The moment one enters the exhibition "Always a Little Further" in the grand Arsenale spaces at the 51st Venice Biennale, June 12-Nov. 6, 2005, one hears disembodied voices listing the costs of past exhibitions, the salary of each successive artistic director, even the price of a single glass of wine during each year of the biennale’s 110-year history. It is a sound piece by Santiago Sierra, one of many politicized works chosen for the show by curator Rosa Martínez, who has become famous for her uncompromising feminism and for mixing art and politics. But, one wonders, can such choices be effective in the context of the world’s most visible showcase for contemporary art?
Martínez sat down for a wide-ranging interview during the biennale vernissage.
Augustine Zenakos: You have a reputation for independence, as well as for taking rather risky political moves, such as inviting Greenpeace to participate in the 3rd Santa Fe Biennial, or serving as curator of the Spanish pavilion for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, for which Santiago Sierra bricked up the pavilion entryway. How do you feel now about representing one of the strongest institutions in contemporary art?
Rosa Martínez: I am not identifying with the institution. I think it is a temporary marriage between the institution and me. One of the things we have to defend as curators is our intellectual independence. I have tried to defend it, as much as I have been able to, in this case. Even though the Italian Minister of Culture, Rocco Buttiglione, was not very happy, I am quite pleased with what I have done with the show. I have tried to bring my esthetic and intellectual statements as far as possible, even if I could not reach as far as I wanted. This is, though, the normal way to proceed, because here in Italy the administration is so complicated and everything moves so slowly. So, I think there is a clear distance between the institution and myself.
AZ: But, how do you negotiate, within your own thinking, a certain paradox that presents itself… For example, Santiago Sierra’s sound piece in "Always a Little Further" is very much about the material conditions underlying the esthetic escapade that is the Venice Biennale -- a critique directed at the biennale itself. How can this critique ever be effective? How can it ever be anything more than decoration?
RM: I think that, even if we are just talking on a micro-level, it is effective. If I didn’t believe that, then I would probably do only decorative shows. But if I select pieces like those of Santiago Sierra, or of the Guerrilla Girls, or of Regina José Galindo, or of Gianni Motti and Christoph Büchel, it is because I believe that even in the context of the market and our neoliberal world, there is a space for critique. So, I don’t think it is a field totally closed, where artists are just decorators. Maybe they also decorate, but at the same time they can actively affect people’s consciousness.
AZ: So, you think that art can inspire personal change?
AZ: Because I think we have probably abandoned the prospect of social change…
RM: Yes, in general it is quite abandoned. But I still think there is some hope in the work of several anti-globalization movements and certain activists like the Guerrilla Girls. I still think there is a little bit of hope…
AZ: Davide Croff, the president of the Foundation La Biennale di Venezia, said in an interview in the Financial Times that he wanted to increase the amount of private funds in the biennale’s €30 million budget from 35 percent to 45 percent, and also that he intended to try to export the biennale to other countries, primarily to China. I know Croff has a background in banking, and his plan for the biennale sounds a little like he’s talking about a state-owned telecom business or a supermarket chain. He even had an advertising slogan: "There are people who cannot come to Venice, so we will take Venice to them." Now, when one walks into your exhibition, one is confronted by all those political statements -- feminist social criticism, like the Guerrilla Girls’ posters, or the big chandelier made with tampons by Joana Vasconcelos. Does political art fit into a program of cultural export? In the last analysis, is everything a product?
RM: How does the Guggenheim Museum act? I mean, how are museums acting today? We are living in a moment where cultural industries have provided a very important economic strategy for the development of cities. We see it in Bilbao, we see it in Venice. We cannot avoid and we cannot hide that even we, as intellectuals, are a part of that game. In the analysis that Santiago Sierra makes of the biennale, in his sound-piece, among other things he counts which countries have a national pavilion in the Giardinni della Biennale, and which are outside. The countries in the Giardinni are the hegemonic countries. We are living in a world where it is very difficult to escape these neoliberal capitalist strategies. The biennales and the museums are a part of that.
AZ: Then, I suppose, the question is whether, since "they" use "you" or "us" for the production of some sort of value (because it is not strictly a case of promoting or selling works of art, but also of selling hotel rooms, paninis, espressos, water-taxi rides, etc.), are "you" or "we" also in a position to use "them" for our own ends?
RM: It is a David and Goliath fight. We are part of the game, but even if we are instrumentalized, we have to defend our territory of intellectual freedom and the possibility of acting critically, and we cannot allow the politicians or the sponsors to intervene or to create obstacles for us. I can maybe give you a little example: Illy Café, a sponsor of this show, proposed to have coffee machines and chairs throughout the exhibition. I rejected the proposal, of course, because from my point of view it was perverting the whole Arsenale into the performative space of a sponsor. I said that this was not acceptable for the artists, this was not acceptable for me, and we wouldn’t do it.
Then, my budget was cut -- and the Illy Café coffee kiosks were back in. So, I had to suffer a lot, and I had to find myself some other support for the artists, but in that way I think I protected the minimum of dignity that an exhibition has to have. I can also tell you that when I went to the Basel Art Fair last year, in the Art Unlimited section, which looks very much like a biennale, I read the official statement there, and they were saying something like "Art Unlimited: An exhibition with no limits. No budget limits. No space limits. No curatorial limits." This means that today, curators are no longer the people who open up the frontiers. We are the people that must create frontiers for the voracity of the market and the sponsors.
AZ: How do you think this situation is affecting artistic production? I feel that the prevalent idea is still that artists do what they do, as always, and the market, or the curators, they all come into the picture afterwards, after the artists have done what they do. Maybe, though, this situation affects what they do. Maybe some, like Santiago Sierra, react consciously to it, but it seems to me that most of them submit to how things are and they try to work with this situation.
RM: I think we all have to submit to a certain degree to the economic and social conditions of our time. The artists need the market to keep on living, to keep on selling. One problem occurs when the market, the galleries, the commercial institutions, the private collectors and even the museums work to oblige the artist to produce a certain kind of product. You know, if an artist becomes famous for doing something, then everybody wants this kind of product. Everybody wants a successful product. The market, however, has a positive side. I don’t remember which anthropologist it was who was saying that commerce is very positive, that it helps societies to develop. We cannot see things in black and white, the market is good or the market is bad. Everything is interactive.
AZ: Yes, I suppose commercialism in that sense comes a bit into what I am saying, but I am referring more to the ways the market has found to move previously "unmovable" products. For example, one orthodox analysis that one may encounter quite often is that an artistic production with projects in situ, or ongoing engagements with local societies, or quasi-activist performances in public spaces, is somehow anti-commercial. Nevertheless, it produces value. Even if we get to the point where there is no actual object at all, then we are still left with the persona of the artist. It seems that we are faced with a system of distribution that can move absolutely anything, and there is nothing an artist can do to subvert that, is there?
RM: I think it is very difficult to subvert anything. You can resist a little bit. Or you can try to subvert in other ways, I mean, I remember the work of an artist who was creating markets of interchange, where elementary interchange does not happen with money, but someone brings an object, and they take something else. So, there are certain ways to react -- but the system is very strong.
AZ: In a book about Conceptual Art in the U.S. in the 1960s, I came across a statement by an executive of a company who was saying that just as businesses are looking for constant innovation in products and services, so contemporary artists are doing the same in art. The point is, more or less, that contemporary art provides a symbolic equivalent for a capitalist market. Would you say that is the case?
RM: I think there is a difference. Creating new thoughts, creating new ways of understanding reality is a way of going further. That is, of course, what I am interested in, and not simply to create novelty, or to create something new for this voracious market. Creating new ways of thinking is a way that can enable us to analyze and to criticize this society and these strategies, which oblige us all to follow a flux of production. There is a difference between intellectual innovation and consumerist innovation. So to the question if we can escape this logic of constant innovation that the neoliberal capitalist market upholds -- I say again that we can resist. Most of the artists in my exhibition are not new or emerging, I have been working with them for the past ten years, I have followed their paths, and I think that they are innovative in a very honest and serious way. I do not see them as trying to satisfy the demands of the market, in fact some of them sell very badly. Giving shape to one’s thoughts is perhaps a value that the market doesn’t recognize, but maybe the context of a biennale still has a way to present this aspect of things.
AZ: In the last Venice Biennale, though, there was quite a break on your part with a lot of things that the biennale stands for. I mean, when Santiago Sierra bricks up the doorway to the Spanish pavilion and prohibits entry to all who do not hold a Spanish passport, there is a clear attempt to subvert what national representation -- an important aspect of the Biennale’s identity -- is all about. It was you who curated this show. And I seem to remember that the artistic director at the time, Francesco Bonami, was not pleased at all, in fact he was giving interviews saying that he hated everything about Santiago Sierra. Having done what you did in 2003, weren’t you at all nervous taking up the whole show in the Arsenale this year?
RM: No, why? I was more nervous about doing the Spanish pavilion than I was about doing the Arsenale. For the last 20 years I have been working in the field of international biennales, and I have been defending through my exhibitions a concept of internationality. Then, suddenly, I was confronted with my own nationality. But, in 2003, together with Sierra, we analyzed the idea of nationality, the model of sovereignty from the 19th century. When you come to the Venice Biennale, you have the illusion that all the countries live together, but still the hegemony of the United States or Great Britain is very much a reality. We thought that we could break the illusion by reinforcing the autonomy of one pavilion and saying: you cannot enter here. So, that made me feel nervous. When it was proposed to me to co-direct the whole Biennale with Maria de Corral, I was just sad that there was not enough time to develop a stronger project. I am happy with what I have done, but I think with more time I would have been able to accept all the invitations to travel to many other countries, to research the production in certain areas of the planet that I do not know. I couldn’t do that. I had to work with the background that I have from other biennales.
AZ: This illusion you mentioned -- that all countries live together -- is not something you tried to maintain in this biennale. Nevertheless, you did not make any moves as radical as that of the Spanish pavilion, did you?
RM: No, because I did not have the time to do it, and I did not have appropriate conditions. When I was the curator for the Spanish pavilion, the politicians in my country gave me total freedom. Here, I had very little time, and I also had the difficulty of working with a machine that is very bureaucratic, very slow, which eats up all your intellectual energy. When you want to get permission for something, you have to spend four months fighting every day. I thought that since the Venice Biennale has been going on for over 100 years, the machine would be well-oiled. But in many respects, it was as if the biennale was starting from zero. In a way, it is easier to do the Istanbul Biennale, because there is more anxiety, more passion.
AZ: Apart from the bureaucracy, did you have real political trouble?
RM: A little. But I think this is normal in all exhibitions. I am an ambitious curator, and I try to do difficult projects. There were at least two projects that were not realized, and at least for one of them, a project by Gregor Schneider [a five-story-tall black cube, modeled on the Ka’ba in Mecca, to be installed in the Paazzo San Marco], I was never told why. I was not allowed to talk to the responsible parties either in the city government or in the culture ministry. Had I been allowed to talk to them, I think I might have convinced them. But I was told by the biennale that the culture ministry would not allow it, and that was that. The artist and I felt a bit excluded from the negotiations. Biennial president Davide Croff told me to trust the biennale, and I said, ‘I will trust the Biennale, when I can see what the reasons are.’ I was not able to see.
AZ: Italy has quite a conservative government, one that is often criticized around the world. At the same time, the Venice Biennale is a valuable asset for Italy, a sort of cultural banner. Do you think Italian politicians were a bit unnerved that your exhibition is so politicized?
RM: Rocco Buttiglione, the culture minister, made reference to creating a scandal or a provocation, all of which shows that he is not very happy. But we are not trying to provoke anybody. The scandal and the provocation happen in reality, not in the artworks. Art is a mirror. I am not trying to create a scandal; I am just trying to show how artists think today. The scandal is outside, in the world.
AUGUSTINE ZENAKOS is an art critic who lives in Athens.