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by Lavinia Filippi
The Venice Biennale is more than 100 years old, but still has lots to say. Since its first edition in 1895 (scheduled to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of the Italian royal couple, Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia), the international art exposition has always been the occasion for heated debate.

In 1964, when Robert Rauschenberg became the first American artist to win the Biennaleís Golden Lion, it seemed to herald an era of U.S. dominance of †the international art scene. But we had to wait until 2007 and the 52nd edition of the biennaleís international art exhibition to witness the appointment of the first U.S. curator -- Robert Storr. Yet Storr himself is the first to downplay the importance of this turning point.

After viewing Storrís exhibition, entitled "Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind," we met with the curator at the Arsenale to ask him a few questions about his experience in Venice.

Lavinia Filippi: What did you try to say with this biennale?

Robert Storr: I am not trying to say a single thing. I am trying to present a certain approach to art, an attitude towards how to think about it. Essentially, I am trying to say that certain divisions that are common in art criticism, in particular those found among academic writers, are an impediment to understanding and experiencing art. Mainly, that prevalent notions of a division between the conceptual and the perceptual, an idea that had its origin in Marcel Duchamp and was then reinforced by certain avant-garde practices in the Ď70s, and then reinforced further in the Ď80s by the reaction against painting, is a misunderstanding. Because there is no such thing as a good painting without an idea, and there is no such thing as a good idea without a form.

LP: Do you personally "think with the senses, feel with the mind"?

RS: You use your senses to have ideas. Ideas donít come only from one corner of your brain that is strictly logical, they come from your way of apprehending the world, which includes the five senses and also the emotions. And you also have to understand that an idea has an effect, ideas are not neutral. People are passionate about ideas, and therefore there is no such thing as illogical, strict, cold, detached ideas. All ideas are charged with emotional and sensual experiences. All I am saying is that since that mixture of thought and feeling is the norm in any case, the thing to do is to actively consider that process.

LP: You are the first American to curate the Venice Biennale. Were you under a lot of pressure? Do you think that your approach has provided something new?

RS: No, the pressure wasnít too bad. I think that people have made more of this than probably is appropriate. When Rauschenberg became the first American to win the Golden Lion, that meant something, because it was the first time that American avant-garde culture was making art at the level that had been established by the European avant-garde. It was a big deal! To be the first American curator is not really an issue. There are a lot of American curators around, and so to have an American curator at Venice is not a symbolic thing nor very important.

I do bring a different perspective to the job, I think, in two senses. One, as an American, I have lived abroad -- in France, Mexico, Holland. I am not a provincial American! I am not a New Yorker, either. I live in New York now but I didnít come from there. So what I bring to this is quite a cosmopolitan experience. The other thing is that my definition of America is not necessarily a mainstream definition. America is not only one thing. My America includes more of Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman and John Cage than it does John Wayne.

LP: Youíve lived in different places around the globe, and for the biennale you also went to Africa. What is the origin of this passion?

RS: Yes, I am the first biennale curator who went specifically to Africa to look for work and to think about how to integrate African art.

My passion has several sources. First, Americaís history includes the history of European conquest, European immigration, indigenous people and slaves. Our culture was from the very beginning a mixture of cultures and a mixture of races. I personally grew up in South Chicago, right by the ghetto, and I had a lot of friends there. I lived in a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn for many years, and was one of the very few whites in the street. The African Diaspora is part of my life. My interest in African American art and the African origins of African-American art has been a constant.

And second, in recent years weíve seen some interesting curatorial work being done in Africa by a variety of curators, including one of the co-curators of the African pavilion at Venice, Fernando Alvim. All of us have learned a lot from this. This biennale gave us the chance to acknowledge that there are specialists in the field, and to make this knowledge available to the general public. Thatís really what it is about. Itís the time to say we already know more that we knew, we should have known it sooner, but we now know it. The next thing is that more people should know it.

LP: There has been some criticism about selecting works from the African collector Sindika Dokolo.

RS: I instituted the procedure that selected the African pavilion, but I didnít make the selection myself. Basically, I said itís not for me to decide who an African curator should be or even if he should come from Africa, because many of the curators actually donít live in Africa, they live elsewhere. It shouldnít be up to me as a white American to say, "Okay, you are the voice of Africa!" Rather, I thought there should be an open discussion about the different possibilities. When I was at the Museum of Modern Art, I attended a seminar of African curators and critics, and one complaint was that only two or three people ever get to do shows in big venues in America or Europe. So I said letís change this, letís have an open call, and we will take all the proposals and judge them according to the quality of the exhibition and also the practicability, since it is about that too. We received 37 exhibition proposals

Next, I put together a jury of specialists in African art. I did not vote on the jury, I was simply a consulting member, and the jury chose the Dokolo collection. More than that, the jury chose the artworks and the artists and the curator, and the collection itself was simply a vehicle for showing the art and it was the medium for the curator. The controversy is about the father and father-in-law of the man who owns a lot of this art -- it is actually not about him. Itís striking to me that those questions are not asked about the financial resources of FranÁois Pinault, who also has an exhibition in Venice. Which is not to say that he is in fault and not to say that Sindika Dokolo is innocent, it is simply to say, why donít we talk about the art first and if there are significant and provable things about the background we must discuss them secondarily.

LP: Many of the artworks you selected for the biennale are socially and politically inspired. Is this because artists today are more engaged, or was it your decision to emphasize political art?

RS: Many of the works have what you could call a political background or subject matter, but there is no work in here that is ideological. There are works in which the political dimension is made visible, put in the plate, given to the viewer to consider, but the works donít tell you what to think -- they provide only an occasion to think. I think politics are important, I think itís irresponsible not to think about the political dimension of the world, but I also think it is bad politics to make bad political art. When I find art where the artist is able to put together a sophisticated understanding of politics and a sophisticated understanding of the medium, then I think I have an obligation to show it.

LP: One recurring criticism of the biennale -- in Italy, at least -- is that Italy is not properly represented. Did you feel obliged to do change this? Was it hard to find six Italian artists for the exhibition?

RS: No. In fact, the show includes more Americans than I had planned. My course was the reverse one. I didnít want to have too many Americans, but in the end I included artists who I thought belonged in the show. One of the benefits of having a national system of representation is that countries represent themselves. As a result I could go anywhere and look for art that appropriate to my show, and take it from wherever I found it. For the Italians it was the same thing. Last time there was no pavilion devoted to Italian artists, and there was no pavilion for Venice itself. Itís good that both are included this time around, but it didnít affect me very much. Angelo Filomeno, for instance, is an Italian artist that I know and met in the studio of Louise Bourgeois when he was showing his work to Louise.

We established a relation and I have been following what he does. Iíve also known Luca Buvoli for a long time. I collected his work for the Museum of Modern Art ten years ago. I wasnít thinking about him for the show, because I didnít think what he was doing was relevant to it. Then he said, "Listen, please come and see what I am doing now." And what he was doing turned out to be very relevant. So now he has the front position here. There is another artist, Tatiana Trouvé. Her father is Senegalese, she has as an Italian mother and was born in Italy, but she is counted as a French artist. So thatís another consideration. Is a French artist a French artist because he or she lives and works in France? In that case, Adel Abdessemed and Philippe Parreno are French, except both of them are born in Algeria. Nationality is not a wholly satisfactory way to judge exhibitions.

LP: Do you think it still makes sense to talk about national art and national pavilions?

RS: To the extent that individual artists may have chosen to take nationality as a subject matter, it is interesting, and also of course many of the artists that take national identities as a subject matter also contest them. Last year, Santiago Sierra did it in the Spanish pavilion by bricking up the entrance and making a work about immigration and citizenship, for instance. Having a nationality doesnít mean you are promoting a nationality. Nationalism in art is almost invariably a bad thing and historically is usually associated with reactionary tendencies

LP: Do you think there still is a hot spot for contemporary art? Is New York still the center for it?

RS: No. New York is the center of the market, but even there, its position has been challenged by London. Itís the center of many of the information systems, but there too the number of magazines and the nature of internet make the information much more dispersed worldwide. From my point of view, New York is actually not as interesting as it has been. There are many centers now -- London, Berlin, Beijing. . . . All of them are centers and there are many other places. Iíve spent a lot of time in Latin America and there is quite a lot of Latin American art in this exhibition. Latin American art is very straight-out and very interesting, but the central gathering point for Latin American art is either S„o Paolo Bienal or the ARCO art fair in Madrid, because that is where you can see a lot of it together.

LP: What is the most interesting discovery you made during your researches around the world?

RS: Probably the most interesting thing that I found -- and it really was simply a tip from a friend from Brazil, rather than some "discovery" that I made -- is Project Morrinho, the toy model of a Brazilian favela, or slum. The project has a central position in the middle of the Giardini and consists of two things: a large, scale-model of a hillside Brazilian shantytown made of painted and unpainted bricks and other discarded items, and an organization that helps children in need in Rio.

Originally, real kids in Rio de Janeiro made the morrinho as a model of their world, and they used it as a play-site to work out the traumas of their lives and the fantasies of their lives, the way children play with a dollhouse. It is an enormous urban dollhouse. In that sense, itís also a social sculpture.

When I saw it I immediately knew that I want it in the biennale, but I had reservations. The kids were very skeptical about building a version of their project in Venice. In the end, we sited it in a central position in the Giardini, in a kind of neutral space near a snack bar that is behind the bookstore and separate from the official national pavilions. Their piece, like the favelas themselves, is invasive. Favelas are built between housing blocks, they are spontaneous architecture, spontaneous communities of poor people. Now there an enormous one in the middle of the Giardini. There is also one right opposite the Brazilian pavilion that looks over it. And there is one right next the American pavilion.

LP: Which are the issues and the problems of todayís world that you tried to underline in this exhibition?

RS: Iím trying to look at the way artists respond to violence, cultural violence, physical violence. The way they respond to precisely these questions of nationality and the fact that nationality doesnít say very much about most people. We have a nationality that is imposed as a political structure, is accepted as a political structure and it embraces a political structure, but it is a political structure, is not written in the land that this belongs to this and that belongs to that. In fact if you look at Yugoslavia, people have shed blood over a piece of land. It has been a disaster.

A few works in the show precisely address this breakup of conglomerate countries into smaller regions defined by so-called national identities. So nationality is a subtext in these works. Another issue is the relationship between pleasure and knowledge. The fact that you think about important political and social issues doesnít mean that you have to deny yourself other things. The idea that the only way to make legitimate political art is to shut out any other aspect of your identity until such time as the world is made good again is nonsense and actually is very destructive.

LP: The art market is very strong today, and the world is full of art fairs and festivals. Do you believe that the Venice Biennale should have more importance in this context?

RS: Yes, I do. The biennale is a democratic forum. It is a place where people can come and have a direct experience of art, and have an experience of each other in the presence of that art. It is a rare experience. Very few cities that have great museums, and fewer cities still have active exhibition programs of contemporary art. Many people donít feel invited or welcomed in galleries; the social threshold is too high to cross. But the biennale they go to. Here they can become part of visual culture. Going to movies and reading books is easy, but in contemporary visual culture the social and economic barriers are very high. The biennale is the one place where the barriers come down.

LAVINIA FILIPPI is an art critic based in Rome.