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The path to other dimensions: Christine Macel’s Viva Arte Viva at the Venice Biennale

The French curator behind this year’s main show discusses her belief in art’s transcendent power and her desire to create a focused exhibition

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The 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 was curated by a seasoned artistic director of biennials, Okwui Enwezor. This year’s main show has been taken on by Christine Macel, who as chief curator at the Pompidou Centre is much more associated with museum exhibitions. Viva Arte Viva (13 May-26 November), as its title suggests, heralds art as a vibrant force for human connection in an increasingly troubling world dominated by “individualism and indifference”, as she puts it. With more than 120 artists, 103 of whom have never before been in a Venice Biennale main exhibition, the show is divided into nine “trans-pavilions”, organised in a narrative sequence beginning with the Pavilion of Artists and Books, and ending with the Pavilion of Time and Infinity. “I have in my own memory experiences of shows that have defined and constructed my own experience,” she says. “So that’s what I wish from this Biennale.”

The Art Newspaper: You have said the show is a reaction to “regressive voices”, to “individualism and indifference”. Can you explain how?

Christine Macel: For me, art has always been an activity of humankind that opens one’s self. It is a practice for the person that creates and receives—that is, an act of opening oneself towards a proposal. And this proposal is something that [denies] your brain [the ability] to become narrow, because it confronts you with so many points of view, so many cultures. And the Biennale is an international event, so we’ll see the point of view of an Inuit artist or a Chinese one, and this makes you see your own position as relative, and makes you think that maybe your certitudes can be put into question. In itself, it is something that prompts new questioning and thoughts.

And then, in general, there is a certain wish of the art itself to reinvent the world. This wish, which does not always succeed (though to succeed is not the point, actually), and this energy put into imagining this possible world, is a very important part of human activity, because it can lead to concrete actions or at least keep hope in itself.

You say the show has been designed “with artists, by artists, for artists”. How far have your ideas come directly from discussions with them?

I really designed the structure of the show after my discussions with artists, after looking at the works—not only during the preparation of the show, but from my past experiences. My idea was not to choose a theme that could be either reductive or autocratic, or even too large and too loose to be a real journey. Because for me it’s important that there is something that makes sense in this 15,000 sq. m—that you have a feeling that even if a work of art is made of open signification so it doesn’t deliver a message like a sentence can or would, you feel that you are going through a narration or a discourse that guides you towards a path. And this path is from the individual, the self, to other dimensions in life. It’s important to me, also, that it designs extraversion, a movement towards the outside world.

Okwui Enwezor said that we don’t see biennials, we scan them. But you are suggesting that you expect viewers to start in the Giardini and end in the Arsenale.

They can do the contrary, and in the end it works too. It’s like when you watch a series and you miss two episodes—it’s fine. If you want to understand this gradation, it is in front of you. And I have reduced the number of artists slightly to give them more space, and more time and attention. I worked very much with space first in my mind, and then with an architect, because what you say is right: to allow the public to not scan a biennial and to really look at it, you have to really think of it. And this means that you have to know what the work will be. If you just give the space to an artist and you wait to know, how can you build something? It’s a work that has to be carefully thought through very much in advance, and as we have a short time, you have to be very fast in the beginning to ensure the time to do this properly.

With the architect—Jasmin Oezcebi, who is both Italian and Turkish—she translated what I designed into space, which is the most difficult work, and I think she did it in a very beautiful manner, because she didn’t put her own architecture in front. She is also trying to make it open, which was my wish. I told her that I want that you don’t have boxes, but that it’s as fluid as a discourse and an encounter with the work should be, and I hope that’s your feeling too.

One criticism of biennials is that each experience is so individual that we don’t take away anything about a curator’s particular vision—all biennials coalesce into one. What you’re trying to do is to have a specific voice.

It’s deduced from my experience as a visitor of biennials. In general, biennials are too much like a list of artists, it’s too much like you feel they give a space to an artist and it’s like, “OK, you have your space, we’ll see you for the opening”. And then you can feel like there is no idea of making a show, as if a biennial weren’t an exhibition but a succession of spaces. I was always very struck by the fact that as a curator when I visit a biennial, I always read the catalogue immediately when I am there, and check the artists to try to fix it in my memory. If you don’t work seriously, you’ll forget almost everything. So that’s the problem, because it’s so big and if nothing is done to help you to have an emotion that will stain your mind, of course you will forget most of the artists. And this is the big disastrous thing for biennials: if you do something and at the end nobody remembers the artists and the works. That’s what I am trying to avoid in building this exhibition.