We interviewed Dr Zoe Whitley, the curator of this year’s British Pavilion, represented by Glasgow based artist Cathy Wilkes at the 58th Venice Biennale. Whitley discusses this pivotal moment in her curating career, her experience so far in Venice and what she is most looking forward to at Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale.
Lara Morrell: How did you feel about being selected to curate the British Pavilion? What does this opportunity mean to you?
Dr Zoe Whitley: I was thrilled, it was the first time that the British Council issued an open call for a mid-career curator, I read the job description for this role and I was so excited about it, I told my best friend and my husband ‘my gosh, this is me!’ I waited for the reply in eager anticipation because I realised how much I wanted it. I was super delighted when the commissioner first emailed me and then called to say that I had got it! I applied in December of 2017 and so I was notified in the first week of January 2018, the panel that selected Cathy was convened at the end of that month.
LM: How much say did you have in the choice of Cathy Wilkes to represent the British Pavilion?
ZW: It’s a really interesting process. The idea is for as many voices to be heard as possible and for it not just to be the curator making the decision. Every country and pavilion has a slightly different way of operating. With us, a segment of the panel made the selection that put me in post as curator and then while I was privy to the deliberations and was able to talk about various artworks, when it came down to the vote it was the panel, a panel of museum directors, senior curators from all over the UK. I think that this is really important, so that it is not just a few Londoners making a decision, the intention is that it is as open and inclusive as possible, and I think that came through in the result.
LM: How do you define the role of the curator? And more specifically as curator of a National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale?
ZW: I honestly think it is different every single time but the one constant is being the artist’s advocate. I work with living artists and so the way that that takes shape is always different. In this case it might be interviews like this, getting people excited, talking to children and school groups. The format for invigilating the Pavilion involves British Council fellows, young students from all over the country, many of whom are actually coming to Venice for the first time, so empowering them to feel ownership over the building and the work as well as inviting other people to engage in the work, so I am one of the conduits that helps make that happen for them. There are a lot of different things, like the catalogue and writing the short text that’s in the main Biennale guide, just to give people a very small flavour of what we hope they’ll be able to experience in the pavilion, all those things are part of it.
LM: I know you recently convened an event with art educators from all over the UK with a focus on the a line from a John Berger’s essay, “What went into the making of this?”, tell me more!
ZW: John Berger, particularly in a British context but also with international ramifications, is someone who was able at a crucial moment to help to disentangle what it meant to engage with and appreciate art from certain class or political structures. He asked in plain English very important questions about the male and female gaze, all of these things that effect us so much today in terms of thinking about gender, identity, our place in the world and who has access to culture. One of his sentences was so key, in terms of being able to approach artwork “What went into the making of this?”. This was a helpful way for me to introduce Cathy’s work in an open and inclusive process for art educators from around the UK, to begin working through how we can begin to invite many people from all walks of life to think through Cathy’s work that isn’t a traditional way of thinking about a curated experience. So if you are not coming to Venice, we want you to know that this is happening and you can feel pride, whether in Glasgow or in Northern Ireland about what is happening somewhere else, in terms of what this British Representation means on an international stage. So we were able to have some very productive conversations around a whole lot of things, that I found very refreshing to speak about in the context of art, about labour and the notion of work. Placing emphasis on the fact the artists are working and the dignity and the fierceness of that, that really takes a lot of seriousness and is something we must take seriously. It is something that other people can relate to, the politics of care, having to care for young people, or maybe even being at a certain point in your life when you are having to take care for both your young children and also ageing parents. There are a lot of those kinds of incredibly human and relatable themes that reoccur in the work, so again it’s about inviting other people to the many entry points of the work, we would like to invite everyone to think about them together.
LM: How would you describe the meaning of Cathy Wilkes’s work and in what way does it respond to Ralph Rugoff’s title ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’?
ZW: I think that the two are complementary. There is no like for like correlation and that is not part of the brief, I do think however that there are synergies in the work, and Cathy also has a familiarity in the Venetian context (Representing Scotland in the 51st Venice Biennale as part of the exhibition ‘Selective Memory’ and at the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopaedic Palace in 2015) so her work has had these protean ways of being engaged with the whole, larger endeavour that is Venice. For the pavilion we have Cathy being consistent in her own practice and that just happens to dovetail with the kind of seriousness and respect that Ralph has for artists, and in setting this theme with a lot integrity but which gives individual artists a lot of breathing room. So I think that this is something that people will experience in this space; the sense of Cathy being so very attuned to the environment and creating a very specific environment that harnesses, in a way that I have never seen in that space before, the very particular light that one has in Venice, so that really becomes part of the overall experience.
It has also been really impactful to watch how the installation has evolved throughout this installation process because, where Cathy is concerned, a sensitivity to space is more than just placing works in a room. It wasn’t a simple matter of shipping the works here and then they get installed – paintings have been repainted here, what we have in that space is in every way a site specific installation, the work will never exist in that way again, and watching this very considered and detailed process of thinking about how all of the works are composed in this physical space, is something that is very special and I think that her voice comes through. I’ve been saying all along that Cathy’s work is art that whispers rather than shouts, not every artwork has to be spectacular, these artworks can communicate in different registers and I think that what we have created in the pavilion will allow people, who are willing, a moment to slow down and to be out of time but also as you move through the suite of rooms and as the installation unfolds and flows from room to room you really get a sense of the passage of time, the light won’t be the same in the first room by the time you leave, the North facing rooms have a very different affect. The colour that is cast from various found objects or sculptures or the paintings in each room really impart a slightly different feeling in each room and I find that I want to spend quite a lot of time in that space, which is a good thing because I will be!
All of us, when we are visiting Venice, feel compelled to see as many things as we can because that is why we are here, but there is a different pace that I think has been established in this space that I am hoping people will welcome, even if it is momentary, this sense of slowing down that there are things that are worth looking at closely and the sight lines are slightly different, the eye-line, everything is there to have you have a slightly different relationship with the works on view, and the space itself recedes.
In the current British order, or lack there of, Cathy Wilkes’s work and its tendency towards ambiguity which leaves one with open ended questions, feels rather apt. Will the current state of things in Britain seep into the work presented at the Pavilion?
I would say again, just to reiterate, what Cathy has done in accepting to represent Britain in the 58th Venice Biennale is true to her own practice and true to herself, I don’t want to overwrite or to ascribe any other meaning on top of it, but I think that exactly relates to the point you were making about how it might intersect with what Ralph is creating in the Giardini and the Arsenale. I think there is a wonderful refusal to engage in a soundbite or a 140 characters or fewer kind of culture, there is a space for an in between-ness and a not knowing and there is a beauty in that – even if it feels slightly de-stabilising, it isn’t something that is trying to heckle or shout for the sake of it, just to be seen. There is a fierce integrity to Cathy’s work, a very uncompromising position in terms of thinking about what is happening in the relationships between the paintings, between the sculptures, between object placement and within that you have everything you need and so there is, for whatever period of time, something that damps down the noise around it, I think that there is something that is really helpful about that because there are so many things that feel distracting and uncertain and frankly upsetting right now, it has the courage to be its own thing and the work is so unmistakably Cathy’s, I really appreciated and respect that approach.
You have recently been appointed as Senior Curator at The Hayward Gallery, it seems like quite a pivotal point in your career as a curator!
Yes, very serendipitous, I am really excited about joining the team, I saw Ralph briefly on via Garibaldi the other day! I start at the Hayward on the 15th April and my first project will be in Summer 2020, so I have got my thinking cap on! I am certainly in an ellipsis period, I finished at Tate after 5 years, I’m now focusing on the Pavilion, and whilst back in my air b’n’b I am furiously taking notes trying to formulate ideas, because next summer will come soon!
Where did it all begin, how did you first get into curating?
Well! I was just in LA for the opening of Soul of A Nation at the Broad (The Broad presentation is curated by Sarah Loyer) with Mark Godfrey (who I originally co-curated the exhibition with), Sarah did an amazing job and all of the artists were there and it felt like a real family reunion with all of these people whom I have grown to care about over the years, and I got to spend time with the two women who really set me on my way; the senior curator, Sharon Takeda at LACMA in the costume and textile department and then one of the curators Kaye Spilker. In 1999, I had a Getty Multicultural Undergraduate summer internship there, they taught me how to do my job, that long ago, twenty years ago! I feel like I have to give credit to amazing women who were generous when the didn’t have to be, I mean I was an intern, they could have said go and photocopy this! But they gave me interesting work to do, they helped me learn how to research, I know it was just one summer but they took the time to read what I had written and gave me feedback and literally said to me, we see in you an ability to do this job. They recommended the MA programme I ended up doing in London at the Royal College of Art. There is something about the sense of someone empowering you or just saying that this is something that you can do too, this isn’t something that is obscure and exclusive and that there is not space for your thoughts and your energy. I try and thank them at every opportunity and then there were women at the V&A (Margaret Timmers, Gill Saunders and Rosie Miles) who offered me that same thing and my first curatorial role there. That was my first time working with living artists, knowing that was even possible, that you could be cataloguing a work by someone and they might come in and you could actually talk to them and ask them questions, that was the most mind-blowing thing, it may seem simple or everyday and its the best part of my job but when you are young and learning it there is something about not being able to collapse that distance between the artists and the artwork and start to learn how to listen, the times when I am quietest is when I am listening to artists because I have learnt so much from them.
So all of those different building blocks, that summer at LACMA, I ended up being at the V&A for 10 years from 2003-2013, first as an assistant curator and then as curator of contemporary programmes, which is a department which doesn’t exist in quite the same way anymore, but we did site specific commissions around the museum and we ran the Friday Late programme. The way we worked then – there was no distance between you and the audience you were serving, we heard directly from people what they think is brilliant, complaints and understanding logistically about how things work and the difference between theory and practice, we learnt a lot on the job in those early 2000s and Friday Lates is still going strong!
Are there any projects or pavilions you are particularly looking forward to seeing at the 58th Art Biennale?
So many! I am American and Martin Puryear is representing the United States and he is also an artist we had featured in Soul of a Nation, I am delighted to see what he is doing. My two closest allies in this are Lynsey Young who is doing Scotland in Venice with Charlotte Prodger and I just met Sean Edwards yesterday through Marie-Anne McQuay, respectively, the artist and the curator of the Welsh pavilion. Feeling like you are part of this thing that is bigger than you is really exciting! The Ghana Pavilion – I am absolutely thrilled about! One of my roles at Tate was joint lead on our Africa acquisitions, so for Ghana to be here for the first time is amazing and then the fact that nearly all of the artists in the exhibition are known to me and I am fans of theirs! Lynette Yiadom-Boakye I know is in it, John Akomfrah is showing the piece that was at the Imperial War Museum that was so phenomenally touching, Ibrahim Mahama who presented such a forceful installation during Okwui Enwezor’s Venice, he is doing so many interesting things. Felicia Abban, thought to be Ghana’s first woman studio portrait photographer, I think will be a revelation to a lot of people. Team Cathy with every fibre of my being but I’m also excited about a number of other things. There are also artists in Ralph’s show who are dear friends – Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Sometimes I know what’s coming, I’ve seen some of the works in the studio and I am so excited for other people to see them. Kahlil Joseph is going to present something really impressive here, there’ll be a lot for people to appreciate, Larissa Sansour representing Denmark is a really talented artist, too many good things!