Art Makes Us Look at Things in a Different Way: an Interview with Ralph Rugoff

by Mara Sartore
April 17, 2019
Mara Sartore
Rugoff Ralph

Mara Sartore: The International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is today the most important international art exhibition in the world, which is the biggest challenge that the artistic director has to face?

Ralph Rugoff: Probably the scale of the exhibition, it’s like making a 10 hours movie instead of a 2 hour one because Biennale Arte is 5 times bigger than any other normal exhibition you might make. So you just have to try to keep different thoughts about different artists and how their work fits together in your head at the same time, but I think it’s more than one can hold in their head at the same time, at least more than I can! So you’re constantly revisiting it from different angles, which is good because then you get new ideas. The other hardest thing is doing in it in one year, because this is all the time you have. In terms of making your list you get less than that, for that you get around nine months.

You have chosen a smaller number of artists (79) to show in both the main venues of Biennale Arte, Arsenale and Giardini, what guided your selection process and was there any compromise that you had to take?

No compromises. The selection process was very interesting, I travelled all around the world, I think I looked at art by over two thousand artists and met with several hundred artists. Of course many of them didn’t end up in the Biennale and it’s not because I don’t think they are good artists, but because they didn’t quite fit in with what I was working on. I also asked the artists who I invited who they would like to be shown next to, so basically who they would recommend to be in the biennale also. It was very interesting because sometimes they were already on my list, which was good because it made me think I was on the right track and things were fitting together and then sometimes they were artists who I didn’t know, which was also really good because then I could meet and find out about new artists, one artist offered me 50 recommendations of who she would like to be next to, obviously I couldn’t show them all and most of them were dead, I was very interested in working with living artists whose work is somehow responding to this time, I think that’s the nice thing about Biennale Arte, it happens every two years, it’s like a clock and I like the idea that it is a way of taking the pulse of what’s happening in art but also in the world.

When you say the artist is responding to “this time” what do you mean?

Artists always respond to the times in which we live, as well as to the history of art and to history, but the history of art and history always change depending on your perspective and that changes as the present changes, so we look back and we see different things look interesting in the past, but I think people’s work responds to the times that we live in – and I say times because I think there are multiple times at any one moment, different trajectories that come together in different ways. I don’t mean that artists record it like a journalist does or they write about it like a historian does but they’re picking up on things about how people feel that have to do with things that are happening in the world. It might be with how we pay attention now that has changed and why that has changed may have to do with the different technologies we are using, different social relationships but I really believe in artists as people who pay attention, closer attention than most of us do and they pay attention to things that most of us don’t, some- times we don’t pay attention to them because we take it for granted, everyday things we don’t want to look at too closely, sometimes we don’t pay attention because we have a cultural blind spot and we want to ignore something. So one of art’s very valuable roles is that it makes us look at these things again, or to look at what we’ve been ignoring in a different way.

What do you mean when you say that the artist you came across “didn’t quite fit in on what I was working on” when I have heard you previously state that you didn’t have a theme per se for this Biennale Arte?

It’s very hard to describe, but something happens once you have decided on about 15 or 20 artists, the relationships between their work sets up a type of architecture of their ideas and then it begins to dictate what else can fit into it, it is like you are playing lego and certain pieces will fit in and other pieces won’t and sometimes I couldn’t even consciously say why. I would see something and think this is a really good piece of work, I should put this in my show but then a little voice would say “no, no that doesn’t fit!” Then finally I would agree! There are loose connections between the artists in the show, the most important thing to me was really that everyone’s work had this fluidity and openness and multiple possible interpretations and so sometimes I would see very powerful work but it was very obviously about one thing and so that wasn’t for me, it wasn’t right for this kind of show.

How did the artist react to the proposal to present work in both venues, did they find it challenging or did they embrace the opportunity?

That was the easiest thing! They themselves know very well that they can do very different kinds of things and that there is a kind of artificiality about coming to a Biennale Arte and going ‘here’s my big piece, this is what I am!’ It doesn’t make any sense. This approach allows them to show more of their practice, less about an individual work of art and more about how they work.

In the closing sentence of your curatorial statement you say: “An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.” To what extent do you think this is actually possible, given the fact that most professionals involved in the various art shows are very much driven by the economic aspect of the event? In other words can the art world find independence from this?

There is a spectrum of art that goes from the very mar- ket-dependent to almost independent so there are artists who have practices, who teach, they don’t need the market, they make work that is not about selling, perhaps it’s about intervening in a situation or they get their income from fees or commissions. I know artists who work like this who are really great artists and they can’t make anything that can sell in the gallery but they have a big influence on other artists. Then at the other end of the spectrum you have people who make sculptures that cost ten million to produce and they’d better make sure that there is a buyer who is going to buy it so they can pay off the production costs. I am not interested in divorcing art from a market but I think that if you are not part of the market it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a close relationship to the art. If I read a book I don’t know how much the author got paid for, I don’t know what their royalty deal is, I don’t care, I am just having a relationship with this text and I think for most visitors who come to a biennale or even a museum, I think they are in the same position. I am all in favour of rich people spend- ing money on art, it is a good way to redistribute wealth! I also think it is very interesting, Nairy Baghramian, one of the artists in the show has installed this incredible series of sculptures on the outside of the Arsenale, and these are some of the most radical sculptures I have ever seen. One of the old technicians who was helping him put them up wanted to thank him for respecting his city with these sculptures, now you can’t imagine, these things are super radical, but he felt they had a correspondence and related somehow to the building and the environment and this is not someone who has an art background, I thought that was incredible and this is an experience I see happening all the time and this is why I say these things are possible, I don’t think you need to have a specialist knowledge to appreciate contemporary art, at least the kind of contemporary art that I like. Hopefully there’ll be more technicians falling in love with their artists!

As contemporary art continues to become even more attractive to a wider audience, do you think that this changes the role of the artist and of the art? Does this entail a certain kind of responsibility?

I generally think that artists don’t have any responsibility to their audience, other than to not do anything disrespectful to a particular group of people. I think what we do see happening with the rise of Instagram is people wanting to post images, artists becoming publicly known by publicising work that looks good on Instagram and I think that explains these ‘pop’ artists (not like Pop,Pop but “popular” artists) with 5 million Instagram followers that make work that I don’t find interesting but a lot of people do. I think there will always be artists making all different kinds of work. I hope that the work in this Exhibition is accessible to lots of different kinds of people, I think it is and I think it gives people pleasure, I think that’s important, often when we talk about art we talk about the intellectual side, what it means or what issues it is dealing with, it’s kind of boring because we read the newspaper for that, art has to activate somehow pleasure centres in your brain that you didn’t even know existed, or to play with them in a different way than they have ever been played with, and that makes you feel something different and that different feeling gives you the motivation to try to understand why that is happening and that’s when you begin to understand what the work is opening up and making possible.

You have been coined as a “playful curator” in an interview with Farah Nayeri for the NY Times, do you recognise yourself in this title?

I won’t object to being called playful, because I think most artists are playful, there is some work in this show that is very very serious, but it does involve a certain amount of play. It involves artists taking things from one context and putting them in another which is a serious kind of play, we think of play as something lighthearted and frivolous, yet that is a very limited definition of what “playful” can mean, I forget who it was, I think a few different people, who said we’re most human when we play and to me that’s an important part of what it means to be human. In the world of business everything seems to be about the bottom line, play doesn’t seem to have a part in it. Where does this part of humanity get to be developed? In your relationships with people and hopefully in culture….

You have spent quite some time in Venice now, what do you think about life in this city and would you ever live here?

Doing this kind of thing can be quite stressful, with all there is to do and things don’t always happen when you want them to happen, but being in Venice completely distresses me, unless I run into a herd of tourists. I really think there is no city in the world like this, it is the most magical place, it is very theatrical, I can see why opera developed here. It’s great having a job here.

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