FGA#39 The Void
Ivo Mesquita – In Living Contact we are not: The Biennial of the Void
This interview with Ivo Mesquita, curator of the 28th Bienal de Sao Paulo, is conducted by our younger selves on 25 October 2008, and revisited, edited and printed 13 years later. This biennial became known as the Biennial of the Void, or the Biennial of Empty Space. The actual tilte was: In Living Contact. We were reminded of this exciting conversation when Ruben Arevshatyan invited us to participate in the exhibition Voids of Presence—Between Past and Future, in Galerie Nord, Kunstverein Tiergarten, Berlin, October 2021.
Ivo Mesquita: One of the main ideas for The Biennial of the Void is to change the amount of time that the audience spends in an exhibition. That’s why we’ve created the three divisions. When you enter the building you have the entrance space - functioning as a general reception and lounge area. The second floor is completely empty, and finally, on the third floor, the artworks can be seen. Here the speed slows right down.
Rob Hamelijnck: Is your biennial against the idea that art can be consumed easily and quickly?
IM: Absolutely. But to be clear, we are re-considering the fundamental framework of biennials in general. This biennial is against having thousands of artists providing their individual take on a global vision.
RH: You said that you cannot make a good exhibition with more than 40 artists.
IM: Yes. I believe this, and I have almost thirty years of experience. But maybe my statement was not clear. It is very difficult to stick to a single curatorial point in an exhibition. This is because after a particular point, certain artists who are not at the core of the concept, start to contaminate the others included in the show, bringing in other, unconnected issues. These issues might be related to the artist’s own interpretations, but in an exhibition you have to keep the consistency.
Nienke Terpsma: Do you want to avoid this contamination?
IM: No, that would be totally impossible, because our Brazilian culture is a product of pure contamination. Let’s say we make an exhibition based on this conversation. You do not need a hundred artists to prove your point. Our idea was to create another narrative and another strategy. What I believe is that biennials need to limit the number of artists they include to avoid it becoming like an art fair. That is the problem. If you go to the Venice Biennale or documenta in Kassel, then you get this feeling of being at an art fair.
NT: And what about this years Berlin Biennale, curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic? They did not want to be limited to a single vision, but allow something more diffused.
IM: It was very nice. I found some very nice works. But there was still a certain arrangement... in the Neue Gallerie, one of the biennial venues, there was a formal similarity in the works. It was not so diffused, as you say. Also in Kunst Werke, there was a horizontal way of coming up with certain topics on each floor, revealing common spaces and concerns between the works. That is where things become problematic. Sometimes there is something that we cannot see. That’s why I think working with a small group of artists is better.
RH I liked re-read something from our interview with Adam Szymczyk. He said: “I think there are as many perspectives as artists in our biennial. We take each of them quite seriously. We don’t want to prove anything presupposed, and we didn’t arrange the exhibition strictly thematically. It needs some work on the part of the visitor. But still, this is what is generally expected every two years, a biennial should give hope for a sense of direction and reflection. We try to go against this tendency and establish a dialogue with the artists instead of telling the audience what it is all about. The participation of artists in most group exhibitions is some sort of compromise that brings them visibility in exchange. There are certain advantages and they become part of the curatorial play. But conceptually I cannot see big advantages to being in a thematic group show. Why should artists want to show with other artists who make "similar" work?”
IM I think that is the curatorial point. I dont know if this is really a change. For years I have been an independent curator, and five years ago I became the curator of Pinacotheca. Maybe I am more contaminated by the idea of the "museum". In a museum you have to work with the collection and you have to present this collection to the general public. You need parameters to do this.
RH You and your team have been studying the typologies of biennials. Can you tell us if you have found a new typology?
IM We do not know yet. We have organised a program where different people will present their view on biennials. Our goal here is to make an inventory (for our archive) of each biennial and in the final document we are going to address the topic. What I can say now is that there are three main types of biennials: Those who are related to tourist industry - Venice, Istanbul, Yokohama... documenta Kassel became part of this, too. The documenta was the first political seasonal exhibition. It has now become a tourism and money-making initiative for Kassel and Hessen province. The second type relates to museums and institutes. They are part of an educational and collecting strategies. The third typology is political. This type is very broad. It goes from Gwungju Biennale in South Korea to small biennials in Europe that are related to artist initiatives; often not very official.
A biennial is always about giving visibility to a city and a place, and defining that city in the world. You cannot avoid this because a biennial gets given the name of the city. There is only a few who do not bear the name of the city where it takes place. These political biennials exist for a reason. Then there is a fourth, marginal type; the parasite, such as the London Biennale organised by the Filipino artist David Medalla, or the Venice biennial of Bogota curated by Franklin Aguirre. In Bogota there is a neighbourhood named Venice, where Aguirre lives. Every two years he holds a biennial in his house.
Another main objective of my biennial is for a moment of reflection and thinking about the Bienal de São Paulo itself. We need a sense of reference. The Bienal de São Paulo has a wonderful archive that starts in 1949. This was before the first biennial in 1951, because it was connected to the Museum of Modern Art (MAM). It is an archive purely about the history of the Bienal de São Paulo and it is very interesting because they have a collection of correspondence with almost all the included artists, except for Matisse, because when he first participated in 1954 he had already died.
NT Do you use this archive?
IM Yes, this is our main reference for reflection and thinking processes. Though we are trying to make the archive specifically for the continent, it is also an archive on biennials in general. So, it is not only on the Bienal de São Paulo, we also collect interviews and try to find other goals for the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, and bring them in contact with other biennials.
RH The 2007 Lyon Biennale was curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Stephanie Moisdon, they were already rethinking the format and the role of biennials. And Hu Hanru with his Istanbul Biennial was very critical about the market, as Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack also were at the most recent documenta 12.
IM Well, it is always the same artists going from one biennial to the other. But I think it is too easy to blame the art market.
NT Who else can we blame?
IM I think we should blame capitalism. The art market is part of the capitalistic system. Why do we have this idea that artists are idealistic? People who want to become an artist go to an art academy, take classes on how to prepare themselves for a studio visit from a curator, and how to write a proposal for funding. So what are we talking about?
RH Art is about having a career and about business.
IM It is business. Dont be naive. And before the market comes education.
NT What is the difference between capitalism and the market?
IM No, no, no, there is this easy accusation that the market corrupts the minds of the curators and the artists. We need to have a pragmatic relationship. People say that I dont like art fairs. What I say is that I dont need to go to art fairs, because I am working at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo. If we need an artwork I dont have to go there, I call the galleries directly.
RH So you use your position to get things done at the galleries?
IM Of course I use the galleries. They are very nice. They are sending all the materials I ask for. It is great.
NT And how do you discover artists that dont have a gallery?
IM That is what I really like to do. That is why I do a studio visit every week and wherever I am in the world.
NT And how do you find these artists?
IM People recommend artists to me, I read art magazines. But also one day in the week I go and visit galleries. It is like this. It is also important to see the art school exhibitions and end of year shows. And sometimes I get emails from artists. Okay, as a professional I have a certain visibility and many people send me things. I take advantage of this.
NT As a curator you also influence people and their view on art. But you are also trying to defuse that.
IM Yes, as I told you there is this institutional path and I try to look for what is leaking, what hasn’t already been noticed. Here in São Paulo you have the Centro Cultural de São Paulo (CCSP) and they have this young artists program. I go there and see every show. At the Pinacoteca de São Paulo where I am chief curator, we make shows from colonial times up to today. But not with young artists. We only work with mid-career artists. We have a different profile.
Time and Space
NT I get the impression you are thinking more about time than about space. You started the biennial already in May with conversations, and by the time that we will fly back to Europe we will not have experienced the whole biennial. So I hope there will be a very nice publication. It reminds me of this years Berlin Biennale, When Things Cast No Shadow, where the curators also stretch the time. In a way you are also going through time and stretching the moment of the biennial.
IM I think this is another influence of the museum experience. It is my personal believe that it was the Centre Pompidou in Paris that popularised contemporary art. This was great. What I think now, thirty years later, is that museums should step back. To be popular and the centre of the spectacle was productive in many ways, but bad in others, as usual in live. Now museums should step back from the noisy world and create a space for silence and contemplation. In other words, to create a differentiated space in our culture. The idea of the Void, which is the open floor plan that we created on the second floor of our biennial as a physical experience, is related to this. ‘It is sort of a quarantine and we are suspending a process in order to allow for some self-examination. From the institutional point of view this is a very radical gesture. We are not facing the real issues related to art production and aesthetics and we are not thinking about what we are doing. Because the question is what we have to do considering the edgy times we are living in, regarding terrorism, the loss of human rights, the loss of the welfare society, the loss of water, exploitation, global warming and pollution. Perhaps art is no longer able to heal us from our fear of death.
RH Can you explain this?
IM What was art? Art was a sublimation—excuse me for saying this, but there is some psychoanalysis in my background—I believe art was a product of desire trying to relieve the fear of death. The two most important artists of the last century gave us two different lessons at the end of their live. Henri Matisse’s cut out papers collages are pure freedom and joy. And when you look at Picasso’s last self-portrait we see a man who is terrified… I wrote a text because artists in Brazil were upset about this idea of the void: something that is missing, and the silence. I believe people are afraid of this empty floor because they are afraid of the emptiness that was already there.
RH Do you mean the silence and concentration in artists’ studios?
NT We went from talking about the problems in the world to the Void.
IM Art cannot do anything for these problems. I am sorry.
NT Why did we mention this?
IM It is because it is part of the symbolic. Is art symbolic of something? Beside the status, this ferocious production of... of what?
NT Is this also the difference trying to take a step back from the noise…?
RH Life, maybe?
IM No no no, not life. Why does life have to be noisy?
NT Because we have to deal with topics like global warming.
IM These are concerns we have in our minds all the time. You get this information all the time, on the news, on the internet. You don’t have these concerns?
NT Yes of course I do, but I don’t understand your step from this to art as a sublimation, and the Void as a necessary space for reflection.
IM It is because we need space to think and to reflect. That’s why I think museums should be for contemplation, a place to spend time in. We don’t have this possibility anymore. If you are in the subway there is a TV showing you something, if you stand in the line for the Bank there is a TV. You know. There is no moment for yourself.
NT Do you mean to find a new function?
IM To restore the old function. I am talking about a certain type of art making. There is a type of art making reading from history.
RH You have to explain this.
IM Art, and the art object provides an individual experience. This principle helps to construct the foundation of the subject, and the subject as a critical subject—if critical subjects exist. That’s it. That is the old mode of art production.
RH We are talking about the role of the museum, the role of biennials, the role of art in relation to the world. But if we talk about this it is important that we also talk about art education.
IM I know. And my perspective is a little bit romantic, but that is because I am from the last generation who read Erwin Panofsky, and others. I have to believe in this. That is my basis. When I was studying art history, in the early 1970s, my dream was to get a job in a museum, and you would curate a show with a group of artists all studying the color blue! Things like that.
IM But then everything changed. Okay. Then there was contemporary art.
RH So you were in a chock!
IM (Laughs) In Brazil there was no way to deal with this kind of art history.
RH Why not?
IM Hold on guys. Don’t go too fast. Don’t take the stereo-types. We could not deal with it all because in Brazil we don’t have these collections. We are just starting to build these collections now. There is a natural vocation for contemporary art. That was the initial idea of the first Bienal de São Paulo in 1951, to create a collection of modern art. To learn… I am deeply concerned when I see these exhibition programs that try to instrumentalise art, to make it educational. I see what museums do when they think that an artist is very difficult to understand for the public. There is this complicity between the educational and marketing departments within the institution. Because of the idea that the artist should show a positive view on something.
NT The artist doesn’t think education is important, but the museum does?
IM There are artists taking advantage of this. If you only look at all the artists who travel around the world to see the slums and make videos with accompanying music about this. Where is the commitment to education? It is just for money.
NT They are tourists.
IM Not even that, I just don’t see commitment.
RH Catherine David says something similar when we interviewed her on her last day at Witte de With in Rotterdam. She said: ‘Too many people are just taking pictures of la misère du monde. You can take a picture of a beggar in the street, yes, but it is not necessarily a good image or saying anything politically interesting. I would say it crudely: tourism is not art.’
IM I share many things with her. We are good friends and we have talked many times. I got the idea to change the experience of time from her documenta X. I really loved this documenta. At the same time there was the Venice Bienniale, Skulptur Projekte Münster, and Art Basel. They asked me, are you not going to Basel? I said, “no I am not going”. People said they would only stay in Kassel for twenty hours. But you cannot see anything in just twenty hours. If you really want to see what was there you had to stay longer. So I stayed for two days, and after watching some videos I decided to stay two more.
NT It was difficult for us the talks for the opening event were all in Portuguese.
RH I have suddenly remembered what we were talking about. We were talking about; the old and the new way of art making. Maybe it is connected to the documenta X by Catherine David, because it was the first documenta by a woman and it really tried to do things different. Or not? She showed film, video, photography and new media media instead of traditional art disciplines. She wanted to make people aware that there are so many research-based, discursive, interdisciplinary works.
IM Yes, but long before that Jean-Hubert Martin curated Les Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) in 1989 in Centre Georges Pompidou and in the Grande Halle de la Villette, as a replacement for the format of the traditional Paris Biennial. The art world was not used to the artists who were represented in this show. It was the first exhibition in a leading Western art institution featuring artists from countries outside the West and treating them as equals. And with this exhibition he showed that visual art has become a global phenomenon, and challenged the notion that art is only a “Western activity”. But for sure documenta X is for me a main reference.
NT Did Catherine David give you material to continue working with?
IM Absolutely. Maybe it is my romantic side, but I think that in art there should be something that you cannot describe, something that is purely visual. Art has to touch you. I believe in that.
NT Maybe that is where the rupture is with education. Because I also have the feeling you want people to learn something.
IM I have been teaching for eleven years...
(Interruption. Ivo has to go to a press meeting. We go with him to the hall and listen in on what he has to say via the simultaneous translator on headphones.)
IM Okay, we continue later around six because I am enjoying this talk very much!
If you do research, go deep.
IM Where were we?
NT I have no idea, but we all agreed that we were not finished with the conversation.
RH When we were waiting outside your office I tried to map out what we have been talking about. We spoke about the importance of education and that you are of an older generation of curators…
IM Well, we talked about art as education not education in art. I think we talked about the instrumentalisation of art in social programs, and things like that.
NT It is also difficult sometimes to establish the difference between art as education and education in art. It reminds me: yesterday we spoke with some people about the difference between the symbolic and concrete experiences.
IM But the symbolic provides an experience as well.
NT And an experience can turn into something symbolic, even with the Void. If you would talk about the Void five times to different journalists, it would turn into something symbolic.
IM No I don’t think so, because we never intended it to be symbolic. It could be a memory at some point. The Void is about architecture, it is about the space in which it is seen.
RH So the Void is not a statement against biennials and big group shows?
IM No. It is not against them. It is exploring the possibilities of this experience of a void and what you can do with this. I took it from the artists. This is interesting. Every week an artist comes here—it should be their right to go in the space where their work is shown. The silence and the void, every artist agrees, is made for the artists and not for the curators. It is their field, and curators should not touch this. Of course it is a certain generation from late 1930s to 1970. The idea of the Void comes from them. They feel the necessity to feel some silence.
RH But this can also be for you, for curators.
IM Yes. But the gesture comes from the artists.
RH When Catherine David became director of Witte de With art centre she decided to leave one of the floors empty. She wanted to do away with the obligation to make six exhibitions a year.
IM If I meant the Void to be a symbolic gesture I would have had to make myself an artist. And I believe a curator is not an artist.
NT But you also cannot control how people perceive the Void.
IM Yes that is true. But I don’t mind. As the author of this space, the free floor plan, I offer the experience of modernist architecture, the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. I draw a line here.
RH Maybe the Void is also a space for projection of ideas and people can use it or just experience it.
IM Yes, of course.
NT And there are people taking the open space as an invitation for action. We saw Maria Lind sitting on the floor with her class from Bard College.
IM Yes this is happening. People can come and appropriate the space, and they can use the Void to reflect on the future of the biennial.
RH I also see a relation to the absence of public space in São Paulo. People say here that there is only space to take you from one place to another, from A to B.
IM São Paulo is a working city. And also our idea to use educators to develop a critical discussion and reasoning about what a public space is, to raise awareness, because people don’t know.
NT What do they not know?
IM What a square is in an urban space. In Europe you know what a public space is, you know what a public square is.
NT What we see and experience is how people use public space here. People live and sleep in the streets, also in front of the residency building that we are in now, down town São Paulo.
RH After our first meeting we were thinking what to ask you in this second meeting. One of the questions that came to our mind was: Do you think your biennial works?
IM So far it is working. There are two levels. One is this specific reflection on the model of the Bienal de São Paulo, and the second is the way in which we use the building as an exhibition space. People are using the building. We were concerned about how people would react to the first floor, the “square”. Because the public is used to looking at art on walls. The idea was to create a welcoming space where people can spend a few hours.
NT I heard people saying that this is the first biennial where you can really see the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. Today I had the feeling that there is a reference to the space of Centro Cultural São Paulo, from the 1970s.
IM In a way, a biennial is in a way an exhibition for a cultural centre. Because CCSP doesn’t have a collection and doesn’t have the musicological conditions. The architecture also makes it clear that the exhibition is temporary, or improvised. The space can be used in many different ways.
RH I think this biennial doesn’t really feel like a stereotypical biennale exhibition.
IM Absolutely. That was the idea. At the first press conference there was this misunderstanding that this was going to be a biennial without art. But what I said was that it was going to be a biennial without walls. And all the press presumed no walls, no art.
NT This was a big rumour that went all the way to Europe.
IM I realised that, and wrote a text for the newspaper explaining that they had misunderstood our idea. But they liked that the Bienal de São Paulo was called the Biennial of The Void. That’s it.
NT Erick Beltrán said something I find very interesting: “Biennials have become a possible source of production, and a meeting point.” We have already been talking about the biennial artist, artists that travel around the world, and I think there are quite a few of these artists in this biennial.
IM Yes, but only because their art are works in process. The work of Erick Beltrán is a good example. Armin Linke and Peter Hanappe freed these kinds of works from migrating from biennial to biennial. That was the idea. It is a little bit different than what I said before. Artists travel to other countries, live in the slum, get funding from Prins Claus Fund, and produce a new work for a biennial.
NT That is the negative aspect, but the positive side is that work is not produced within the market system, where new pieces are co-produced with galleries. There is difficulty in how the artists react on questions posed by curators.
IM Absolutely, but why are you pushing this?
NT Because commissioned work means there is no empty space, there is no void to start with.
IM No no no, it is not like that.
NT Maybe not with Erick Beltrán, he made a wonderful work, El Mundo Explicado, which shows how it can be different.
IM Yes, but why is he here? Because his work is about imagination, theories, interpretations that can be true or not. It is a fictional work. It is pure invention. So I don’t see the problem in commissioned work.
NT Well I see him as a good example.
IM Oh, okay…
NT You studied the typologies of the biennials, but you probably also studied how a biennial can be for artists, and how the whole system works and how the machine can be used for the right causes, and for the production of art.
RH But now you presume that there is a wrong cause.
NT I presume that the institution of the biennial also has a negative side.
IM The new forms of nationalism. Or which country can give you the most money. It is a new form of colonialism. It is no longer about having your national flag hanging in the pavilion, but to have a good artist with a work commissioned at 150.000 euros.
IM Ok we have to stop.
NT We still have an open end.
IM Yes, and between our first meeting and now there is 5 hours. So our mind had enough time to change a lot.
IM Well if you have more questions after your first edit, you can send me an email and we can fix it. I don’t know what you are going to do with this…
NT Maybe as a last question. What will be your next project?
IM That will be a museum project. The Pinacotheca has a project space as well as a collection, where we commission four new works every year. At the moment we are finishing the design and installing for the permanent collection for 2010. It is a long process.
NT Catherine David said that after the documenta X she didn’t want to leave a terre brulee.
IMI agree with her. I am in love with contemporary art, but we work with mid-career artists at Pinacotheca. After the biennial we could create an archive of young artists and start collecting their projects to give them opportunities to work with museums. With an archive we can take more risks than with a collection, and we can create a sort of memory. So with mid-career artists there already is an archive. Or I could even say that I cannot exhibit the work but I can buy it, and see what happens. It is a way of taking a risk in a museum.
RH One last question. Will the future of art be saved after this biennial?
IM No no no, the first thing I do is not about art, but about the system of art. And I try to respond to what I consider, as a professional from my generation, could respond to a problem existing within this institution, and as a reflection on the model it represents. Again, this is very pragmatic. I try to offer some alternative suggestions for the Bienal de São Paulo, it is very local, and we can compare the global discussion, but my goal is to change this biennial because after 57 years I am sure this institution has to change.
NT And did you already establish a lasting change?
IM I hope so. But again you must understand that I was commissioned for the biennial project. I am not the curator of the Foundation. I was asked to do the 28th biennial, okay. They hired me for this job and I will give them a report with suggestions. What they are going to do with this I don’t know.
RH So can we consider this biennial as a point zero?
IM Yes, I want a point zero. At the same time there is no point zero. This is a heavy institution.
RH You are using the motto of 1951: “em vivo contacto”, in living contact… with art from the rest of the world.
IM Yes, meaning: Let’s start again, in living contact we are not.
São Paulo, October 2008
Robert Hamelijnck and Nienke Terpsma, Fucking Good Art
This conversation is edited and printed for the exhibition Voids of Presence—Between Past and Future in Galerie Nord, Kunstverein Tiergarten, curated by Ruben Arevshatyan, Berlin, Oktober 2021.