Sylvielin's Blog

Interview with Jérôme Glicenstein, Theorist of History of Exhibition

Posted in about Art, Interviews (uncategorized) by sylvielin on February 16, 2013

“As you said, there are particular tendencies in the art world at certain historical moments. It’s like fashion: we repeat the same styles every twenty years. In contemporary art, for example, in the 1980s, there was a global return to traditional or figurative art forms: many artists who produced conceptual art in the 1970s shifted to painting and sculpture.”
—- Jérôme Glicenstein, quoted from the interview

Q You teach the ‘History of Exhibitions’ in the Université Paris 8. Generally, in the contemporary art world, there’s a lack of acknowledgment of what has happened in the recent decades in this domain. Yet if we take a historical point of view, many of what we claim to be ‘new’ today has already been proposed very earlier on. Besides, from a historical perspective, we might perceive certain tendencies in a given historical moment, and there can be a kind of ‘come back/return’ at another given moment.

A  A very good example is the term ‘laboratory’ that is so recurrent in today’s contemporary art discourses. Initially it had been proposed by several museum curators (and scholars): in the 1920s, Louis Hautecoeur or Alexander Dorner. Besides, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, one of the most famous curators of today, has referred to Dorner as his role model. The fact that such historical oblivion exists in the contemporary art world relates directly to the necessity of constant renewal: we need to give the impression that there is always something happening, in order to attract a larger public. But we can find so many new things only once in a while, so we recycle past things and treat them in a new way.
As you said, there are particular tendencies in the art world at certain historical moments. It’s like fashion: we repeat the same styles every twenty years. In contemporary art, for example, in the 1980s, there was a global return to traditional or figurative art forms: many artists who produced conceptual art in the 1970s shifted to painting and sculpture. I think it related directly to the market. In the 1970s, there was no market for contemporary art, except for a very small number of artists. Many artists did conceptual art, video art, performance, land art, process art, minimal art, etc., artworks that could not easily be sold. Yet in the 1980s, the market grew, partly along with major art institutions such as the Pompidou Center or MoMA, which tended to attract a wider general public. It also went hand in hand with the growth of the stock market at the time, like what we had in the last decade. With the market, you needed objects or commodities to sell, so artists returned to painting, which was not a spontaneous act in itself.
The need for new things relates to the market and, obviously, it is also meant to attract collectors. One collector can very quickly come to possess items from every artistic movement in the period he begins to collect. So it’s very important to make him feel that there’s always something happening, that there are always some undiscovered artists somewhere in the world : in New York or at the new frontiers of the art world. This also partly contributed to the multiplication of art events like biennials or triennials in the 1990s all around the world.

Q The operation of international biennials or triennials are often linked to local political, economic contexts. How do you regard the relations between exhibition organizations and political forces in a given context ?

A  A very good example of biennials based on political interest is the Manifesta Biennale. It was the direct product of a political purpose: trying to integrate the other side of Europe into Western Europe. The European Council/Union decided to support Manifesta – which was a Dutch initiative – because it dealt with emerging artists from lesser known art centers. The idea was to spread light on areas that would be interesting even though there’s no art market or art scene. It was a very political way of dealing with the art scene and a kind of ‘affirmative action’. Therefore, many versions of the Manifesta had political themes, and I believe it also relates to its general frame.
I think the first city that felt it had been marginalized and held its biennial to counter this feeling was Sao Paolo. It was a very ambiguous situation: in the first years of its existence, there was a progressive, leftist government in Brazil and they had the idea of promoting modernity in the country. The Sao Paolo Biennial went with the general political program under the direction of Kubitscheck, the Brazilian leader at the time. There was a leftist stand about art. Then, in the 1960s, there was a military coup. The artists tried then to protest against the political regime inside or outside the Biennial.
Another example is the Havana Biennial. It was created because the Cuban regime wanted to show another image of Cuba. They invited artists from all over the world, except from the U.S. of course, since American artists simply have no right to enter Cuba. The Havana Biennial is a political gesture that tries to show that Cuba is not sealed off and that it has political art. Leftist art opposing the U.S. was for instance always welcomed in that Biennial.

Q The operation of international biennials or triennials can sometimes enter into conflicts with the local artistic or political scene.
A  The Cairo Biennial for example was created in order to promote a new image of Egypt and ideas about pan-Arabism. But it was much criticized in the country for the same reason. An opposite example is the Gwangju Biennial in Korea: it was not at all political at the beginning. But, for this reason, the local art scene protested against it. Yet biennials can also contribute to the artistic development of a place. I’m sure that the Sao Paolo Biennial helped to create an art scene in Brazil. This is not the case with Italy: they have had the Venice Biennale for more than a hundred years. But for many years, it had absolutely no influence on the Italian art scene. And until now, the Venice Biennale is still experienced more as an international event than an Italian event. However things have begun to change in the past ten or twenty years with the creation of a number of contemporary art institutions in that country. Besides, in some countries, holding a biennial can be problematic. The two versions of the Johannesburg Biennial curated respectively by Okwui Enwezor and Jean-Hubert Martin worked quite well artistically. But the local art scene and political scene didn’t like it so it disappeared.

Q Does this fragility relate to the (under-)development of a certain local art scene ?

A  When a country doesn’t have a very big art scene, like in South Africa, China, etc., where the contemporary art scene is quite recent, generally there’s no art market. In order to have an art market, you need to have collectors, which means you need to have people who are acquainted with contemporary art. This takes several years. People don’t collect art right away, except for the investors. Generally it starts with small contemporary art events, and if it works well, you have biennials. If the biennial works well, you have art centers subsidized by the government, the city, local enterprises, companies, like in Korea. If all this works well, galleries start to open. It builds up over years and requires certain experiences of what contemporary art is. Among these, organizing a biennial can help the local art scene, because you confront international and local artists. But often the local artists suffer a lot from this type of confrontation.

(Interview made in Paris in June 2011. Originally published at Art Taipei Forum Media :, 2011/09/09)


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