Curators

Curator of the Week: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

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Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, image via Hyundai

Art does not belong to one side or the other. It serves a third: people.

Who

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is an Italian-American writer, art historian, and cultural figure. Following stints at various creative institutions, she now helms the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and the Galleria Civica D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM), both in Turin. Christov-Bakargiev spent ten years as Senior Curator at MoMA PS1, subsequently becoming the Castello’s Chief Curator from 2001 to 2008 and its interim director in 2009. She was Artistic Director of Revolutions–Forms that Turnthe 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and Salt Water: A Theory on Thought Forms, the 2015 Istanbul Biennale (read a review here). Christov-Bakargiev also conceived the thirteenth edition of quinquennial arts festival dOCUMENTA, which took place in Kassel, Germany over summer 2012.

Why

Like Hans Ulrich Obrist, Christov-Bakargiev has been number one on Art Review’s yearly Power 100 list, a ranking she received in 2012 for her status as “a significant taste-maker,” the first woman ever to achieve this honor. But what remains especially important about the nature of her work, beyond its warm international reception, is that she always marries aesthetic choreography with intellectual grounding. Born in the United States, she grew up in Washington D.C., graduated from the University of Pisa, and eventually moved to Rome. There she began reporting for several magazines on early 20th century avant-garde and contemporary art, even publishing a book about the Arte Povera movement that originated in Italy during the Sixties and Seventies. After moving back to America, she wrote the first monographs on oeuvres of artists like William Kentridge and Janet Cardiff. For dOCUMENTA (13) with its theme of Collapse and Recovery, Christov-Bakargiev authored other well-regarded exegetical tomes, including an extensive fair catalogue. Her persistent emphasis on critical engagement with art is not just textual, though it manifests quite differently in her exhibitions. One NY Times feature describes Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial process as starting “with visually striking combinations of unexpected things and then building [sic] webs of meaning around them.” This approach, characterized by fellow maestro Francesco Bonami as “very spiritual, almost Romantic,” is idiosyncratic, a departure from the usual method of adherence to a singular binding topic conceived prior to compiling pieces. While there are some who dislike the scattered quality of her practice—Bonami, for one, says collaborating with her (as he did on the 2005 Turin Triennale) is “completely nuts”—others appreciate the vitality she brings to the art world. Adrián Villar Rojas, one of the younger innovators Christov-Bakargiev has supported, says of his champion: “she’s a neverending hyper-connectivity machine.” Either way, whatever her professional quirks may be, I cannot help but admire Christov-Bakargiev’s resolute commitment to the arts and decades of accomplishments. Furthermore, she takes the time to pass on what she knows as Northwestern’s Edith Kreeger Wolfe Distinguished Adjunct Professor, also lecturing at MIT and Cooper Union.

Known for

At MoMA PS1, she pioneered the first iteration of Greater New York (2000), a much applauded survey of emerging and little-known artists across the state, now mounted there every five years. Christov-Bakargiev has organized additional group shows, e.g. The Moderns (2003), Faces in the Crowd (2004), Citta’ Natura (1997), and Molteplici Culture (1992). According to the aforementioned NY Times article, her most famous project was The Brain, a presentation at dOCUMENTA (13) comprising “a disparate collection of historical objects mounted in vitrines and on walls… As with the scatter of papers on someone’s desk, the logic behind the exhibit’s groupings was at first unclear: the actual vessels the artist Giorgio Morandi painted for his still lifes; Eva Braun’s final bottle of perfume, which the photographer Lee Miller found in Hitler’s bathroom; two Roman-era figurines so badly burnt from bombings in Beirut that they had fused into an abstract sculpture. Gradually, though, odd connections seemed to emerge: Fascism, war, resilience in a smallness of scale.” The Brain exemplifies Christov-Bakargiev’s core interest in fabricating grand marriages between assorted world phenomena. She likes to draw on nature, politics, and human emotions to construct these total unions. Her Salt Water show in Turkey, for example, had artists use the Bosphorus as a symbolic inspiration. Responding to its traits, they created dispersed installations infused with “other knowledges,” ideally eliminating the wooden overstimulation of gallery fairs. Allergic to “curatorial discourse,” she treats art as an interdisciplinary medium directly involving how people experience spaces. Christov-Bakargiev actually prefers the label “drafter” to convey how she’s a laborer just like everyone else. Perhaps it is this semblance of “opacity” that has led to her displays’ success.

Fun Fact

Christov-Bakargiev is married to the Italian artist Cesare Pietroiusti and has two daughters. The NY Times once portrayed her “air of authority” as stemming from an acute “sartorial sense, which favors the long flowing robes and feathers of a priestess.”

Latest Efforts

In both her current Turin-based  posts, Christov-Bakargiev has pushed Arte Povera “members,” revisited her ongoing inquiries into the relationship of “art nouveau to the Anthropocene” (Organisms at GAM) and hosted an Ed Atkins solo exhibition (Castello di Rivoli). She is keeping busy bringing “important” pieces by the likes of Olafur Eliasson and Ai WeiWei to Northern Italy’s public.
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Curator of the Week: Hans Ulrich Obrist

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Hans Ulrich Obrist outside Serpentine Galleries, by Kate Berry for Artsy, via Artsy.

I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator— a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public.

Who

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss-born curator and cultural titan who currently helms Serpentine Galleries, although there is far more to him than his lengthy title there (“Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programs, and Director of International Programs”). The 48 year-old Obrist started early, pursuing the company of artists like Peter Fischli, David Weiss, Gerhard Richter, Alighiero Boetti, and Louise Bourgeois by traveling across Europe while still in high school. Many became life-long friends. As a university student living in St. Gallen, Obrist mounted his first exhibition in 1991. Held at his apartment in tribute to a similar endeavor by his idol, Harald Szeemann, the presentation was entitled The Kitchen Show after the location of the pieces within the space and comprised works by Fischli-Weiss and Christian Boltanski, among others. Since then, Obrist has brought his experimental approach and passion for the arts to the global arena as an author and historian, as well as in various institutional capacities. He is based in London.

Why

Obrist topped ArtReview‘s 2016 Power 100 list, a ranking he first received in 2009; according to the publication’s deputy editor, Oliver Basciano, his influence has only continued to expand since then, especially through social media (Obrist has 158k Instagram followers, myself included). But beneath this veneer of stardom, Obrist seems to have a genuine intellectual drive and an animated creative spirit. His zest for art gives him a reputation for a hectic schedule; he is also famous for his lack of need to sleep (I discovered, much to my delight, that in attempting to stay awake he used to employ the Balzac method I’ve adopted of copious coffee drinking). The French artist Philippe Parreno is cited in a New Yorker profile as saying of Obrist: “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” His persistent earnestness renders him magnetic; there is a constant buzz around whatever he’s working on, and although Marina Abramovic affectionately described a younger Obrist as “astonishingly innocent,” there is a seriousness and realness to what he does. I see this particularly with Obrist’s Interview project, though since then he’s done a million different things to further cement his universal respect. Inspired by dialogues between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp, and David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, Obrist has recorded 2,000 hours of interviews with over 70 artists, architects, writers, film-makers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and performers in what he calls “an endless conversation.” His subjects are figures such as John Baldessari, Zaha Hadid,  Yoko Ono, Rem Koolhaas, Elaine Sturtevant, Richard Hamilton, and Eric Hobsbawm. He began publishing these exchanges in Artforum in 1996, and in 2003 eleven were released as Interviews Volume 1 (the second volume emerged in Summer 2010). 28 of the longer interviews in Obrist’s archive were printed separately as individual books, while others have been broadcasted digitally on Periscope and disseminated through other forms of media. Early on in the process of developing each discussion, Obrist’s enterprise caught the eye of Princeton critic Hal Foster, who wrote an essay on the Interview project in 2003, commenting on its “formlessness” and the way in which Obrist permitted participants to stray from a topic. Like the late John Berger who preached man’s access to the visual world in his televised BBC lectures and book on “Ways of Seeing,” Obrist is the kind of icon who is sufficiently versed in the human experience, however cliched that sounds, that he was and is able to shape what is relevant and reinvent how we interact with art. [Editor’s Note: check out Berger and Obrist in conversation here]. He’s allowed to be considered “radical”—even in replicating the ventures of his precedents— just as all innovation begins with ideas spurred by what came before but that temporarily wear the stigma of “otherness.” Obrist’s ends might be the same as Cabanne’s and Sylvester’s, but his means are different, and ultimately that’s what matters. The interview style he pioneered would be applied to his tome “A Brief History of Curating,” composed of his talks with the 20th century’s leading curators in which they sketch out aspects of their own medium (evaluated by Foster for London Review of Books). It also set a precedent for today’s Artist Project and Art21 videos, in addition to the 99 percent invisible podcast. If it sounds as if I’m giving a single person too much credit, I’ll say this: you must be sufficiently down with your people to bring the esoteric concepts and aims of distant figures to the masses, and for all his detachment from the average, Obrist does just that.

Known for

Named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2009, Obrist achieved international acclaim with the 1995 Take Me (I’m Yours) show that he put on for Serpentine while still part-timing at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The format of Take Me (I’m Yours) where visitors were asked to leave with an object from the exhibit became the model for the Jewish Museum‘s version (bearing the same title) that is on through February 2017 and was referenced in this MolaPola post (Obrist helped organize the second incarnation alongside the JM’s Jens Hoffmann). At the time the original was held, many considered the design of Take Me (I’m Yours) refreshing, breathing new life into the British art scene and challenging the notion that art is simply meant for remote, passive consumption. It was also held in 2015 at the Monnaie de Paris. His next brainchild was 1997’s “do-it,” an ongoing program that seeks to make exhibits more flexible and open-ended. “Do-it” consists of instructions set out by artists for anyone to follow and took place in 25 cities across North America; the arrangement is presently being renewed and expanded for its 20th anniversary (you can find outposts here). More recently, Obrist was co-curator of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1. As stated by Artist Pension Trust (APT), Obrist has cultivated over 150 exhibitions internationally since his initial Kitchen Show.

Fun Fact

Obrist is a polyglot (he speaks five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English) and a big fan of Russian “impresario” and originator of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. As someone who spent a lot of time as a young dancer studying exotic costumes from Diaghilev’s productions, I have an appreciation for Obrist’s recognition and idolization of his genius. Obrist characterizes Diaghilev as a “junction-maker,”  and aspires to be one himself. In 2006, he helped start the Brutally Early Cluba group open to the public that sporadically gathers in New York, London, Berlin, and Paris for informal conversations at 6:30 a.m.

Latest Efforts

In 2013, Obrist and Simon Castets, Director and Curator at the Swiss Institute, began 89plus, a “long-term, international, multi-platform research project” that examines a generation of artists born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The organization has had residencies at and partnerships with the Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, among others; collaborated on different festivals; and held screenings and shows. Furthermore, in 2005, Obrist conceived of “marathons,” public events that happen over 24 hours. The Interview Marathon transpired in 2006 at Serpentine Galleries (Obrist was joined by Koolhaas), followed by the Experiment Marathon in 2007, the Manifesto Marathon in 2008, the Poetry Marathon in 2009, and the Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future in 2014. Contributors range from artists like Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin, and Olafur Eliasson (one of my favorites) to writers such as Nick Laird and James FentonKim Gordon and physicist Neil Turok have also been involved. 89plus has done its own marathons, too. (more…)