This interview took place on the 19th April 2011, the day after the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Vanabbemuseum in Eindhoven between:-
Charles Esche Director of the Vanabbemuseum, Eindhoven
Zdenka Badovinac – Director of the Moderna Galeria, Ljublijana
Lucy Byatt – Head of National Programmes, Contemporary Art Society.
The Vanabbemuseum – The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven is one of the first public museums for contemporary art to be established in Europe. It opened in 1936 with the private collection of Henri Van Abbe as its basis. Throughout the last 75 years, it has continued to exhibit and collect contemporary art. Its collection is now one of the three most significant modern and contemporary public art collections in the Netherlands. Today, the museum has an experimental approach towards art’s role in society, focusing on the relations between art and social or political questions that have a particular currency in the Netherlands and north-western Europe. A radical approach, hospitality towards visitors and creating exchanges of knowledge between different institutions, disciplines and individuals are core values. In investigating the value and potential of the collection, museum uses itself as a model to test out how art from the past can remain active and inspiring, often working together with international artists and curators to develop displays and reassessments. We challenge ourselves and our visitors to think about art as a way to reflect on the state of the world. We respect the wishes of our artists and aim to present their artworks with integrity. We also address a range of subjects through art, including the artistic heritage of modernity, the cultural consequences of globalisation and the museum as a public site for the contestation of values the museum as a public site for the contestation of values. The Van Abbemuseum seeks to be as place for creative cross-fertilisation and a source of surprise, inspiration and imagination for its visitors and participants.
Charles Esche biog – Charles Esche (*1962) is a curator and writer. He is Director of van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and co-director of Afterall Journal and Books based at Central St.Martins College of Art and Design, London. He is a visiting lecturer at a number of European art academies. In the last years, he has curated the following biennials 5th U3 triennial in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2010; 3rd Riwaq Biennale, Ramallah, Palestine, 2009 together with Reem Fadda, 2nd Riwaq Biennale 2007 with Khalil Rabah; the 9th Istanbul Biennial 2005 with Vasif Kortun, Esra Sarigedik Öktem and November Paynter and the Gwangju Biennale 2002 in Korea with Hou Hanru and Song Wang Kyung. Before that he was co-curator of ‘Tate Triennial: Intelligence’ at the Tate Britain, London and ‘Amateur – Variable Research Initiatives’ at Konstmuseum and Konsthall, Göteborg, both in 2000. From 2000-2004 he was Director of the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmö where he made solo exhibitions with Surasi Kusolwong, Nedko Solakov and Superflex as well as group shows including “Baltic Babel” and “Intentional Communities” From 1998-2002 he organised the international art academic research project called ‘protoacademy’ at Edinburgh College of Art. From 1993-1997 he was Visual Arts Director at Tramway, Glasgow. A book of his selected writings, Modest Proposals, was published by Baglam Press, Istanbul in 2005 in Turkish and English and he writes regularly for readers, catalogues and art magazines.
The Museum, Ljubljana – history and background to collections
There were a number of turning points that led to Moderna galerija changing into an institution concerned with the production of new narratives and local knowledge in the 1990s. The most important among them was the collapse of the communist regime in Yugoslavia and the subsequent war in the Balkans. Prior to that, Moderna galerija had been a rather rigid national museum of modern art. In the second half of the 1990s, it started working on redefining the art history of the region. The result was the first collection of postwar avant-garde Eastern European art, the Arteast 2000+ Collection, initiated in 2000. Another thing that has crucially influenced the concept of the museum of contemporary art which Moderna galerija has developed over the last 20 years was focusing on historicizing and on alternative ways of collaboration. Our museum of contemporary art is opening this fall, in the building of a former army barracks which has been allotted to Moderna galerija for this purpose. Starting this year, Moderna galerija will thus be operating on two locations: the activities subsumed under the designation ‘museum of modern art’ will continue in the old building, while the programme of the museum of contemporary art will be housed in the former army barracks.
Zdenka Badovinac Director of Moderna galerija / the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana since 1993. She has curated numerous exhibitions presenting both Slovenian and international artists.
She initiated the first collection of Eastern European art, Moderna galerija’s Arteast 2000+ Collection. She has been systematically dealing with the processes of redefining history and with the questions of different avant-garde traditions of contemporary art, first with the exhibition Body and the East – from the 1960s to the Present, staged in 1998 at Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, and travelling to Exit Art, New York in 2001. She continued in 2000 with the first public display of the Arteast 2000+ Collection: 2000+ Arteast Collection: The Art of Eastern Europe in Dialogue with the West at Moderna galerija, (2000); and then with a series of Arteast Exhibitions, mostly at Moderna galerija: Form-Specific (2003); 7 Sins: Ljubljana-Moscow (2004; co-curated with Victor Misiano and Igor Zabel); Interrupted Histories (2006); Arteast Collection 2000+23 (2006); The Schengen Women, Galerija Škuc, Ljubljana (2008), part of the Hosting Moderna galerija! project, Old Masters, P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Institute, the P74 Center and Gallery, Ljubljana (2008), part of the Hosting Moderna galerija! project; Museum of Parallel Narratives in the framework of L’Internationale, MACBA, Barcelona (2011).
Her other major projects include unlimited.nl-3, DeAppel, Amsterdam (2000), (un)gemalt, Sammlung Essl, Kunst der Gegenwart, Klosterneuburg/Vienna (2002), ev+a 2004, Imagine Limerick, Open&Invited, different exhibition venues, Limerick (2004); Democracies/the Tirana Biennale, Tirana (2005).
Slovenian Commissioner at the Venice Biennale (1993–1997, 2005)
Austrian Commissioner at the Sao Paulo Biennial (2002)
Badovinac is the President of CIMAM (2010–2013).
LB: I’d like to start by asking you both, who is your museum for? Who are you addressing as you make your decisions about how to develop the programme? You’ve said that there’s a lot of debate about the type of programme you’re producing, which of course is very welcome, but you must have a very clear idea of how you want to shift the programme.
CE: Well there is an institutional and a personal answer to this question, though they are not unconnected. Institutionally, you could imagine the job is to keep the museum and collection intact and pass it on in good order. The museum is dependent on the people who pay for it, which in our case are the local politicians who contribute about 65% of the budget, so the primary financial question here would be how to keep them happy and giving us subsidy while providing a local public with a clear confirmation of their sense of taste. The problem we face is that today most local politicians are focused on the four years of their mandate and on keeping alienated voters from deserting them. Certainly if survival is the only motivation we had, then we could become a simple provider of services that we think would satisfy our political masters. This is afterall how democracy works today, basically short-termist and populist, and I see this lack of vision having an effect on other museum programmes in the Netherlands with their populist programming. But such an approach would probably have killed off the Van Abbemuseum years ago.
The 75-year history of this museum is bound to a much more international and durational ambition than the local can really bear, especially now. There was in all that time a fairly consistent attempt to educate and be present in a particular community while being connected to an international art world. This world is about a critical engagement with art’s relation to society and extending the possibilities of art to continue in some measure an avant-garde idea of thinking about and imagining the future. This wider ambition is mostly internally and personally driven, by me and my colleagues, and finds support in the national art community, the state arts councils and a few local individuals who see its value – the people who are usually accused of being elitist and leftist hobbyists by the populists here in the Netherlands. These represent a minority at all levels and are not able to carry a democratic mandate.
So, you can hopefully begin to see the tension right there and this is what we as directors have to try to resolve every day. If you ask me personally whom I do it for, I work in order to try and increase the imaginative potential of the world – in quite an abstract way. I mean I would like to help people in general to increase their imaginative capacity and to think differently in order to develop progressive ideas and tackle the issues that are raised by economic and political decisions. I want to support a living, critical culture around me and I see art and the museum as means to this end. That’s the reason I started being interested in art – I was never that interested in being a museum director – but I saw art as a means to construct possibility in a world that seemed to lack it. This is still the reason I am willing to go through all the political negotiations and accept criticism from a conservative media and local environment. I hold onto the idea that we do our job for those people who want to imagine the world differently and to have a discussion with them, even if they are a minority in a city like Eindhoven.
LB: You have worked with the history of the Vanabbemuseum haven’t you, as part of Play Van Abbe you represented the 1983 Rudi Fuchs show (Summer Display 1983). I thought that this show, alongside other exhibitions in the Museum that were also part of Play Van Abbe reflected a distinctive shift in the way in which we have come to experience art – it certainly provoked lots of discussion amongst the curators that came with me to see the show.
CE: I think that’s part of the advantage of being in Eindhoven, this is a very provincial place in the south of the Netherlands, the Museum therefore has this possibility to have a personality and hasn’t had all the idiosyncrasies or awkwardness drained out of it by political correctness or by short-term thinking about how to pull in the punters in the quickest way possible. It can take chances and experiment, which is what Play Van Abbe was all about, because it did so in the past. We wanted to refer very precisely to our own history to remember it and also rewrite it for the present. It’s a little like a royal dynasty that derives its power from its ancestors (laughs). I certainly do look back quite consciously, referring to Rudi Fuchs, Jean Leering or other previous directors to make a point about why we do what we do today. That makes the Van Abbemuseum exceptional for a smallish museum. The fact that those other people were here and struggling to bring international culture to the city is a reason to continue, to be steadfast but their example also inspires us to experiment, take risks, be open to change and seek to generate discussions with new kinds of publics. The aim is to strengthen the tradition by renewing and reinventing it. The really important thing about the Van Abbemuseum is that it has always been a contemporary art museum from its foundation, even in 1936 it was talking about the 20s and 30s, so that forces us to be contemporary still today, not to fall back on classical icons. At the moment, the starting point for us is to try and create an awareness that the world changed in 1989 and then to try and explain how those changes have played by listening to the voice and ideas of the ultimate minority of one the artist who produced them. Maybe the main difference in terms of experiencing art is that we do much of this very explicitly, announcing the intentions of the institution in order to put our own status and right to exist up for public debate. This means quoting exhibitions or repeating gestures across time in order to understand where we come from as a way to thinking where we might go.
LB: Zdenka, in a way this question of who your museum is for was prompted by something we were talking about earlier, you were talking about the very import constituency, – that you develop your programme with and for, the community that surrounds you and the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana.
ZB: I would rather talk about dialogue than about addressing somebody, for me it’s somehow easier to answer your question if I follow the idea of dialogue. First, it’s a dialogue with oneself. We are a public institution, but at the same time my work is very personal. This internal dialogue, the questions and dilemmas I face every day, this is very important for me because it gives me the energy to continue. You have to have your personal drama, otherwise you just repeat other professionals’ patterns; also the public feels and appreciates this. I would be putting on an act if I said I was only doing what I do for the public or the nation or the world. Of course this wider dialogue is absolutely more important than my own personal one, but nevertheless, everything starts with ‘I’. Then there is the local community. In Ljubljana we have the advantage of having started working in a situation on the border between different worlds, different societies, different generations. I became a director just after Yugoslavia and communism collapsed. When I started out as a young curator and came to work for the Moderna galerija at the end of the 1980s together with Igor Zabel and Lilijana Stepančič, we were three young curators, full of energy, who wanted to change everything, first the museum, then Ljubljana, and then the world. We started to think more internationally than the generations before us, which made the dialogue between the local and the international crucial for us, and we found that this was in line with the aspirations and interests of the most vital parts of the local community, especially the artists. In the 1980s there were many artists who were very, let’s say, self-organised in terms of taking care of the economic aspects, of trying to establish themselves internationally, promoting themselves, and similar things that institutions are normally involved in, and here we found common ground. At that time we learned more about the priorities of institutional work from people who were involved in different activities in the so-called alternative culture than from our colleagues at other institutions. That’s how we started a horizontal dialogue that related to the way we thought our museum should develop. What we were involved in was actually a kind of cultural politics, because in the early 1990s, when Slovenia became an independent country, it had no established, effective formal cultural policy. The old system had fallen apart and a new one hadn’t yet been created. There was a short period of political inertia, two or three years, an important time for the way in which we developed our programme and our cultural community; it could have been very different with a different sort of director of Moderna galerija, as it was somehow possible to do whatever one wanted. That was a time of experimentation for different agents in Ljubljana, not just the politicians, not just the artists, but the broader community of intellectuals. Some very interesting people began to join our circle of dialogue, and this very quickly produced our peer public. When you do something new in a museum that has a broader appeal, it creates a field of reference, and then diverse energies and agents who were not much involved in your work before, or even in the same field, start to share your urgencies. Thus in the mid-1990s for example, we together tried to define the notion of contemporaneity. We recognized that contemporaneity for us meant a shift of paradigm; from the isolated artistic field to the political and the social ones. Suddenly we were in dialogue with different publics and we had stopped addressing just one, the elitist red bourgeoisie, as was the case before. There was a moment in the mid-1990s when we started thinking about three models of the museum; the modern, the post-modern, and the contemporary. So all these energies and all these issues culminated in the concept of contemporaneity, which is of course very much related to the dialogue between the museum and the locality. The museum thus became an expanded infrastructure providing better conditions for the local contemporary art and its international integrations. When you work in a museum in a small town, where you know almost everybody and you meet them in the streets, you feel somehow more connected and responsible, in a different way than in a big city or big institution. For the same reason, a distance to the locality and a meaningful dialogue with the international world are important.
LB: It seems to me that you were working within a very fast changing political and social context Zdenka, in this newly emerging country, therefore the idea of the institution was evolving, from an old structure into a new structure very quickly., In The Netherlands there’s been ongoing investment in culture for a long time through liberal ideals, it seems to me that this is the context for the Van Abbe which has enabled some of your programmes to be realised. For example Becoming Dutch presented challenges for your audiences because it questioned some of the accepted ideas around national identity and perhaps challenged the expectation of who the museum serves. Last night in your speech for the 75th anniversary of the museum you talked about how important it is for institutions such as the Van Abbemuseum to be challenging, to be contemporary.
CE: Maybe to address this idea of stability versus instability first. You trace the history very well, but I think the interesting current aspect is that today we find ourselves in relatively similar situations in both Ljubljana and Eindhoven. Now, it is true that Ljubljana and Eindhoven have arrived here from very different routes but we’ve met up at last, at a metaphorical roundabout, where we are now going round and round and not yet sure which turning we’ll take or whether it will be the same one. I find this aspect of contemporaneity fascinating. I felt it equally when I’m in Indonesia, Barcelona or wherever – the contemporary is everywhere in a way in wasn’t 25 years ago. At the same time, we are much less sure what the economic and political future might reveal and whether it makes sense to keep such institutions as these museums intact for or not. That produces a strong sense of ‘presentism’ or how to understand the now as well as a tendency to look back and try to figure out how we got here.
For instance, the 40 years of stability that the Dutch experienced from around 1949 to 1989 is not the same today, as you see in the general sense of unease and fearfulness that is shared across the world. One of the ironic advantages in former Yugoslavia might be that it is very clear that there was a new situation after 1989 whereas here it took 15-20 years to become consciously understood. The shift from stability to instability has been very slow and almost hidden because we don’t have a shared timeline of the recent past. We know the dark side of this so-called superior Western culture. We know it produced mass, mechanic murder yet the memories of that are fading out of real lived experience. Since then, we seem not to have a clear sense of how time has past, or how we could choose to write our history. We have somehow landed in a suspended present, what Fukayama so thrillingly, but naively, called the end of history. But I think this is only because we have not yet been really engaged in writing the history of the last 60-70 years – a job that museums could take on themselves very easily. You know it would be impossible for anybody in Slovenia to say well nothing happened between 1988 and 1995 but if you talk to some students in The Netherlands about ‘89, they look at you in a confused way. Yet we are all living through the consequences of the end of ideology and the sole focus on individual satisfaction and material comfort that followed. We could learn a lot from each other if we open ourselves to international culture and how artists address the world we all live in.
Producing Becoming Dutch was definitely a way to take the temperature of this society, to look at its past and present and imagine its future through commissions and existing works by artists. In that sense it addressed instability as a constantly materializing condition that manifests itself in all sorts of different ways: through questions about the value of immigration; the loss of identity, security, a sense of interdependence; the entropy of the European ideal; the loss of the impulse to believe in a broad liberal education; the introduction of fundamentalist consumerism as the means to satisfy anxiety. These were all somehow present in the project in more or less overt ways.
LB: So this awareness of what took place in 1989 and its effect on the way in which artists are thinking and making work must have an impact on the development of the collection and the way in which you acquire works from artists that emerge from a whole range of different art histories.
ZB: There have been many changes already in various institutions in terms of the way they think when developing their collections. We can identify these changes and the institutions that are close to our understanding of redefining history with multiple art historical narratives rather than by continuing to adhere to a single one. I feel that most institutions in Western Europe or the United States have a different view on this, they recognize this ‘change’, but do so in terms of an inclusion-exclusion paradigm. So if you go to the Tate or MoMA for example, you can see the social and political changes that had happened in Europe reflected in their collections, which now include works by many previously disregarded or unknown Eastern artists and artists from emerging spaces with ‘minor’ histories. But the way these works are shown is based on formal similarities without paying much attention to the specific contexts. Thus the existing system is not actually changing, it is in fact strengthening, because the new names, the new artists just somehow reinforce its apparent ‘openness’. We don’t see many efforts to learn from what we could describe as ‘the Other’, just attempts to incorporate the Other into something that already exists. Contrary to that, in Ljubljana we are trying to define our locality as one of many that tries to be equal in the global dialogue. There are the theoretical activities, there is the museum activity, and there is the collection. In 2000 we built the first collection of Eastern European art to give a broader context to Slovenian art, to define with which part of the international space we share most of the urgencies. This is what I call a meaningful dialogue; a museum collection cannot cover the whole world but it can create a resonance between the interests of its own locality and other spaces. This is just the opposite to the process of inclusion on the agenda of big institutions.
LB: This is an example of the workings of high capitalism, to see something and seize it, it simply becomes a process of absorption.
ZB: In my view, the big institutions are doing their work within the frame of their ideologies. It would actually be much more difficult for the big hegemonic institutions to take a more self-reflexive approach. That’s possible in our museum, which is small, and in other rather small institutions that are still developing.
CE : I think that is really a crucial argument. We have upstairs in the Museum a work by the Museum of American Art, Berlin. It’s a key to unpick the whole of the museum in a way. It declares the Museum of Modern Art in New York to be a museum of antiquities. I think that’s the kind of process that we need to go through here and everywhere. We need to stop imagining that MoMA, New York can simply continue its narrative untouched but with the addition of a few exotic things from the East, (everything from Berlin to China), and South (South America, Africa, Asia). This is the inclusion model to which Zdenka refers but it doesn’t work any more. To change it would mean to have to say that modernity and the modern museum came to an end, tragically or wonderfully depending on our point of view. It’s not a question of whether it’s a shame or a success that it came to an end, simply accepting that it did. Let us imagine that modernity were finally to be declared our antiquity. At that moment a modern collection like ours and of course the one in Ljubljana is completely redefined. It becomes largely a historical collection made at a time that is not just past but is substantively different – society thought differently, conclusions were based on premises we no longer can understand. To access this modern art, we have to build up narratives that explain that antique context, and we should try in that process to build a genuine narrative of equality in which New York is not the centre but a place amongst others, and where colonialism is something to be learnt and understood as our roots but not our reality. This is wehera project like Sarat Maharaj’s Farewell to Post-colonialism is so important as well. We would then have to acknowledge that we are in a strange transitional time where it’s not clear where and how the present is going to be told and what its abiding values might be. There are good and bad versions of the present and we have the chance to choose because there is no overarching narrative, neither cultural nor political – only a dull form of economic pragmatism.
I think the danger is that if we don’t acknowledge that moment of change then as a society we’re really in trouble, the lack of acknowledgment has led to this atmosphere where it is felt that everything that we are accustomed too, everything stable, is under incredible pressure, that everything is collapsing, and that the action we must take is to protect all that is familiar. This then leads to the kind of emergency calls to secure the state and therefore a reactionary politics that has huge effects on the European cultural institutions. Most right wing politicians want to preserve modernity. Telling the narratives of modern art from Demoiselles d’Avignon onwards while pointing out its blind spots and ideologies, becomes very important in those circumstances because it allows to respect that past more fully but also to leave it behind. The Museum of American Art, Berlin is the only project I know that does this so explicitly and brilliantly.
ZB: Today we shouldn’t be interested just in the history of art. We should also ask what had actually created the former narrative, the hegemonic narrative. What were the reasons why the alternative narratives couldn’t find a footing? When you ask this sort of questions, you immediately enter another field of reference, political, economic and social. The dominance of certain social and political systems, this is what has created the model of the contemporary art museum and has had an impact on how this relatively new model differs from the modern or postmodern museum. Unless we start thinking about a new model of museum, more open in its thinking in relation to how it creates space for the many narratives that have led us to where we are today, I can’t see any possible relevant answer to our dilemmas. We can of course try to answer the question why the big museums have adopted the inclusion-exclusion paradigm instead of being aware of these new theories. We could spend a lot of time thinking this through, looking for an answer, but we know that they cannot shift their thinking, they are too caught up in their existing project, which is to retain their centrality and to have a say over what can and can’t be included in the telling of all future art histories.
CE: Again I go back to this idea that they would have to become museums of antiquities, that’s important, something that they’re reluctant to do I think.
LB: We talked a little about instrumentalisation, these large and powerful museums have spent a lot of time persuading politicians, persuading their supporters that they are leading in terms of the narratives that they’re weaving .Perhaps their only option is to grow, to start being self-reflexive now is a great risk, this is the opportunity for the smaller museums perhaps? To generate new thinking and new models, these large dominant museums seem to find themselves now, in a double bind.
CE: I think you’re right they’re in a double bind. Yesterday when he gave his speech at our anniversary party, Nick Serota said that there isn’t really an equivalent of the Van Abbemuseum in England – why is this? It must be connected I think to the fact that many smaller institutions are not really allowed to be maverick personalities in own their towns and cities. They’re managed as ciy amenities subject to the general priorities of education, social inclusion and tourism. That traps them in terms of the development of new narratives for the future of art history or a relation to political and social change. I can imagine it is hard to argue yourself out of that situation, especially where politicians have taken over the agendas directly and the local museums are almost completely dependent on democratic sources of funding. Yet maybe the only option is to try and argue with city representatives for the idiosyncratic and perverse nature of museums and that democracy is fundamentally about the protection of minority interests and not the dictatorship of the majority.
LB: There is great financial and structural change taking place in relation to these smaller museums in the UK, I should say that in most cases change is inevitable, it is the path that this change might take, that in some cases might throw up the opportunity for these institutions to be more independent, to have the space to be more maverick, to lead rather than to follow. I see this as a possibility on those optimistic days that occur every now and then. But of course you are right Charles, it is a great problem in our cultural lives that many of the museums in the UK have not been given the possibility to teach through presenting, through catalysing new ideas.
CE: Well, all these institutions have is enormous amounts of money locked up in their collections. Maybe that can offer some relative autonomy?
LB: Ahh the taboo discussion! This topic only seems to occur at moments of hysteria, where the most important works that could fetch the highest prices are threatened by councilors lobbying to use this income to build a hospital. We rarely seem able to talk about this idea of reinvesting in the development of collections through the sale of works when not under pressure. If we could only get the frame for this sort of conversation right this could be the key to enormous potential for the future of contemporary collections.
CE: You could actually say, ‘let’s sell part of this Victorian collection, though we’d like to retain important works to be able to tell the our history’. If we can raise reasonable amounts of money and try and do something for the contemporary collection – maybe that’s an argument you might win? The question is, can you liberate the investment and start a new narrative without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. Local museum were started at a certain point in the Victorian era often in order to tell a particular story that seemed relevant and important to their particular city and its richer inhabitants. Now, the opportunity maybe lies with those collections together with an organisation like the Contemporary Art Society, to say we can use the value that we built up over those years of modernity and capitalize some of it in order to tell a new story for today. In the current situation I can’t see any argument against that beyond the hyper-conservative, and that’s often the problem, what’s left of the left is far more conservative than is healthy.
ZB: I’m inclined to see this as being more complex. There are collections that are forced to sell works that are relevant. There are collections that are in danger because they are put under various kinds of pressure. I think a very important question is how to discuss these issues. At CIMAM we are trying to establish a code of ethics, some general principles of deaccession, to deal exactly with such questions. It has become urgent for us to find, together, a professional way of regulating such occurrences.
CE: If you sell works the money must be put back into rebuilding the collection. If you stick to that as a basic principle and it’s not used for running costs, for developing cultural buildings or to build a motorway, then I think there is potential.
ZB: Then there is also the history of the collection to be considered. The works that are in the collection of a given museum are the history of that institution. So how do you keep that? It’s not just about the collection itself and how you display it, it’s also the history of the institution that you risk when you sell the collection.
CE: For sure, but I think that we can be more productive about what we gain if we sell the work and not only talk about this risk.
LB: I’m interested to know, when we look back on this time and the collection here at the Vanabbemuseum, Charles, what are the works that you are acquiring for the collection that will see this new period reflected? What do you think the works that you have acquiring have done for the collection in terms of this new narrative?
CE: The purchase of Top Secret (1989-1990) by Nedko Solakov was a crucial moment. The work relates closely to the period of change just after the Bulgarian Communist party collapsed and how to come to terms with the past. It is a work of catharsis and moving on, and quite beautiful in its obsessive bureaucracy of hiding and preserving. Since then, we have expanded the geographic reach of the collection with an emphasis on post-socialist Europe, Turkey and the Middle East in particular. We have also collected many more video and installation works that tell a narrative. This has become much more necessary than before because the contexts in which works are made is no longer transparent in the way it had been during the period of modernity. An artist like Jan Vercruysse, for instance, perhaps the most interesting of the late modernists in the collection, makes artworks that assume a modernist public that understands where he comes from. It may still make sense today but that is because of the memory of modernity I think. In the future we will have to explain his Belgianness, his relationship to Magritte or Broodthaers, the strange quixotic art community that produced him etc. His work no longer functions in the old autonomous sense because the defences of European universalism or centre and periphery divisions that maintained that autonomy have now gone. For instance, in Top Secret there’s video beside it where Solakov tells a quixotic narrative about the work. A artist like Vercruysse or Art & Language for instance, who also produced lists and drawers full of papers, would never have done this because they didn’t need to – their public knew the references sufficiently to conjure them up in the presence of the work. So, we are telling narratives that are both geographically expanded and require new forms of presentation and spectatorship.
ZB: With your new display at the Vanabbemuseum you are answering the question of narrative in an interesting way. You are posing the question of who is creating the narrative. Is it the museum, the curator or the public? You have different choices. For me, as I understand it, there is also the narrative of the visitor. This is one way of presenting the multiplicity of the narrative. It’s the narrative of the professionals and of the visitors, of the professional public. There are different heterogeneous approaches to the presentation of the collection, which I think somehow have to be visible. And then there is the perennial question of how to present the context. For example: How do you present Eastern artists in a Western museum? Is it enough to write a text on a given context and put it on the wall? Of course this helps, but I think if you structure the museum so that you provide space for and make visible all these different narratives, you don’t need to explain over and over again that a work belongs to a specific context; the message that different readings are possible is automatically there. We can do a lot through exhibition dramaturgy based on heterogeneity without explaining everything with words.
CE: Yes, and in many cases the works themselves contain all the narrative that you need – like with Solakov. The only way that we can imagine the world differently is if we’re confronted with something we can’t understand. When the modern museum in this part of the world becomes simply a confirmation of existing opinions it dies. If it does not challenge the assumptions of the ‘still-modern’, it is not doing its job very well and the danger arises of becoming a mausoleum that preserves artifacts for a western society that feels the entropy of its culture. That’s what the right-wing populists feed on most strongly, the sense of slow deterioration.
LB: This populism that we see in Western Europe, is this going to flood into the east, in to former Yugoslavian countries? You’re opening a new museum this year Zdenka, do you feel there are going to be faced with these pressures?
ZB: We have a minister now who is the most supportive of all in the last 20 years. She does understand the situation, but even so her focus is on what she calls the cultural industries – we are not sure what the implications of this might be. Another one of these new liberal ideas that are entering all the former Yugoslavian and Eastern European territories now, that are associated with the bright shiny world of the West, is the big contemporary art museum. I was in Kosovo last week, a very poor country, nothing really functions there, but they want to have a big contemporary art museum of 12,000 square metres. They think that this will help them solve their problems.
CE: In Pristina?
ZB: Yes – so what does this mean? Everything has to be a spectacle – for me, this is the postmodern type of museum. I’m not denying the importance of the fact that in our region, in former Yugoslavia, we are also working on alternatives, but it is vital that we all try to define what we are doing. The organisations and individuals thinking about what alternative models could exist are very numerous, so it’s crucial that the definitions are clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the museums of antiquity, as Charles calls them, as long as they are described in this way, very clearly. For me it is very important to be disciplined in this sense, to keep the frame of reference as open as we can, while at the same time keeping the critical discussion progressive and at a level that will react in an articulate way when presented with the more reactionary views that persist. This was also the question that arose when we were forming L’Internationale, our network organisation. It was one of the first questions actually: How open can we be and who can be part of the network? It was difficult to answer this question at the beginning, now I would say that those involved are those whose concerns resonate with our common ideas, for instance, how to create an institution that is able to activate the new and different narratives that are taking shape as a result of the political and social changes that we have experienced. If we talk about the future, the development of networks is really one of the possible answers to the question of how to work. So I can also envision a network in which also the big museums take part along with the small museums, but again, they have to define themselves and their position.
CE: I want to say one last thing about our Internationale network which includes both our museum, Barcelona, Antwerpen and artists’ archives in Bratislava and Warsaw. I know a little bit about the system in England because I was educated there, what surprises me is the lack of communication between local authority museums. There is such a huge danger of being isolated in small communities which aren’t particularly intellectual, Ljubljana is a capital city and it has intellectual humus where things grow. This is something that is completely absent here in Eindhoven, it’s a technological city, so the International network is a way to have a discussion with a group of people who are intellectually stimulated by the ideas that we are trying to generate. I think it would be incredibly valuable for the local institutions in England if they were able to join forces and act together, collect works together and share expertise and knowledge across more than one site.
LB: Yes networks, something that I now know a very great deal about as I am at the helm of developing networks in the UK for museum curators, it is complicated still, ensuring that the discussion and debate that takes place can actually effect change. I think that this is a very good point to finish our conversation Charles, thank you both very much.