“If You Don't Rewrite the World, Then the World Will Rewrite You”

Anna Iltnere


Peter Weibel (Germany, 1944) was elected to curate the 4th Moscow Contemporary Art Biennial, which is currently going on in Russia's capital from 22 September through 30 October. His spectrum of an education ranges from cinematography to medicine, mathematics and logic; but in the end, he chose contemporary art as his base, with interests in conceptual and new medium art, experimental cinema, and the language of speaking about art. The concept, or theme, of this year's Moscow Biennial, and against which Weibel had to cull the submitted works, is “Rewriting Worlds”. 64 artists from 33 countries are participating in the central exhibition, including Gints Gabrāns from Latvia and Timo Toots from Estonia, as well as already world-famous names such as Olafur Eliasson (Iceland/Denmark), Gerhard Richter (Germany) and Ai Weiwei (China).

In speaking with Peter Weibel, I was given the opportunity to learn about the idea of “rewriting” contemporary art, its development, and its role in today's world, as well as why Weibel hasn't been going to the Venice Biennial for several years now.

At the press conference, you mentioned that with this exhibition, you wish to make a clear delineation between modern art and contemporary art. What are the main differences between these two periods of art?

More precisely, I wish to bring attention to the division between imprecise knowledge and the modern art which has developed into contemporary art. It is usually accepted that modern art is abstract painting, which began in 1915 with Kazimir Malevich, who completely abandoned the notion of representing an object. I don't agree. Already in 1913, Marcel Duchamp declared, for the first time in the history of art, a real object as being a work of art; that was a subversive moment. I believe that modern art is characterized by the replacement of representation with reality. If before, bodies were painted, than in modern art, bodies are painted on – and we get body-art. If before, we had landscape painting, then with modern art we have “land-art” – the artists physically goes into the landscape and changes it. Before, paintings depicted light, the sun, rainbows; and then enters real light – with light installations. That, which art used to represent, is now real. And it's wrong to postulate that modern art accents freedom of color and form without a connection to reality. Therefore, the first criterion would be the replacement of representation with reality.

In academic art, it was considered the highest mastery to be able to recreate a person's face so that it seemed real, not painted. The goal was perfect imitation – which can be achieved – if there is no discernible evidence of the instruments and methods used. So that the brush stroke is not visible, only the skin is visible. But in the middle of the 19th century, some artists realized that they wanted to work differently. And modern painting evolved, the goal of which was to bring to the forefront the methods and instruments with which the representation is achieved. If the goal of academic painting was to show the painted face as living and present, then the modernists came with the mission to show that the face is construed. The critics of the time were correct when they pointed out that when looking at Monet's paintings, you don't see people, but rather the paintbrush. So modern art began with the revelation of how the image is created. Then there followed a row of artists who didn't paint from nature anymore, but rather from photographs; photography was a developed technology of the time and was also looked upon as an instrument. Even Andy Warhol didn't paint a single painting. All of his works are screen-prints, copies of photographs. This can be applied to pop-art as a whole.

A pronounced feature of contemporary art, in its evolution from modern art, is a web. What does this web mean? – it means to be connected, everyone can participate, anybody can be at the center of it. Thanks to the internet and the possibilities it's given us, now anybody can be editor in chief, anybody can create their own television, etc. Everybody can be in the center. Contemporary art is an open field for activity, which also has room for the viewer. This can be called interactivity, but I prefer to formulate it as everybody being given the chance to act, to get involved.

A work from the Biennial: Daniel Canogar (Spain, 1964). Scanner. 2009

When we look at something, it is also the act of looking. Take, for instance, Olafur Eliasson's work at the Biennial, Afterimage Star” (2008): because of the peculiarities of sight, we see different colors. Namely, even in the act of seeing, something is construed, changed. It is active work. The artist doesn't have a monopoly on the act anymore; the viewer plays an equal role. It is similar in politics, where today the politicians aren't the only ones who have a say. If representative democracy has ruled up to now, then performative democracy, in which the people participate, is now on the rise. Art is ahead in this game – there are a slew of pieces where the viewer can “push a button” and influence changes. In politics, the old model is still in place, where only every four or five years the people can get involved through voting. Whereas in reality, thanks to internet technologies – and contemporary art – the individual actively participates on a daily basis by “pressing the button” hundreds of times. This indicates that the political system is dated and wrong. The result is a dissatisfied and angry society which we can see, for example, in the uprising in Libya. As we know, art is the world's mirror, and contemporary art shows a contemporary world. Therefore, today's world anticipates performativity – everyone has the opportunity to participate actively, to construe, to collectively rewrite the world. As this pertains to artistic mediums, today it is no longer important if it is painting or the latest technologies – they are all only instruments, equal in value: none is more antiquated than the others, they are only differing methods.

With art becoming more interactive – where the involvement of the viewer is part of the work's total worth – won't the traditions of collecting art eventually change?

Thank you for that well-made observation. In answering, I'll outline the history. Art museums have given people a wrong perception of art history. The pieces of art on display in museums weren't created to be shown in this way; they would have belonged to churches or private owners. Renaissance art was commissioned by aristocrats. Today, we call such wealthy people with power “oligarchs”. “I have a huge house, I have money, Mr. Velasquez – paint a delightful fresco.” And no one else saw it, only the owners of the house or members of the church. These were commissions and, however strange it may seem, people have begun to forget this. They look at it and enjoy it as wonderful, independent art. That, which we see, hasn't been created by the free-flying spirit of the artist, but by necessity. As a result, artists of the time, such as Da Vinci, as well as later artists, for instance, Kandinsky, mainly discussed how to create art, its technicalities. There were books written about it and so on. So, when commissioned works disappeared in the 19th century (because the aristocracy collapsed), artists were consumed by a completely new question: “why create art?”. There was no longer an outside force, a necessity – just an inner desire. However, the formation of this class of ordering customers is already repeating itself; once again, there are wealthy private collectors and an impressive art market. By addition, it's even worse to create works for the art market than to just take commissions.


In answering your question on how the tradition of art collecting could change, I'd like to point out that we definitely shouldn't return to the paradigm of the private collector. The only solution that avoids that is for people to stand up and say that they want works of art to be seen as public property for the common good.  The worst part is that in today's society, there are few who really care about art. And we can't expect evolution if people don't stand up for it. As soon as society stops fighting for such universal goods such as air, water, energy resources, etc., they become privatized. That's what happens. And the same applies to works of art. In my opinion, it is a tragedy that art as a common good is slowly becoming private property.

In the Biennial catalog's essay, you write about globalization being a characteristic of contemporary culture, where there is no dominating country in art, no dominating medium. What kind of role does the artist's local environment and native culture play in this situation?

A very large role. I emphasize that culture is a phenomenon that survives only thanks to its differences. And differences arise in the dialectics between the local and the international, between the local and the global. The traditions of native culture are one of the sources of inspiration for the contemporary artist. This is also a distinct difference between contemporary and modern artists. Modern art tried to be international but ended up – American. Pop-art also wanted to be international, but it is really quite American with its Coca Cola and other symbols of the “hamburger nation”. I don't shy away from calling Andy Warhol the truest ethnic artist because he depicted his cultural heroes: Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, etc.

How did you select works for the Biennial?

The main criterion was adherence to the concept of the exhibition – “rewriting” – both in the technical and metaphorical senses. Technically, those are things like programming and solving codes. Take, for instance, one of the Biennial's works, “Life Writer” (2006), by Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau, in which an observer writes something on a typewriter, which is then changed by a computer into a row of of symbols, which are then changed into insects projected onto a piece of paper. Metaphorically, rewriting means getting involved in the political and economic system, it is an active approach. The concept and goal of this year's Biennial is to, through art, initiate active participation in the construing of the world. Because art is also part of what is going on. By engaging in the act of art, you are also participating in the changing of the world. That is why interactive art is so very important today; it has great power. Namely, participating in a work of art is just one level; the next level is for the viewer to understand that art is a model of the world, and that through this interaction, you participate in the world. If you don't rewrite the world, it will rewrite you.

A work from the Biennial: Electroboutique (Aristarkh Chernyshev & Alexei Shulgin, Russia, est. 2005) A Big, Talking Cross. 2011

What brought you to include the work “Blood Light”, by the Latvian artist, Gints Gabrāns, in the Biennial?

By including artists from the Baltic States in the Biennial [artists from both Estonia and Latvia are represented in the Biennial – AI], I wanted to show that in these countries, which were for a long time oppressed and part of the soviet system, there was also pressure from the West. Meaning that although the West was largely unconcerned about Eastern Europe – which resulted in the East being cut out of the loop – there is a very strong presence of contemporary art here and it is not in the least behind the rest of Europe. 

Did you see the trend of “rewriting the world” in the works exhibited at this year's Venice Biennial? And how do you rate the Venice Biennial overall?

I haven't gone to the Venice Biennial for a long time now because I believe that it has become too attached to the art market – I won't find anything new and interesting to me there. Also, when looking at art museums, I'd also have to say that a large part of them have become slaves to the art market. They no longer have expert status, but rather rely on the selections of the art market; due to the lack of state support, the situation is exacerbated by financial aid coming from private collectors. In theory, the function of a biennial is to be the opposite of the art market: it's supposed to be a place where powerful contemporary art, which has been created independently of the whims and wants of the market, can be shown with regularity. But the Venice Biennial is an exception to this because it has become a part of the art market.

How do you rate the contemporary art market in Moscow, or Russia, as a whole?

The same thing is going on here that happened in, say, New York. When artists, searching for cheap work space, moved into abandoned buildings in warehouse districts to set up their studios. But, as the artist commune developed, these neighborhoods became chic – stylish cafes opened up, even restaurants, boutiques, and exclusive art galleries emerged. As a result, property values climbed and it wasn't a cheap place in which to live in anymore. So, the artists once again had to head to new, undiscovered territories. Accordingly, underground art became a source of earning for landlords. To make any wreck of a building profitable, it was enough to call over some artists and create studios for them. This is going on now in Russia, but you really can't blame them.

Another characteristic is the development of the wealthy private sector, which then decides to invest in art. This includes Russian oligarchs and society types. The biggest problem facing the Russian art market is that the current situation isn't sustainable. Unlike Germany, for instance, Berlin – there, a support system for artists has been established at the state level, with a built-in stability that continues several years into the future. That's why many artists head to residences in Berlin, where they can receive the necessary support. Whereas in Moscow, there is no system; there's just the current situation, without any guarantees that it will continue into the future. That's because the nouveau riche, the private collectors, have received their huge incomes quite suddenly – no one will ever find out exactly how – but just as suddenly, their money could disappear; and the oligarchs may head to exile in London or to jail. And what's going to happen to their art collections? Unfortunately, I don't see any sign of the Russian state having an interest in creating the infrastructure which would make this “boom” into something sustainable.