Interview – Art | Juan Gaitan on his Berlin Biennale

From May 29th to August 3rd, the 8th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art) will be shown at Haus am Waldsee, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and at the Museen Dahlem – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin under the curatorship of Juan A. Gaitán and his artistic team consisting of Tarek Atoui, Catalina Lozano, Natasha Ginwala, Mariana Munguía, Olaf Nicolai and Danh Vo.

The 8th Berlin Biennale discusses the relation between historical narratives and individual life, considering the aspects of the city and its environment, the identification of its inhabitants, and the relation between city and work. How much is it related to the city of Berlin and its people?

It’s definitely not only about Berlin, but the city helps to start a conversation about something that applies to other places, as well. Crash Pad, the first production by Andreas Angelidakis, is referring to Greece, treating the romantic relationship to antiquity and it’s approbation by the Greeks to separate themselves from the Ottoman Empire. But it also reminds of Berlin’s intellectual salons in the 18th and 19th century, and if the romance of salons is reconstructed in the right way, you may get the right conversation going on inside. At the moment, the discussion about the reconstruction of heritage is happening everywhere: In the Emirates, monuments with reference to Islamic heritage are constructed, in Cambodia there are references to the Khmer heritage, in Germany it’s the Prussian heritage that is being revived; it is a very cosmetic way of looking at history. In order to look for possible venues for the Berlin Biennale, I went to every corner of Berlin, and I became aware of the desires and projections associated with the Prussian heritage and saw to which parts of the city people go and to which parts they don’t go. And even though most of the productions were not made in Berlin and do not reflect the city itself, the urban experiences have determined much of my thinking.

How did you choose the artists for this year’s Berlin Biennale?

There are different stages. The first one is intuitive, you immediately think of artists to work with and are shy to allow yourself to go with it too far because you need to be open to meet new artists, too. Secondly, I went on research trips to collect information. When things eventually take shape, they reveal which aspects need to be triggered, and that alteration and refinement probably is the third stage in the selection process.

Where did your trips take you, why did you choose those regions and what are you bringing back to Berlin?

I went to India, Southeast Asia (Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand) and South Africa. I think I needed to understand how and where Germany fits in the Asian consciousness. It is about how Europe figures in Asia. Latin America has a very dependent relationship on Europe while in Asia, I feel, people couldn’t care less. I always wanted to go to India to learn what it means to be an artist there. South East Asia was interesting because of its fragmented narratives due to the geography; islands with a common history that are unable to come together. Taiwan, because it’s not quite China, not quite Japan and not quite Southeast Asia either – its not-quiteness is fascinating. During the Berlin Biennale, different things from these journeys will be brought to Berlin.

How did you set up your artistic advisory team?

Most people think there are answers to every decision in life, and I frankly have to say I don’t in this case. Danh Vo is one of the artists who is able to bridge historical and contemporary narratives, which is also what this Berlin Biennale is about, with Tarek Atoui, I worked before, Natasha Ginwala, I thought, is a great person to work with, and so on… If you look at it this way, you need to have a foot here and a foot out, so you’re not fully committed to the here, but it doesn’t become a lesson about elsewhere. The tendency usually is to make a show that is intensely European or a show that is meant to teach Europeans how to think about somewhere else, and I was not interested in making either of these two things. I think what’s important is that we accept that a global contemporary exhibition is aside of these junctions. There are other ways and it’s clearer today then it was decades ago that an artwork that is not openly political doesn’t mean that the work or the artist are not concerned.

Speaking of political concern: Unlike in many other parts of the world, Europe and Northern America have a strong tradition of written record as an instrument of historical truth. How do you think art can influence historical methodology as visual testimonials?

In fact, in Latin America, history was written. But one important aspect of the history of the Western hemisphere is that the technologies and the systems of representation were so effective that they have erased the records from the pre-Colombian period in Latin America and we have no access of what was going on before. It’s not the case so much, it seems, in Asia because colonialization took place 300 years later and was shorter compared to South America. The Ottoman empire was the strongest at the time, in between were other empires, and China and Japan were never weak, so these powers were able to protect their manifold traditions from the rising colonial powers of the West.

When talking about art, the image has always been more powerful than the written text. In fact, the public image was born in the desire to convert. In medieval times, for example, images started to appear in churches across Europe as a primary method of conversion to Christianity. So, for someone unable to read or write, an image becomes the first and only point of access, and the image continues to function this way. When I go to another place, I see signs that are taking me through the place. And then there are image worlds. And the Asian and the Latin American ones are quite powerful. Global and local images are present at the same time, and if you look at literacy from that point of view, there’s a high level of literacy, but an impoverished language. The large amounts of images that circulate around the world are quite limited in how we can think of and about them. What we do in contemporary art is to work against this reduction of images, working to improve the language of sensible experiences.

What makes the Berlin Biennale different from other Biennales?

There are many different reasons for a Biennale to exist. Nothing exists because it’s just there, but everything has a reason to be there, because, to some extent, it’s necessary. I do think the Berlin Biennale is the most important platform to present new artworks in Berlin at that scale because it’s not a museum and it cannot behave like a museum since it does not have museum spaces. Calling it by its number – 8 compared to 56 in Venice – it is something that is fresh, it’s in the process of becoming and therefore a great and generous podium where you are allowed to do a lot of different things and take risks.