditional practices rather than the kind of youthquake futurism we’ve seen lately in shows like Berlin Biennale. Why did you choose that emphasis?

It is not exactly true. There are artists from all generations. I did not want to focus only on the young ones, so you also have artists who are in their 70s, 80s, or older—the artists range from a 25-year-old to a 97-year-old, to be precise. But why should we say that a young person is more contemporary that an older one? The significance of the work is the only point that interests me. One out of the nine chapters in the exhibition addresses the issue of traditions—and it’s a sort of provocative statement about what was considered to be the enemy of modernity, when in fact modernity became also a tradition. I am also very much interested by artists who are dealing with anthropological approaches and long-term history. Leonor Antunes, Anri Sala, or Gabriel Orozco, to quote only a few of them in this section, are not known for their “traditional practices.” My approach is much wider.

You’re a veteran of the Venice Biennale, having previously curated the French and Belgian Pavilions, and in your show you have really chosen to dive into the idiosyncratic layout of the Biennale, structuring your show around “trans-pavilions.” Can you explain your reasoning behind this structure?

My point is to question and also play with these national pavilions, with a bit of irony. They are very much criticized because they reproduce a sort of a geopolitical history of the world, which is very true, and on the other hand, how could you imagine getting rid of them when their number has increased since the ’90s to 85 pavilions this year? It shows how successful this organization has proven to be, and it allows lesser-known or small countries to have a huge visibility. The word “trans-pavilion,” like “transnational” and “transgenerational,” is a wink at these debates.

You have chosen reading to be your metaphor for the viewing process, with each “trans-pavilion” in your show conceived as a “chapter” in a book. Why a book?

It’s not a metaphor. I would call it an analogy. I compare the different universes of the exhibition to chapters of books, rather than the exhibition itself to a book. There is a sense of narration, but it is quite loose. I have written an essay in the catalogue where I explain my own narrative, how I brought all the artists and pieces together, but everyone can build his or her own narrative. Maybe some visitors will prefer to be like flâneurs, but there is a structure, and you can feel it as you go through the exhibition. To me, structure is necessary to create a sense of fluidity.

If your analogy for navigating the sections of the show is reading the chapters of a book, does that mean that your analogy for curating the show is to be an author? Who are your exemplars in curating this show—your templates, or inspirations? 

I’m not really concerned with this question of authorship. I find the claim of the curator to be an author a bit excessive. I don’t have models either. I am inspired by the artists and anything else that nourishes me, from books to music or even nature.

Lastly, your invocation of Latin in your text, particularly in calling the artist someone connected to the “res publica,” calls to mind the Roman world. We stand at the far end of an echoing corridor of history, where republics are transitioning into empires. How do you expect art to participate in a moment like this?

The Roman world was already the biggest empire of its time. And the notion of res publica was also born beforehand, starting from the Greek experiments with democracy—demos being the people—which was quite far from our understanding of what democracy should be today. The notion of otium also derives from the Greek notion of scholé [a place of edifying leisure, the etymological root of “school”]. The idea of the res publica, the “public thing” or the “thing of the people,” still retains that meaning for me, whatever system we live in. It is a concern with the public sphere of life, and it is a notion that may be very French, within the context of the French Republic. One example: I think Ólafur Elíasson is an artist who is deeply concerned with the “res publica,” and so is Edi Rama, of course, as the prime minister of Albania as well as an artist.

I still believe it’s more than urgent to defend the principles of the republic—again, according to the French conception: Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity. They have not been achieved yet, and we know what the failures of the Revolution were, after 1789 and even more after 1793, but it’s not enough of a reason to stop fighting for principles in a world where cynicism and Machiavellian pragmatism is given too much space.

John Berger used to say that hope is already an energy that changes the whole perspective. Hope and action, too. Ólafur Elíasson’s project is an active process, a workshop that creates a substantial result, especially with migrants receiving some language classes or learning some skills, like building lamps. I don’t believe that all art should always be active in the social sphere, but I just want to express something I believe in. Of course art will not change the world, but how could we live without it? Of course it will not solve the dramas of our days, but at least with art we can reinvent the world, and what it could or should be. Not only visual arts, by the way. All sort of arts. That is why I open art’s definition toward literature, dance, and music, for example, within this Biennale.

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