On 13 April – the same day that the artist duo Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset unveiled their much discussed sculpture Van Gogh’s Ear on Fifth Avenue in New York – the Istanbul Biennial announced that the duo will also curate the 15th Istanbul Biennial, opening on 16 September 2017.
This places Elmgreen & Dragset in illustrious company alongside curators such as René Block, Rosa Martinez, Yuko Hasegawa, Dan Cameron, Charles Esche, Vasif Kortun, Hou Hanru, Adriano Pedrosa, Jens Hoffmann and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, all of whom have been artistic directors over the course of the last twenty years.
Like many other 1990s artists, Elmgreen & Dragset became familiar with arranging and curating their own exhibitions at an early stage of their career. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they have also had the opportunity to curate on a grander institutional scale: the project The Collectors was a large-scale group exhibition at the Danish and Nordic pavilions in 2009; A Space Called Public took place out of doors in Munich in 2013, and that same year they also staged Tomorrow at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In recent years the duo have curated spectacular exhibitions of their own works, such as the mid-career show Biography, two different versions of which were shown at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo and the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen 2014.
The Istanbul Biennial is one of the key biennials in Europe, and takes place in what is now a conflict-ridden corner of the continent. Kunstkritikk had the opportunity to ask Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset a few questions via email while they were returning to Berlin after spending some intense weeks in New York during the installation and opening of Van Gogh’s Ear.
Jonas Ekeberg: In 2003, Jens Hoffmann conceived of the project The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but now, in 2016, Christian Jankowski is curating Manifesta, and next year you will be curating Istanbul. What happened?
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset: There have been many examples of artists curating these kinds of exhibitions over the past decade or so. The Sharjah, Singapore, Berlin, and Kochi-Musiris biennials, and also the Yokohama Triennial, have all been curated by artists at some point. On the one hand, it seems that the organisers of these events are looking for different perspectives and approaches to organising shows. On the other hand, artists are more willing now than before to step outside the traditional artist roles. The art world is increasingly a place where fluid and complex identities and practices can be embraced.
Curating exhibitions seems to occupy an increasingly important position in your collaborative practice. How did this aspect of your work evolve?
When we started out doing art in Copenhagen in the mid-’90s, there were not many contemporary galleries around with knowledge of what was going on in the international art world, there was almost no market for younger artists, and there was little institutional interest in emerging artists. This meant that younger artists had to organise their own exhibitions. This could be in tiny off-spaces, or it could even take the form of large cultural events like Update, where we were amongst 16 artists collaborating on a months-long arts festival, to which we invited over one hundred artists in an old electrical plant in the centre of Copenhagen. It could also just be a Sunday afternoon performance festival in a local park that did not cost any money to realise, apart from a disposable barbeque and a couple of crates of Carlsberg lager.
With our background in theatre and performance, it has always felt natural to collaborate with others, and curating is another extension of the ongoing dialogue between the two of us. For The Collectors at the Nordic and Danish Pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 2009, we invited 23 other artists to show their work in a setting that we staged. Three years ago, when the city of Munich asked us to do a big project in the public space, with the option to use the whole city, we decided to invite a dozen other artists to do temporary interventions in the public sphere, and to use the project as a whole, including the public lecture and debate programme, as a case study for researching the current state of the idea of ‘shared space’.
Is it possible to say something in general about how artists curating differ from curators curating?
Some curators – but not all, of course – have only little understanding of the artistic process itself, in which fabrication and realisation are a big part. Artists will always understand artists better in this matter, purely based on their own experience.
In addition to The Collectors in Venice in 2009 you have, among other projects, curated Tomorrow at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013. In both these projects you employed what could perhaps be called “narrative curating”, presenting art works within a larger, narrative context. What did you learn from these projects that might be relevant in Istanbul?
We are not necessarily extending the practice of “narrative curating” – nice term by the way! – into the context of the Istanbul Biennial, so that experience might not come into play. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, we only included works from the museum’s permanent collection and not works by living artists. Instead, we communicated with the curators and researchers from the museum’s many departments, e.g. from the photography department, the architectural department, the Chinese porcelain department, and got great advice from them. Maybe one thing we’ve learned is: don’t be afraid to ask for help.
What is your personal relationship with the city of Istanbul?
We’ve taken part in three biennials there since 2001, and have also showed work in other contexts, most importantly as part of the 2nd Istanbul Pedestrian Projects in the central Karaköy area, in 2005 – an area that has since been completely transformed. We know several artists and curators from there. Istanbul is an extremely social city, and we’ve always felt very welcome there. More than other places, we’ve been invited to people’s homes, and have ended up drinking and talking on people’s patios or terraces till late in the morning.
Although Turkey is one of few Islamic countries where same-sex relationships are not criminalised, gay rights activists are constantly kept on their toes by the government, which recently proposed to build separate prisons for gay convicts. Is it possible to use the Istanbul Biennial to work with these issues?
Queer issues have been an integrated part of our practice since the very beginning, sometimes overtly, sometimes less so. We’ve always believed that gay rights issues cannot be seen as separate from other social or minority issues. The previous two works we showed ourselves in Istanbul had clear, un-ignorable gay perspectives, one being the large photo series The Incidental Self, and the other, a durational live installation called Istanbul Diaries, where some of the male participants identified as gay or queer, and wrote openly about their daily experiences.
The political situation in Europe, and in the south-eastern part in particular, is rather precarious at the moment. In the press release issued by the Istanbul Biennial this week, you proposed a biennial based on “collaborative efforts and processes” in order to deal with what you refer to as “the current global geopolitical situation”. How do you see artists’ collaborations as a model for political work?
A group effort can show that differences can be overcome and that coexistence is possible in a different way than what can be accomplished by separate individual statements. Also, collaborative processes rely on dialogue, which might by extension be beneficial in the mediation of the content of the completed work.
Returning to Jens Hoffmann’s project thirteen years ago: your contribution to that project was a proposal titled Baby if You Give It to Me – I’ll Give It to You (I Know What You Want), wherein you proposed to let all the major art events change locations for a period of 10 years. You proposed, amongst other things, that Ducumenta should move to Venice and that the Whitney Biennial should take place in Prague. Where would you move the Istanbul Biennial, if you could?
Neukölln, the area of Berlin where we have our studio, would be practical of course. And a big part of the neighbourhood is Turkish.