The turkey-breast experience. Ongoing discussion between Eric Troncy und Jan Winkelmann

Jan Winkelmann: "Weather Everything" follows "Dramatically Different." Could you explain what the show in Grenoble was about? Why was it dramatically different?

Eric Troncy: "Dramatically Different" is the name of a cosmetic by Clinique. It has a tremendously strong meaning, especially in French, since the word "dramatically" is a false friend. But in the end, it is just a face cream which is supposed to take away all the little wrinkles in your facial skin. Somehow, it makes you look younger, and I thought that as a genre, exhibitions have to look, if not younger, at least different. Giving a title to a show is at the same time meaningless and completely meaningful. Personally, I would not give a title that directly defines what is going to be seen, first of all because I don't think works of art are made to illustrate an idea that is summed up by the title. The viewer, who remains my main preoccupation, should not have too many indications about what he is going to see, otherwise he more or less already knows what to expect. Also, I would say that I usually find thematic exhibitions rather stupid. In my opinion they are just supposed to give the feeling that the show, and furthermore the works of art, are really about something. I think works of art, and art in general, are strong enough not to have to use this kind of process. Personally, I would not go to see an exhibition which is entitled "The Art of Portrait at the End of the Twentieth Century" or even worse, "Young Artists from Sweden" (or any other country), because it is sad to look at art from this point of view. By the title given to a show you can understand very clearly the ideological and philosophical positions of the curator, and also partly why this show is here. Most of the time you can see political or egoistical reasons, and sometimes both. Also, through the title of a group show you can see the way the curator and the institution deal with art, an entire approach, an ethic. Both "Dramatically Different" and "Weather Everything" are open titles which might or might not mean this or that. If you want to look for meaning, you can find it; or many meanings, one better than the next. The show in Leipzig follows the show in Grenoble, so I thought the best solution was to use the name of the new Clinique cosmetic: "Weather Everything." This title sounded sincere and it also allows many thoughts. For instance, that the works of art would be resistant to any kind of weather (or situation) that was specific to the show. Above all, I really enjoy the idea that these titles are directly linked to a commercial product. That would suppose a kind of sponsorship which we of course never tried to have, and then never obtained. But it is possible that one day exhibitions will be sponsored by SONY or Coca-Cola, and bear the name of a brand-new product, the name of a VCR or of a diet soda.

When we decided to invite you to curate a show, you expressed the wish not to take over "Dramatically Different." Instead, you wanted to work on the concept and to adapt it to the given architectural situation, which is completely different from the one at Le Magasin. There, it was an old industrial building. In Leipzig, it is an old nineteenth century villa. Apart from the historical aspect (both being from the end of the nineteenth century), they could not possibly be more opposite in terms of (Marxist) ideas: the work-place on one hand and the bourgeois dwelling on the other. Were you aware of this "opposition?" Did it have any influence? How did the concept change or develop due to the location in Leipzig?

It is true that both places are completely different and that "Dramatically Different" deals with ideas which could be developed more appropriately in a space like Le Magasin. I am not concerned about the fact that this place was an old industrial building, because the show took place in the part of the building which is completely renovated and looks like any kind of museum space: big white cubes with an elegant floor, no daylight and neon lighting. In terms of Marxist analysis, I would say that it is one of the most bourgeois art spaces in France outside Paris, with probably the highest yearly budget for a provincial space. It is a "national" art center, as its name makes clear, and admission is not free (as it is in Le Consortium, for instance). "Education of the masses then goes through a series of adjustments," as Liam Gillick would say. But in terms of specific architecture (not referring to a previous usage), the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst is basically different for two reasons. First of all, the rooms are smaller, and even if they have also been turned into some kind of chic place for exhibitions, they retain a domestic feeling. The second reason is that every room (with three exceptions) has large windows opening to the outside, and this is an element which has to be taken into consideration. So for "physical" reasons it seemed to me that it was not appropriate to take over the Grenoble show. But most important is the fact that it was too exciting for me to go on with the process of the show and do something different, to provide people (including me) with new situations, new experiences, and maybe to go one step higher in terms of freedom of assemblages, not to oblige myself to build coherent rooms. At some point in the preparation of "Dramatically Different," I think Yves Aupetitallot was afraid of my behavior with the works of art, and was especially concerned about giving a rather serious background to this behavior. The rooms in Grenoble were supposed to provide the viewer with the right meaning. In Leipzig I worked so that the rooms would provide the viewer with the right feeling.

There is always a gap or difference between what one imagines when one has an idea for a show, which develops during the organization, and what finally comes out of it, i.e. what the exhibition looks like. You have a very clear idea of what "Weather Everything" should look like. I presume that you had comparably precise ideas of how "Dramatically Different" should look. Did the final result exactly match your conception of the show or was there a big gap between imagination and reality? If the latter is true, did you "learn" from it?

More or less, "Dramatically Different" looked exactly like what I had in mind. The institution behind me has really been fantastically helpful (also Alessandra Galasso who worked there at the time) and made every choice possible, including some things which were technically quite difficult. However, due to collectors or galleries, some bits were missing in the final result. If I learned something during this exhibition, it is how some works of art are definitively lost for the rest of the world when they are bought by some specific collectors. I also learned that you'd better not die when you are an artist, otherwise a gallery will think instead of you and behave like your mother would when you were a child. In this case of "Dramatically Different," I felt really hurt because it concerned Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was a real friend of mine, and probably one of the most important artists at the end of the century. If I think about the relationship I had with Felix, and compare it with the relationship I was forced to have with his collectors and dealers for that show after his death, the difference makes me really sick. It was also very disturbing because the ideological basis of Felix' work, which is generosity and freedom, was completely trashed by the attitude of these people who were supposed to be in charge of his memory. Pieces by some other artists were also not available because they were already booked for other shows: it's the rule of the game! My philosophy for the show was to fight reasonably to obtain the loan of this or that piece, but never in an excessive way. It is also a matter of deciding not to enter into a game of seduction and submission which is very usual in the art world, and which does not particularly interest me.

Could you elaborate on how your approach or working method for "Weather Everything" is different from your usual way of conceiving a show?

As was the case with "Dramatically Different," "Weather Everything" is a show which is made with pieces, rather than with artists. There is a major difference compared with the way I did shows previously, from 1989 until 1997. Nevertheless, this way of behaving with works of art was suggested to me by artists themselves, like Rirkrit Tiravanija when he displays works of art by other artists, or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and a few others. And by the way, I modified the balance for "Weather Everything" a little bit because it is not very pleasant to do a show without artists. So for instance, John Armleder, Liam Gillick and Sylvie Fleury were invited to do specific projects. For some other artists, like Bertrand Lavier, Alain Séchas, Plamen Dejanov & Swetlana Heger and Sarah Morris, the choice of the pieces was made based on a discussion with them. But an interesting issue is whether the works of art live separately from their creator after being made. In many cases, this question is not resolved: works of art needing technical assistance that can be given by only one person in the world, pieces that are sold to public collections and that cannot be reinstalled without the artist's physical presence or agreement, and so on. It is a bit curious! What I started to do with these two shows, and will continue next year at L'Elac in Lausanne, is to define a new way to show works of art, between the usual "museum attitude" and the traditional "group show attitude." Of course, the method used in Leipzig is neither unique nor new, but usually when people have the feeling that they could behave in a rather free way with art, putting works of art next to each other or at least in the same room to create some strange narrative situation, they are afraid and remain on a quite polite level, which of course doesn't work at all. I was very shocked to see the "Tischgesellschaft" by Katharina Fritsch (a wonderful piece that we, by the way, tried to obtain for the show) at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt. Not only because of this ridiculous triangular room that emphasizes the perspective for no reason, not only because of this pathetic little rope around the piece to keep the viewer away, but because of the two paintings by Alex Katz which hang in the same room. They are two portraits of smiling women, and as a viewer you immediately understand that the intention was to put these 32 serious men sitting around a table and these two smiling women in the same room. But the two Katz paintings are really bad, and not strong enough to compete with the Fritsch. It would be naive not to admit that there is a kind of competition. I would have probably hung Helmut Newton's "Big Nudes" around those small, severe men to play on the harmony of black and white, while the intensity of Fritsch's piece is confronted with the "superrealism" of Helmut Newton's photographs. Another possibility would have been to select Betrand Lavier's aluminum building façades his "relief pictures" and to play Kraftwerk's CD "Radioactivity". To cut a long story short, the method for "Weather Everything" was first of all to face freedom, bad taste, good taste, traditions, ideas, desires, pleasures...

"Weather Everything" is not based on a concept or a preexisting theoretical background that is illustrated by works of art. Rather, it is a playful way of mixing different pieces to get new ideas, different meanings, narratives, feelings, etc. than had existed for the single piece itself. This way of dealing with art is completely different from the usual presentation of works in a classical exhibition. That means that there is in fact a real and serious background it is not only based on fun, excitement, narratives, etc. It is not a discursive, elaboration on hyper-theoretical topics and it breaks with a tradition of exhibition-making that was common sense for almost 100 years.

As far as I remember, I have always been interested in exhibitions whose coherence would emerge through something a little bit riskier than a pure concept. In 1991, I wrote to Helena Kontova and Giancarlo Politi for Flash Art about "No Man's Time," a show that I curated at Centre National d'Art Contemporain Villa Arson in Nice : "No Man's Time" has been based on no particular concept and is without any theoretical scheme. First and foremost, the show does not set out to prove or claim anything. It is neither an angle on the future nor a synthesis of the present. "No Man's Time" is a show and its three month duration is not unlike a theater run." (in Flash Art No. 161, Nov./Dec. 1991) Seven years later, my position has somehow not changed that much, and this idea to consider the show as a spectacle is still mine, if you admit that a spectacle can be much more than a simple way to give pleasure to viewers. As I mentioned previously, this show is about finding a new way to behave with works of art, between the museum attitude, the collector attitude, and the gallery show attitude. Because when you think about it, each category has a very special way to deal with works of art, and is ruled by different objectives. So the choice to behave like that with works of art is rather political, but once again, it does not take the shape of a violent demonstration or a manifesto. Instead, it can be "read" through a quite pleasant experience, namely the exhibition. To go on, I would say that in my opinion, there is a tradition of exhibitions where this one comes from, but they are not the "mainstream." "Bestiarium," curated by Rüdiger Schöttle almost ten years ago, is one of them, as well as "Punishment and Decoration" curated by Michael Corris and Robert Nickas at the Hohenthal and Bergen Gallery in Cologne in 1993, or simply the Andy Warhol show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1971. All of these shows invite you to think about the way to deal with works of art.

You take the freedom to mix works, not only by bringing them together, but also by hanging them one on top of the other. You touch the integrity of the work which was never meant to be mixed, but which was produced as a single auratic piece. I like the idea that you work with and rethink the curator's instrument, which is the exhibition. A new thing is that you use the artwork not to illustrate a theory-based idea, but as a kind of tool not as a sacrosanct statement, but as something which is subject to personal experience and can be reflected upon in different ways. In fact, this is what art is about anyway. Don't you think that in this respect your attitude (the way you "use" the art-work) is similar to what you wanted to avoid I mean the "illustration-of-a-theme-attitude?" That in both cases, the works are used to express something or to illustrate something which the curator has in mind?

In the specific situation you have pointed out, i.e. hanging an artwork on top of another one, the integrity of each piece is absolutely respected in my opinion. In addition, I would say that the best way to respect the integrity of these pieces is to hang them one on top of the other. As a matter of fact, the wall painting by Lily van der Stokker has a quite strong decorative function and is very close to the idea of wallpaper. The Allan McCollum piece, 218 elements from the "Plaster Surrogates" series, also deals with this idea of decoration, but in the opposite way; it shows the frame as a decorative object, and any kind of image has disappeared from this frame, maybe because it was not useful. So I just combined the two very specific natures of these two pieces, showing them the way they required. It is the same in "Weather Everything" with John Armleder's wall paintings, which are so similar to wallpaper: covering the surface from floor to ceiling, using a repetitive and regular way to display the motifs etc. Also, having walls covered with wallpaper (the "Mao Wallpaper" by Andy Warhol in the case of the Leipzig Show) or with murals like wallpaper is a way to avoid this ridiculous and old-fashioned idea of the white cube which does not correspond with any kind of current art anymore, or at least that is not definitely requested by current art. This whole idea of the integrity of the artwork has to be entirely rethought with other tools. As Sarah Morris would say, "Even a Joseph Kosuth ends up as a decoration in somebody's apartment." (Discussion with Sarah Morris, June 1998) Of course, the works are somehow "used" in a particular way to provide the viewer with a quite personal vision, but also with a temporary vision, a situation that is in fact not more than an invitation to behave this way with works of art. The real intention is to give (and I would say to give back) the viewer the responsibility he should always have with a work of art, which is to consider it his responsibility. A work of art does not exist if you don't play with it, if you don't carry the remembrance of experiencing it with you, the memory of you being in front of it, and if you do not associate this experience with other experiences. Looking at a work of art cannot be an experience which is completely disconnected from your experience of the world, its social or aesthetical or political situations.

To get back to the choice of the pieces, you said that you chose not artists, but works. This is a bit too brief. In the case of Helmut Newton, for example, you did not care about which "Big Nude" we got. It was simply that she should wear high heels and face the viewer. That means you chose a subject and the idea which is transported by this subject. Then there were very specific pieces you wanted, for instance, Gertsch's "Marina schminkt Luciano." In other cases, such as Sarah Morris, it was just "any" work. Could you please define a bit more clearly what exactly made you choose what?

For Helmut Newton, the idea was simply to have these "Big Nudes" and the "Madonna" by Katharina Fritsch in the same room. You will agree that to provide the viewer with this situation, to realize that this room deals with two quite opposite images of women, which is, by the way, quite vulgar in its simplicity, any "Big Nude" would be appropriate. This could also mean that any piece in this series by Newton is as good as any other. In the case of Gertsch's piece, the subject itself was important: a make-up scene involving two transvestites. In "Weather Everything" it is shown behind "Les papas" by Alain Séchas, a tremendous scene with skeletons also involved in a painting action, because they paint portraits of their fathers. A series of relationships between these two pieces can be created by the viewer: the two different painting actions, the transvestites and the father image, etc. For Sarah Morris, it was not "any" piece, but "any from the building series," simply because every piece in this series is so fantastic (as is the case with Newton). We wanted to stage a situation dealing with the aesthetics of corporate lobbies, also including Dan Graham's "Revolving Door", and Liam Gillick's "Discussion Island." Basically, there is not a single way to choose an artwork, or to create a room. The show is really conceived like a spectacle, like a movie. For some scenes, you have to use a quite realistic way to record the scene, with a very light camera; and for some other scenes, you have to use a quite strong post-production, and add special effects.

The subjectivity of the approach to "Weather Everything" is similar to that of an artist. But it is still different from the way an artist works?

It is curious how this question about the limits of the curator's power and the "danger" seeing him behave like an artist seems to be important. You probably remember that it was the first question from the audience after the lecture I gave at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst a few days after the opening. To answer indirectly, and not up front, I would say that I don't know if the human beings who created objects, images and situations featured in this show have to be called "artists." Do we have to use the same word to qualify Fra Angelico and Angela Bulloch? This is not that relevant for me. I really do not care if these people are artists or not. I am just especially concerned with the fact that they create something which would not be made possible in any other field, and I observe that the experience of being in front of what they create is rather unique. It is now time to say that certain questions really are old-fashioned. To the very usual remark made to Bertrand Lavier about his pieces ("I could do it myself"), he would simply answer, "Yes, probably. But it is too late." I think that this kind of question has to be treated this way. To answer now up front: yes, I think a curator has to be some sort of "artist," otherwise I don't see what he would be useful for in the framework of a group show composed of works of art from public and private collections, with no particular theme. If curators would behave more often in a freer way and not wonder about that kind of question, then their exhibitions would probably be more exciting and propose a more personal vision of art.

Obviously you took into account that the Gallery is in a former bourgeois dwelling. There are lots of pieces which have to do with decoration or furniture. Most of the paintings are very realistic with people as their subject, but also with lots of domestic animals (Agerbeek's hare, Cattelan's dog). Furthermore, urban life seems to be an important element of the show (the drag queens putting on make-up, the revolving door, Lavier's car). Did you have such key themes in mind? If this is the case, is there a kind of storyboard which brings everything together in the end?

Because one intention of the show was to allow the viewer to create stories, it had to involve figurative elements that would bring the viewer back to his own everyday life. Since "The Story of Two Squares" by El Lissitzky, it is quite difficult to tell a story with an abstract painting because that is precisely what this kind of painting tries to avoid. Of course, Peter Halley's "Cells" tell a story about society, but the understanding of this story is far beyond the viewing of the painted surface. On the contrary, I think that either Sarah Morris' paintings or Liam Gillick's murals, even if they possibly belong to the field of abstraction, can provide the viewer with the feeling of the story behind their surface quite quickly. Also, as I already mentioned, this show is conceived a little bit like a movie, with different scenes, and it is quite necessary to have actors and a decor in a movie. Artists today seem to be quite fascinated by cinema, and a significant number of them choose to produce images that are "like" cinema. They use cameras, videos and sometimes the 16 mm cinema process, making large projections on the gallery walls. Most of the time, the result is not as good as a movie, and as Gregor Muir would say: "Certain artists are seduced by a moving image, that big, of their own making. More than anything, artists are seduced by the spectacle of video projection often without questioning the fundamental principles of spectacle in terms of heavy-handed posturing" (in: cat. Life/Live, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1996). It is a real political choice not to have any video or moving image in "Weather Everything," because the viewer has to create his own moving situation through the works of art displayed in the show. This show, as any other current creation, deals of course with cinema's cultural influence upon the collection of images and scenes we have in our minds. The "storyboard," as you call it, is sometimes quite precisely written, sometimes more open.

Could you define how you created this storyboard? To me it seems that the ground floor is more theory-based, more intellectual. On the upper floor you created more of a succession of different atmospheres which are easier, not as "deep." Obviously, there are always two levels: one for the public that only has limited knowledge, and one that is very ambitious. For example, the first room, containing Bertrand Lavier's skateboard and the shopping bag lady by Duane Hanson, is very reduced, yet very dense. You mentioned the clash of time zones (a Neo-Rococo room from the beginning of this century, a lady of the seventies and a contemporary skateboard) and that the viewer could identify with the woman who is standing in front of a contemporary sculpture and wondering what it is all about. She is, so to speak, a stereotype image of the viewer and the problem of contemporary art often being incomprehensible to non-professionals. On the other hand, there is this play on what is fiction and what is reality. Besides this, the whole discourse about the discussion and achievements of sculpture since Duchamp is to be discovered, including the idea of the ready-made object (in this case represented by the strange metal support which is usually used for showing African masks, thereby creating a layer of transgression of cultures), the importance of the pedestal for creating a specific aura, and on the other hand, removing the pedestal (the Hanson sculpture stands directly on the floor), etc.

The first thing I would like to react to is this idea of the viewer and the professional. In my opinion, the professional is just a usual viewer who puts a different level of perception into the reading of the artwork. But basically, any viewer could do this reading. In front of the "Mona Lisa" for instance, some viewers just remain fascinated by the famous smile, the situation, the way the woman seems to look at you. The professional would see Leonardo's very new way of dealing with the background, the very special way of using blue colors and a fog effect, or "sfumato" which is the very new strategical invention in this painting. But in the end, these two approaches are closely connected. You can't get this feeling without this technique and so on. I think that for the rooms of "Weather Everything" it somehow functions in the same way. Of course, it is quite funny to have that old lady watching a skateboard. But there would not be any effect if, beyond that simple image, several questions were not addressed by this situation. If the viewer wants to "work" a little bit, as Jean-Luc Godard would say, he can resolve the questions addressed by this specific situation. Basically there is no specific storyboard, there are just some possibilities among others. But you are right, every decision is important.

It is very often the case that some aspects of a work's complexity get "cut." They are grouped with other works in one room and the combination gives the context in which you want them to be seen. Some aspects outside this "created" context are not relevant in this situation. The works lose a part, not of their identity, but of their complexity because you as a curator "force" the viewer to look at the works from a certain angle. Of course, the works do not lose their layers of complexity, but for the viewer who is not familiar with the specific work, different aspects are just not obvious and somehow "lost." For me, the best example is the piece by Plamen Dejanov & Swetlana Heger. The economic background of their work, which is a major part of their strategy, is completely disregarded. In the show you focus on decoration, the aesthetics of the seventies, etc., but not at all on "doing certain jobs to earn money that is going to be reinvested." The same is the case with many other artists, such as Bulloch and Graham. Of course, you did ask the artists and they agreed with the presentation, but don't you think it is problematic to leave certain aspects out?

It is not about losing a part of the complexity, but it is about, bringing one aspect to the foreground, and putting other aspects in the background. But this background still remains available for anyone. You are right to focus on Plamen Dejanov & Swetlana Heger's example, because this economic aspect disappears through the presentation. But I would like to point out the fact that the pieces which we selected for the show are now in public or private collections. Even if the economic aspect disappears, and especially the mode of production of the piece is important in their work, in the end the piece has a life of its own. More generally, I think works of art have several lives. Even Michelangelo's frescos in Rome have several lives in terms of their changing external appearance: the way they looked when they were painted, the way they aged [with the traces of the centuries which gave them their characteristic dark color] and the way they look now after their restoration. The bright colors invite you to compare them with images from film and advertising. One of the curator's functions is to somehow provide works of art with new lives, temporary lives. To be honest, artists behave that way too. I remember Carl Andre talking about his floor sculptures. In the seventies and eighties, he stressed the fact that they were horizontal sculptures. And then in the nineties, he explained that the material, this metal, referred to suburban aesthetics.

Obviously this show has a lot to do with Eric Troncy personally. I don't want to say that "Weather Everything" is a self-portrait, but since you mentioned your definition of the curator as a kind of artist, it would be permissible to use the term. I mean there is obviously a lot to find out about your professional way of thinking. We discussed that in the previous pages, but now I would like to know more about the very personal dimensions. There are rooms with a very easy-going and funny atmosphere, while others are more silent, sometimes sad, and in the case of the last room with Yan Pei Ming, Philippe Parreno, Wendy Jacob and Gloria Friedmann, kind of depressing.

ET: I am not sure the show would look like this if it were a real self-portrait. But of course, it is the least I could do to sign this show! It also means bringing in my own culture, my own approach to life, my own experience of living, my view of things. But it is not only about me, it also drives the viewer into a series of moods, to make him feel like this or that, think about this or that. It is like a movie, but not a movie about the director even if, of course, the personality of the author is there, as in any creation.

published in: Weather Everything, cat. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig [Cantz-Verlag] 1999

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German version