Adam Szymczyk reflects on the process of uncovering, the need to articulate things and on why »we« may not need exhibitions of absolute magnitude.
For more than 300 years, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna has been one of the most important educational institutions for artists. With this interview series, PW-Magazine provides an insight into the teaching and artistic work of the professors.
As the former director of Kunsthalle Basel and artistic director of documenta 14, you are currently a guest lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. What makes your teaching remarkable?
I don’t use a particular theory or method, which I could describe. My teaching is based on individual contributions of participants, whom I consider not as students to get taught, but rather as independent individuals who want to articulate something that they find urgent. Artists have a certain necessity or maybe also the ability to articulate matters that haven’t been addressed yet, or at least not in the way they desire. I don’t attempt to help my students to find one appropriate shape to do so, but instead, I support them in their gathering and enunciating new content.
At the end of your course »Principle of Equality« at the Academy, your students curated the group exhibition Wild Spoerri Rosenstein. What was your consensus on equality?
»Principle of Equality« is quoting the title of an eponymous seminar held by curator Anka Ptaszkowska at École des Beaux-Arts in Caen, France, in the 1990s. It’s an ethical guideline of her thinking, whereupon equality can also be understood as a formal principle, recognizable in many works of the 20th century art, where the intent of reduction of expression was essential. The unity of all parts of an art object allows evading composition or narration. The work becomes more of a matrix, it is an idea that makes work. Starting here, Ptaszkowska took the idea of equality back to a political understanding, as of course, it’s also known as one of the three terms of the bourgeois revolution in France. I thought it would be interesting to look at this topic today. We also added another notion – that of solidarity. Equality and solidarity grew into two terms with significant importance for the future of contemporary societies. »Principle of Equality« was a general call and a programmatic statement of the course.
Part of this project was an excursion to Elisabeth Wild in Guatemala. Some of the students brought back objects they had found in Guatemala and reconstructed them into an artwork. In your opinion, is this way of detaching objects from their foreign origins and repositioning them in a new context in artistic practice a problematic way of generating art?
We talked a lot about the idea of collecting items. And, in the end, we didn’t bring that many things back from our journey. It was more about creating a travesty of a nowadays normalized pattern tourist trip: tourists afford a faraway journey and collect little trophies to keep in their apartment back home. It’s a colonial quest in miniature. In our case, the situation developed a little different, because our journey ended up in an exhibition in a hotel. A hotel is a temporary place where you have to pay to stay. It’s certainly not a home. The show is about not claiming to own a place; rather, on the contrary, it’s about being permanently displaced. This approach relates to the lives and works of Elisabeth Wild, Erna Rosenstein, and Daniel Spoerri.
What is your definition of curating?
I have no valid definition. It is about the ability to recognize parameters of a specific context, different in each case, and find a way of responding to it, rather than following the parameters given. I’m not very much for repressive curating – telling people what to do and where to put their work exactly. With students, I’m more interested in finding out why they want to do what they want to do and why they want to present their work in this particular way. Of course, I can ask questions, but I would never force someone to abandon their original idea entirely. I am not an artist; I am merely curious about these different forms of artistic articulation and how they come into being.
Western biennales are criticized as large and expensive exhibition formats curated for a specific audience with a Eurocentric perspective. How can events like these take place in the future or do we still need these formats?
It depends on who is »we«, who is speaking and from which position, geographically and politically. For instance, the Bamako Encounters, the African biennale for photography and video art in Mali, is a significant event for artists and curators from all over the African continent. It’s one of the rare occasions for artists working with photography in many countries on the African continent to get together to show and discuss works. Hence, I believe this biennial is essential, in contrast to many other large events. Some of those shows lost their reason for being or never had one, so they exist solely to boost economies of places where they belong and serve dubious political agendas. However, there is always a chance to reinvent such exhibitions and give them new meaning, beyond their formatting as part of city marketing. This reinvention of exhibitions can take place no matter what their scale is, from very small to rather big ones.
What are your upcoming projects?
Together with curator Nataša Ilić, who is a member of the Zagreb-founded collective What, How & for Whom, which recently became the director of Kunsthalle Wien, and with the participation of architect Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge, I’m curating an exhibition at the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. The Gallery holds a vast collection of what is commonly considered Socialist Realist art – the art produced during the period of the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1946 to 1985. Erzen Shkololli, the director of the National Gallery, asked us to propose a different take on this collection. Our proposal is basically about covering the whole collection with very simple means, making it disappear but remain physically present, without changing the order of display. The exhibition transforms into an antithesis of display; it conceals the works instead of presenting them. At the same time, we will invite a number of Albanian and international artists and practitioners from various fields (art historian, anthropologist, oral history archivist, film director, etc.) and ask them to choose an artwork of the original collection to uncover it. Their intervention creates a relation between their own work (which can assume both material and purely performative form) and the uncovered work from the collection, and hopefully a meaningful encounter for the visitors. We hope to enable visitors to have a different look at the collection by defamiliarizing the experience of a gallery visit, which is normally driven by a desire to see.