In the world of curating, being chosen to organize the Venice Biennale is the equivalent of winning the Nobel Prize. Over a few months, the happy laureate — often previously known only in professional circles — becomes a very public figure whose every curatorial decision is to be dissected. This is what's happening to Bice Curiger, the brain behind this year's edition of the international exhibition, which opens in June. If widely respected among her peers, the Swiss art historian and Parkett co-founder has always been a rather discreet player, quietly stringing together big-name shows of such artists as Sigmar Polke, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Martin Kippenberger at the Kunsthaus Zürich, where she's been curator since 1993. Now in the Venice limelight, she explains to ARTINFO UK why she gave her show the much-remarked-upon title "ILLUMInations," why she decided to include Tintoretto, and how the Venice Biennale has nothing to do with the Olympic Games.
Did you ever expect that you would do Venice?
When the president of the Biennale, Paolo Baratta, called me, I just thought that he wanted to ask me about potential curators. But already, many years ago, a former president of the Biennale had come to see me.
Does that mean that it has been in the works for a while?
Yes, though I'm aware that if you are a curator in a museum that is not in New York, you are bit off of the map. I've done many exhibitions, but if they didn't take place in June during Art Basel, or during a Documenta, most professionals wouldn't get to see them. That's okay — I love my job at the Kunsthaus Zürich, and if I hadn't done the Venice Biennale I would still be happy. But it's great to be doing it!
You've titled the Biennale "ILLUMInations." Why the capital letters? How does this link to your overall concept for the curated part of the Biennale?
I liked the fact that I could come up with one word as a concept. "ILLUMInations" aims towards light, the classical theme of art, and I want to concentrate on the art instead of trying to create a theory about the world and then select artworks accordingly. The title also highlights the ideas of perception and thoughts, as well as the concept of nations, which is such an integral part of the Biennale with its national pavilions. For years, even decades, people have argued that the pavilions were so anachronistic that they should stop. But they are there. It would be a bit neurotic of me to concentrate only on my exhibition and ignore what's going on beyond it.
So you don't think that the national pavilions are an outdated model.
For me, this isn't really the point. I cannot change it, but I'm interested in looking at it and studying its very specific history. Robert Fleck's little book on the subject is subtitled "A history of the 20th Century," and rightly so: Mussolini and Hitler walked through the Giardini. It's fascinating to think about how these pavilions were built and why. I'm also interested in the tension between the idea of official representation and what artists did and still do in reaction to it.
You've chosen to include three paintings by Tintoretto. It's almost like a signal saying: "Let's rethink what a contemporary biennial can be." Is it how you see it?
Biennales are always about the now. But by including these paintings, I play a bit with the biennale model. Contemporary art is a very self-reflexive domain, and it never goes beyond the history of modernism. The inclusion of Tintoretto is a provocation for the field of contemporary art and the field of art history. Both disciplines are stifled by conventions. It might feel provocative but it also is a very small gesture — all I'm doing is bringing something from over the lagoon. History is incredibly present in Venice, and it would be strange to only look at contemporary art.
This job is always a difficult one to hold as a curator, and it can be a make-or-break moment. Do you think your Biennale will be a controversial one?
Of course, yes. You can never please anyone and everyone, but I don't care if I'm criticized. I'll have a life after Venice. I have to do what I have to do, and my partners here are the artists.
Your selection of artists is particularly young: many artists are in their mid-thirties or younger. Was it a conscious decision to focus on a younger generation?
We did the statistics and saw that one third of the artists are under 35. I've always thought that the interesting thing about the Biennale was to give younger artists the possibility to have their voices heard by a broader public. But I have also included older artists for very specific reasons. You curate a biennale differently than you curate a museum show, and showcasing the younger generation is an important aspect of it. Unlike a museum, a biennale doesn't need to justify the decision to show a young artist. And the audience expects advanced contemporary art.
Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian that the list of artists announced for the curated part of the Biennale seemed indistinguishable from any big art fair. Would you like to respond?
There are curators who pretend to do something against the market. But the market is very strong. What happens to an artist once you've approached him or her is beyond your control. Artists are not throwaway objects — if they sell well, does that mean that their work doesn't mean anything anymore? All these questions need to be answered when you scream such a claim. I've been publishing Parkett for 27 years, and we've always been interested in taking the slow lane. But at the same time, we don't want to miss the moment. If someone has something to say, you should allow the world to listen to it.
Allora & Calzadilla, who this year represent the United States, have announced that they will be working with athletes in the American pavilion, drawing a parallelism that the Venice Biennale is a sort of Olympic Games of the art world. How do you feel about this comparison?
Unlike with art and artworks, in sports you have very clear results. And in art questions of national identities are not as clearly defined as in sports, where you can just put on a t-shirt saying "Italia," or "Senegal." So I believe that it is totally different, but it is good thing that this topic is being addressed.
Yet like in the Olympic Games, there are prizes at the Venice Biennale, like the Golden Lion, which suggests that there is a "best artist."
Well, all this is part of the symbols that society has invented to show recognition to an artist. I cannot be against these gestures. I love artists. I think they should get recognition, so I totally play this game.
You've asked four artists (Monika Sosnowska, Franz West, Song Dong, and Oscar Tuazon) to create "parapavilions," which will host other artists' works. How did this idea come about?
In Venice, the big curated shows tend to be compilations of works displayed one after the other — particularly in the long space of the Arsenale. I was trying to find a way for artworks to be more closely intertwined, and this seems to be an interesting solution. With the "parapavilions," the questions of identity and nationality are getting a bit mixed up. Oscar Tuazon is creating a pavilion that will showcase the work of Asier Mendizabal. They are communicating a lot about it, but since Oscar is still changing the space it might be that, at some point, Asier will say, "I cannot work in the space like this." The parapavilions are about the negotiation between two artists, and that's very different from just me saying this goes here and that goes there.
How would like your biennial to be remembered?
As a splendid, generous, and illuminating event.