On a warm afternoon last spring, I had the pleasure of being in conversation with writer and curator Juan A. Gaitán to discuss the role of the museum and the response art can generate in society. Gaitán is the current director of Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, and the recent 2014 curator for the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
RAQUEL IGLESIAS: One of the things that really interested us is how global your practice is, in terms of curating and working on projects in several different countries. We were interested in hearing about how ‘place’ as a concept has shaped your thoughts and ideas. And also your view on how place influences the work of artists. So in a question, how has place shaped your own curatorial practice in terms of thinking politically, socially, and culturally?
JUAN A GAITÁN: I find it’s a question I have asked myself many times. It definitely does. There is not one answer or a specific way to say, except in the most general way. For the very simple reason that we are not nomads walking through the world completely blind and deaf to what is going on around us. But there is not a direct relationship between what the place is and what your affected response is to that place, or aesthetic responses, or aesthetic sensibilities.
It is the accumulation of different places that has also something to do with it. So in a way I have always refused this idea that if you are in a place where the political realities are more visible and raw, then the work has to be. Art does not have to illustrate a certain reality, but it absolutely needs to generate a response and give us a place to start engaging with our realities. Whatever the place is we are surrounded by. This is where I stand right now.
When you pay attention to a broad range of artists and writers, you notice there is no unique way of reacting. So the fact that place does affect you, it affects you because the ideas and the geography in your mind changes. When you live in Canada, the United States is very present. When you live in the United States, Latin America is very present. When you live in Europe, North Africa is very present. So inevitably, it impacts the way you relate to the world. No one lives in an enclosed little provincial world anymore. And then you become curious about those places. When you live in Mexico the United States is very present, so you are curious about American history and so on, and also Latin America.
RI: The next question we have is about collaboration. As a curator, you have your approach, the artists have their own work and vision, and in turn you create an experience. ‘A biennale begins with the artists and ideally artists are not brought in to justify a curatorial approach,’ is something that you’ve previously stated. So would you say the core of your curatorial approach is collaboration? And if so, can you discuss what collaboration means to you?
JG: That sounds like a very correct thing to say as a curator, what you just read.
JG: There are two ways to answer. One is that collaboration is a word I am not very fond of. When we say we ‘collaborate,’ it sounds very nice. But in the end, its officially a vice collaboration. The Rolling Stones ‘collaborate.’ They are always doing everything together. But it is an enforced situation. Everybody knows Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, they don’t get along so they never hang out together. But they do concerts together and photographs together. And that’s what I think collaboration is really like. You set up a situation that requires the presence of two or more people, then you call it collaboration. But collaborations do not always go smoothly. Each person has a different idea of what it is supposed to be about.
So in terms of collaboration, I don’t consider that I collaborate. Me, as a curator, I produce situations where people come together on their own terms, is what I was trying to say, as much as possible. But still there are limits. It is not like you approach an artist and they say, ‘Well tell me, what have you been thinking?’ And then, ‘Well I’ve been thinking about this…’ ‘Great!’
In the end it is your sensibilities as a curator that has led you to the artists you are working with, not the other way around. So in terms of the biennales, I am quite allergic to the curatorial themes. I don’t like them. I think they are bogus. They are made up on the fly, most of the time they don’t make sense, and they are just excuses to bring together a whole bunch of artists that you like. It is a double negative. It is a question not of collaboration. And of not imposing your own curatorial fantasies onto artworks. Because in the end what you are there to see is art, not a curator’s inner-workings. To me, what people really want to relate to are the artworks. And with the over-determination of work by text, people have become less and less able to look at art. So they look at text first, and then the artwork, and they get more confused because many of these texts don’t tell you anything about the work you are looking at, or they don’t make sense half of the time. I’m sorry I’m being a little bit jaded.
RI: No need to apologize.
JG: They alienate the public from the work. If you go in there and read sentences like ‘Epistemological principles, blah blah blah…’ it’s like getting two slaps in the face before you actually look at the artwork. It doesn’t help you develop an autonomous relationship to the work of art, which is what I think we should be going for.
“…AS A CURATOR, I PRODUCE SITUATIONS WHERE PEOPLE COME TOGETHER ON THEIR OWN TERMS”