A Piece Of Sky Is Missing!

Guy Brett interviewed by Gulsen Bal

Guy Brett is long established art critic and curator who lives and works in London. He has written extensively since the 1960s and has curated/organised a number of international exhibitions addressing the aesthetic constitution of the cultural specific condition within a rhetoric space along the axis of dialogical model of curating in exhibition-making today beyond the boundaries of dichotomies in a multitude between 'global and local interests.'


Gulsen Bal: How did you develop your interest in curating?

Guy Brett: Well ... let's see. When I was starting out in the 1960s the word curating didn't exist as a verb, only as a noun. It means a 'carer': someone who takes care of objects in a museum (also keeper, custodian), or in the ecclesiastical sense of the curate, someone entrusted with the care of souls. In those days 'curating' was simply called 'organising an exhibition', and it went on of course. But I've begun and have continued as a writer on art, mainly. And I've always been very concerned about the visual presentation of things I've written. If it's been possible I've worked with closely with the graphic designer on the choice and layout of pictures with the text, for articles in magazines, catalogue texts and books. But I love organising exhibitions, and if the opportunity has come up I've taken it. The first show I did was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1966, a touring show of kinetic art. It included works by Takis, David Medalla, Soto, Lygia Clark, Tinguely, Pol Bury, von Graevenitz, Liliane Lijn and Gianni Colombo. This kind of art in movement excited me greatly and I was very close to Signals London, the showroom run by Paul Keeler and David Medalla in Wigmore Street in the mid-60s which attracted a very large and diverse public in those days for its exhibitions. We were all in our early 20s. David Medalla had arrived from the Philippines a few years before. He had a genuinely international outlook and the internationalism of kinetic art was one of the things that inspired us about it (it was also a tendency in poetry, by the way). The artists I just mentioned come from, respectively, Greece, the Philippines, Venezuela, Brazil, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, USA and Italy! Signals initiated the first large-scale shows in Europe to artists like Soto, Alejandro Otero, Sergio Camargo, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica.

Bal: There was a discussion on the role shift of the curator especially in the late 90's, and I think it was Maria Lind who proposed the term 'performative curating' to describe a kind of exhibition practice where 'performative curating', along the axis of dialogical model of curating, describes 'performativity' in relation to the form of the exhibition itself. Yet it seems this exhibition-making methodology was not something new

Brett: No I don't think it's new, but the phrase 'performative curating' can give a clue to both the good side and the bad side of the current situation. Obviously organising an exhibition of a contemporary artist must involve a dialogue with him or her. And I think it's the quality of that dialogue which shines through the solo exhibitions we remember from the 60s, say the collaborations of Pontus Hulten with Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely, or Harald Szeeman with conceptual artists, or for that matter Medalla with the artists at Signals. He invited - and maybe challenged - each one to produce a large new work for the big downstairs wall in the gallery. The dialogue demands deep knowledge of the work and great sensitivity, but I agree there's a showmanship side to curating too. But if 'performative' means simply ego-based showing off in front of an audience, based on a shallow response to art work itself, then you have a contradiction in the very terms used – careless care!

Bal: The 90's neo-institutional critique and re-politicised art practice shows us a variety of tendencies informing 'new' artistic strategies. How would you describe the constituency of dialogic art practice in the scope of this passage? Perhaps we can take up here some of the issues that you have introduced in your essay, "The Century of Kinesthesia," in the catalogue of the "Force Fields" exhibition you organised, and the exhibition itself?

Brett: This relates perhaps to the question of historical and thematic exhibitions, which bring different factors into play. "Force Fields" was an attempt at a new interpretation of 20th century art slightly different form previous structures and groupings. The show stressed artists' searchings for 'models of the universe', modern art as having a cosmological dimension to do with the structure of matter-energy and space- time, artists responding to the vastly enlarged (and miniaturised) conception of reality which has come with modern science and technology. This pursuit seemed to me to cross barriers between historical movements and tendencies which had previously seemed to be totally opposed to one another – for example between informal abstraction and concrete art. So one could put Wols next to Vantongerloo, and something very marvellous happened! I very much wanted Force Fields to work as a visual experience, that it would not be necessary to read anything. So documentary verbal material was kept to a minimum – just two quotations on the wall (from Henri Michaux and Lygia Clark), the normal labels, and biographical sketches of each artist to show how varied their origins and itineraries have been. Artists and institutions – it's such a vexed question. One wants to avoid simplistic answers. I love museums, archives, collections and libraries, especially if one thinks of them in seasonal and cyclic rather linear terms. They are full of things which have come to rest and are waiting to be re-animated by someone's thought, someone's response. I think the need to renew the vitality and energy in art works is very similar to the need earlier societies had to renew their culture and knowledge with seasonal or cyclic ceremonies. Force Fields MACBA (Barcelona) and Hayward Gallery (London), 2000 These could be occasions of great danger and emotion. Apparently, in Aztec society the discovery of fire was re-visited in this way. Every cycle of 52 years was marked by the New Fire Ceremony, a time of great anxiety in which all fires were extinguished and replaced with a new fire ceremonially kindled using a fire-drill and board… A gentler metaphor of renewal might be the appreciative poems written on revered Chinese paintings by viewers of many generations.

Bal: How can we read the most recent crystallization of new political understandings of globalism, esp. within an awareness of the challenges of presenting art from one culture in a very different cultural context?

Brett: In my case this goes back a long way, into kind of instinctive decisions which were only understood later. I was attracted to people of other nationalities, cultures, and made many foreign friends. They were almost always people who had the same curiosity about cultures as I had, working from the other direction. At the same time I was disgusted with British chauvinism, which infiltrated the art world of all places. Visual art, like music, is a form which transcends national and linguistic barriers, despite the fact that many nuances will be missed if you have not lived the life of the place and people it comes from. When I started writing on art all eyes were on America and many British artists started praising qualities like 'toughness' which they felt they saw in the work of American artists. But being into, for example, kinetic art meant that you would not give America priority since kinetic work was coming from all over the world. It was fascinating to observe nuances of difference as artists from different cultures embraced the common proposition of an art of change and transformation, of matter and energy.

Bal: It is perhaps necessary to attempt another brief account of your active involvement…. Maybe we can set an example particularly through your most recent exhibition. It was part of "London in Six Easy Steps: Six Curators, Six Weeks, Six Perspectives" which took place at the ICA in London in September 2005. I think it deserves a special emphasis

Brett: It is always good to know the sequence of events by which something comes to be. Jens Hoffmann, who had recently become exhibitions director of the ICA, who had come from abroad to take up this job, wanted to make an exhibition about London. Partly for his own 'education' so to speak. So he invited six curators to make shows which would last one week each, with a turnaround time of just one day. I was one of those six and I had a choice: to put together a sort of a thematic show on the subject of London, or to concentrate on one artist and his/her vision. I decided on the second and I immediately thought of David Medalla as someone with a unique relationship to London. He arrived here from the Philippines in 1960s and has lived in London predominantly since, with many wanderings in other countries. Even in London he has constantly wandered, living for a period in a neighbourhood here, for a period in a neighbourhood there. With his help I compiled a list of his London domiciles. It ran to some thirty addresses which I read out in my speech on the opening night. 'London,' for Medalla, was also a multitude of artists, artists from all over the world, who over the years he has met, worked with, encouraged, and promoted. Anywhere in the World: David Medalla's London, part of "London in Six Easy Steps", ICA

Bal: Yes... Medalla's work is always informed by the place in which he creates it and the people he meets within the realm of a dialogical approach…

Brett: Medalla has looked for new forms of communication between artist and audience.

Bal: I'd like to focus on some of the works in the show. But initially could you talk about the exhibition's title "Anywhere in the World"?

Brett: It was a reflection of Medalla's global outlook combined with his intimacy with London. All the threads connecting the two phenomena. 'London' was represented through a type of Medalla's work which I've always loved: his Impromptus. These are photographic images. We blew them up and had them printed digitally on canvas, making a mosaic of hangings filling the walls of the gallery, like a great hall. A fantastically colourful spectacle. Some of his Impromptus record his presence in a particular spot (in London and in other places) and his presence concretizes that place and reveals something about its history in a poetic sense… Others are collaborative performances with fellow artists. These images were the backdrop to everything which happened in the space.

Bal: Since some of the work of the artists included in the exhibition were not object-centered, such as the performance of "Cosmic Wrestling Match" between 'Der Geist von Joseph Beuys'(Adam Nankervis) and 'L'esprit de Marcel Duchamp aka Rrose Selavy (David Madalla),' they focused rather upon process and experience by their nature. What challenges did you face in presenting this?

Brett: Well, the ICA show became in the end a group show, but by a different route. Medalla wanted to manifest within the show another aspect of his relationship to London, and another of his activities, his initiation of the "London Biennale," a do-it-yourself art event open to any artist anywhere in the world, which takes place every other year in London. How to make these artists present as people, as much as fabricators of works of art? His solution was to invite them to make effigies of themselves, out of any materials they chose, so that they would be there in two senses: they would be present in the conventional sense and at the same time in a poetic sense. And this is what happened. The effigies were carried in a procession to the ICA and installed on the opening night. So then everything that took place in the space occurred in the presence of a mingled crowd of members of the public, artists and effigies… Anywhere in the World: David Medalla's London, part of "London in Six Easy Steps", ICA - London, 2005 "Cosmic Wrestling Match" between 'Der Geist von Joseph Beuys'(Adam Nankervis) and 'L'esprit de Marcel Duchamp aka Rrose Selavy (David Madalla) 11 September 2005 Photo Juan Fenton This then was the audience for the Cosmic Wrestling Match, the great finale of the week, on the last evening. Looking at photos of the event afterwards one can see the most animated relationship between audience and performers (whether they are living beings or not!). Audiences for performance art often look subdued and passive in photographs, but not in this case! It would take too long to describe all that happened in the Wrestling Match but one can say in general it was a way of evoking two important artists from the past, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp, who belong to different periods and different cultures, with different minds and imaginations, through the metaphor of the contest (a bit like the poetic jousts of the past), full of humour and the unexpected, and evoking artists' work in a way so different from the museum and the art history academy. It was called 'cosmic' perhaps because in this match the result is a draw since the play of contradictory qualities is perpetual…

Bal: What do you feel has replaced the curatorial practice format relative to exhibition-making today? How do you see 'self-organized' and artist initiated' curatorial practice?

Brett: I like to see curating, not only as a process which people called curators do, but also as something that artists do, actually in their work. Susan Hiller is a perfect example. Take her work, From the Freud Museum, which is on show at Tate Modern at the moment. Just like any act of curatorship she has brought together a collection of objects and documents from a huge variety of sources according to a logic, or semantics, which is entirely her own. The work consists of a large number of adapted archive boxes, all lying open in a specially built and lit vitrine. The work adapts the conventions of archivisation and museum display for its own purposes. Each box explores poetically a different problematic of culture and history. And the objects in these boxes, however ordinary their origin, look truly cherished, taking us back to the simple meaning of 'curate.'

Bal: Although you have described yourself as somebody who does not dwell on issues at a theoretical level; however it is still very tempting to find out how you see the role of theory in curatorial practice?

Brett: I've had no coaching in theory, and no systematic approach to it. I've been drawn to the work of certain writers in the same way I've been drawn to certain artists. The writings of Mikhail Bakhtin had a big impact on me, although I've read that some people consider that "Cosmic Wrestling Match" Adam Nankervis as Joseph Beuys Photo: Juan Fenton "Cosmic Wrestling Match" David Medalla evokes Marcel Duchamp's Tu M' Photo: Juan Fenton Bakhtin did not have a coherent theory. But I find his writings deeply suggestive. His characterisation of Carnival of course, but also his ideas about genre. I find the proliferation of genres, the invention of new genres, the parodying of genres - which is perhaps an aspect of the sensitivity to context - in recent art fascinating and a productive point of entry to it.

Bal: Could you tell us something about your coming project?

Brett: I'm formulating something, but at this stage it's hard to talk about it. I want to do another historical show, comparable to "Force Fields" but quite different. It won't have an art historical structure: it will bring together things that would not be brought together according to any art historical or stylistic logic. It has more to do with notions of vitality and visual wit, the opposite of the solemnity of the monument …

Bal: Last but not least… Would you like to say something about your latest book?

Brett: I have published a little book on the work of Brazilian artists. It's an anthology of essays written from the sixties until today which have been translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil. Ever since I met Sergio Camargo, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel in the mid-60s I've had a close relationship with artists in Brazil. But I've always written in English, with the aim, really, of making their work known internationally. Now with this publication I will have more Brazilian readers which is very exciting for me. They will weigh up and decide on the probable losses and possible gains of someone writing about art in Brazil who is a complete outsider, but who loves what they do…

Bal: I might be wrong, but the element of being or taking the position of the "outsider" looks still at play!

Brett: But you are doing exactly the same, Gulsen! You are also working as an "outsider-insideroutsider" between Britain and Turkey and crossing the supposed barriers without falling into traps of essentialism, and this is an insider-outside conversation!

First published at: Sanat DUNYAMIZ (a quarterly contemporary art magazine, based in Istanbul) Issue 98, Spring 2006