Sylvielin's Blog

Interview with Marc-Olivier Wahler, director of Palais de Tokyo

Posted in Interviews with Curators/Museum Directors by sylvielin on May 3, 2010

by Sylvie Lin, August 2006 in Paris 

Marc-Olivier Wahler, Director of Palais de Tokyo. Photography© Francis Vernhet. Courtesy of Palais de Tokyo.


“Now I take over the Palais de Tokyo. My idea is to continue the development. But what I want to try now is also more to build a story that will last in the next three years and to bring a scenario. When the visitor comes for the first time, he has such an idea of what’s going on. Then he’s coming back and see, now I understand the previous exhibitions in that way, and they can even think about what to come next. It is always like writing chapters; you bring the first, second, third and why you lead the exhibitions, you think about the whole link or the whole story in which you are included. ”  —-Marc-Olivier Wahler (extract from the interview)

Q Please talk about your experience when you were the director of Swiss Institute in N.Y. How did you manage to make the exchanges between the contemporary art scene in Europe and in the U.S.?
A The exchanges were done through shows, performances, lectures, etc.. The idea was to make the institute a kind of platform, with many artists coming to New York, many of whom didn’t know anything about NY. So the institute played the role of platform, inviting Swiss, French and German artists coming to New York. We tried to make a network for them, to link deeper to each other.
What I also did is that, with the group shows, I always mix European artists and American artists. These artists are sometimes quite far to be linked together. For example, we have solos shows of Jim Shaw(U.S.) and of Philippe Parreno, and with very big names or emerging American artists. That’s the strategy of SI. What’s interesting in the U.S. is that Swiss doesn’t link to a country. Swiss is more like an adjective, a kind of label. You have Swiss cheese, Swiss knife, etc. So I tried to work on the cliché about Swiss, about quality, and finally, about what is the reputation of SI. It’s an institute of quality, no matter the artists come from Asia, Europe or U.S.

Q What difference do you find between the contemporary art scene of New York and that of Europe?

A In N.Y., you’re immediately in a context where your are either a non-for-profit or a gallery. That’s really the context. We are clearly in the non-for-profit. We also work like all the shows don’t belong to the galleries or to the commercial spaces. The discussion that the people have there is always about the market or the career. Here in Europe, it’s different. The gap between the market and the non-commercial, the non-for-profit is not so clear. Here the question is more about what art is and all the philosophical questions, esthetic questions. It’s more engaging in a way.

Q When you brought the European artists to N.Y., what was the reception of the people there, and the chemistry in-between? 

A I began my term at the beginning of the year 2000 when you have more and more European art seen in the galleries of N.Y., a phenomenon you wouldn’t have so much in the 90s. More and more galleries noticed that they can import European art very easily because they come with the catalogues, big productions by the Kunsthalles(art center especially from Germany, Switzerland). They can import these works produced and sell them to the market. That’s the change I saw at the end of the 90s.
The idea of SI was really to bring things absolutely outside of the commercial spaces. In the 90s, even the non-for-profits always had the kind of energy to go with the market, even if they said ‘no, we’re not for profit. We do something totally different.’ I am from Europe and have a different mentality. I want to do installations and things that go absolutely outside of the market and the commercial space. I think SI was like doing something new.

Q Did you encounter any difficulty at the time?

A No. People in N.Y. are very curious and very open and very fast to react. So after three months there, I was already feeling like home.

Q You created the Contemporary Art Center of Neuchatal under a condition where you didn’t have any financing.

A It was really interesting. We were a group of friends in Neuchatal. We always go elsewhere to visit shows. There was absolutely nothing (about art) in Neuchatal. So we decided to create a contemporary art center there, but knowing that there was absolutely no interest from the City or the State to support such a space, so we find a lot of sponsors : one gives the ceiling, another gives the wall and other stuffs. After a year, we open the art space. We also sublated two floors of the space for the café and restaurant. The money we got from them paid our operating cost. Of course, everyone was working like volunteers. At first it was like 100% private. Then we got funds, yet the maximum was like 80% private.
It was always like no budget, like 1000 Dollars for a show. When you were like that, you ask your friends to give like a van, then you drive to Paris, you take the artwork, you drive back, you go through the customers at night, and you mount the artwork yourself.
The center still exists today. But with the volunteer work, you always have ups and downs. Now you have it down. There is a new team of young artists who want to take the space and do new stuffs.

View of 'Five Billion Years' exhibition in Palais de Tokyo curated by Wahler.(Photo:Sylvie Lin)

 Please talk about your experience in creating the MAMCO in Geneve.

A I participated in the beginning for its set up. It was a great experience. I worked with the director, Christian Bernard whom I think to be the model of the organizing and thinking of what a museum could be. It was interesting to participate in the thinking. He thought about the museum with every possible way of presenting work. So you go from the collector’s space to the museum space via the street, via the artist, studio, etc. I think it was like a way of thinking what a museum now is, or how a contemporary art museum functions, and other possible ways to develop. It’s really about thinking about how a museum should be from the late 20th Century on.
Besides, its collection is based on long-term lease. A collector would give MAMCO his/her collection for ten years. It’s a kind of time-test to see how the work evolves in the ten-year period. So it’s not like the collection in MAMCO forever. But it’s more like we have these works in ten years to see how they develop.

Q Please talk about the exhibition entitled ‘Transfert’ held in Bienne, Switzerland, where the works intervened in the urban context.
A It was one of the best experiences I had as a curator. It was en exhibition in the public space. I tried to think what it means to show art in the public space. It means to show art at people’s spaces directly. It’s like to impose something, whereas a museum is like a protected area where people have to decide then to go. Exhibiting in the street is really like imposing something that people thought how can we program an exhibition in such a condition. So I tried to work on the existing infrastructure and to take every kind of city infrastructure : the supermarket, the shop, the street, the official buildings, etc.
The motto of the show was ‘if it looks like art, then it’s not good enough’, meaning that people on the street would think : maybe there’s nothing changed from what they see, but they feel like there’s a change. If they feel like this, then maybe this is a work by an artist. I tried to have a kind of suspense while walking on the street, people would think maybe this or that is an artwork.

Saâdane Afif's solo show 'Lyrics' held in Palais de Tokyo in 2005 under the direction of Jérôme Sans and Nicolas Bourriaud.(Photo:Sylvie Lin)

Q What’s your view of Palais de Tokyo under the direction of Sans and Bourriaud?
A I think what they did was fantastic because it’s very hard to impose such structure in Paris, in France and in the political condition. They had to fight every year in order to maintain the legitimacy of that art center. I think we’ll have to keep this in mind, because maybe the program could also be influenced by this big fight. They really took the idea of an art space where there’s always something happening, totally open, totally reactive and this kind of like permanent fireworks. I think it worked quite well.
Now I take over the Palais de Tokyo. My idea is to continue the development. But what I want to try now is also more to build a story that will last in the next three years and to bring a scenario. When the visitor comes for the first time, he has such an idea of what’s going on. Then he’s coming back and see, now I understand the previous exhibitions in that way, and they can even think about what to come next. It is always like writing chapters; you bring the first, second, third and why you lead the exhibitions, you think about the whole link or the whole story in which you are included.
It’s very important now for the art world to have such thinking about what the program is. We have exhibitions everywhere, but I think what’s important now is to think about program as a new medium. Before you had works and you put them together and that makes a show. Then people think about the exhibition itself as a new medium, then you have lining up of shows. The curators work on the exhibition itself as a new medium. Now it’s important to do something new. What I want to develop is the program as a new medium.

Q For the programmation of Palais de Tokyo, you will engage international artists such as Jeremy Deller, Ugo Rondinone and others to work with you.

A It’s very important to open the curating of shows, not to be alone with myself. I think it’s very important to work with other curators and especially with artists. Why artists? Because I think the best shows I’ve seen were always curated by artists. For example, ‘The Uncanny’ by Mike Kelly in 1993. It was like no curator would do that. No curator would be crazy enough to such an amazing thing. He did that two years ago but in a more developed way in Liverpool and in Vienna.
I’m very interested in that. So the program for the first year, I come with ‘5 billion years’ which is the first show and is really my statement in a way. Then the second show is more like solo shows, but I give one small project to an artist who will organize a group show. The third is about and on the artist Philippe Parreno, but I will do it with an artist, Olivier Mosset, who is a very close friend to Philippe Parreno. Then, the last show of the year, of the season, is Carte Blanche to an artist; that would be Ugo Rondinone. The second year would follow the same strategy, finishing with Jeremy Deller. So for me it’s very important to open the curating to artist. As conceived, the exhibition in collaboration with J. Deller would be without any artist, but featuring folk art, archive, special collections.

Q In a way it’s very close to his work.

A He is also going toward what he is more and more doing. He’s doing the way as a curator. When I talked to him, he said, ‘yes, it’s toward where I want to go.’

Q With the show ‘5 Billion Years’, you are engaging artists, writers, physicians, Sci-fi and combining all sorts of events like concerts, performances, salons,…How do you link together these different elements?
A The link is like more a quantum-physic one. The show will include of course many artist, but also bikers, and competition of chainsaw sculpture, with the best lumberjack in the world. For the opening, we’ll have other bikers outside the building. Every Thursday, we have performances, lectures. We’ll have specialists from quantum-physic and of other specialty, like pharmacy, etc. What’s important is, for example, if your are a biker, you have to have a mental structure, you have to be really radical and seeing the world through a certain point of view. That’s what is interesting.
I’m interested in radical art. I’m interested in all the people, not freaks, but that is obsessed with something really precise, and going through the obsession and going to the point where the interpretation you have about the world is a very specific one. Then I think this kind of interpretation you have about the world should be important to have, to get, to transfer into the art world. Then, through the interpretation, we try to see the art world through a new angle.

Wood-cutting copmetition on the platform outside le Palais de Tokyo was part of the programs of 'Five Billion Years' curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler.(Photo: Sylvie Lin)

I’m not so interested in the traditional art criticism. I think the future of the art criticism is through the gastronomical or musical criticism or even sport critic. It’s more interesting to see a movie by Werner Herzog like ‘Grizzli Man’. You learn more about contemporary art than reading a text by like Hal Foster. Both are very important, but I think ‘Grizzli Man’ is important in terms of contemporary art in that it brings you a certain way of seeing the things, and contemporary art is the tool to look at the reality. If you consider art like that, then you have to consider all the other ways proposed by artists, by physicians, mathematicians, to look at art. For example, mathematicians are like artists for me in a way, because they consider the reality though a very specific angle. That’s fantastic. You can even not understand and see where they want to go.


Q Whereas there are art institutions holding exhibitions with an array of side programs and activities, do you think there is a risk of eliminating the artistic content with such approach? How do you at the same time concentrate on what you explained as the radical point or the essential direction of a show?

A We want to organize side events in order to say ‘come, because then you would understand the show’. Coming to our programmation, we don’t explain; we show radical art which would work like art in a way. The point is the quality. If you make quality art, if you don’t make any compromise, and go really to the point, then you don’t have to explain contemporary art. We are not in the 70s anymore where you had to study art history for 20 years in order to understand why they go to this point. Nowadays, when you see a show, it’s very like kinesthetic. It’s really like your relation with your body through the exhibition where you have to go through the work. It speaks to your body, mind and everything.
Coming to the side events, we have lectures, etc. They also have to do with this kind of elasticity. What I want to test is the elasticity of the artwork. I’m trying to go from invisibility to hyper-spectacular in one work, for example. For me, a good work is one that includes both the invisibility and the hyper-spectacularity. Everything should be in this logic, even like film, lecture, or performance. That’s the link to everything.

Q We know that there is a big scale renovation of the site of the Palais de Tokyo. Please talk about how will you manage the enlarged space of Palais de Tokyo?
A On the lower floor which leads to the first floor, there’s an amazing space, totally open and unused. The state led an inquiry, like report, about the possible use of the space. But right now it’s discussed in the State, the Ministry of Culture, and nothing’s decided yet.

'Our History' exhibition curated by Jérôme Sans & Nicolas Bourriaud in Palais de Tokyo invited French artists or artists based in France.(Photo: Sylvie Lin)

Q You are very experienced in finding sponsorship from the private sectors. What is your plan of the financing of Palais de Tokyo?

A I thought there’s a very efficient development. I have some ideas but I have to get adapted to the French system. The difference lies especially in the tax, reduction, etc. It’s much more complicated. Tax reduction has been possible in France only for companies supporting art or culture only for three years. So the companies are just starting, that they didn’t have such habit. They have certain expectation, whereas in the U.S., they have been working like that for the last fifty years. So there’s different habit, different goals and different expectation. But I’m really confident that we can grow.

Q Is it true that in general, traditionally there is more private sponsorship in the U.S., whereas in France, the art and culture are mostly supported by the government?

A Here in France, everyone expects the state to take care of you. So the private sectors here are not used to support art and culture. But the mentality is going to change, more and more so. But it might take a while. It’s true that in the U.S., they have standard structure, we have benefic dinner, auctions and all these tools for raising money. Here, the tools are not so developed. It’s possible, but its takes more time.

Q In another interview, you mentioned that you felt it’s surprising that there exist good French artists who are not so visible internationally. What do you think to be the reason that French contemporary art is not so visible internationally ?

A the French artists were not so keen to go abroad in the 90s. From my experience abroad, I have the feeling that for the French artists, if they want to make a career, they would like to make it in France ; if they go abroad, it’s only to come back in a better way. Whereas if you are Swiss, for example, you don’t even think about making a career in Switzerland or in Germany. You are going to make a career internationally, so you go to London, N.Y., Berlin… In France, it’s more like centred in Paris and your dream is to make it in Paris.
But now the mentality changes totally. French people want to get out of France and go to London, N.Y., Berlin… It’s a big change. Especially the new generation of the French artists, aged from 25 to 30s, they are very confident and really good. So I think the new generation is going to rock. They are educated in France, but already have a global view of things. They have this kind of perspective on the French art scene. They know in a much better way what’s going on outside. They know that they have to fight. They know that the state is not going to take care of them for their whole life. It’s like a consciousness, which is very important.

Do you think the state of France tends to be less open and makes less exchange with the outside?

View outside the Palais de Tokyo.(Photo:Sylvie Lin)

A For example, if you see the art scene in France, there are not so many foreign curators.

Q We also see that you are Swiss, and Ulrich Hans-Obrist, curator of MAM(Musée d’art moderne/Museum of Modern Art) of Pairs is also Swiss. There seems to be a relevant participation of the Swiss in the French art scene.

A But we are the only two. It’s starting to become more open. But I’m very confident. And if you look at like London, they have more foreign curators. As Swiss people, you have to go abroad. It’s the Swiss mentality to be more global. It’s also because of the specificity of Switzerland. People there speak German, French or Italian. So you belong to different cultures. For me, Switzerland doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t exist. Yes, I’m from Neuchatal, that’s where I belong.

【Chinese version was published in ARTCO monthly ( Taiwan ), October 2006.】


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