From Louisville to Venice and Back Again

Thoughts on Art and Place in 2019

Julien Robson*

My energies this past year have been highly concentrated in the region where I work, a moderately sized city in the U.S., not quite Southern and not quite Midwestern, far from the madding crowd yet teeming with artistic energy. I’ve always been interested in the periphery, those places that lie outside the main art hubs, and the way in which place manifests itself in an artist’s ideas and work. 

In this regard, I treasure a quote from Robert Menasse that points to how the artwork, while intended to reach beyond the place of its creation, is “first and foremost saturated with the artist’s experience of this particular place.” It’s a viewpoint that interlocks the local and the global, and which applies as much to art made in New York, Berlin and London as it does to art made in Lagos, Rio, and Ho Chi Minh City—or even Louisville, Kentucky. 

Death of Didacticism in Venice

Though I’ve worked in peripheral cities in the U.S. and Europe for more than three decades, I’ve nearly always found my way to the Venice Biennale. And whilst it no longer follows its pre-1969 commercial model, at times that model has seemed to be making a disguised comeback. 

I remember one Biennale sometime in the early aughts, when the party for the British artist (sponsored by Bloomberg) was limited to an exclusive roster of guests, all of whom were shipped out to a private island and given a bottle of Moet-Chandon (complete with the now-verboten plastic drinking straw) for the short and hardly arduous journey. Once on the island, guests were feted with more drinks and gourmet pizzas by an American catering company flown in for the Italian event.

And while that may have illustrated the post-1969 apex of conspicuous indulgence, the influence of money continues to be felt, most noticeably in the front-stage prominence of dealers in the presentation of national pavilions, public funds now replaced with private money, until nearly every label in the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale appeared “courtesy of” one gallery or another.

Certainly, the support that galleries give to exhibiting artists in indispensable, and the prominent event obviously gives a prestigious boost to sales. But it was nevertheless refreshing to see Ralph Rugoff’s May You Live In Interesting Times give lender credit lines only to the artists themselves, foregrounding those whose work and labor is at the heart of this event, and in a way giving the show back to the artists themselves, those who actually create the work.

The show itself represented a snapshot of global art by younger generations, surveying how the big issues of our time—climate change, nationalism, racism, wealth disparity— dominate the imaginations of many of these artists. In another curator’s hands, these themes could have become didactic and heavy-handed, yet when he announced details of the show in the months preceding it, Rugoff explained that he wanted it to be playful, even when tackling the principal issue of “strong divisions in society and social discourse.”

The result was a Biennale that offered a tremendous amount of fluidity and freedom and didn’t restrict itself to a thesis. One got the sense that these artists whose imaginations are driven by the peculiar set of circumstances we’re living in (these “interesting times”) were allowed to approach the show in the way they wanted, without any controlling curatorial orthodoxy.

Rugoff’s idea that “art should give us pleasure as well as provide critical insight,” was evidenced first in the works themselves—after all, when art gives us pleasure, it naturally invites us in to explore the deeper meanings of the complex and difficult subjects that it is addressing—and secondly in the very spaces in which work was shown, where he employed an ingenuity and beauty in hanging the show that I had not experienced before in my many years of attending the Biennale.

In Rugoff’s hands, the Arsenale was no longer the long, perfunctory corridor with art on the left and art on the right, but a dynamic exhibition space that led viewers into dozens of smaller and distinct areas, creating a sense of rhythm emphasized by his intuitive juxtaposition of the works. 

And while the Central Pavilion wasn’t as successful due to the constraints of the building, once you had seen the same artists in a different space, you felt as if you had been privy to the internal dialog that the artists had been having with themselves. By resisting the didactic turn, Rugoff opened the show to the imagination of the viewer and allowed the show to simply happen with a wonderful organic fluidity.

Global inclusiveness in the periphery

The year was sadly marked by the death of Okwui Enwezor, a curator whose vision reshaped the art world. Displacing European and American art from its central position and encouraging a global inclusiveness, he combined a generosity of spirit, a tireless professional commitment to intellectual rigor, and a willingness for his projects to confront tough sociological and political questions. His thematic projects set him apart from other curators, redefining art history in the wake of post-colonial thought and challenging the canon. He actively gave equal footing to non-Western art and art histories and helped open the doors for museums globally to acknowledge and work with artists from under-represented regions.

Okwui’s generosity touched the Louisville art community in 2007 when he agreed to give a talk about Yinka Shonibare at the Speed Art Museum, where I was a curator. The next morning, as I drove him to the airport, he expressed his surprise at what he had encountered and the wish that he had more time to stay and visit some artists in their studios. What I admired about him was that he sought above all—just as he wrote in the catalogue of Documenta 11—“the full emergence of the margin at the center.” In his passing, as Bavarian Culture Minister Berndt Silbert put it, “We have lost a brilliant intellectual, a man of the world whose encyclopaedic knowledge encompassed more than art, and a sensitive advocate of art.”


*Julien Robson is Director of Great Meadows Foundation, the INhouse Foundation, and Curator of the Shands Collection and the collection of Brook Smith

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